The detention by Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces of three Palestinians who allegedly planned to carry out an attack inside Israel this week brought renewed public criticism of the PA amid a slew of political disputes.
At the beginning of April, three Palestinian roommates vanished from the West Bank city of Ramallah leaving their identity cards and cellphones stashed in their abandoned apartment, according to reports across Palestinian media outlets.
PA police launched a ten-day manhunt before detaining Basil al-Araj, 33, Muhammad Harb, 23, and Haitham Siyaj,19, from nearby a remote Ramallah-area village on April 9.
What began in Palestinian media as a missing person’s case has since morphed into backlash against the Palestinian government for their handling of the case, and cast light onto the wider policy of security coordination with Israel.
PA police said the three were found packing weapons, hand grenades, and camping equipment, in alleged preparation of an attack.
The three were denied visits by an attorney for the first three days in detention, and a PA Magistrate’s court on April 11th extended their detention by 15 days for further interrogation, according to Palestinian prisoners’ rights group Addameer.
Addameer Director Sahar Francis told Mondoweiss that al-Araj, Harb, and Siyaj — alongside two other Palestinian detainees — said they were forced to sit in stress positions and experienced sleep deprivation, beating, verbal insults, and were denied to use the restroom.
Word has spread among the public that the three denied allegations of intention to carry out an attack and were later forced to sign confessions, but Francis told Mondoweiss she was unable to confirm details regarding ongoing interrogations.
Hamas meanwhile alleged the three were detained in coordination with Israel, and slammed the PA once again for working in-line with Israeli interests to quash resistance in the West Bank.
Francis for her part lambasted the PA for torture reported by the detainees, and a protest was held in Ramallah Sunday demanding the three be released.
PA rivals: gov’t ‘undermining Palestinian struggle’
Just over a week before police detained the three men, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to arrest Palestinians planning attacks targeting Israel in a televised interview on Israel’s Channel 2.
Abbas said the PA had played an integral role in halting a “bloody intifada” that could have manifested out of the recent round of violence, noting in particular the PA’s prevention of young Palestinians from carrying out stab attacks that would have likely resulted in their deaths.
For this, Abbas caught backlash from opposition parties.
Abbas is “undermining the Palestinian struggle,” and “exhibiting subservience to the structures of the occupation and its mechanisms of repression,” said the left-wing faction the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Within days the Palestinian government hit back, cutting funds regularly allocated to the PFLP.
Party leader Hussein Mansour in the Gaza Strip called the move both an “arbitrary action” and a “miserable policy of revenge that will not succeed in extorting the Front [PFLP] to change its political positions.”
Hamas spokesman Husam Badran for his part slammed the PA for adopting a “revolving door policy,” wherein Palestinians are released from PA jails only to land in Israeli prisons shortly after, as part of “escalating security collaboration” with the Israeli authorities.
Hamas also joined forces with the PFLP on the financial loss. Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri claimed Abbas “uses money to extort political concessions and pass agendas that are rejected nationally.”
A Palestinian official who wished to remain anonymous said the revocation was likely to be explained by PLO and PA officials as a decision forced onto Abbas due to a lack of funds, rather than political punishment.
Allegations that the PA utilizes punitive measures against criticism were made by Addameer’s Francis who confirmed an increase in the PA’s detention from those who criticize the government.
Francis noted that unlike years prior– in particular in 2007-08 following the brutal Fatah-Hamas fallout — in particular—the PA no longer targets individuals in rival parties, but Palestinians like his clients.
“Ordinary people that maybe aren’t affiliated with any political party, they will be harassed because of their criticism of the PA,” Sahal said, noting the detention of journalists and those active on social media.
Security coordination back in the limelight
Security coordination with Israel was initially established when the PA was formed following the 1993 Oslo Accords, which separated the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C and planned a transition of power over all areas to the PA within five years.
The agreement was contingent on the PA’s ability to prove to Israel and the international community its capacity for maintaining security, albeit at Israel’s standards.
Over two decades later, power has yet to be given to the PA who is forced to rely on coordination with Israel to operate in the still-fragmented West Bank in what critics have long argued preserves the structure of the military occupation.
The condemnations that arose after the PA’s Saturday detentions and Abbas’ televised statements followed suit with charges made repeatedly against the PA’s performance amid the unrest of the past six months, by political factions and the Palestinian public.
Fighting on all fronts
The PA isn’t just fighting accusations of carrying out the will of the Israeli authorities, but is locked in wider efforts to maintain its position among an increasingly disaffected population.
A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research last month showed that some 65 percent of Palestinians opposed efforts by PA security forces to prevent Palestinian confrontations against Israeli targets.
Members of PA leadership say otherwise, suggesting criticism of their policies stems from political motives.
PA security spokesman Adnan Dmeiri told Mondoweiss, amidst the escalation in violence in February, such criticisms of the PA were politically-motivated, made by rivals to the Fatah-dominated PA in order to undermine its power in the occupied West Bank.
Alaa Tartir, program director for Al-Shabaka, rejects this. He told Mondoweiss that placing political motivation as the root cause of criticism against the PA was far from satisfactory in “addressing longstanding public grievances regarding the role of the PA in sustaining the Israeli occupation, directly and indirectly.”
“It is true that Hamas might criticize the PA regarding security collaboration for narrow political and factional purposes, but the fact is that the majority of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza oppose security collaboration, and certainly not all these people are supporters of Hamas,” Tartir said.
The PA ultimately finds itself pitted between a necessity to appease the Israeli authorities through security coordination and the mass upheaval such coordination brings among political rivals and the wider public.
The detention of al-Araj, Harb, and Siyaj marks three of hundreds of Palestinians that PA officials have said were prevented by PA forces from carrying out attacks.
Tartir says that while such coordination helps the PA to maintain a veneer of control, the matrix of control created by Israel over the occupied Palestinian territory disallows any progress towards the PA gaining any autonomy, as the Palestinian public demands.