When the plain-clothed men came for him, Kifah Quzmar, 27, did not need to be told why they were dragging him out of a popular Ramallah cafe on a sunny afternoon last week. “Call my brother,” he told bystanders before being tossed into the back of a tinted SUV with a yellow Israeli license plate parked outside.
Despite the tags on their vehicle, the officers making the arrest were not Israeli police. They were the Palestinian secret service, and had come to take Kifah for insulting them.
“The muhaberat are rotten,” Quzmar wrote on Facebook two weeks before he was detained, using the Arabic colloquial term for undercover Palestinian intelligence agents. In the West Bank, such words are a punishable offensive under a 1960 Jordanian law still on the books making illegal “insulting a public official.” The crime carries a maximum of a six-month prison sentence.
Indeed the undercover agents were insulted. Quzmar was driven to an holding cell. During the ride he told Mondoweiss the officers beat him. “I said ‘hit me, but don’t break the sunglasses because they are not mine,’” he recounted with a smile. The police obliged. The shades were set aside.
During his week in jail, Quzmar missed two exams for his university courses in business. He spoke to Mondoweiss within an hour of his release on Thursday after his brother posted a bond of $7000, paid in Jordanian Dinar as customary with Palestinian court fees reflecting the myriad of Ottoman, Jordanian and Palestinian laws governing West Bank residents.
Plopping on a sofa in his living room, his first words after greeting relatives and neighbors—“I missed music.”
Quzmar has a playful attitude. He is exuberant about his pet cat who gave birth while he was in jail to five kittens in his bedroom closet, to the surprise of his three brothers and roommates who had given him explicit instructions that the cat was to birth outdoors. Despite his post-release cheerfulness, he understands the seriousness of his legal hurdles ahead. He is one of dozens of Palestinians arrested every year for posting disparaging—but not threatening—comments to Facebook about the Palestinian government.
The director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights Ammar Dwaik told Mondoweiss Quzmar’s arrest reveals the underreported limitations of free speech in the West Bank.
“Security forces in the West Bank and in Gaza, they are using the penal code, a criminal law, that is outdated,” Dwaik said.
Under the provision of “insulting a public official” last year Palestinian police arrested 30, and the year prior 48, all for posts made on social media. A further 18 journalists were detained in on free speech related issues, all prosecuted under the insult law.
The process varies for how police apprehend public insulters. At times intelligence officials haul Palestinians into custody as in Quzmar’s case. In other instances, “They were arrested, or sometimes summoned by security forces. Some were jailed for several days,” Dwaik said.
Dwaik underscored these types of detention “violates Palestinian basic law,” as of 2014 when Palestine signed onto a series of international conventions on human rights. The accords were ratified at the same period when the Palestinian Authority joined the International Criminal Court. It was a moment of state-building obligations the government gave itself. But in the years since, little has been done to implement these new protections for free speech.
First off, Quzmar was not held in a traditional jail cell. He was remanded to an intelligence center without proper facilities guaranteed to incarcerated persons. Quzmar’s brothers dropped off a few changes of clothes and a towel, but he was not provided with these items.
Yesterday Quzmar’s attorney was in court where a judge ordered his release. However, the Palestinian intelligence service refused to let him go free. Quzmar remained in custody for an additional eight-hours before he was abruptly told he could go home.
Among those arrested for Facebook comments, Dwaik indicated there are trends on who is targeted. Most are in their 20s or 30s. “If you say the security agencies collaborates with Israel, if you insult the president, or the prime minister,” Dwaik said, Palestinians could face arrest. “Or people who are well known to security forces, they have criticized a lot or against the PA, they are held for longer than three days.”
Quzmar believes he was arrested not for the Facebook post itself, but for his involvement in campus politics. He acted in two short-plays a few weeks before in the run-up to student elections hosted by the left-leaning bloc. In the West Bank, student factions are arms of the official political parties and his short acting career gave him prominence among his student peers.
“I know everyday as a Palestinian I feel I am being watched by the Israelis or the Palestinians,” said Quzmar, relating when in jail intelligence agents attempted to hack into his social media accounts. He said they told him they wanted to post curses about the Muslim prophet Mohammed in order to rally public dissent against him.
“But of course I never believed the investigators, they lied many times to me,” Quzmar said. “I am not the first, I am not the last, this is their way.” Was he afraid when in jail—“no, never,” he said, “through all of this I wasn’t afraid, but I understand a lot of people would be.”
Although prospects are high for Quzmar to have charges against him dropped when he appears in court next week, Palestinian human rights groups are concerned about the trend of arrests for seemingly benign, although certainly rude, social media writings.
The legal rights group Addameer told Mondoweiss it “condemns arrests related to expression of political opinions through Facebook posts and calls upon the Palestinian government to respect article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,”
The group went on to quote from the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Palestine has signed onto, stating, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”