In April 2017, Alaa Zaqeq, 28, was dragged out of his in-law’s house in the al-Aroub refugee camp in the south of the West Bank by Palestinian security forces and thrown into the back of one of eight police vehicles waiting outside.
When he arrived at the Jericho detention facility hours later, blindfolded and handcuffed, an officer who hurled him against a wall said the abuse was a “welcome.” Over the next 23 days Zaqeq was beaten until he confessed, falsely he said, to the crime of financing the Islamic movement on campus where Zaqeq is a graduate student. Yet after his release Zaqeq was never charged with any crime.
Zaqeq is one of 147 people who spoke to Human Rights Watch over the last two years about arbitrary detention and systematic abuse in Palestinian jails, prisons and interrogation sites across the West Bank and Gaza. Researchers found the stints in prison are short and often do not end in charges, or signs of physical abuse that are visible upon their release.
The new report, “Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent: Arbitrary Arrest and Torture Under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas,” examines 86 cases of Palestinians who were harmed under arrest, and interviews 95 former detainees.
Among the most common forms of abuse is being held in the “bus,” described as “a room where Hamas authorities in Gaza blindfold detainees and force them to stand or sit in a small chair for extended periods of time, usually during interrogations to pressure them to confess. Detainees cannot speak, move, take medicine, sleep, or eat without permission from guards.”
Detainees are often made to sit or stand in “positional abuse,” known as the shabeh position.
Zaqeq, Human Rights Watch reported, was forced “to stand for stretches at a time with his legs spread out in a half squat, and later, on his tiptoes with a rope pulling his hands back.”
Demonstrations that mounted in January 2017 during the start of the electrical crisis resulted in 81 arrests, according to numbers provided by Gaza’s Ministry of Justice.
One Palestinian who described being arrested during a march against electrical shortages in the Gaza Strip said he was held for three days and forced to sign a “not to participate in any unlicensed demonstrations” waiver. The protester, Muhammad Lafi, 25, a rapper, was detained in Jabalia refugee camp after releasing a music video titled, “Your Right,” where he called for an uprising. While in custody he was slapped, punched and officers shaved his head. “They later instructed him to clean up his hair from the floor, saying, ‘You are our cleaner today,’” the report said.
A number of media workers alleged they were arrested without cause.
In July 2017 journalist Jihad Barakat, 29, was arrested for three days after photographing Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s car and convoy in a long line of cars at an Israeli checkpoint. After passing through the crossing, Palestinian security officials transferred Barakat to a detention facility in an unmarked car. He was never told why he was taken into custody. His cell phone was held for an additional 16 days after his release. Eventually, a judge acquitted him of the vague charge of carrying out “an unlawful or improper purpose.” In the ruling the judge explained it was not a crime to take a picture of the Prime Minister’s car in a public place.
Another journalist, fearing retribution after his arrest in the West Bank, fled to Jordan where he remains to date.
In September 2017 photographer Muhammed al-Haj, 38, posted to Facebook a memo he obtained written by the Palestinian Ministry of Interior directing the security service to continue coordinating with the Israeli security apparatus, in contradiction to a then recent statement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that said the practice had temporarily stopped.
Al-Haj and his brother were both summoned to police headquarters in Ramallah where one official ominously told him “there are people bothered by you.” While al-Haj was released that same day, he was again called in days later to retrieve a phone that he was forced to leave behind and turn over passwords. Once the mobile was returned, “Al-Haj took his cellphone to a cellphone shop, where he was told that two applications that facilitated the monitoring of his cellphone had been installed,” Human Rights Watch reported.
That same day al-Haj crossed the border into Jordan, “I do not want to live in a place where I am constantly harassed. … The PA exists to look after me, not to intimidate me,” he said.
Human Rights Watch also found several cases were Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority both arrested Palestinians from rival political parties. In September 2017 “Hamas security forces in Gaza had arrested more than 50 people affiliated with Fatah and that Palestinian Authority forces in the West Bank had detained more than 60 affiliated with Hamas, in the span of just a few days,” the group said in a press release.
Increasingly, Palestinian security forces have erected checkpoints inside West Bank cities, which have been used as a means to locate and arrest groups traveling to demonstrations.
Five Palestinians were detained at one of these checkpoints while en route to a demonstration in Hebron in February 2017, all of whom were members of the Hizbut-Tahrir political party, a group that calls for a return of an Ottoman style caliphate and is sharply critical over local issues like labor wages and entitlements.
The rights group said one of the men arrested, Ismail Aqeel, was slapped on the neck by an officer and when “he asked why he had been detained, then another officer slammed his body against a metal door four or five times and hit him four or five times on the face.”
Twenty-nine more were later arrested when they intended to protest against the detention of the five, again taken into custody after being stopped at another checkpoint.
While precise figures on the total number of Palestinians arrested are not released publicly, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine Director Omar Shakir said, “it’s quite routine that individuals upon detention, are subjected to beatings.”
“What’s unique about these arrests, we are not talking about weeks or months,” Shakir said. Palestinians are often released within days with no signs of the physical abused they endured.
The Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security told Human Rights Watch in a letter that in 2016 and 2017 a total of 220 people had been detained over posts made to social media, of whom 65 were students and two journalists.
More robust data exists on the number of complaints made against security officers.
The quasi-governmental group, the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), tracks human rights abuses committed by Palestinians. In 2016 a total of 2,429 complaints were filed against Palestinian security officers from various departments in both the West Bank and Gaza, of which 355 alleged wrong-doing by the Palestinian Ministry of Interior. Yet the ministry did not investigate all of the incidents. In 275 cases, the ministry found the complainant was “proven incorrect.”
“Few security officers have been prosecuted and none have been convicted for wrongful arrest or torture,” Human Rights Watch said. The most common form of sanction against an officer was attending a mandatory training.
In Gaza, the Ministry of Justice did admit to physical abuse.
“There have been some individual cases of security agency staff beating some inmates or mistreating them verbally or physically, but these actions were not systematic and the perpetrators have been investigated and held accountable,” the Gaza Ministry of Justice said in a letter to Human Rights Watch.
Of the instances recounted in the report of torture in Gaza, one of the most extreme cases resulted in the detainee being transferred to Jerusalem where he was hospitalized. Emad al-Shaer, 48, was arrested in October 2017 for allegedly possessing narcotics (no drugs were found). For three hours al-Shaer endured his hands tied behind his back and then strung by a cable to the ceiling while he stood on a table. Officers then took out the table, “leaving him dangling and screaming in pain,” the report said, adding, the same officer “slapped him several times in the face and put the blindfold in his mouth. They also tied his feet with a cable to the window.”
During this ordeal, which lasted three hours, interrogators threatened al-Shaer, telling him “You will die here today if you do not speak” and “May God take you,” and beating him with “a plastic hose.”