Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank Suffer From Factional Strife
July 30, 2008
The political fight between Hamas and Fatah is claiming more and more victims of serious human rights violations every day. Security forces from both sides have targeted activists and organizations of the other party. Their abusive behavior has victimized Palestinians from all walks of life and weakened the rule of law.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch

Hamas forces in Gaza and Fatah forces in the West Bank have carried out a wave of unlawful arrests against opponents in recent days, Human Rights Watch said today. In Gaza, Hamas forces physically abused some of the people they apprehended and closed roughly 100 organizations they consider allied with Fatah.

In a 113-page report released today, “Internal Fight: Palestinian Abuses in Gaza and the West Bank,” Human Rights Watch documents a pattern of serious abuses by Hamas against Fatah in Gaza, and by Fatah against Hamas in the West Bank, since June 2007, when Hamas took control in Gaza. The latest spike in the internal Palestinian conflict comes after a year of politically motivated arrests, torture and ill-treatment in detention by both sides.

“The political fight between Hamas and Fatah is claiming more and more victims of serious human rights violations every day,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, who presented the report in recent days to senior Palestinian officials in Gaza and the West Bank. “Security forces from both sides have targeted activists and organizations of the other party. Their abusive behavior has victimized Palestinians from all walks of life and weakened the rule of law.”

Human Rights Watch called on both the Hamas and Fatah authorities to release all those arbitrarily arrested in recent days and over the past year, and allow immediate access for independent human rights monitors to those in detention. Security forces and militia members who order or use torture must be held to account.

The new report calls on the international backers of Hamas and Fatah – financial and political – to condition their aid and support for security forces on concrete and verifiable steps to end serious human rights abuses.

The latest wave of arrests began after three explosions in a 24-hour-period in Gaza, the last of which, on July 25, 2008, killed a 4-year-old girl and five members of Hamas’s armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, in a Gaza City beach café. Hamas leaders quickly said Fatah was responsible, though they produced no evidence to support the claim. Fatah denied responsibility.

Shortly after that bombing, Hamas police, the Internal Security Force, and al-Qassam Brigades conducted wide-scale arrests of Fatah members and supporters. Hamas Minister of Interior Said Siyam told Human Rights Watch on July 28 that forces under his control had arrested about 200 people. According to Siyam and local human rights activists, many were soon released.

Hamas authorities also closed Fatah offices in northern Gaza and, according to local human rights groups, more than 100 civic associations, charities and sports clubs, confiscating computers and office equipment, and in some cases furniture and air conditioners.

Siyam and Mahmoud Zahar, a former foreign minister and influential Hamas leader, told Human Rights Watch that the police carried out most of the arrests and closures, but witnesses and local human rights groups said that the al-Qassam Brigades frequently took the lead. Under Palestinian law, the al-Qassam Brigades have no law enforcement powers.

Those who “succeed to convince the interrogators that they were not involved” will be released, “even if they are Fatah,” Zahar told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch investigated two cases where al-Qassam Brigades members detained individuals and beat them before letting them go. One 35-year-old man had four fractures in one leg, a gunshot wound in the other, and a fractured arm. He was unconscious when visited by Human Rights Watch on July 28, awaiting Israeli government permission to be transferred to Israel for medical care.

In an apparent retaliatory move, West Bank security forces detained up to 100 persons suspected of Hamas ties, about half of them in the Nablus area. Among those detained are reportedly academics and local government officials, some of whom have been released. West Bank human rights activists said that one Hamas man in Nablus was beaten badly enough during his arrest to require hospitalization. Over the past year, West Bank authorities have closed dozens of organizations suspected of Hamas ties.

“The explosions in Gaza are criminal acts, and security forces there have the responsibility to bring those responsible to justice,” Stork said. “But at least some Hamas leaders apparently prefer to use these crimes as a pretext to eliminate Fatah and consolidate control. Apparent revenge arrests in the West Bank are similarly unlawful, beyond any doubt.”

Human Rights Watch also expressed grave concern about the Hamas assault on civic associations and charities. Interior Minister Siyam and Mahmoud Zahar both said that authorities had found instructions for making explosives in a confiscated computer, and were looking for evidence that members of the associations had been in contact with West Bank security services.

Most of the closed organizations were considered to have some affiliation with Fatah, but by no means all, Human Rights Watch said. One was the Palestinian Council for External Relations, headed by Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council whose independent candidacy Hamas had backed in the January 2006 elections that brought them to power. Abu Amr described his organization as “a meeting place for all factions, including Hamas, and one of the few Gaza institutions with links to the outside world.” He told Human Rights Watch: “Armed and masked men came at around 1 a.m. and took everything – air conditioners, documents, books, and 10 years of irreplaceable documentation. They left nothing in the office.”

In the West Bank over the past 12 months, Fatah-run security forces have arrested, without warrants, hundreds of Hamas members and supporters, the Human Rights Watch report says. The arresting forces typically were masked, did not identify themselves, and did not inform the person of the reason for the arrest. Authorities often failed to provide detainees with lawyers or bring them before a prosecutor within 24 hours, as required by Palestinian law. The authorities ignored some court orders to let detainees go.

West Bank security forces often tortured detainees during interrogation, the report says, apparently leading in at least one case to a detainee’s death. Torture methods included mock executions, kicks and punches, and beatings with sticks, plastic pipes, and rubber hoses. The most common form of torture was forcing detainees to hold stress positions for prolonged periods. This practice, known in Arabic as shabah, causes intense pain and sometimes internal injury, but leaves no physical mark.

Hamas forces in Gaza committed many of the same abuses. Security forces there also conducted arbitrary arrests of suspected political opponents, tortured detainees, clamped down on freedom of expression and assembly, and violated due process rights enshrined in Palestinian and international law.

In general, abuses against detainees in Gaza were of shorter duration than in the West Bank but more intense: arbitrary detentions accompanied by severe beatings and, in two cases documented by Human Rights Watch, multiple gunshots at close range to the legs. In at least three cases, individuals died in custody, apparently from torture.

In both Gaza and the West Bank, the authorities largely failed to hold accountable security force members implicated in serious abuse. West Bank security officials told Human Rights Watch that they had disciplined or punished officers for abuses, but provided no cases or numbers. Gaza officials told Human Rights Watch that they had punished or disciplined more than 700 police officers for rights abuses, but provided few details.

In the West Bank, most cases documented by Human Rights Watch and Palestinian human rights organizations involved the General Intelligence Service (GIS) or the Preventive Security, both of which monitor Palestinian political factions and militias. The head of Preventive Security in the West Bank, Ziyad Hab al-Rih, reports to Minister of Interior Abd al-Razak al-Yahya and, through the minister, to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The head of the GIS, Tawfiq Tirawi, reports directly to President Mahmoud Abbas. Under Article 39 of the Palestinian Basic Law, the president is the commander-in-chief of all Palestinian forces.

In Gaza, most reports of abuses involved the Hamas-run police or Internal Security Force, which deals with political and security-related crimes. For most of the period covered in this report, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya was also interior minister, but the key security official in Gaza appeared to be Said Siyam. In late April 2008, Siyam formally became minister of interior, a post he had held from March 2006 to March 2007.

The report also addresses the funders and supporters of Fatah and Hamas. Since June 2007, foreign governments active in the region – in particular the United States and states of the European Union – have tried to isolate and weaken Hamas in Gaza while promoting Fatah in the West Bank. The report does not address the political decision to favor Fatah over Hamas. But it criticizes governments that have pledged US$8 billion to the West Bank, including millions in training and aid for Fatah-run security forces, for not paying adequate attention to the systematic abuses by those forces and for failing to criticize them publicly.

The European Union, the largest Palestinian Authority donor, is supporting the Palestinian Civil Police, apparently the least-abusive West Bank security force. The United States is leading the drive to strengthen Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, committing nearly $60 million to train and assist the National Security Force and Presidential Guard loyal to President Abbas. The funding sources of Preventive Security and GIS, the most problematic forces, remain unclear.

“Stopping torture and other serious abuses should be an essential condition for the massive western support to West Bank security forces,” Stork said. “Money and training should not go to forces or commanders who flaunt Palestinian or international human rights law.”

Little is known about the amounts and sources of assistance to the Hamas authorities. According to US, Israeli, and Fatah officials, Hamas receives aid from Syria and Iran.

“To avoid complicity with human rights violations, governments that support Hamas in Gaza should condition their aid on reforms to the security forces,” Stork said. “Those who support Hamas politically should speak out about the movement’s abuses and press it to end them.”

Palestinian officials cite Israel’s destruction of security installations, prisons, and other criminal justice facilities since the second Intifada began in late 2000 to explain the poor state of the Palestinian security and criminal justice systems. Israel’s continuing restrictions on the movement of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank are also a factor, Human Rights Watch said.

The Palestinian security system is also burdened by a legacy of multiple and overlapping services, a lack of independent oversight and an absence of witness protection systems. With little investigative experience and no forensic facilities, security forces continue to rely on a confession-based system, which encourages abuse during interrogations.

“These are real burdens, but none of them justify the abusive behavior of security forces in Gaza and the West Bank,” Stork said. “The political leaders of Hamas and Fatah can and should order a stop to these widespread and serious violations.”