(Amman) - Middle Eastern governments have banned demonstrations against Israeli actions in Gaza, and their security forces have beaten and arrested demonstrators as they tried to voice their opposition, Human Rights Watch said today. Arab and Iranian leaders have condemned Israeli military operations while denying their citizens the right to do the same. Israeli authorities have also banned some peaceful protests.
"Peaceful demonstrations are an essential element of democratic societies and the basic right of every citizen," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Middle Eastern regimes are throwing one symbolic shoe at Israel while using the other shoe to strike at domestic dissent."
The rights to peaceful assembly and free expression are severely curtailed in much of the Middle East:
- Egypt has for 27 years been under emergency law, which allows the authorities to prohibit demonstrations;
- Saudi Arabia has no law regulating assembly and bans any political demonstrations by executive orders;
- Jordan routinely denies permission for demonstrations critical of Jordanian foreign policy; and
- Other governments deny these rights to political opponents while organizing official demonstrations.
"It is as absurd as it is illegal to officially oppose death and destruction in Gaza, but to beat, ban, and arrest persons who try to peacefully protest it," said Whitson.
According to news reports, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank banned pro-Hamas demonstrations shortly after Israel started its attacks on Gaza. Al Jazeera reported that on January 2, PA officials arrested demonstrators in Ramallah for waving Hamas flags, and clashed with student protesters in Bir Zeit on January 6. After the midday prayer on January 9, PA police in Ramallah fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of some 4,000 people, according to Al Jazeera.
According to media reports, Israeli security forces in the West Bank have seriously injured protesters in violent clashes and banned other peaceful demonstrations, and there is one report of a possible killing of a demonstrator by the Israeli army. The Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper, reported that, on January 9, one Palestinian was seriously injured by a rubber bullet and several were treated for gas inhalation when Israeli soldiers broke up a protest of around 5,000 Palestinians in Hebron. Reuters on January 16 said the Israeli army spokesperson confirmed that an investigation was being held into allegations that soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian demonstrator in Hebron that day during a protest in which demonstrators threw rocks and petrol bombs at the soldiers. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel reported on January 16 that Israeli police chief of Sderot in Israel cited a "military order against any demonstration" in the area in preventing 300 persons from accompanying a medical aid convoy to Gaza.
In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on January 15 called on King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which was hosting an emergency summit on Gaza convened by the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, to break the silence of some regional states over the war in Gaza. On January 11, however, Iranian plainclothes security agents had forcibly broken up a gathering organized in front of the Palestinian embassy in Tehran by the Iranian nongovernmental group Mothers for Peace, to protest ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip, an eyewitness told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
On January 1, Saudi authorities arrested Khalid al-‘Umair and Muhammad al-‘Utaibi, two human rights activists, in Riyadh's Malaz district, where they had arrived to demonstrate against Israeli actions in Gaza, relatives told Human Rights Watch. Earlier, a group of Saudi activists on December 30 announced on the internet site Facebook that they had sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior requesting permission to demonstrate in Riyadh. The assistant minister for security affairs refused their request, and they had to call off the demonstration. In the Eastern Province, Saudi Shia organized an impromptu demonstration on December 19 against the blockade of Gaza, and again on December 29 against the attack on Gaza. Saudi security forces arrested at least 23 persons at those two demonstrations, including a man reportedly in his seventies, relatives of the detainees and a Saudi human rights group said. One of the demonstrators, Kamil al-Ahmad, remains in detention for refusing to sign a pledge not to demonstrate again, while officials released 22 other demonstrators on January 17.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has reported that 860 of its members have been arrested in recent days in connection with demonstrations protesting Israeli actions in Gaza. A January 16 demonstration in Tanta, north of Cairo, reportedly drew 15,000 participants. Police arrested eight journalists and beat some of them on December 31 while they were covering a demonstration in support of Gaza in Cairo's Tahrir Square. They were later released. Also in Cairo, police on January 16 prevented a planned demonstration near the US embassy and arrested some activists gathering near the embassy. In the Sinai, police arrested Ashraf al-Hifni and Ashraf Quwaidir, local leaders of the opposition Taggamu' Party, after a demonstration in al-Arish at which security forces say demonstrators started throwing stones at them. They were reportedly charged with participation in an illegal demonstration, injuring three police officers and handing out flyers. The Muslim Brotherhood says 160 of the 860 persons arrested have been formally charged with participation in an illegal demonstration.
In Tunisia, authorities have tolerated several pro-Palestinian demonstrations while repressing others. They refused an application by the opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) to demonstrate in downtown Tunis on December 30 and then dispersed a group of demonstrators who gathered that day in front of PDP headquarters. Security forces assaulted two journalists on the scene, Mohamed Hamrouni of the PDP organ Al-Mawkif and Al Jazeera's Lotfi Hajji. At a large Tunis rally on January 1 co-sponsored by the ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Assembly, police dispersed and beat two union members who tried to march outside of the officially sanctioned route, the Tunisian General Trade Union reported.
On January 9, demonstrators gathered in front of the Israeli embassy in Jordan, where riot police arrived and beat demonstrators, including Al Jazeera satellite television bureau chief Yasir Abu Hilala. King Abdullah personally apologized to Abu Hilala, but prosecutors have not taken the statements of other demonstrators who police beat with truncheons at the demonstration, eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch calls on Arab governments, Iran, and Israel to ensure their citizens can peacefully assemble to express their views on the situation in Gaza.