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(Jerusalem) - Hamas authorities in Gaza should allow an organization that helps children and youth to reopen and penalize officials who have harassed its workers, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 30, 2010, Hamas authorities arbitrarily closed all of the Gaza offices of the group Sharek Youth Forum, which provides psychosocial and vocational support and operates summer camps and other programs for 60,000 Gaza children and youth.

Since May, Hamas authorities have repeatedly summoned the group's directors and other employees for questioning, temporarily closed its offices, and confiscated computers and other equipment, without filing any charges. Members of the group told Human Rights Watch that Hamas security officials told them four of its employees were being investigated, but gave no names or details about suspected offenses and did not explain why that justified closing down the organization throughout Gaza.

"This arbitrary interference with an organization that provides invaluable services to Gaza's youth is just the latest evidence of Hamas's authoritarian streak," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Hamas boasts that it was democratically elected, but it isn't acting like a democratic government that respects civil society."

The Gaza Public Prosecutor's office issued an order on November 30 "to temporarily close the Sharek Youth Forum offices in the Gaza governorate" pending investigations by the Department of Societies Security in the police investigations unit. The Palestinian human rights group Al Mezan reported that on that afternoon, police and officials from the Interior Ministry and the police unit investigating the case closed Sharek's main office in Gaza City. Although the order (decision no. 153/2010) applied only to the Gaza City office, police also closed branch offices in Jabaliya, Khan Yunis, and Rafah, located in other governorates, later that day and on December 1.

Sufian Mushasha, a member of Sharek's board, told Human Rights Watch that since October, "Hamas internal security services personnel have repeatedly summoned and questioned directors and staff members about why we allow boys and girls to play together, why some of our women employees and girl students don't wear the hijab, and sometimes asked insulting questions about whether we desire our colleagues."

Internal security officials told board members that four employees and directors, including the executive director, were suspected of possessing pornographic material and "cursing god," but did not further identify the suspected employees or specify their alleged offenses.

"Our lawyers have gone to the Ministry of Interior and the Attorney General for the last five days to obtain the list of charges and the names of the people they are accusing, but so far we don't know what they are," Mushasha said. "We have no reason to think that the allegations are correct, but if they are we want to know about them since we have our own internal regulations."

Mushasha said that the authorities had not filed any charges against the organization itself.

"It's not enough that Gaza residents have been caged inside their small territory by Israel and Egypt," Whitson said. "Now they face the grim prospect of having their every utterance and private act monitored by Hamas security, which apparently has nothing better to do."

Under Palestinian law, a charitable organization may be closed only by court order. "The fact that the prosecutor only ordered a temporary closure against us is hard to fight, because we could appeal a permanent closure directly to the Supreme Court," Mushasha said.

Sharek published a brief chronology of its problems with the authorities in 2010. Human Rights Watch independently confirmed that authorities had in June temporarily closed down the group's Rafah branch, where it operates youth programs for the municipality.

Sharek was an implementing partner for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) summer camps for children. Unidentified gunmen vandalized one camp in May and firebombed another in June in attacks that Hamas condemned. Sharek has faced escalating harassment from Hamas security officials in recent months.

Sharek opened in 1996 with support from the Swiss Development Corporation and UN agencies, and was registered as a nongovernmental organization with Palestinian authorities in 2004, the organization's website said. Hamas authorities have not contested Sharek's registration.

On December 5, Hamas police arrested close to 20 young men who had already dispersed after demonstrating peacefully against the closing of Sharek outside its Gaza City office. The police contended the demonstrators lacked a necessary permit.

Al Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported that police required the detainees to sign a commitment that they would not participate in any activities sponsored by Sharek and would not socialize with girls or women to whom they were not related on pain of a NIS 5,000 [US$1350] fine. Mushasha told Human Rights Watch that one of the young men, Mustafa al Ghoul, remained in detention as of December 7 because he refused to sign the pledge. Police also detained four Al Jazeera International journalists who were trying to cover the protest and held them for an hour-and-a-half, Al Mezan reported.

Hamas officials have closed a number of other nongovernmental organizations on apparently arbitrary grounds. During the week of August 17, Hamas officials closed the clinic and offices of Help Doctors, a French charity working in Khan Yunis, and confiscated all of the group's medical and other equipment. Interior Ministry officials closed the clinic, which treated Gaza residents suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, on what they said were orders from the Health Ministry and said that they would distribute the seized equipment to other groups, Help Doctors staff said.

Officials refused to meet with clinic staff or to identify any laws or regulations that Help Doctors had allegedly violated. In a statement on its website, the Health Ministry justified closing the clinic on the grounds that Help Doctors had failed to acquire a license since opening the clinic in 2009. It also said the clinic was difficult for elderly patients to reach because it was on the third floor of a building, that the main physician and health awareness counselor lacked the appropriate certification, and that the clinic had misrepresented the amount of medication it had in stock.

Help Doctors acknowledged that the clinic was not officially licensed but told Human Rights Watch that it began operations under a verbal agreement with Dr. Bassam Naim, the Hamas health minister. The group said it later applied for a license but that officials did not respond to their requests. Help Doctors also denied that the clinic was hard to reach and said it had 335 registered patients and had performed over 4,800 free consultations and 6,300 lab tests before it was shut down.

Staff said that a team of seven or eight Health Ministry officials visited and evaluated the clinic on March 10 and requested evidence that the clinic's physician was a chronic-care specialist. In response, Help Doctors provided the physician's accreditation, showing that he had specialized in chronic diseases for four years, staff said.

Hamas authorities also closed six local nongovernmental organizations and confiscated their equipment in the southern city of Rafah on May 31 and June 1, Al Mezan said. One of the groups, the South Society for Women's Health, provided family planning counseling to women. It was closed for 20 days before reopening under the close supervision of the Interior Ministry, third parties said. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm the circumstances of the closing with the group.

In August, a reporter with US-based National Public Radio interviewed a female medical student who said that Hamas had assumed control over most hospitals in Gaza and had removed several qualified doctors from their positions for political reasons.

In May, Human Rights Watch documented cases of harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture by Hamas security services for alleged "morality" crimes.

"Rather than meddling with civil society and seeking to control every aspect of citizen's lives, Hamas should focus on creating the conditions for free society to thrive in Gaza and train its security forces to respect people's rights," Whitson said. "Clamping down on organizations that provide needed services to Palestinians is not the act of an authority that respects a free society."

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