(Jerusalem) - Hamas authorities in Gaza should immediately lift bans arbitrarily imposed on books and newspapers, Human Rights Watch said today. Hamas security officers recently confiscated copies of novels from bookstores on the basis of their allegedly "immoral" content, and Hamas officials bar newspapers from being brought into the Gaza Strip that support the rival Fatah movement, which leads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
"At a time when people around the Middle East demand more freedom, Hamas has decided to restrict the freedom of Gaza residents to choose what they read," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Hamas authorities should stop banning books and newspapers now."
Human Rights Watch has also criticized bans by the Palestinian Authority (PA) against pro-Hamas publications in the West Bank, as well as other violations against journalists by its security services, with a report on the issue due out shortly.
On January 23, 2011, Hamas police officers entered three bookstores in Gaza City and confiscated copies of two books, saying they were allegedly "against Shari'a" without providing any basis for their actions in written law or court order.
Dr. Talaat al-Safadi, the owner of the Ibn Khaldun bookstore near Al Azhar University in Gaza City, told Human Rights Watch that two police officers in street clothes and another in uniform came to his bookstore and confiscated seven copies of A Banquet for Seaweed, a novel by Haidar Haidar, and one copy of Chicago, a novel by Alaa' al-Aswany.
"The police didn't tell me why they were taking the books and I didn't ask them, but I insisted that they prove they had the right to take them, and eventually they showed me a note from the Ministry of Interior," al-Safadi said. The police refused to give him a receipt for the books, he said, telling him to go to the al-Abbas police station, which he refused to do.
"A Banquet for Seaweed was written and translated into many languages 20 years ago, and people these days can download novels anyway," al-Safadi said. "There's no point in confiscating them."
Also on January 23, members of the General Investigation Bureau confiscated copies of Chicago and A Banquet for Seaweed from the al-Shurouq bookstore in Gaza City, and Internal Security Service officers ordered employees at the Samir Mansour bookstore, near Gaza City's Islamic University, not to sell any copies of the novels, said the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a nongovernmental rights group based in Gaza.
Hamas security officers also searched for copies of a novel titled Forbidden Pleasure but did not locate any, the rights group reported. The police officers claimed the novels violated Sharia, or Islamic law, bookstore employees said. Police did not describe or specify the violation. Employees of these bookstores confirmed these incidents to Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch also urged Hamas authorities to lift an ongoing ban on importing into Gaza three newspapers printed in the West Bank - Al-Ayyam, Al-Quds, and Al-Hayat al-Jadida. Israel had previously barred the newspapers from being taken into Gaza but had lifted the restriction in June 2010 as part of an announced "easing" of its closure of Gaza's borders. Hamas then barred their entry. A Hamas spokesperson acknowledged that the newspaper bans had been imposed without any basis in Palestinian law.
The Hamas government press office spokesman, Dr. Hassan Abu Hasheesh, told Human Rights Watch that Hamas authorities had long objected to Al-Ayyam because of the paper's harsh criticisms of Hamas, including its use of terms like "collaborators" to describe Hamas. Abu Hasheesh said that Hamas authorities had corresponded with the editors in 2007 before banning Al-Ayyam in February 2008 for three months because it had published a caricature of the Palestinian parliament.
Hamas banned the paper again in July 2008 for an article that discussed allegations that Hamas was responsible for an explosion on a Gaza beach that killed five members of its own armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, as well as a civilian. Hamas rejected the claim, and the al-Qassam Brigades stated that they suspected Israeli or pro-Fatah forces were responsible. Hamas lifted the second ban in February 2009, but in the meantime Israel had imposed its own ban on the newspaper.
Abu Hasheesh emphasized that restrictions on journalism in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank should be viewed as "one package," and that Hamas would lift restrictions on the newspapers being brought into Gaza if the PA reciprocated by lifting its restriction barring pro-Hamas publications from being brought into the West Bank, including the Al-Risala newspaper and As‘ada magazine, and permitting the operation of their bureaus there.
"Hamas shouldn't blame its own arbitrary restrictions of press freedom on the Palestinian Authority," Whitson said. "Hamas's criticisms of rights violations in the West Bank would be more credible if Hamas lifted its own ban on newspapers that criticize Hamas."
Hamas's Abu Hasheesh acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that Palestinian law did not provide for barring newspapers from being brought into Gaza, but said the relevant law had not anticipated the split between Hamas-run Gaza and the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank. He contended that "Palestinian law requires that media should be objective, credible, and unbiased, and the three newspapers didn't commit to this."
The Al-Ayyam office director in Gaza, Sami al-Qishawi, told Human Rights Watch that Israeli authorities had barred the entry of the paper to Gaza from late 2009 to June 2010, when they lifted the ban as part of the above-mentioned "easing" of restrictions on imports to Gaza. His staff attempted to coordinate access to pick up the papers at the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel, but he said that the Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman, Ihab al-Ghossein, told them they would not be allowed to do so. When Al-Ayyam's staff tried to drive to the crossing, Hamas prevented them from passing through checkpoints on the road, al-Qishawi said.
As only a de facto governing authority, Hamas cannot be party to international human rights treaties, but it has publicly indicated that it would respect international standards. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers." The only permitted restrictions on this right are those that are "provided by law" and meet other criteria.