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(Jerusalem) - Hamas authorities in Gaza should punish those responsible for attacks on peaceful demonstrators calling for Palestinian political reconciliation, Human Rights Watch said today. 

Hamas police violently dispersed several peaceful demonstrations in Gaza beginning March 15, 2011, including sealing off access to public squares and universities and beating trapped demonstrators. 

"It is a dismal reflection on Hamas that it is violently cracking down on peaceful demonstrators calling for political reconciliation," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "This is just the latest instance of Hamas assaulting Palestinians' fundamental freedoms."

Coordinated protests were also held on March 15 in the West Bank, where men in civilian clothes beat protesters, and the Palestinian Authority police briefly detained two protesters.

In Gaza, youth organizers had called for protests against the Palestinian political division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which is led by the rival Fatah movement, at Gaza City's Unknown Soldier Square on March 15. Prime Minister Ismail Haniya's office stated on March 14 that it "supports the efforts by the young people and the factions that aim to end the division." However, Hamas authorities had refused the unity protesters a permit while granting a permit to a pro-Hamas group, according to news reports.

Shortly after the unity protesters arrived at the square at 9 a.m., pro-Hamas demonstrators confronted them. The unity protesters relocated to al-Katiba square, where Hamas authorities told them they could stay until 7 p.m.

"The [pro-unity] organizers had planned to set up tents and stalls - they wanted to make it another Tahrir [Square]," one protester who asked to be identified only as "Heba" told Human Rights Watch, referring to the site of anti-government protests in Cairo. "There were university students, mothers, fathers, kids, all kinds of people. Then at 7 p.m., plainclothes and uniformed police besieged the square and started to beat everyone, with clubs and other things. Someone hit me with a chair." She said that plainclothes police insulted women protesters, using derogatory sexual language. 

Salah abd el ‘Ati, a researcher for the Independent Commission for Human Rights, the official Palestinian rights ombudsman, told Human Rights Watch that police beat him while he was monitoring the protests. "At 7 p.m. the police came in from all four entrances to the square, closing them off so people couldn't escape, and started beating people," he said. "There were already security officers in plainclothes in the crowd who began beating people when the police came in. Five people attacked me, three in civilian clothes and two in uniform. They were hitting my head with batons, and when I protected my head with my arms they beat my arms and by back."

Abd el ‘Ati said he saw police and other security forces using electro-shock devices against protesters, and that they fired guns in the air and drove motorcycles through the crowd.

A freelance journalist, "Samoud," told Human Rights Watch that an unknown assailant stabbed her in the back with a knife as she tried to flee. "It felt like a sharp sting in the upper left-hand side of my back," she said. "I was trying to escape when I overheard an officer say ‘Don't let her leave, I want her in the Jawazat [police station].'" 

Police arrested her, confiscated her cell phone and took her to the police station, where she was placed in an interrogation room. "I didn't see other detainees there but I heard someone yelling, ‘Don't beat me! Give me back my camera.'" When she asked police to let her seek medical care, they brought in another detainee, gave her a bottle of iodine, and told her to treat the wound. "She said the cut was deep and demanded that I get real help since she had no medical training," Samoud said. More than an hour later, after Samoud and the other detainee repeatedly asked for an ambulance, police summoned a nurse, who eventually convinced the police to let Samoud go to al-Shifa hospital. 

Samoud told Human Rights Watch that police detectives at al-Shifa told doctors to register her under a false name, "Sausan Badr," possibly to avoid creating medical records that could be used as evidence of her assault. She and her brother, who joined her at the hospital, demanded that she be registered under her own name. "The detectives said OK, but then said that the medical file had to say that I was also under arrest," she said. After she had been treated and she and her brother were temporarily left alone, they fled the hospital. 

At least five demonstrators were hospitalized with injuries, The New York Times reported.

On March 16, students at Gaza City's al-Azhar University planned to walk to the Unknown Soldier Square to protest, students told Human Rights Watch. But plainclothes police officers trapped them in the university's science building and randomly beat students inside, they said. Female students from al-Quds Open University who went to join the students at al-Azhar were beaten as well. Later that morning, plain clothes security officials also attacked students demonstrating at al-Quds.

An al-Azhar student, "Haneen," said that before police arrived, members of the university's pro-Hamas student group (al-Qutle al-Islamiyya, the "Islamic bloc,") "took off their belts and started beating the demonstrators. Then around 30 police in civilian clothes came in, armed. They prevented us from leaving for an hour and a half while they talked to the university administration, and beat people with clubs and sprayed and soaked us using water hoses from the university. All the time they were insulting the girls. The men were also spitting at us."

Students initially refused a police offer to leave the university if they pledged not to continue to demonstrate outside, but agreed after the university administration "asked that we comply for our own safety and that of the university," Haneen said. "We went outside and the police there also insulted us, especially for demonstrating in the same place as men, which they said was against morality." 

"Heba," the protester who described how she was beaten on March 15, said that plainclothes police beat her again at al-Azhar the following day and insulted women protesters. "I called my father to come get me out, but police refused to allow him to enter the university and threatened to beat him," she said. 

A student at al-Quds, "Mahmoud," told Human Rights Watch what happened there. After the students returned from al-Azhar, about 150 male and female students began to demonstrate and chant, "We want an end to the division," Mahmoud said. 

"Then a large number of men in civilian clothes came, with guns and clubs. They beat us and I saw them hit a student who was pregnant, who fell on the ground. They even pursued students who took refuge inside the university mosque."

Mahmoud said he fled the university but was followed by a van marked "medical services." "The men grabbed me and took me in the van, drove me to an alleyway, and then threw me on the pavement, where one of them stood on my chest, another on my legs, and a third one beat my knee with his club until my knee broke," Mahmoud said. "Then they drove me to my home and forced me out. My father took me to al-Shifa hospital, but he left me in the car for a minute and went in and asked a doctor for advice, and the doctor said that Hamas would take all my information and to go to a private clinic instead, so that's what we did." Mahmoud said he had knee surgery and would need another operation in six months. 

Al-Mezan, a Palestinian human rights group, reported that police assaulted its fieldworker Yamen al-Madhoun and confiscated the memory card from his mobile phone as he was covering the events at al-Azhar University. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported that plainclothes police prevented journalists from covering the protests.

"Hamas authorities appear to believe that only demonstrations against Israel are legitimate modes of public expression," Whitson said. "Yet Gaza's youth have made loud and clear their wish to express their views peacefully on a range of concerns, including that their leaders have failed to resolve factional disputes at the expense of the population."

Protest organizers in Gaza coordinated with organizers of the demonstration in the West Bank on March 15. The West Bank organizers told Human Rights Watch that Palestinian Authority security forces assaulted them during a peaceful demonstration in Ramallah's al-Manara square. At around 6:30 p.m., plainclothes members of the General Intelligence Services assaulted and arrested Farj Harb, one of the organizers, and another demonstrator, Fadi Quran. A brief video by Quran shows him apparently being assaulted by several men in civilian clothes. Quran said that he and Harb were later released. 

At 11 p.m., protesters trying to erect a tent were attacked by about 15 men in civilian clothes who confiscated the tent poles and canvas. Human Rights Watch observed as the men turned over the confiscated items to uniformed police in a nearby street, and as men in civilian clothes detained, beat, and dragged two of the protesters toward the police station.

A foreign freelance photographer, Lazar Simeonov, told Human Rights Watch that men in civilian clothes assaulted him and tried to confiscate his camera as he was taking pictures of the protesters being dragged toward the police station. Simeonov later went to the police station to complain, where he saw one of the two men being detained. Men in civilian clothes also assaulted another man, who loudly identified himself as a cameraman for Palestine TV. Human Rights Watch later saw men in civilian clothes block him when he tried to walk to the police station to file a complaint. 

Human Rights Watch previously reported how the security services of both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority had interrogated, threatened and beat organizers and protesters at earlier public demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza. 

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas cannot be party to international human rights treaties, but both have publicly indicated they would respect international standards. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights grants everyone the right to peaceful assembly. It states that restrictions on this right are permissible only if implemented according to law, for a legitimate aim such as public safety, and "necessary in democratic society" - that is, is the least restrictive measure possible. 

"Local authorities aren't fooling anyone by hiding behind thugs who assault protesters," Whitson said. "The Palestinian people deserve leaders, whether Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, who will respect their basic rights." 

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