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Gaza / West Bank: Investigate Attacks on Rights Defenders

Mahmud Abu Rahma Stabbed in Gaza; Yazan Sawafta Beaten in West Bank

(Jerusalem) – Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) should investigate recent brutal attacks against human rights defenders in Gaza and the West Bank and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today.

In Gaza, Mahmud Abu Rahma, the international relations director for Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, a Palestinian rights group, was stabbed repeatedly on the night of January 13, 2012, by masked assailants, after being beaten by a group of unidentified men on January 3. The attacks followed his public criticism of Hamas and the impunity of armed groups in Gaza. Al Mezan had previously informed Hamas of death threats against him.

In the West Bank, a member of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security agency beat Yazan Sawafta, a lawyer and researcher for the Independent Commission for Human Rights on January 9, according to a statement by the group. Sawafta had been covering a demonstration by relatives of prisoners detained by the PA.

“Hamas and the Palestinian Authority should not sit idly by while human rights defenders are being stabbed and beaten in the streets, in some cases by these groups’ own officials,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Palestinian leaders should ensure that Abu Rahma and Sawafta are not victims of the very impunity that these two men have courageously documented.”

Abu Rahma, who has worked on human rights issues in Gaza for 15 years, told Human Rights Watch that he was returning home from his office at around 11:15 p.m. on January 13 when three men wearing masks accosted him on the ground floor of his apartment building in Tel el-Hawa, in southern Gaza City, and began to stab him. He suffered four knife wounds in his right leg, two in his left shoulder and left hand, two in the back, and bruises where his clothes had prevented other knife cuts.

“They called me an atheist and a collaborator while they were attacking me,” Abu Rahma told Human Rights Watch. He could not identify his attackers. His family called a doctor who treated him at home at around 3 a.m. “The doctor wanted me to go to the hospital, but we felt it wasn’t safe to leave,” he said.

In the January 3 attack, three men beat him on the back and shoved him to the floor as he was walking toward the elevator of his apartment building.

In a statement, the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights said it had informed the Hamas authorities of the details of the attacks on Abu Rahma and urged them to investigate. Abu Rahma told Human Rights Watch that police from Gaza City’s central unit and from the Al Rimal police unit, a southern Gaza City neighborhood, had questioned him after the January 13 attack and told him they had begun an investigation.

Abu Rahma had received death threats after publishing an articleon Ma’an, a Palestinian news website, on December 31, 2011, that criticized the authorities in Gaza, as well as the PA in the West Bank, for failing to investigate allegations of abuses including torture and arbitrary detention and to hold those responsible to account. The article also faulted Hamas for failing to curtail the actions of armed groups in Gaza that have injured Palestinian civilians. For example, the article described how members of an armed group rebuffed a Palestinian man who had asked them to relocate a military training site away from his home. The man and his son were killed in an Israeli airstrike on the training facility on December 9.

“Hamas’s failure to protect Abu Rahma, who has been a leading voice for human rights in Gaza, sends a chilling message to other human rights defenders,” Whitson said. “Hamas needs to investigate the attacks against him promptly and thoroughly and to appropriately punish those found responsible.”

The January 9 attack in the West Bank came as Sawafta was covering a protest by relatives of detainees in PA custody in the northern West Bank city of Nablus. Sawafta is a lawyer and field researcher for the Independent Commission for Human Rights, the official Palestinian rights ombudsman, which has offices in Gaza and the West Bank.

At the Nablus protest, he spoke to media about arbitrary detentions by Palestinian security agencies of Palestinians based on their political affiliations, according to a statement by the ombudsman’s office. After the protest ended, a member of the PA’s Preventive Security Service demanded Sawafta’s identity card and camera, the statement said. Sawafta told the security official that he was monitoring the protest for the ombudsman’s office.

The security official left and returned ten minutes later with two other members of the Preventive Security Service, and physically attacked Sawafta while threatening to indict him on unspecified charges. The other security officials did nothing to stop the attack, which ended only when other security officers eventually intervened. The rights ombudsman’s office said it had identified the Preventive Security officer who attacked Sawafta and confiscated his identity documents and camera, which have not been returned, and complained to the PA about the attack.

“Western governments funding the Palestinian Authority’s security forces should ensure they don’t abuse their own people,” Whitson said. “The security forces’ well documented impunity for abuses undermines the public’s trust and confidence in the PA.”

Human Rights Watch has documented repeated abusesby both Hamas and PA officials against each other’s members as well as against internal critics and demonstrators, including arbitrary detentionand torture. In other cases, armed groups in Gaza have fired rocketsthat fell short of their intended targets in Israel, harming Palestinian civilians, and have placed civilians at risk of Israeli attacks by locating military objects near populated areas in Gaza.

Human Rights Watch is aware of a handful of cases in which Hamas authorities penalized police officials for abuses against civilians in Gaza. But it has found no cases of such prosecutions against members of armed groups or Hamas’s internal security service, which has been accused of torturing detainees and of deaths in custody due to abuse. Nor is Human Rights Watch aware of any criminal convictions of PA security officials for abuses in the West Bank, despite numerous credible allegations of tortureand death in custody.

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