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Hamas Jails Gaza Activists for Video Chat with Israelis

Wrongful Detentions for Free Expression Even More Harmful During COVID-19 Crisis

Protesting the electricity crisis, in the Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza, on January 12, 2017. One demonstrator holds a sign that reads, in Arabic, “We want electricity.” On that day, Hamas security forces detained scores who participated in the demonstrations in Jabalia.  © 2017 Mahmoud Abu Salama

Lockdowns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic have led people across the globe to turn to videoconferencing in place of in-person communications. For the people of Gaza, locked down for more than 13 years by Israel’s closure, videoconferencing has long served as a main outlet to the outside world.

On April 6, 38-year-old Rami Aman and other Palestinian activists participated in a “Zoom” video chat during which they answered questions from Israelis about life in Gaza amid the pandemic. The activists are part of the Gaza Youth Committee, a group that has previously organized similar videoconferences and this month became a member of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.

On April 9, Hamas authorities arrested Aman. Two days later, they detained six others who participated in the chat, a friend of Aman told Human Rights Watch.

Authorities publicly stated that they had arrested Aman and the others for holding a “normalization” activity, a reference to activities held with Israelis that are not rooted in challenging the Israeli government’s repression. The statement likens normalization to “espionage” and “treachery.” Laws issued by Hamas authorities in Gaza criminalize all social, cultural, political, economic, sporting, or other activities with “the Zionist enemy.”

In July 2019, authorities detained Aman for over two weeks for organizing parallel bike “Rides for Peace” in coordination with Israeli riders. In April 2019, they held him for three days for social media posts criticizing torture by Hamas security forces, a relative of his said.

Hamas authorities routinely arbitrarily arrest and torture critics and opponents, as Human Rights Watch has documented. In March 2019, they detained more than 1,000 Palestinians during demonstrations against the high cost of living in Gaza, according to the Palestinian statutory watchdog Independent Commission for Human Rights.

Arresting activists for a video chat violates basic principles of international human rights law, to which Hamas authorities have said they consider themselves bound. Laws that forbid “contact with the enemy” or efforts to oppose normalization should not restrict peaceful expression or association between ordinary people. Hamas’s ordering the detention of people for exercising their basic rights is particularly troubling amid a pandemic that has led countries worldwide to release prisoners to reduce the threat of contagion.

Aman’s relative said the family has not heard from him since his arrest. Hamas authorities should immediately and unconditionally release him and the other activists.

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