September 1997 Vol. 9 No. 10 (E)















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The Palestinian Authority (PA) must institutionalize legal safeguards and clear lines of accountability, and the international community must stop sending a mixed message about abuses, if the currently deplorable state of human rights in the areas under the PA is to improve.

As this report documents, the first three years of Palestinian self-rule have been characterized by widespread arbitrary and abusive conduct by the PA and its mushrooming security agencies. Hundreds of arbitrary detentions were carried out that violated defendants' most elemental due-process rights.1 Those who were interrogated were commonly tortured. Physical abuse caused or contributed to many of the fourteen deaths that occurred in custody.2 The Palestinian state security courts have tried and sentenced scores of persons in secret summary proceedings replete with procedural violations. The PA has interfered with the Palestinian press, threatening and arresting journalists and human rights activists, encouraging self-censorship and creating a climate of fear and intimidation.

While shortfalls in resources, training and experience played a role, the abusive conduct of the security forces is largely attributable to a failure of will by the PA's leadership to make human rights protection a priority. This has occurred in a context in which the PA has faced enormous pressures from Israel, the U.S. and other Western governments to crack down on militant movements.

In 1996, in the wake of suicide bombings by Islamist militants inside Israel, hundreds of suspected militants were detained in mass arrest campaigns. During the first half of 1997, there were no comparable campaigns of indiscriminate arrests, and the number of detainees held without charge declined. Nevertheless, numerous incidents of torture and of strong-arm tactics by the security forces dispelled hopes that the Palestinian Authority was becoming more tolerant and respectful of the rule of law. There were at least four suspicious deaths in detention between January and July. In addition, the Palestinian Authority displayed diminishing tolerance toward those who peacefully challenged or criticized its dictates.

With the media and independent critics and organizations facing censorship and intimidation, the Palestinian Legislative Council has become the preeminent forum for airing human rights concerns within Palestinian society. But the council has thus far served more as a sounding board than as an agent for change. Part of the problem is that the PA's executive has treated the council in a dismissive manner.

This has included moves to keep uncut broadcasts of its sessions off the local airwaves. In June, when an independent broadcasting station run by the prominent Jerusalem-based journalist Daoud Kuttab persisted in providing popular coverage of sessions of the council after the PA jammed the live broadcasts, he was arrested and held for one week without being charged or questioned. As this report went to press, Kuttab's Al-Quds Educational Television was still awaiting the PA's okay to resume coverage of the council.

Other recent events form a pattern of heavy-handed suppression of dissent and criticism. A two-month-long teachers strike in the West Bank, mainly over salary demands, was broken in April 1997 by tactics that includedthreats and the repeated detention of strike leaders on spurious accusations. In Gaza, Professor Fathi Subuh of al-Azhar University was detained on July 2, 1997, after assigning students an exam question about corruption in the administration of the university and in the Palestinian Authority. After PA officials denied that the arrest had anything to do with his university work, security forces raided the professor's home and confiscated the students' exam booklets. He was held for several weeks without access to family or lawyer. In early September, it was reported that he would go on trial shortly on charges of treason.

In a sign of contempt for the rule of law at a high level, PA Minister of Justice Freih abu Medein made a series of statements in June that appeared to condone summary executions of Palestinians found to have sold land to Jews; he made these defiant remarks around the time the PA announced it would seek the death penalty in such cases, pursuant to Jordanian law in effect in the West Bank. On May 5, Abu Medein, the highest legal authority in the PA, was quoted by Agence France-Presse (AFP) as saying that during the intifada, "People who sold land to Israelis were shot as traitors." Following the May 9 murder of a land dealer who was alleged to have been involved in such sales, Abu Medein declined to condemn the murder but instead reportedly stated, "As I have said before, expect the unexpected for these matters because nobody from this moment will accept any traitor who sells his land to Israelis." In the weeks immediately following, at least two more Palestinians suspected of dealing in land were found slain. Israeli authorities accused the Palestinian security forces of involvement in the slayings. The PA denied any such links and distanced itself from Abu Medein's inflammatory statements. Ahmed Abdel Rahman, secretary of Arafat's cabinet, said, "The Authority decision to ban land sales is based on law and no one is permitted to take the law into his own hands," according to a June 2 AFP report.3

An outcry from Palestinians and the international community over human rights abuses led on rare occasions to swift punishment for the accused perpetrators. Security force members accused of involvement in deaths in custody were in a few cases brought to trial before military and state security courts. While those trials sent a welcome signal that abuses would be punished, the hasty and summary nature of the proceedings, before tribunals that did not respect due-process protections, suggested an effort intended firstly to mollify external critics, with little regard for seeing that justice was done. For example, one day after the death in custody of Nasser Abed Radwan on June 30, six security force members were convicted in a military court, including three who were sentenced to death (see Appendix A). Justice was equally swift for three Palestinian civilians accused of murdering an Israeli taxi driver who disappeared on Thursday, August 14, at a time when the PA was under intense international pressure to heighten security cooperation with Israel. Palestinian police discovered his body late the following day ( Friday) and by the afternoon of Saturday, August 16, the three young men had been tried and convicted of the murder, and two of them sentenced to life terms. Thus, no more than twenty-four hours elapsed in these two recent cases between the discovery of the murder and the conviction and sentencing of the suspects to the heaviest of penalties. This points clearly to a violation of the suspects' right, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to "have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of [their] defence."

In another possible indication of efforts to address human rights criticisms, Arafat replaced Attorney General Khaled el-Qidrah in July. El-Qidrah had gained notoriety for ordering the arrests of several critics of the PA and for statements that whitewashed or condoned human rights abuses by the PA.

But the PA has yet to incorporate human rights safeguards into law and make the security forces consistently accountable. It continues to try defendants before the abusive state security courts, where unfair trials are virtually guaranteed. Investigations are announced into deaths in detention and other suspected abuses, but the findings arenever made public and perpetrators are held accountable only in rare instances. The PA continues to downplay abuses as isolated mistakes, the product of its young and transitional character, or the byproduct of Israeli policies.4

The role of Israel, the U.S. and the international community in influencing the conduct of the PA should not be underestimated. As this report illustrates, external demands that the PA halt anti-Israel violence have been made in terms that condone a disregard for the human rights of Palestinians. Such pressure is highly potent, due in part to the situation of extreme political and economic dependency in which the self-rule entity exists.

The PA must, with international support, move quickly to institutionalize the safeguards for free expression and association and the rights of suspects in custody. It should establish clear lines of authority for its security forces and put them on notice that allegations of abuse will be thoroughly and impartially investigated, and security forces found to have committed abuses will be punished or disciplined. It should adopt the Palestinian draft Basic Law, a kind of constitution for the transitional period refined by the Legislative Council, or some other legal code that enshrines the basic civil and political rights of Palestinians in the self-rule area.

If the PA fails to institutionalize these safeguards against abuses, the human rights situation in the self-rule areas will remain highly volatile and that much more prone to the sudden unleashing of repression, as occurred in 1996. Arbitrary roundups, torture and intimidation may in the short term create an image of order, but they are, over the long term, likely to undermine stability.

The PA: Pledges to Uphold Human Rights

The Oslo Accords did not confer the status of a state upon the Palestinian Authority. It is thus ineligible to become a party to international human rights instruments.5 However, Human Rights Watch believes that the PA is required to respect those international human rights norms that are part of customary law.6 The Oslo Accords granted the PA state-like powers in both internal security and civil affairs. Accordingly, the PA operates various police forces, as well as a judiciary, a penal system, a parliament and a range of ministries. These institutions cannot be exempted from the duty to respect basic human rights norms simply because they are part of an entity that falls short of statehood. These customary norms include the right of detainees to humane treatment, the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, the right of accused persons to basic due process guarantees, the rights to free expression and assembly, and protection from the use of excessive or unjustified force.

The PA should also be held to international human rights and humanitarian standards that both the PA and PLO officials have commendably pledged to uphold. In 1989, for example, the PLO formally expressed its desireto be bound by the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols.7 Although blocked by the U.S. and other countries, the PLO's effort to become a signatory signaled a commitment by the PLO to uphold international humanitarian law. On October 2, 1993, just weeks after signing the Declaration of Principles, Chairman Yasir Arafat told a delegation from Amnesty International that the PLO was committed to respect all internationally recognized human rights standards and wished to incorporate them into Palestinian legislation. He also acknowledged the fundamental role of local and international human rights organizations in protecting and promoting human rights.8 The PA has also committed itself in the Oslo Accords to carry out its responsibilities under the agreements "with due regard to internationally-accepted norms and principles of human rights and the rule of law."9

External Pressures to Crack Down

The PA's human rights record cannot be analyzed without considering the constraints imposed on it by the Oslo Accords. The PA is still in a transitional phase, grappling with its gradually expanding jurisdiction and the civil and security responsibilities it assumed through the interim self-rule agreements. Meanwhile, Israel continues to maintain a military presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and exerts significant control over the lives of Palestinians in these territories, not only in the areas in which it exercises direct authority, but also in the self-rule areas where the PA has responsibility for internal security and civil affairs. For example, Israel retains ultimate power over the flow of persons and goods into, out of, and between, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also sometimes blocks movement out of the towns of the West Bank and between them, confining much of the population to a form of town arrest.10 Its exercise of that power during periods of "closure" has shut down vital economic activity and imposed severe hardship on Palestinians residing both inside and outside the self-rule areas.11

The Oslo Accords devote much attention to security arrangements between the PA and Israel-arrangements aimed at protecting the safety of Israeli citizens. Collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian security forces is an essential element of Oslo II. As a party to this agreement, Israel has agreed to the parameters governing the PA's security-related actions.

Israel has made clear that the implementation of future stages of the self-rule agreements depends in large part on the PA's efforts to prevent anti-Israeli violence. Indeed, such violence has already dealt severe blows to the peace process. In the most dramatic series of attacks, suicide bombings in Ashkelon, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv between February 25 and March 4, 1996, caused fifty-eight deaths, mostly of civilians. The military wings of the Islamist groups Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for these attacks.

Human Rights Watch condemns the deliberate and arbitrary killing of civilians and recognizes the duty and the right of the PA to bring to justice those responsible for such acts.12 However, the means employed must conform to international rights standards. In responding to violence by militant groups, Israel has, with U.S. support, exerted intense pressure on the PA to crack down on such groups, without making any reference, at least publicly, to the means employed. As the PA has indiscriminately rounded up hundreds of suspected militants in response to acts of violence against Israelis, both Israel and the U.S. have signaled to Arafat that they are little concerned with abuses when they are committed in the name of Israeli security and saving the Israeli-PLO peace process.

External pressures, however, cannot justify or fully explain the PA's disregard for the rule of law and intolerance of peaceful opposition and dissent. And while the PA's repressive tendencies fall well short of stamping out all dissent or critical voices, the pattern of intimidation, arrests, and physical mistreatment documented in this report has created substantial fear among Palestinians. Rights activists, lawyers, journalists and even critics within the PA have had to maneuver within a political environment that is at once chaotic and repressive, and where the precise limits of acceptable dissent are unclear. Some have chosen self-censorship, while others have continued to speak out despite the risks.

Unless there is a dramatic shift in the PA's priorities, encouraged by international incentives and pressure to curb violations and promote freedom of expression and the rule of law, the abusive policies that prevail today will be the blueprint for the Palestinian future. The international community, intent on addressing Israel's security concerns and preserving the Israeli-PLO peace process, must stop encouraging the PA to address security demands without regard for human rights, and must cease turning a blind eye to the denigration of the rights of Palestinians, whether by forces of the state of Israel or by the PA. A myopic approach poses a long-term threat to the durability of the peace process that the international community supports.

1 The PA, which is also referred to as the "Palestine National Authority (PNA)," is the interim self-governing authority for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Its president is Yasir Arafat. The legislature, the Palestinian Legislative Council (hereinafter, "Legislative Council"), was elected in January 1996. 2 Based on documentation by Human Rights Watch/Middle East, local human rights groups, and press accounts. See Appendix A at the end of this report. 3 See Appendix for the letter sent by Human Rights Watch/Middle East to President Arafat in response to Abu Medein's statements. 4 For example, General Nasir Yusif, director general for public security and police in the West Bank and Gaza, told Human Rights Watch, "Human rights is of great priority to us-it's the main issue for us. We are a people that have had many injustices brought against us....We have limited experience and we are new to this....There are violations but it's out of our hands. We do not desire them. It needs time." (Human Rights Watch interview, Gaza, July 27, 1996.) In responding to an Amnesty International report on PA abuses, Ahmad Abd al-Rahman, secretary of the PA cabinet, was quoted as saying that the authors should have taken "a closer view of the difficult situation facing the PA due to Israeli occupation and settlement policy." "PA rejects Amnesty criticism," Palestine Report (Jerusalem), December 13, 1996, p. 16. 5 The so-called Oslo Accords encompass the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, signed by Israel and the PLO on September 13, 1993 (hereinafter the "Declaration of Principles"), the Agreement on Gaza and the Jericho Area, signed by Israel and the PLO in Cairo, Egypt on May 4, 1994 (hereinafter the "Gaza-Jericho Agreement") and the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, signed by Israel and the PLO on September 28, 1995 in Washington, D.C. (hereinafter "Oslo II"). 6 Customary law consists of norms that are widely adhered to by governments out of a sense of obligation. Customary law binds states even when they are not party to a treaty or convention that encompasses the norm. 7 The PLO did so by filing instruments of accession with the Swiss Federal Council, the depository of the Geneva Conventions. The PLO's ambassador to the U.N. expressed to the Swiss government "the will of the State of Palestine to be bound by the said Conventions and Protocols by acceding thereto, and to affirm the application and observance of their provisions in all circumstances...." (Letter from Ambassador Nabil Ramlawi to the Swiss Federal Council, June 14, 1989, reprinted in The Palestine Yearbook of International Law V [1989], pp. 319-321.) See also Paul Lewis, "P.L.O. Seeks to Sign Four U.N. Treaties on War," New York Times, August 9, 1989. 8 Amnesty International press release (AI Index: MDE 15/WU), October 5, 1993. 9 Gaza-Jericho Agreement, art. XIV, and Oslo II, art. XIX. 10 See Human Rights Watch/Middle East, "Human Rights Watch/Middle East Urges Israel To Lift Restrictions on Palestinian Movement within West Bank and Gaza," August 9, 1997. 11 The "closure" refers to the Israeli-imposed sealing of the West Bank and Gaza, blocking the free movement of individuals and goods between the West Bank and Gaza. The closure has been in place since March 1993 and has been regularly tightened, blocking even the movement of Palestinians who hold valid Israeli-issued permits. See Human Rights Watch/Middle East, "Israel's Closure of the West Bank and Gaza," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 8, no. 3, July 1996. 12 See, for example, Human Rights Watch/Middle East, "Human Rights Watch Deplores Tel Aviv Bombing," October 19, 1994, Human Rights Watch/Middle East, "Human Rights Watch Condemns Bomb Attacks Against Civilians in Israel," March 5, 1996, "Human Rights Watch/Middle East Condemns Jerusalem Bombing," July 30, 1997.