In the 25 years since Palestinians gained a degree of self-rule over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, their authorities have established machineries of repression to crush dissent, including through the use of torture.
Both the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Gaza have in recent years carried out scores of arbitrary arrests for peaceful criticism of the authorities, particularly on social media, among independent journalists, on university campuses, and at demonstrations. As the Fatah-Hamas feud deepened despite attempts at reconciliation, PA security services have targeted supporters of Hamas and vice versa. Relying primarily on overly broad laws that criminalize activity such as causing “sectarian strife” or insulting “higher authorities,” the PA and Hamas use detention to punish critics and deter them and others from further activism. In detention, security forces routinely taunt, threaten, beat, and force detainees into painful stress positions for hours at a time.
Human Rights Watch also wrote to the main implicated security agencies and government authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza and received substantive responses from each, which are reflected in the report and reprinted in full at the end of this report. They all denied that abuses amount to more than isolated cases that are investigated when brought to the attention of authorities, who hold perpetrators to account. The evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch and presented in this report contradicts these claims.
The arrests for nonviolent speech acts constitute serious violations of international human rights law, in contravention of legal obligations imposed through Palestine’s accession to major international human rights treaties over the last five years. The torture as practiced by both the PA and Hamas may amount to a crime against humanity, given its systematic practice over many years.
The primary security agencies implicated in the abuses documented in this report include Hamas’ Internal Security and the PA’s Preventive Security, Intelligence Services, and Joint Security Committee. PA security forces operate with significant support from the United States and Europe and in coordination with the Israeli army. Hamas receives financial aid from Iran, Qatar, and Turkey.
Both authorities have mechanisms in place to receive complaints from citizens and concerned organizations and investigate potential wrongdoing by security forces, but, according to information provided by the security agencies to Human Rights Watch, these rarely lead to a finding of wrongdoing, much less disciplinary measures or prosecutions for serious abuses.
The PA and Hamas have both clamped down on the major outlets for dissent available to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Both authorities categorically deny carrying out arbitrary arrests, insisting they act in accordance with the law. However, Human Rights Watch’s documentation shows that they regularly detain critics without a reasonable basis to suspect they committed a cognizable offense and rely on dubious or broadly worded charges to justify detaining them and to pressure them to stop their activities. While the specifics differ between the West Bank and Gaza, the result in both places is shrinking space for free speech, association, and assembly.
The Fatah-controlled PA has methodically arrested activists and supporters of Hamas or Hamas-aligned groups solely because of their political affiliation or expression, with Hamas carrying out similar abuses against partisans of Fatah or officials who served in the PA-led government, including in the security services, before the 2007 Hamas takeover.
In the West Bank, for example, PA forces detained 38-year-old Osama al-Nabrisi at least 15 times since he finished serving a 12-year prison sentence in Israel in October 2014, including just two days after his release, apparently because of his involvement with the Hamas political bloc while in Israeli prison. They held him pursuant to orders by local officials under a form of administrative detention increasingly used in recent years and not subject to the legal procedures set out under the Palestinian Criminal Procedures law.
In Gaza, Hamas authorities arrested Abdel Basset Amoom, an ex-PA Preventive Security employee, in January 2017 for his involvement in a protest about electricity cuts. An interrogator told Amoom, “You Fatah members want to make anarchy and chaos, you want to destabilize security,” but provided no specific accusations of unlawful activity beyond demonstrating without a permit.
Palestinian authorities have carried out dozens of arrests for critical posts on social media platforms, which Palestinians increasingly rely on to share their views, connect with one another, and organize activities.
In the West Bank, for example, PA security forces dispatched 10 officers to the house of activist Issa Amro in Hebron in September 2017, one hour after he criticized on Facebook the detention of a journalist and called on the PA to respect free expression. They detained Amro for a week, accusing him of wanting to lead a coup, and charging him on the basis of his post with, among other things, creating “sectarian strife,” insulting “higher authorities,” and endangering “the public order of the state.” In May 2016, Hamza Zbeidat, who works for a development NGO, said officers held him for two days and questioned him about a post calling for Palestinians to “struggle against the PA like we struggle against the occupation” and asked why he criticizes the PA and not Hamas.
In Gaza, Hamas police detained a 28-year-old social worker in April 2017, after he posted on Facebook an excerpt from a book by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani. The police interrogated him about what other books he had read, charged him with “offending religious feelings,” among other things, and released him only after he signed a commitment not to “misuse social media.” Officers also held journalist Amer Balousha for fifteen days in July 2017 after a Facebook post that asked, “do your children [referring to Hamas leaders] sleep on the floor like ours do,” calling him a “source of sedition,” and allegedly telling him “it’s forbidden to write against Hamas, we will shoot you,” and charging him with “misuse of technology.”
The Fatah-controlled PA and Hamas have also targeted journalists, both those affiliated with the rival camp and unaffiliated ones who produce reports critical of their policies.
In 2017, PA forces arrested one journalist, Jihad Barakat, who snapped photos of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah at an Israeli checkpoint, and a second, Sami As-Sai, who shared a list of Palestinians in Israeli prisons with a Hamas member in Gaza. In Gaza, Hamas police detained in September 2016 one journalist, Muhammad Othman, for publishing a leaked document showing how a former prime minister of the Gaza authority was continuing to make government decisions and charged another, Hajar Harb, in August 2016 with “slander” and “lack of precision” in relation to an investigative piece she wrote alleging corruption in the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza.
Hamas forces in June 2017 detained Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Fouad Jarada and questioned him about a string of critical news reports and a Facebook post critical of Qatar, then an ally of Hamas. They later arrested his cousin Ashraf at around the same time and held them both for over two months and charged them in military court with “harming revolutionary unity.” Not long afterward, in August 2017, PA forces arrested five journalists in the West Bank considered sympathetic to Hamas. Prosecutors told one of them, Bethlehem-based Mamdouh Hamamra, that his fate was linked to that of Jarada. Hamas released Jarada on August 13, 2017, and the PA released the five journalists the next day.
Palestinians also have limited freedom to participate in anti-government political demonstrations in both the West Bank and Gaza. In the West Bank, PA forces arrested dozens of members of the Islamist al-Tahrir Party in relation to peaceful protests the party had organized in February 2017 against the sale of Waqf, or Islamic trust, land in Hebron.
In Gaza, Hamas police detained hundreds of demonstrators who took to the streets in January 2017 to protest the electricity crisis, including Muhammad Lafi, a 25-year-old activist who had also released a music video the day before demonstrations calling for people to rise up. Authorities charged Lafi with “inciting against the government, damaging public property, and calling for riots,” based on his involvement in the demonstrations, releasing him only after he signed a pledge not to “participate in any unauthorized demonstrations.” Hamas police weeks later detained Fatah activist Yaser Weshah for seven days and questioned him about an action he had taken in solidarity with detained electricity protesters in which he held a sign on a major road saying, “No to political arrests. No to gag orders.”
On University Campuses
Palestinian authorities closely monitor criticism of the PA at universities. In January 2017, PA forces detained Fares Jbour, an electrical engineering student in Hebron, and questioned him about his participation in a book drive organized by the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Bloc on campus. Jbour told Human Rights Watch that PA forces had arrested him five previous times over his peaceful activities with the bloc, and said that prosecutors charged him with “weapons possession,” “forming militias,” “heading an armed gang,” and “money laundering,” but released him without referring him to court. In February 2017, Hamas police held Youssef Omar, who teaches history at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, along with four other professors, apparently over their activism with the union of university employees, which opposed Hamas’ attempt to appoint a new university president without consulting the PA.
Palestinian police have most aggressively policed areas in the West Bank and Gaza seen as hotbeds of political opposition. In the West Bank, the harshest reprisals have targeted the Nablus area, in particular the Balata Refugee Camp, seen as a base of support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ rival Muhammad Dahlan, and the Old City of Nablus, where tensions have flared in recent years between supporters and critics of the PA. In Gaza, the crackdown around the January 2017 electricity protests focused on the refugee camps, particularly al-Bureij and Jabalia, where much of the organizing took place.
Torture and Abuse in Custody
Human Rights Watch’s investigation based on 147 interviews further indicates that the mistreatment and torture of those in Palestinian custody is routine, in particular in Hamas’ Internal Security custody in Gaza and in the PA’s Intelligence, Preventive Security, and Joint Security Committee detention facilities in Jericho. The habitual, deliberate, widely known use of torture, using similar tactics over years with no action taken by senior officials in either authority to stop these abuses, make these practices systematic. They also indicate that torture is governmental policy for both the PA and Hamas.
Positional abuse or shabeh, the most common tactic used by both the PA and Hamas, paralleling years of Israeli practice against Palestinians, can amount to torture when it constitutes deliberate infliction of severe harm. While the PA and Hamas both deny using shabeh, scores of detainees told Human Rights Watch that officers placed them in painful stress positions for many hours at a time, using a mix of techniques that often left little or no trace on the body.
In the West Bank, the Intelligence Services, Preventive Security, and Joint Security Committee often practice shabeh at their detention facilities in Jericho, where they regularly send political detainees. Alaa Zaqeq, detained in April 2017 because of his university activism with the Islamic Bloc, said that Intelligence Services officers forced him to stand for stretches at a time with his legs spread out in a half squat, and later, on his tiptoes with a rope pulling his hands back. He said an interrogator known as the “Juicer” told him he would “leave this place in a wheelchair,” and, “we are going to make you pay the price for the coup in Gaza.” At the same detention center two months prior, journalist Sami As-Sai said officers greeted him by telling him, “We had people who entered here with muscles and left without any.” They tied his hands by rope to the ceiling of an interrogation room and slowly pulled the rope to apply pressure to his arms, which caused him to feel so much pain that he had to ask an officer to pull his pants up after he used the toilet because he could not do it himself.
In Gaza, Internal Security officers often put detainees in a room called the bus, where they force detainees to stand or sit in a small child’s chair for hours or even days, with few breaks. A PA civil servant, arrested after a friend tagged him in a Facebook post calling for protests on the electricity crisis, spent most of his days in the Internal Security’s Gaza City detention center subjected to positional abuse in the bus, causing him to feel “severe pain in my kidneys and spine” and as if his neck would “break” and his “body is tearing up inside.” Journalists Ashraf and Fouad Jarada spent most of their first month in the bus, where security personnel forced them to alternate between standing and the chair.
Palestinian forces in both the West Bank and Gaza regularly use threats of violence, taunts, solitary confinement, and beatings, including lashing and whipping of the feet of detainees, to elicit confessions, punish, and intimidate activists. When al-Tahrir Party member Fawaz al-Herbawi refused to answer questions during an interrogation, an interrogator threatened to break his legs. Officers at the Intelligence Services’ detention facility in Jericho whipped engineering student Jbour’s feet and hit him on his side with a hose, while subjecting him to shabeh, and told him, “If you did not confess in Hebron, you will confess here.” In a subsequent session, as officers alternated between kicking and hitting him with a baton, they told him, “You are affiliated with Hamas … a day will come for you. If you do not talk, you will see something you have never seen before,” and put him in a solitary cell, cut off from other inmates for a week.
In Gaza, an officer chided Weshah, the Fatah activist, for writing about “sensitive issues” like unemployment and medical negligence, telling him, “Next time, I will cause you a permanent disability,” putting him in the bus for three days. Amoom, the Dahlan supporter, said officers whipped his feet and his chest with a cable until he felt he “was losing consciousness.” Officers told Othman, the journalist, that they will “end [his] journalist future” if he “criticize[d] the government or the security apparatus;” they placed him in the bus. Two months after his release, he left Gaza as a result of the harassment and says he does not intend to return.
Authorities also regularly use similar tactics, sometimes with a greater degree of intensity, for those detained on drug or other criminal charges in order to obtain confessions. In the West Bank, a then 17-year-old boy said security forces detained him for a week and repeatedly tortured him in April 2017. Police shackled his hands behind his back and slowly raised them and hit his feet and legs repeatedly with a baton. When he could no longer bear the pain, he confessed to stealing some agricultural equipment. Sarie Samandar, a Christian Jerusalemite detained after a June 2017 street fight, said PA police called him a “Christian pig,” and that, “Daesh (Islamic State or ISIS) needs to come for you,” and repeatedly punched, kicked, and slammed his body against the wall.
In Gaza, Emad al-Shaer, a farmer detained on drug possession charges, said that police attached his hands by cable to the ceiling and feet to the window and left him hanging while repeatedly whipping his feet and body with a cable, telling him, “You will die here if you do not speak.” He confessed. Despite only a day in detention, he spent five days in hospitals drifting into and out of consciousness and receiving treatment for injuries linked to his treatment in custody, including coughing up blood, kidney failure, and blockage of a major blood vessel, according to medical reports and photos reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
In the West Bank, some of the harshest treatment reported by detainees occurs at the Joint Security Committee detention facility in Jericho, where officers subject detainees to regular shabeh and long stints in small solitary cells cut off from others. A young man from Balata said officers subjected him twice to electrical shocks and once tied a cord around his penis and witnessed officers dislocate the shoulder of another detainee when striking him with a chair while his hands were bound behind his back, an account corroborated by the other detainee’s family after a visit with him.
Beyond the arrest and torture, authorities use several other tactics to punish and deter activists, including confiscating their electronic devices, leaving investigations open, and coercing detainees to commit not to engage in further dissent. Both the PA and Hamas interrogators frequently pressure detainees into providing access to their cellphones and social media accounts. Governments can use easily accessible technology to copy all details from seized cellphones, including contacts. Nablus-based journalist Tarek Abu Zaid said he gave interrogators his Facebook password in order to stop officers from subjecting him to shabeh and beating him in May 2016, when detained after publishing a report on PA torture. After the Intelligence Services arrested him again in August 2017, they interrogated him about several Facebook posts that they had printed out. In Gaza, 55-year-old United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) math teacher Abdullah Abu Sharekh, detained for criticizing comments made by a Hamas leader to the effect that Gaza is steadfast and prosperous, provided his Facebook password after authorities threatened to imprison him for six months if he refused. After four arrests between January 2017 and January 2018 and long stretches in the bus, he said, “I decided to leave them alone, so they can leave me alone.”
In the West Bank, the PA often releases detainees without dropping the charges against them, so that charges hang over the former detainees as a potential pretext for future summons or arrests. The vague language in sections of the Penal Code and the Electronic Crimes Law, issued in 2017 and amended in 2018, granting authorities vast authority to monitor and restrict online activity, make it hard for people to know what type of expression constitutes a crime.  They also often repeatedly arrest or summon dissidents for interrogations as a punitive measure or to harass them into silence.
In Gaza, authorities regularly condition release on signing a commitment not to engage in the type of peaceful expression that led to their arrest.
Lack of Accountability
In both Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinian authorities have routinely failed to hold accountable security forces for carrying out arbitrary arrests or using excessive force, ill-treatment, or torture against detainees. External oversight has not stopped routine abuse, even though that oversight should have become more robust after Palestine acceded in December 2017 to the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture) and authorities began deliberations on how to establish an oversight regime that includes surprise visits, as required under the protocol. Citizens and human rights groups have filed hundreds of complaints through internal complaint mechanisms within each agency. However, authorities took no disciplinary action in the vast majority of cases, with only a small number resulting in administrative sanction or referral for criminal prosecution. While military prosecutors have the power to independently prosecute wrongdoing by members of the security force regardless of their rank, Human Rights Watch is not aware of a single case in which a member of a security force was convicted of arbitrarily arresting or mistreating detainees.
Widespread arbitrary arrests and torture put Palestinian authorities in violation of a range of human rights treaties they acceded to over the last five years. Hamas authorities in a letter to Human Rights Watch said it had committed itself to upholding all international treaties ratified by the PA. International legal standards set out a robust right to free expression; they categorically prohibit torture, as well as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The Palestinian Basic Law reflects these obligations, safeguarding the “right [of a person] to publish his opinion orally, in writing, or in any form of art, or through any other form of expression” and restricting authorities from arbitrarily arresting and torturing detainees.
The UN Committee Against Torture has said that “torture is practiced systematically when it is apparent that the torture cases reported have not occurred fortuitously in a particular place or at a particular time, but are seen to be habitual, widespread and deliberate in at least a considerable part of the territory of the country in question.” As a crime of universal jurisdiction, states are required to arrest and investigate anyone on their territory credibly suspected of involvement in torture anywhere and to prosecute them or extradite them to face justice. The Convention against Torture makes clear that “those exercising superior authority – including public officials – cannot avoid accountability or escape criminal responsibility for torture or ill-treatment committed by subordinates where they knew or should have known that such impermissible conduct was occurring, or was likely to occur, and they failed to take reasonable and necessary preventive measures.” When part of a widespread or systematic “attack on a civilian population,” which means it is part of a state or organizational planning or policy to commit the crime, torture constitutes a crime against humanity prosecutable at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Human Rights Watch calls on President Abbas to publicly pledge to end arbitrary arrests, torture, and impunity for security forces and empower a credible, independent governmental body to inspect places of detention and investigate and prosecute allegations of wrongdoing. Prosecutors should refrain from charging defendants under vaguely worded penal code sections used to carry out arrests based on peaceful criticism of authorities, and security forces should stop arresting, detaining, and charging persons for nonviolent dissent.
Hamas authorities should similarly pledge to end arbitrary arrest and torture and establish a mechanism of oversight over its detention practices. Prosecutors should refrain from filing charges such as “harming revolutionary unity” or “misuse of technology,” to prosecute persons for nonviolent critical speech. They should investigate in a thorough, impartial, and timely manner all allegations of abuse, and prosecute members of security forces against whom there is evidence of criminal responsibility.
Palestinian authorities should implement the treaties Palestine has ratified, especially the Convention against Torture and its Optional Protocol, and establish a national body to oversee places of detention.
The PA and Hamas rely heavily on external support. The US allocated US$35 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) nonlethal assistance to PA security forces for the 2018 fiscal year and $35 million for the 2019 fiscal year aimed at “supporting the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces and the Ministry of Interior.” Congress exempted these funds from March 2018 restrictions on US aid to the PA. The US, European Union, and a number of European states provide training and other support to PA security forces. For Hamas, Yahya Sinwar in May 2018 highlighted the support of Iran, noting that they “have provided us a lot of resources, which allowed for the development of our capabilities.” Qatar and Turkey have also provided financial support to Hamas authorities. These countries should suspend assistance to security forces involved in widespread arbitrary arrests and torture, including the PA Preventative Security Forces, General Intelligence Services, and Joint Security Committee and the Hamas-run Internal Security, until authorities take concrete steps to end arbitrary arrests and torture. Engagement with Palestinian security services should focus on ending arbitrary arrests and torture by security forces and ensuring accountability for torture, arbitrary arrests, and other serious crimes.
The ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, should consider arrests and treatment in custody of detainees by the PA and Hamas as part of any future investigation into the situation in Palestine. Given strong evidence that serious crimes have been committed in Palestine since 2014, Human Rights Watch has called on Bensouda to open a formal probe consistent with the Rome Statute of the ICC.
Moreover, social media platforms should scrutinize government requests for user data, including from Palestinian authorities, and refrain from disclosing user data to governments where the disclosure could contribute to serious human rights abuses.
Both the PA and Hamas regularly speak of Palestinian independence and unity, but detention and torture of rivals and critics undermine their best argument: the promise of greater freedom. National reconciliation and freedom will require reckoning with these serious abuses, holding perpetrators to account, and dismantling their machineries of repression.