A’sira, West Bank – Alaa Shuli still has the scars to remind him of his time in prison.
Hung from a wire affixed to the ceiling, with his toes barely touching the ground and his hands tied behind his back, Shuli says he was left that way for hours on end. He remembers prison guards repeatedly beating his legs and arms with a wooden stick, hurling taunts at him, insulting his family members, and sometimes preventing him from praying.
Most often, the 35-year-old says he was held alone in windowless, two-metre squared cells, with barely any light penetrating the cement walls.
“If I go into the details of the torture, it’s still very difficult,” Shuli said.
Stories of mistreatment and torture in prison are widespread in Palestinian families across the occupied territories. But Shuli’s case has a crucial difference: He wasn’t tortured by Israeli prison guards, but by Palestinian Authority(PA) jailers.
“From the Israelis it’s expected. But from your own people?” Shuli said from his home in the West Bank town of A’sira, in the northern Nablus district. “It’s wrong.”
Widespread political arrests
Shuli has been in and out of both Israeli and PA-run prisons since 1997. He says he’s been arrested four times by the Israelis and 11 times by the PA, and has spent a total of approximately eight years in jail. From 2007 until today, he says the PA has summoned him for interrogation 170 times.
“If you’re a journalist belonging to Hamas, the eye of the [PA] security forces will be on you more than others “
– Sami Radi Alassi, journalist
“What happened in Gaza [with Hamas winning the 2006 election] is reflected in the West Bank, and I belong to Hamas,” Shuli says, attributing politics as the reason behind his frequent imprisonments.
His latest arrest took place on September 24 and was part of large-scale PA arrest campaign that saw approximately 130 people taken into interrogation from across the West Bank. Almost all the people who were detained – including students, journalists, teachers and human rights workers – were members of Hamas. Some remain in prison, and others were released.
The PA has denied that the recent arrests were politically motivated. “All the recent arrests were on a legal basis, and originated with the public prosecution and Palestinian judiciary,” PA security forces spokesperson Adnan Dmeiri told Palestinian news agency Ma’an.
“The Hamas leadership is attempting to threaten Palestinian civil peace through its alliance with chaos, which is clear from Hamas’ statements in Gaza,” Dmeiri added.
But according to Randa Siniora, the executive director at the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) in Ramallah, the arrests were carried out without respecting the proper legal procedures.
“We’re seeing arbitrary arrests which are for political affiliations. This has been very consistent since 2007. We have seen a lot of arrests being taken without proper legal proceedings,” she said
Siniora said that the non-implementation of court rulings is a major problem in the West Bank. For example, the PA security forces often doesn’t release a prisoner from jail despite a court ruling ordering them to do so, she explained.
“I think it won’t be resolved without political reconciliation among the parties [Fatah and Hamas]. We will continue suffering from it and the human rights situation will not improve.”
Exacerbated internal divisions
Following Hamas’ victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, tensions grew as the PA refused to acknowledge the Hamas government and the two sides failed to come to a power-sharing agreement.
Violence quickly ensued – including a bloody coup attempt in the Gaza Strip. Since 2007, the Palestinian territories have been divided along sectarian lines, with the PA controlling the West Bank and Hamas governing Gaza.
The two factions first signed a reconciliation agreement in May 2011 after months of negotiations, but discussions over how to implement the plan quickly disintegrated. In February 2012, Hamas representative Khaled Meshaal signed a new agreement with PA President Mahmoud Abbas to end the division, but this too has stalled.
Today, the rift between Ramallah and Gaza persists, and arbitrary arrests and torture on both sides have only made the situation worse.
“Both the Hamas government in Gaza and the government in the West Bank violate human rights and they deny having political prisoners,” explained Hamdi Shaqqura, deputy director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). “The background [of these arrests] is a political background. This is not security grounds. We are talking about political grounds.”
Shaqqura added that a reciprocal process is in place, where a PA arrest of Hamas-affiliated people in the West Bank will lead to a Hamas arrest of Fatah-affiliated people in Gaza, and vice-versa.
Sami Radi Alassi says he was arrested by PA forces for taking pictures of a Hamas rally [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]
“It’s a kind of action and reaction, both ways. Who pays the price? The Palestinian society at large. Who pays the price? Activists from both sides – the activists of Hamas in the West Bank [and] activists of Fatah in Gaza. Who pays the price? The Palestinian cause in general,” Shaqqura said.
On October 3, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report detailing the serious abuses Palestinians face in the Hamas-run criminal justice system in Gaza, including arbitrary detention, torture, civilians being tried in military courts, and denying detainees access to lawyers or communication with their families.
Hamas has also failed to hold its security service officials accountable for allegations of wrongdoing and abuse, and has allowed a widespread system of impunity to grow in Gaza, HRW found.
Islam Shahwan, spokesman for the Hamas interior ministry in Gaza, said the HRW report was “politically motivated” and stated it “relied, in part, on guessing rather than on facts”, Reuters reported.
Still, Joe Stork, HRW deputy Middle East Director, stated “there is ample evidence that Hamas security services are torturing people in custody with impunity and denying prisoners their rights. The Gaza authorities should stop ignoring the abuse and ensure that the justice system respects Palestinians’ rights.”
Freedom of expression compromised
Palestinian journalist Sami Radi Alassi was arrested earlier this year; he believes he was arrested for taking a photograph at a Hamas-affiliated march through Nablus and posted it on Facebook.
A former radio and television reporter who now writes for local newspapers and websites, Alassi has been in and out of Israeli and PA prisons since 2004. His arrests, he said, are both because of his journalism work and his affiliation with Hamas.
“If you’re a journalist belonging to Hamas, the eye of the [PA] security forces will be on you more than others,” Alassi said.
He said that when he was released in 2010 after three years in Israeli prison, the PA called to tell him that he only had ten days to spend with his family before they would arrest him themselves.
“The direct impact is to enhance the self-censorship among the journalists, whether in the West Bank or in Gaza.”
– Riham Abu Aita, public relations officer
“It’s not like before,” Alassi said, about continuing his work as a journalist in the West Bank after these numerous arrests. “I can’t go to all events. I can’t speak as freely. I don’t feel safe.”
Despite this, he said he wouldn’t abandon the profession. “I can’t leave my work as a journalist because of pressure from the PA or anything else. I love my work, especially because it’s about being close to people and talking to people.”
According to Palestinian media freedom group MADA, nine Palestinian journalists were arrested in the occupied Palestinian territories since the beginning of 2012. Over the past four years, MADA reported a total of 113 arrests and 371 violations of media freedoms committed by the Palestinian authorities.
“The direct impact is to enhance the self-censorship among the journalists, whether in the West Bank or in Gaza,” Riham Abu Aita, MADA public relations officer, said. “When there is no atmosphere or horizon for reconciliation between the parties that is reflected on journalists and on freedom of expression.”
According to Palestinian human rights group Al Haq, the arrests signal the failure of the PA “to adhere to all principles essential to a society that aspires to democracy”.
“Chief amongst these is an abiding respect for freedom of association. Arbitrary arrest and detention without charge or trial have no room in such an environment,” Al Haq said in a statement.