Human rights activists say the Palestinian Authority is using threat of war crimes investigation as a ‘bargaining chip’.
Last week, Palestinian security forces raided the West Bank refugee camp of Balata, sparking one of the biggest clashes between the two sides in months.
By the time it ended, one camp resident had been wounded by live fire, and another detained by the Palestinian Authority (PA). It was just the latest in a series of confrontations that have unfolded in recent months, as residents say the PA has disproportionately targeted camp residents for petty crimes and failed to provide due process.
PA security forces set out to arrest 25 Balata residents in February for “having illegal weapons, disturbing the public order, shooting into the air as well as towards people, and [possession of] drugs,” according to PA security spokesman Adnan Dmeiri.
I am not against the PA. I am against a system and a law that is wrong... I'm asking our authority that there be a legal system and accountability for those enforcing the law.
“We don’t have a campaign against Balata. There are fugitives in all areas, and it’s natural for us to want to arrest those who are outside of the law,” Dmeiri told Al Jazeera.
But Balata residents, who complain that their camp lacks security and an official body to administer it, argue that enforcement of the law by the PA has been unequal.
Balata’s history of armed resistance against Israel has enabled the PA to tout the camp as a centre for corruption, leading to higher levels of detention, analysts note.
Some of the men wanted by the PA voluntarily turned themselves in, but told Al Jazeera that they were subsequently tortured and released without charges.
“You don’t even know what it is you’ve done, but they keep you there. You give a confession so that you can get out,” said Muhammad Abu Derra, who was detained last month for allegedly firing a weapon.
Both Derra and fellow camp resident Hatem Abu Risq say they have been detained by the PA multiple times without due process, noting confessions are common from residents held in PA prisons due to the use of torture. Such incidents have been documented by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations.
Dmeiri denied the use of torture, noting detainees who felt they were denied due process could “submit a complaint through the legal system”.
Many Balata residents have been arrested for shooting into the air, a practice common at funerals and weddings, according to Derra and Risq, who allege the rate of arrests for such crimes is higher within the camp than in other areas of the West Bank. In one incident, Derra says he and a Nablus resident were both charged with firing a weapon, but he was held for 60 days while the Nablus man was released after 30 days.
The PA security forces could not immediately provide Al Jazeera with statistics showing rates of arrest by area.
The role of the Palestinian security forces is rooted in the Oslo Accords of 1993, and a strengthened security apparatus has continually emerged in peace negotiations as a key component for future Palestinian self-determination, Alaa Tartir, an analyst with al-Shabaka – The Palestinian Policy Network, told Al Jazeera.
Because peace agreements have aimed to criminalise armed resistance against Israel, Tartir said, “[crackdowns on such resistance] in refugee camps in particular were used as showcases to give evidence to the ability of the PA to govern its people and provide security to Israel, and as signs of its readiness for statehood”.
Balata, a 0.25-square-kilometre camp that was established in 1950 and now houses 23,000 residents, grapples with overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and high unemployment, according to UNRWA, the United Nations refugees agency.
In what residents say was a move to improve their situation, Fatah leaders within the camp aligned with late former president Yasser Arafat, but they were left empty-handed amid the subsequent rise to power of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Political officials and local media have alleged that Balata is teeming with anti-PA actors who are threatening stability in the area. However, residents told Al Jazeera they were not against the PA, but rather against a flawed justice system.
“I am not against the PA. I am against a system and a law that is wrong. I lived [through] much discrimination in my life. But I fought so that they would protect me,” resident Ibtisam Jaber told Al Jazeera. “I’m asking our authority that there be a legal system and accountability for those enforcing the law.”
Fayaz Arafat, director of the UNRWA Cultural Centre in Balata, says poverty and service cutbacks have been on the rise amid a drop in UNRWA and PA assistance, with basic services given only to the camp’s poorest sectors.
“I’m tired of [the PA]. Everyone’s tired of them. Wouldn’t you get sick if you had this?” Jaber said. “Israel took our land, but the PA took our spirit.”
Alex Shams contributed interview translations for this article.