The Palestinian Torturers

By Ben White

Two reports released this week are throwing the spotlight on Palestinians who are detained without charge and tortured by the Hamas and Fatah forces. Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, has detailed how more than 1,000 have been arrested in the last year, with "an estimated 20%-30% of the detainees" having suffered torture "including severe beatings and being tied up in painful positions".

Human Rights Watch is today releasing a similarly-focused report which concludes that "the use of torture is dramatically up". Al-Haq accuses both Hamas’s Executive Force, and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA)’s Preventive Security Force of widespread maltreatment of detainees.

A report like al-Haq’s must be welcomed for its attention to detail and courage in documenting unjustifiable abuses of power – all the more so since these kinds of findings can easily be manipulated or ignored for political reasons.

This catalogue of human rights abuses will no doubt be eagerly seized upon by Israel apologists – as has happened in the past – by exactly what it proves is unclear: that Israel doesn’t have a monopoly on the use of arbitrary detention and torture?

As it happens, a week ago an al-Haq fieldworker was detained by Israeli forces at the Huwara checkpoint. The organisation’s report describes how one of the soldiers claimed the man’s arrest was connected to "the nature of his work as someone monitoring and documenting the actions of the Israeli military". Al-Haq notes that this is part of a wider trend of "arbitrary arrests and detention of human rights defenders in the OPT, as well as those monitoring or documenting Israeli human rights violations in any way" (including the father of the girl who filmed the shooting of a blindfolded prisoner).

However, reporting abuses by Hamas and Fatah can also make some western pro-Palestinian groups feel uncomfortable. Al-Haq’s findings and recommendations could well be sidelined, or merely noted in passing, out of fear of providing ammunition to Israel’s propagandists, or perhaps out of a misplaced sense of prioritising the publicising of the occupation’s injustices.

Neither can the PA’s western donors say much by way of serious reprimand – and not just because detention and torture in the Middle East is a bit too close to the bone. The international community did nothing when Arafat’s men were arresting hundreds of Islamic movement activists and clerics in the mid-1990s. This crackdown, often accompanied by human rights abuses and torture, was directly linked to the anti-Fatah violence that accompanied the Hamas military seizure of control in Gaza in 2007:

"For Hamas members, the gutted prison bloc in the back of the Gaza City headquarters of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Service was their Abu Ghraib. It was here that the seeds of the rivalry with Fatah were planted a decade ago."

Moreover, after Hamas’s success at the ballot box in 2006, the US began intense planning and cooperation with elements of Fatah to prepare for a military confrontation, so much so, that in the aftermath of the fighting in June 2007, "many Western officials and analysts" considered Hamas’s offensive as a "pre-emptive strike".

Israel is also complicit in the PA’s campaign of fear. Over the past few weeks, Nablus has been the focus of IDF raids targeting everything from charities and mosques to schools and a TV station, as well as sweeps by the PA. The fact that arrests by Israeli occupation forces and Abbas’ police are occuring in tandem, unsurprisingly leads some to see "Fatah’s relationship with the Israelis as one of collusion more than competition". Independent MP Mustafa Barghouti concludes that Israel is "trying to turn the PA into a security sub-agent like the Vichy government (in occupied France)."

Human rights abuses by Palestinian security forces are nothing new (as this recent report by the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group makes clear) – though now it’s Hamas personnel responsible, as well as the PNA. As it happens, seriously tackling these abuses would also make a vital contribution to the Palestinian struggle. But this is not an issue for political point scoring; it is a question of basic dignities and justice. Fighting against torture and detention without charge cannot come second to any other agenda.

-Ben White is a freelance journalist specializing in Palestine/Israel. His website is at He is a regular contributor to

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