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Confronting our tyrants: Incarceration and torture in Palestinian prisons

Findings by a Palestinian human rights group paint a grim picture of imprisonment and torture under both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas regimes. One guest blogger holds that despite the Israeli occupation, these political groups can no longer act with impunity under the guise of liberators.

By Talal Alyan

Around 200 protesters march to the Muquata, the Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters, to protest against the latests wave of political arrests made by the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah, October 2, 2012. (photo: Activestills)

“The image before the return of the PLO was the image of the freedom fighter/ Now here is that same freedom fighter (chained with the conditions of his enemies), exercising his direct authority on the ordinary citizen, on the old men, on the students.” – Mourid Barghouti 

Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces recently arrested Zaher Ash-Shashteery, a representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). His alleged crime: he spoke out against the transgressions of the PA. Of course, it will come as no surprise to most Palestinians to learn about this arrest. We are all familiar with the constant human rights violations of both Hamas and the PA. We have all heard stories of protests being put down by Palestinian security forces, or of civilians being arbitrarily arrested and tortured.

It is a strange position that Palestinians find themselves in. Should we forfeit our grievances with these political powers and their cronies, and instead focus entirely on the ongoing occupation? Or should we reserve some of our effort to speak out against these ruling political factions? One main concern is that our complaints may be hijacked by sponsors of the occupation in order to divert attention from Israeli actions. This isn’t an unwarranted concern – the crisis in Syria, for instance, is often evoked to imply that we should not focus on the Israeli occupation, and that some injustices should be prioritized over others. For the same reasons that I reject this logic I also have to believe that we owe something to Palestinians languishing in the jails of Hamas and the PA. It is our responsibility to insist that their suffering not be secondary.

Arbitrary incarceration

The fear of being arrested suddenly and without charge by Israel is a frightening fact of life that most Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, have to live with. The psychological implications of going through your day knowing that you or your loved one might be snatched at any moment will for generations torment the Palestinian psyche. Unfortunately, anxiety over Israeli arrest is further agitated by a fear of abduction at the hands of the PA or Hamas. Family members of those arrested are often given no information about where their loved ones are being taken, or for how long they will be held. Similarly, the incarcerated are commonly denied access to a lawyer for extended periods of time. The Palestinian Authority arbitrarily arrested 755 persons in the West Bank in 2011. The number itself is likely an underestimate, as it only includes complaints lodged to the Independent Commission for Human Rights. The number of complaints is almost assuredly curbed by fears of retaliation. In the two years before 2011, there were around 3,045 complaints of arbitrary detention filed with ICHR against the PA.

The situation in Gaza is no less grim, with 271 complaints lodged against Hamas in 2011. The fact that these figures are significantly lower than those in the West Bank is likely due to a heightened fear of reprisal from Hamas. ICHR received 1,789 complaints about arbitrary arrests in Gaza during 2009 and 2010. Palestinian law prohibits arrests without warrants except in extraordinary circumstances. However, Human Rights Watch notes that warrants are often issued after the individual has been already been arrested and detained an extended time period.


The torture of detained Palestinians is a common occurrence in both the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian law strictly prohibits the employment of torture, as Article 13 of the Palestinian Basic Law dictates that any confessions or statement made during torture are to be considered “null and void.” Despite the clear illegality of evidence acquired by torture, confessions are often permitted in court cases and influence verdicts. Palestinians are also supposed to be given a medical examination prior to incarceration in order to establish the prisoner’s wellbeing before interrogation. However, the practice is rarely employed.

112 complaints about torture were filed with the ICHR against the PA in 2011, and Hamas was not far behind with 102 complaints filed. There were five documented deaths of Palestinians held in Hamas custody in 2011. It is worth reiterating that the listed number of individuals tortured by the PA and Hamas is most likely an underestimate. The ICHR notes the insistence on anonymity by most persons who register complaints – an indication of the concern most have about retaliation. In addition, Hamas prevents human rights workers from visiting individuals while they are being held, thereby preventing an assessment of ongoing torture. The torture methods range from beatings to mock executions, and the employment of electrical cables and strappado is also common.

Resisting all oppressors

The transgressions of the PA and Hamas do not excuse Israeli policy. They may be hijacked and exploited to conceal the occupation, but that possibility should not intimidate us into silence. Instead, it should stand as a testament to our consistency and our thirst for liberation – that we resist all forms of injustice.

It is often a misconception, believed by these authoritarian groups, that they can act with impunity under the guise of liberators. But if ever there was a commonality amongst Palestinians, a shared characteristic threading us together, it is our resentment of oppression. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority would do well to remind themselves of the endurance of Palestinian memory, and of our unwillingness to forgive subjugation regardless of the perpetrator.

Talal Alyan is a Palestinian freelance writer currently living in Syracuse, New York. He wishes to thank Nader Atassi for his advice and guidance.

Political persecution, torture as common practice and executions in Hamas-run courts
Human Rights Watch report on Hamas courts in Gaza
Palestinians and the Syrian Revolution: Lessons from the fight against fascism

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    1. directrob

      More texts like these would be welcome.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Charles

      Funny to see an exact echo of the work of Bassem Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. He’s been reporting on this since 1996.
      What would be less funny is a list of the political figures and peace lovers around the world who have glossed over his work.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Focus on human treatment transcends all nationalist ideologies; it is, in fact, a denial of the generally invoked zero sum game underlying these ideologies. In the case of the Bank, there is collusion between Israel and the PA for stability; in the case of Hamas, there is denial of alternative players under resource scarcity. Humane treatment is a willingness to allow alternative players, players who might ascend against oneself. For the good of those who think differently, one admits the possibility of personal failure. For that, all sides must redefine failure; it can no longer mean religious or national destruction. Beneath the talk of One State as outcome lies such a redefinition.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      I don’t understand the complaints against the FATAH-PA and HAMAS regimes. Before Oslo in 1993, the Israeli Left/’progressives’ and the Palestinians were demanding the Arafat and his FATAH people be brought in to rule the Palestinians because he was the beloved leader and the authentic representative of the Palestinian revolution. So Israel did this. What kind of a regime did everyone think he would set up? The existing PA-FATAH regime was set up by this beloved leader. It is exactly like all the other Arab regimes, a mukhabarat (secret police state). How could beloved Arafat set up a bad regime? I know the arguments that “Arafat is okay, but the people around him are corrupt”. How can that be? How can such a great leader have bad people around him?
      Same with HAMAS. They won a democratic election. The people’s choice. Again, they knew what kind of regime they would run.
      Every Arab state is either an iron-fisted dictatorship or anarchy. This is the choice the people of the Arab world face, one or the other. In the end, they prefer the iron-fisted dictatorship. A regime like this has to use the methods decried in this column. Everyone knows this, so there is no choice but to accept it.

      Reply to Comment
      • “HAMAS. They won a democratic election. The people’s choice. Again, they knew what kind of regime they would run” : The election was effectively nulllified by US, EU, and Israeli blockade. I would not expect Hamas to be the Democratic Party, but we simply have no idea what dynamic might have evolved if outside curtailments had not been put in place. If you are going to talk about that democratic election, at least acknowledge how the result was treated externally.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Kate

      Reports such as these need attention, these things should not go on but almost as unfortunate reports such as these are veritable mothers milk for Pro-Ocupationists who seize upon them as examples of why Palestinians should remain under Israeli occupation, which is also why they get glossed over, sad situation all around

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        Yes, it just brings out the gloaters, which discourages openness.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Joel

      Where are the Western NGO’s and ‘internationals’ operating in Palestine? Shouldn’t they be out demonstrating in a show of solidarity for repressed Palestinians?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Noevil9

      Yes Joel, they should! Even though there is a huge amount of pressure fom the Isrealis, and the Americans for the Palestinians to act as the Policemen for the occupying power, the Palestinians,Hamas and the PLO , should be very carefully in not committing such abuses against their own people. Those who are out of line with the law, should be persecuted, but abuses should not be tolerated specialy against nationalists and human right activists. It’s not easy but it should be done to minimize the external pressure and scrutiny. Don’t the Palestinans have suffered enough from Israel and others? Also it’s very important for all Palestinians,inspite of their affiliations to put aside their differences and work against this ruthless enemy. So far this is not done. The enemy have tried for so long tried to put a wedge of separation and anamousity between the Palestinians. Don’t let them win, so far they have, and you need to wake up.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        >Don’t the Palestinans have suffered enough from Israel and others?

        Palestinian Arabs are suffering mostly due to their poor leadership.

        For nearly 100 (one hundred) years their leaders chose war over peace. Jews’ only fault is that they managed to win.

        >The enemy have tried for so long tried to put a wedge of separation and anamousity between the Palestinians.

        But there is no “Palestinians”, silly, despite all efforts to create a homogeneous ethnicity.

        Palestinian Arabs consist of different clans, tribes and ethnicities, with different backgrounds and goals.

        p.s. It is “animosity”. Is it too difficult to install a spell checker plugin?

        Reply to Comment
        • Noevil9

          The Tress. Thanks for the spelling correction! Which is the only right thing in your sad points. Your repetition of misinformation about the Palestinians or the denial of whom they are,and who caused them grief by expelling them and stealing their land does not make it true, nor people will believe it. It’s very amazing of how Israel supporters have the audacity to ignor all the transfered Jews from all over the planet and question the component of the indigenous Palestinian population ! Just that in itself is enough to tell where you are coming from, and discredit most of what you wish to fool others with. Your policy of accuse others of what you are guilty of, is long been exposed. People just don’t believe in your lies. Deception times are over, find some honor and integrity for your words.
          Having some idiotic Arab leaders does not wash out the crimes of Zionists and Israelis against the Palestinians. In most if not all your postings, you are submerged in your Jewishness ,and eternal victim hood. Get out of it already an join humanity, it’s the 21st century and Jews are not living in Europe’s Ghettoes, except in Israel, that is why the are building that huge wall to complet the feeling.There is a pathological psychology that was created hand in hand with the establishment of this Jewish Estate,that is affecting you and most Jews, not all but most.its the psychology of hegemony ,aggression, wars and occupation , look it up, you will be amazed of the mental state of one when he or she lives their life in fear of all others with total mistrust of the world, and animosity( you see you did good for my spelling) toward all that is not Jewish. I don’t give a hoot about you or what you are doing, just don’t commit crimes against humanity, don’t steal other people’s land and demolish their homes then bomb the H out of them, then call yourself the victims! That just does not fly any more and people are getting tired of it including me and many other good Jewish people.

          Reply to Comment
        • mike panzone

          “Palestinian Arabs are suffering mostly due to their poor leadership. nearly 100 years their leaders chose war over peace. Jews’ only fault is that they managed to win.”

          no, the european jews only fault is that, 100 years ago, they took advantage of the poor leadership and disorganization of these less fortunate peasants in order to move in, steal their lands, and form a state on top of them which they did not want.

          Reply to Comment
        • mplo

          Yes, it’s true that the Palestinians have very bad leadership, which they’ve also suffered as a result of, but that doesn’t let Israel off the hook either, if one gets the drift. ”

          The Palestinians have suffered at the hands of Israel, the Arab countries, and the Palestinian leadership.

          Reply to Comment
      • Joel

        “The enemy have tried for so long tried to put a wedge of separation and anamousity(sic) between the Palestinians”

        The Palestinians separate themselves without help from outside.

        Reply to Comment
        • directrob

          Rather someone who cannot spell and says the right thing than correctly spelled thinly veiled racism from the hasbara book.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            I this particular case someone who can’t spell also does not know shit about the issue in question.

            But it does not matter, of course – any lies are good enough as long as they might damage Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Lightbown

            “I [sic] this particular case someone who can’t spell also does not know shit about the issue in question.”

            Couldn’t agree more.

            Reply to Comment
    8. Richard Witty

      Support Fayyad.

      Reply to Comment