My latest episode with PA security
While political leaders talk of reconciliation, political prisoners keep mounting at the hands of Palestinian Authority security forces, writes Khaled Amayreh in Hebron
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Palestinian Hamas supporters hold banners of prisoners arrested by the Palestinian Authority, during a protest calling for their release in the West Bank city of Nablus
This is not the first time I've been subject to harassment at the hands of Palestinian Authority (PA) security operatives. On several occasions in the past I was abused and imprisoned by these agencies. In one episode in 2009, I was made to sleep in a rancid cell after reporting that PA police were blocking and brutally suppressing demonstrations against Israel in protest against its 2008-09 onslaught against the Gaza Strip.
I thought the Arab Spring would convince the PA security apparatus to abandon or at least alleviate their police state tactics against dissent and show more respect for human rights and civil liberties. However, it seems that the PA, as far as its treatment of its people goes, remains largely unchanged. Old habits die hard, it seems.
The truth of the matter is that most of the PA security agencies remain deeply uneasy about anything relating to Hamas. Indeed, it is no exaggeration that the security agencies have come to consider Hamas the first enemy, while Israel is a distant second on the list. This is due to the intensive indoctrination the security apparatus has been subject to ever since the ousting of Fatah by Hamas from Gaza in 2007.
A few years ago, one PA security commander told his Israeli "counterpart" during a "coordination meeting" at the Israeli Civil Administration headquarters at Beit El near Ramallah, that "we are not enemies, but allies, and our common enemy is Hamas." The conversation was reported by an Israeli journalist who attended the meeting.
Returning to now, last week I received a summons to report to Room 1 at the Preventive Security Services (PSS) headquarters in downtown Hebron. When I arrived there at about nine o'clock in the morning, I was told to wait in a cold room. I waited and waited and waited, without being called for "questioning or interrogation". Two hours later, I was told to hand over my cell phone and identity card, which I did.
Around one o'clock, an interrogator showed up and asked me to go with him. We sat down in another cold room where he chatted with me rather elaborately about such subjects as the Arab Spring, the Egyptian revolution, and the intra-Palestinian reconciliation. I told him I was optimistic about the Arab Spring, which I argued was a definite strategic asset for the Palestinian cause as well as for the overall cause of democracy in the Arab world.
The interrogator lashed out at Islamist parties in the Arab world, hinting that their arrival to power in a number of Arab countries was made possible thanks to American intervention. "America," he argued, "stands behind the Arab Spring from A to Z."
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt received more than their share of the interrogator's vitriol, probably due to Hamas's close association with the Islamist movement. He pointed out that the Muslim Brothers were traitors since they were likely to uphold the Camp David Treaty with Israel. I told him: "Let us give them a chance."
I was tempted to retort to him that his Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which had signed the Oslo Accords, recognised Israel without receiving reciprocal Israeli recognition of a prospective Palestinian state and that the Egyptians couldn't become more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves. However, it was clear from the beginning that the logic of might, not the might of logic, was the language of the day.
Following the "chummy chat" about the Arab Spring and the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, I was given my ID and mobile phone, which I took as a hint that I could go home. However, as I was driving home, I received a call from the PSS, alerting me in a threatening tone that I would have to return immediately because the interrogation had not ended.
I returned only to be affronted with another PSS operative who tried to ride roughshod over me, asking me rather brashly, "When will you stop cursing and instigating against the Palestinian Authority?" I told him that I was a journalist and that I didn't remember libelling or defaming anyone. I added that if he had any evidence against me, he could sue me in court.
He then said: "You said in one of your television interviews that Ismail Haniyeh [the prime minister of the Gaza-based Hamas government] was a legitimate prime minister and that this per se amounted to cursing, libelling and defaming the Palestinian Authority."
I told him that what he was saying was illogical and that in addition to that, interrogating a journalist was a clear violation of the law. According to the Palestinian press law, "security agencies have no right to question, interrogate, detain or arrest a Palestinian journalist on matters related to his or her work."
He told me that what he was doing was completely compatible with the law and that he would continue to summon me everyday until I was thoroughly humbled. I told him I knew the law even before he was born. He got furious. About half an hour later, another operative showed up, with another summons, for Saturday, 7 January.
On that designated date, I showed up at the PSS headquarters. I was made to wait several hours, which I thought was a deliberate effort to show me who was boss. I believe that the main goal behind the recurrent summons by the PA security agencies was to force me to exercise self-censorship.
I have written an open letter to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas telling him that it is time he held the security agencies responsible for not upholding the rule of law. I explained to him that we Palestinians must choose between the rule of the law and the rule of baltagiya or shabbiha (thugs). I also spoke with the head of the Palestinian Press Association. He promised to end the problem in a few hours. But I am still waiting.
At the cold, waiting room, I met two college students who told me they had been badly mistreated and beaten on charges of affiliation with the Islamic Student Bloc. One of the two, whose last name is Awadi, the son of a refugee family that originally hailed from Ramleh in what is now Israel, told me that he was meted out criminal treatment.
"In any other country, any interrogator implicated in the kind of beating that we were subjected to would be dismissed, prosecuted and punished. And we would be compensated for damages. But look, we are being persecuted everyday as Fatah and Hamas keep talking about musalaha or national reconciliation."
The other student, Sayaareh, who hails from the village of Kharas near Hebron and studies computer science at the Polytechnic Institute, said he was summoned more than 12 times in less than a month and that he had to drop out of the current semester.
I asked the two students if they were accused of serious matters, such as possessing illegal firearms. They replied no, telling me that their only crime was their alleged affiliation with the Islamist Student Bloc.
They appealed to me to publicise their plight, saying that Hamas ought to pay more attention to their plight and under no circumstances reach reconciliation agreements with Fatah as long as political prisoners kept swelling PA jails.