A leaflet was distributed early this week in Nablus calling for a halt to the security collaboration with Israel in the West Bank. That very day, the Palestinian Preventive Security agency arrested a key activist of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was behind the leaflet. The man was released within a few hours, but an acquaintance who visited him related that the signs of the beating he received were still visible on his body.
It’s likely that the arrest and beating will be part of the statistics contained in next year’s report of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR). They will be contained under the rubrics of “Violations of the right to personal security and physical safety, especially in the form of torture and ill treatment (during detention)” and “Violations of the right to freedom of expression.”
The report for 2012, published on Tuesday, states that last year, the ICHR documented 306 violations in the category of torture and ill-treatment − 172 in the West Bank and 134 in the Gaza Strip. This is a considerable increase over 2011, when 214 cases of ill-treatment and abuse of persons in detention were recorded. The past year saw an increase of 10 percent in the overall number of complaints by residents of the Palestinian Authority regarding violations of their rights by the authorities − 3,185 (of them, 812 in the Gaza Strip) in 2012, as compared to 2,876 (831 in Gaza).
However, there were actually more complaints in 2010 (3,828). Thus, the numerical oscillations do not necessarily reflect a change for the worse or for the better in the number of human-rights violations in practice, only in the number of complainants who were persuaded that they had nothing to fear and must not remain silent.
The report − with its litany of abuses and its monitoring of the wrongs that were righted and those that are continuing to be perpetrated − was distributed Tuesday to dozens of invitees to the ICHR’s public assembly, held in the Movenpick Hotel in Ramallah. Those in attendance included cabinet ministers, the prosecutor general, representatives of the bureau of President Mahmoud Abbas, senior figures in the security forces and district governors.
These gatherings have created a tradition of speaking truth to power – albeit weak and subordinate to Israel. This is the 18th report issued by the ICHR since the commission was founded by presidential order of Yasser Arafat in 1993, making it a state institution. Its role is to demand that the official bodies − civil and security alike − uphold the rule of law and fulfill their obligations to the Palestinian citizens, and maintain their human rights.
Governments have come and gone, one president has died and another was elected to succeed him, prime ministers have resigned, an intifada broke out, Israeli military attacks followed one another in rapid succession, Gaza disengaged from the West Bank − but the ICHR has pursued its goal unwaveringly. It records complaints, takes up matters with local authorities, monitors developments, deters, petitions the courts and submits reports (first to the PA president, then to the prime minister and afterward to the public).
Underlying the rigid ceremoniousness of the ICHR and its evolution into an organized bureaucracy with its own routine is a clear philosophy: conditions of foreign rule and military assaults must not be used as excuses to cheapen human life and infringe upon people’s rights.
Death tops the list
The report contains a list of 140 Palestinians who were killed in 2012 under unnatural circumstances (and not by the Israeli army or in road accidents). Among the causes of death were the collapse of a tunnel in Rafah, home accidents, medical negligence, murder at the hands of unknown assailants, and brawls between families. The ICHR insists that the authorities examine and investigate every case of unnatural death. Each instance is elaborated: “investigative file opened,” “no examination made,” “no details made available,” “no results.”
Topping the list of violations is death: Eleven Palestinians died in detention facilities, two in the West Bank and nine in Gaza (of whom seven were accused of collaborating with Israel and were murdered by unknown armed attackers). In Gaza, six convicted persons who were condemned to death were executed contrary to a law which requires the president to sign the death sentence. The courts in the West Bank have stopped handing down the death penalty, but the recommendation/demand by the ICHR to erase the death penalty from the penalty code has not yet been adopted. The most widespread infringement of rights − or, at least, the one most reported − is that of the right to due process (789 complaints − 563 in the West Bank, 226 in the Strip).
This is followed, in descending order, by violation of the right to hold a position in the public service; the right to fair treatment by the authorities; the right to physical safety and security while in detention; rights of the incapacitated; the right to social security; failure to obey court orders; prevention of access to official documents; prevention of access to state judicial services; infringement of the work of the legislative council; and infringement of freedom of association and freedom of expression.
Of the complaints, 459 were lodged by women or in the name of women. These deal mainly with violation of the right to hold a job: Both in Gaza and the West Bank, the governments dismissed female teachers who were identified with the rival political stream.
There were 226 complaints by children or made in the name of children − against being placed in detention instead of in educational and corrective institutions, and against failure to protect them from exploitation and abuse.
The 325 complaints against the Preventive Security agency in the West Bank constituted the largest number of complaints against one body. Most were about torture, followed by unlawful conditions of detention and interrogation; prevention of family visits; prevention of medical treatment; and home searches without a proper warrant.
Of these cases, 212 were closed: Satisfactory results were obtained in 100 cases, unsatisfactory results in 42 cases, 23 cases were not responded to by Preventive Security, and 47 cases were not pursued at the request of the complainant. There were 106 complaints against the Gaza Strip’s equivalent of Preventive Security, known as Internal Security and subordinate to the Interior Ministry.
In 2012, 1,474 of the cases dealt with by the ICHR were closed, 46 percent (678) satisfactorily (as compared with 36 percent in 2011). With regard to complaints of torture and cruel treatment of individuals in detention, the authorities, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have one response: They deny the allegations. The report’s authors note this fact, though the wording they use intimates that they do not accept the denials as the last word.
On the civil side, the bodies against which most complaints were made were the Social Affairs Ministry (310) and the Education and Higher Education Ministry (237) both in the West Bank.
Many of the violations are the result of the Palestinians’ 2007 political split into two governments. This development also added an unwritten and unforeseen task for the ICHR. The commission has become the major state body that operates both in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank, and implements one policy under one administration. It’s true that the Palestinian Water Authority is also continuing, under one administration, to fulfill its thankless task of trying to develop the water and sewage infrastructures − not only in the West Bank but in the Gaza Strip as well. Apart from that, the Palestinians have two prime ministers, two education ministers, two interior ministers, two separate judicial systems, two competing state news agencies, and so on.
The Hamas authorities in Gaza have no reason to object to the presence of the Ramallah-based water authority, as only in this way will the donations and funds continue to arrive that will enable services to be provided in this near-disaster area. (More than 95 percent of the water pumped in the Gaza Strip aquifer is not fit for drinking and must undergo prior treatment.)
In contrast, the ICHR does not provide services or money, but comes only with allegations and demands. Two years ago, Hamas threatened to shut down the ICHR offices in Gaza, claiming that in the intra-Palestinian conflict, the commission is on the side of the PA. This ignored the fact that in the West Bank, the ICHR is in the forefront of those protecting the rights of Hamas people who are arrested without trial, or are fired from their jobs, or cannot find work because of their political allegiance.
The Hamas government intended to establish a human-rights commission of its own. A great many conversations and visits by senior ICHR personnel to Gaza were needed in order to persuade Hamas that the commission is impartial in the internal conflict, and in order to dissuade it from creating yet another institutional duality. Indeed, by its sheer existence and in the wake of the work it does, the ICHR has become the leading institution that’s trying to put a stop to the tectonic drifting apart of the Palestinian society in Gaza and the society in the West Bank.