Ramallah, occupied West Bank – The Palestinian Authority (PA) is carrying out one of the largest political arrest campaigns in years against Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with at least 94 people arrested over the past two months.
Those arrested include university students and journalists, with at least 20 still in detention, according to the Ramallah-based Lawyers for Justice group. None were charged with any offences, and most were released after 10 days in prison.
“This is one of the most major campaigns since at least 2012,” Muhannad Karajeh, the head of Lawyers for Justice, told Al Jazeera, adding that a “sizeable number of detainees reported maltreatment and torture in detention”.
Karajeh said the majority of those arrested were Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) activists as well as, to a lesser extent, individuals affiliated with the PA’s governing party Fatah, and the left-wing Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) .
“We receive new cases every day,” Karajeh, whose firm represents political detainees, said.
The lawyer also noted that a large portion of the people being arrested were imprisoned in Israeli jails in the past, making their detention by the PA more controversial for Palestinians.
“The majority were interrogated about their political activism, for example about their participation in elections – whether as candidates or as supporters of certain lists – and others, like students, about their student union activities,” said Karajeh.
The PA and its security forces are frequently criticized by rights groups over what they refer to as the “systematic arrest and torture” of dissidents, including students, journalists and political activists.
In a joint United Nations submission by Lawyers for Justice and Human Rights Watch earlier this month, the groups said such practices “amount to government policy” and are used “to punish and intimidate critics and opponents, including those detained for social media posts, critical journalism, or membership in rival political movements or student groups”.
Talal Dweikat, spokesperson for the Palestinian security services, acknowledged that the PA has been conducting a campaign of arrests recently, and justified it as necessary.
“There are strong instructions from the president Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] on the security level, for all the security services in their different branches, on the importance of exerting all the pressure possible to address all manifestations of chaos and disorder in the Palestinian street,” he told Al Jazeera.
Dweikat added that the security services intend to continue their work, the “main goal of which is to provide security and safety for every Palestinian citizen”.
Torture in detention
The case of one current detainee, Ahmad Hreish, made headlines after he reported that he had been tortured in detention.
The 28-year-old has been held in a solitary cell for more than 50 days in Jericho prison, dubbed locally as the “slaughterhouse” – notorious for being the place where political detainees are sent and tortured.
He has yet to be charged with any offences.
His sister, Asmaa, was present at the Jericho Magistrate’s Court hearing for Hreish on June 13.
She said her brother appeared extremely tired and broke down in tears when he spoke about the torture he was exposed to, including shabeh (strappado) and beatings with sticks and rubber ropes. Al Jazeera also received a transcript of the court hearing.
Hreish, who was previously imprisoned by Israel, told the court multiple times that he had not been interrogated, despite his detention being extended several times.
“There is something you cannot understand, that your countryman is imprisoning a fellow countryman, and not just that, that they are torturing him,” 29-year-old Asmaa told Al Jazeera.
“It’s difficult to explain the pain we’re going through,” she continued, adding that it had been particularly stressful for his wife, who is nearing the full term of her pregnancy.
Karajeh said he believes this latest campaign of arrests is “basically a message sent through the power of the security grip that the PA enjoys, against its enemies”.
The PA has long persecuted members and supporters of its main rival political group, Hamas, which has been the de facto ruler in the besieged Gaza Strip since 2007 when it defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections. Fatah was driven out of the Strip as it attempted a preemptive takeover, which resulted in several weeks of violent fighting.
The two parties have governed the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank respectively ever since, with internal divisions deeply plaguing Palestinian politics.
In June, Hamas, which has also been accused of arresting and torturing critics, said in a statement that it “strongly condemns the political arrests carried out by the PA security services,” which, it said, “serves the interests of the [Israeli] occupation and does not contribute to the unity of the national front”.
A number of Hamas-affiliated student groups have released similar condemnations of the targeting of students at different universities recently.
Several developments indicate that the PA is tightening its clampdown on growing opposition in the occupied West Bank, particularly after the beating to death of a prominent critic by the security services last year.
In May, the first student elections to be held since 2019 at Birzeit University near Ramallah, the Hamas-affiliated al-Wafaa Islamic Bloc won in a landslide victory, securing 28 out of 51 seats in the student union, beating the Fatah-affiliated Martyr Yasser Arafat Bloc (referred to as Shabiba), which won 18.
The results of the election, which have historically been regarded as reflective of wider Palestinian public opinion, were unprecedented. In 2019, the Hamas and Fatah-affiliated groups had secured an equal number of seats.
Earlier this month, the former head of the PA’s intelligence, and current member of the Fatah executive committee, Tawfiq Tirawi, said Fatah had appointed him to look into the reasons behind Shabiba’s loss.
Tirawi said on Palestine TV that “Hamas’s plan today is a soft coup in the West Bank, to take control of institutions and universities”.
In June, plain-clothed Palestinian security officers attacked a peaceful protest by the Hamas-affiliated student movement at Najah University in Nablus. Officers beat students and professors, causing several serious injuries, used pepper spray on them and fired shots into the air, causing outrage.
With internal division continuing to grow, and authorities using ever more forceful means to stay in power, many Palestinians feel they are being made to pay for having differing views.
“They are targeting freed political prisoners in this latest campaign – honorable and liberated men,” said Asmaa. “You feel injustice. It is very difficult.”