“Hamas members in the occupied West Bank are being submitted to their worst campaign of arrests — their biggest and longest,” Hamas official Abdurahman Shadid told Agence France-Presse this week.
“The arrest campaign carried out by the PA against Hamas leaders and members comes under an organized project aiming to eradicate the movement,” he said.
Shadid said that most of the detainees had been “severely tortured,” adding that the “maniacal arrests” are part of a “project to the benefit of the occupier [Israel].”
A 2010 report by the international watchdog Human Rights Watch suggested a lack of accountability within the PA for security forces accused of torturing political prisoners. In 2012, the UK-based Arab Organization for Human Rights published a report that found the PA had tortured 96 percent of its prisoners between 2007 and 2011.
The PA says that Hamas members were arrested because they were planning an attack on the PA in the West Bank – a claim that Hamas officials dismissed. Spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri denounced the accusation as “a cover for political arrests.”
The PA maintains a deeply unpopular policy of security coordination with the Israeli occupation, often arresting Palestinians on Israel’s behalf or clearing the way for Israeli forces to make arrest raids in the West Bank. Last summer, PA President Mahmoud Abbas sparked outrage among many Palestinians when he defended the policy and called it “holy.”
The Palestinian leadership has been divided between the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank and the Hamas government in the besieged Gaza Strip since 2007. An April 2014 agreement to establish a unity government was never implemented.
Since that time, PA forces have continually targeted Hamas members or Hamas-affiliated activists in the West Bank. Earlier this year, the Hamas-aligned Islamic Wafaa bloc won student elections at Birzeit University, located near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
PA security forces subsequently detained at least four student activists and summoned dozens more for interrogation, according to Human Rights Watch.
“It is deeply worrying that students are being held by Palestinian forces for no apparent reason other than their connection to Hamas or their opinions,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East and North Africa director, said at the time.
“Palestinians should be able to express critical political opinions without being arrested or beaten,” she added.
Speaking to me for VICE News about being arrested after the student elections, Hamas student activist Omar Kiswani said: “The oppression has actually gotten worse since the unity agreement. Our members have been targeted more often and more violently.”
Kidnapped and beaten
Yet, the PA has not just been targeting Hamas affiliates. In December, the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine decried the PA’s crackdown on youth activists who speak out.
In a statement released at the time, the group described the arrest campaign as “a dagger in the heart of the Palestinian national liberation movement, unity and resistance.”
Journalists and activists who post criticism of the PA and its policies on Facebook or other social media outlets have been repeatedly targeted for arrest or interrogation.
Zeid Abu Arra from the Tubas area of the West Bank was interrogated in May for comments he wrote on social media. PA security forces summoned him after he spoke out against the arrest of his father in a Facebook post.
In other cases, plain-clothed individuals ostensibly affiliated with the PA have attacked and threatened Palestinian activists who criticize influential members of the PA or Fatah.
Bara al-Qadi, former director of Birzeit University’s media club, was detained by the PA twice since September 2014 over comments he wrote on Facebook. In April, he began receiving anonymous calls threatening him to stop speaking out against Mahmoud Abbas.
A few days later he was kidnapped and stuffed into a car by a group of masked men while walking with his sister in downtown Ramallah. “They were punching me for a half hour while driving around and threatened to shoot me in my leg,” he told VICE News. “I am certain it was people affiliated with the security forces that kidnapped me.”