Activists face broad PA crackdown in West Bank

Anti-PA graffiti in the Dheisheh refugee camp reads: “Anything can be up for negotiation except the truth?” (Nora Barrows-Friedman)

“The Palestinian Authority (PA) forces came late at night and started shooting inside the camp,” Shihab said. “They came in, shooting, acting like the Israeli military. They wanted to make the people afraid. Everyone went to the main street and started throwing stones, because people thought they were the Israelis, not the PA forces.”

Shihab, who didn’t want to give his last name, is a spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist political party, in Dheisheh refugee camp in southern Bethlehem in occupied West Bank. He told The Electronic Intifada that in the last few weeks, the PA’s security services have been waging a campaign of intimidation and violence inside Dheisheh, intent on what he called “destroying the unity and community within the camp.”

According to Shihab, on 31 August, PA forces attacked the camp in an attempt to find a member of Hamas hours after an armed attack by Hamas activists on a car near a settlement in Hebron during which four Israeli settlers were killed. Since then, PFLP members who intervened by negotiating with the PA forces to convince them to cease their attack and leave the camp during the subsequent clashes inside Dheisheh, have been summoned to the PA police stations and subsequently arrested and thrown in jail.

“The PA wants to defend the occupation. They want to show the Israelis that they can control the Palestinian people,” Shihab said.

The Electronic Intifada spoke to Shihab — and other residents of the Dheisheh refugee camp — the day after Israeli forces extrajudicially executed Iyad Asad Abu Shelbaya in the Nour al-Shams refugee camp near the occupied West Bank city of Tulkarem on 17 September. The Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq disputes the Israeli army’s contention that the official with the armed wing of the Hamas political party, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, had “run at the Israeli forces.” According to Al-Haq, “the blood pooled next to [Abu Shelbaya’s] bed and splattered on the wall indicates that he was shot near his bed … [when he was] confronted by at least five Israeli soldiers while sleeping alone in his bedroom” (“Targeted assassination of Hamas affiliate in Tulkarem,” 19 September 2010).

Al-Haq reported that preceding his assassination by Israeli soldiers, Abu Shelbaya was already a target of the PA’s forces. “Known to be affiliated with Hamas, [Abu Shelbaya] had been arrested by the Israeli army in 2004 and was held in administrative detention for two and a half years before he was charged with being a Hamas member and imprisoned for a further six months,” stated Al-Haq.

“After his release from Israeli prison in 2007, [Abu Shelbaya] had been arrested and brought in for questioning several times by the Palestinian General Intelligence (GI) and Preventative Security (PS) agencies. He had been last summoned by the PS on 5 September 2010,” Al-Haq added.

The killing of Abu Shelbaya was condemned by Hamas spokesperson in Gaza Salah al-Bardawil, who said that the assassination was an attempt to “cover up the crimes” of the resumed US-brokered negotiations between Israel and the PA. He added that the assassination was “a plan to divert attention from the concessions Palestinian [Authority] negotiators were making” (“Hamas: Assassination covers ‘crimes of peace talks’,” 17 September 2010).

Moreover, Abdul Rahman Zeidan, a Hamas representative serving on the Palestinian Legislative Council, was arrested by PA forces before dawn yesterday after approximately a hundred security personnel surrounded his home. The raid and arrest followed his public statements condemning Abu Shelbaya’s assassination (“PCHR condemns storming the house of PLC member …,” Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 21 September 2010).

Mourners carry the body of Iyad Asad Abu Shelbaya in the Nour al-Shams refugee camp near Tulkarem on 17 September, one day after he was assassinated by Israeli forces. (Mouid Ashqar/MaanImages)

With peace talks, comes repression

The resumption of the US-brokered direct talks resumed the same day as the attack on the settlers near Hebron, which was followed by a similar operation on 1 September near the West Bank city of Ramallah. The political and armed operation developments have been accompanied by an increase of PA arrest campaigns which have been characterized by Al-Haq as “fueled by political expediency as opposed to genuine security concerns” (“Palestinian Security Services waging a campaign of politically-motivated arrests,” 2 September 2010).

In August, dissenting political parties within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed a statement explicitly opposing the PLO executive committee and the PA’s unilateral decision to approve the direct talks. Rank and file members of these opposing political parties have been subsequently arrested, detained and subjected to violent attacks by PA forces.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) issued a statement on 15 September admonishing the PA’s maneuvers, saying that the arrests — and probable mistreatment inside the PA’s jails — constitutes a violation of the PA’s own laws against political arrests (“Political arrests continue in the West Bank,” 15 September 2010).

“According to investigations conducted by PCHR, on the eve of and during the days of Eid al-Fitr [the holiday marking the end of the month of Ramadan], Palestinian security services, especially the Preventive Security Service (PSS) and the General Intelligence Service (GIS), backed by the National Security Service, have resumed arrest campaigns targeting activists and members of Hamas in Hebron,” stated PCHR. “During the past three days, PCHR managed to observe and document the detention of approximately sixty civilians by the PSS and GIS. The new arrest campaign targeted traders, students, university professors, employees, muezzins, professionals from different fields, teachers and activists in charitable organizations.”

The Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported that as many as 750 Hamas members have been arrested and detained by the PA since 1 September, including twenty persons taken into custody early Monday morning, 20 September (“Hamas: PA detains 20 affiliates,” 20 September 2010).

PFLP a special target

The PA has recently staged recent night raids into the Dheisheh refugee camp. (Nora Barrows-Friedman)

However, back in Dheisheh camp, Shihab said the PFLP has been a central target of political attacks, away from the media spotlight given to the Hamas raids.

The PFLP has historically been a central political force within the Dheisheh refugee camp. Before and during the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the political party was popular with the camp’s young generation who were interested in its revolutionary vision for Palestine and its support of armed struggle. The PFLP was a major dissenting voice during the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s push for a two-state solution in the mid-1970s, and again during the Oslo accords in 1993, which the party vehemently opposed.

Even though its popularity has waned within the older generation in Dheisheh during the last ten years, many young people inside the camp are newly attracted to the party’s anti-imperialist platform, embracing its progressive tenets and secularism.

Outside of Deheisheh, former and current leaders in the PFLP have been recently attacked. In 2001, at the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, Israeli forces assassinated Abu Ali Mustafa, PFLP’s co-founder and military commander in the occupied West Bank. Shortly thereafter, the PFLP’s General Secretary, Ahmad Sa’adat, was imprisoned by the PA for four years before becoming the successor after Mustafa’s assassination. In 2006, while still in a PA prison, Sa’adat was abducted by Israeli forces who stormed the jail, and he remains inside an Israeli military prison to this day.

Rank-and-file activists with the PFLP and those suspected of affiliation with the party have been subjected to arrest and detention by Israel and more recently, the PA. Israeli authorities have prevented current Ramallah mayoral candidate and PFLP-affiliated member of the Palestinian Legislative Council Khalida Jarrar from traveling outside the occupied West Bank for urgent medical treatment (“EU official: Israel denying lawmaker access to hospital,” Ma’an, 20 September 2010).

According to Shihab in Deheisheh, “After the PA came into the camp [on 31 August], our members began receiving summons from the PA police to appear at the local police station. Twenty-six people received the summons, but only 13 went to the police station. Immediately, all 13 people were arrested and put in jail for 15 days. The PA said that after the 15 days are up, they want to take them to a special Palestinian military court — which proves that this is related to politics, and has nothing to do with throwing stones at the PA forces.”

Shihab added that dozens more PFLP members have been summoned to the local police station, but party leaders have told their affiliates to “destroy the summons” and not to appear at the police station, thereby preventing their detention. Most of the individuals summoned are between 20 and 35 years old, Shihab said, and nobody has been able to visit the detainees as of yet.

Since the direct negotiations resumed earlier this month, PA forces have patrolled inside the camp, painting over slogans against the talks and anything signed by Hamas. A young Dheisheh resident told The Electronic Intifada that as soon as the slogans are painted over, youth associated with Hamas or the PFLP spray-paint the slogans back on the wall during the night.

Ata Mena, founder of the al-Wahada (“Unity”) Voice radio station inside Dheisheh, told The Electronic Intifada that the PFLP’s historic opposition to negotiations with the occupying Israeli government, along with the current repression by the PA forces inside the camp, has exacerbated a growing anger and distrust of the PA.

“The PA thinks that if it can control certain groups in the camp, then they can control the entire camp,” said Mena.

“Dheisheh has been here before the Palestinian Authority,” Mena added. “People from all political factions — Fatah, Hamas, PFLP, DFLP [the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine], independents — were all throwing stones at the PA forces together. They cannot break the unity inside the camp … The PA is not interested in representing the refugees here, but people are rebuilding their resistance anyways.”

However, Shihab added that activists are being forced to go underground, recalling a time during the first intifada when Israeli repression of resistance movements was at its peak.

“This is not only an attack against Dheisheh; this is happening all over the West Bank,” he said. “The PA is trying to attack the strongest communities — people inside the refugee camps. The Israeli military has tried to attack the refugee camps for this very reason. In the invasions of 2002 here in Bethlehem, their first operations were against the refugee camps, because the refugee camps were the first line of defense against Israeli attacks.”

Unity under attack

“Today, the PA is using the same strategy,” Shihab said. “If you can destroy the unity within the camps, you can control the larger population. The refugee camps are very important for the Palestinian community and the Palestinian culture. One of the most important things in the negotiations themselves is to destroy the unity of the general population — the PA and Israel can’t have a united opposition. So if you destroy the unity within the refugee camps — when they are divided — the people will accept these agreements. That’s what they are trying to do now.”

“This is the state of internal Palestinian politics today,” Shihab remarked. “They are the politics under [US Lt. General Keith] Dayton. Dayton came and drew up the new strategies for the PA. The American and European interests have supported what’s happening in the PA. The situation before Dayton was completely different, and now there’s a climate of fear and intimidation. People are afraid to speak out against the actions of the PA.”

Dayton has trained and equipped PA security forces in a counter-insurgency program since he began his contract in December 2005 — before the elected Hamas party took over Gaza — under the auspices of the US Security Coordination Team. “Dayton’s army,” as it’s known amongst Palestinians, has specifically been brought into the framework by the US and Israel to “prevent a Hamas takeover in the West Bank” (“‘A prescription for civil war’,” Al-Jazeera English, 8 February 2010).

Shihab said that the PFLP’s responsibility now is to protect everyone in the Dheisheh refugee camp community. “We operate within the refugees’ culture, and we support each other regardless of political beliefs or affiliation,” he said. “When [al-Qassam Brigades leader] Iyad Asad Abu Shelbaya was assassinated in Tulkarem by Israeli forces, where was the PA for the security they’re talking about? Everyone in our community understands that their version of security is the security of the occupation, not the security of the Palestinians. Where is the PA to defend us?”

He added, “where was the PA a month ago, when the Israeli army came into the camp to destroy houses? Where are they every night when [the Israeli army] comes in to arrest people?” Taking a sip of coffee, Shihab said, “They will never succeed at destroying the unity within the refugee camps. We will remain unified.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, writing for The Electronic Intifada, Inter Press Service, Truthout and other outlets. She regularly reports from Palestine, where she also runs media workshops for youth in the Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.