Kifah Quzmar was at a café in downtown Ramallah when a few men followed him to the toilet. After grabbing him, they dragged him out to a car with a yellow Israeli license plate.
Following the arrest of his friend Seif al-Idrissi by PA forces in April, Kifah wrote on the social media website: “Do you know why the mukhabarat [PA intelligence service] is a rotten agency? Because the entire PA is rotten.”
According to his brother, Anan, this is not the first time that Kifah had been arrested because of something he wrote on Facebook. “They interrogated him a couple of years ago for a joke mocking the PA which he wrote during a snowstorm,” Anan said.
Kifah was released on bail one week after his arrest this month. His lawyer, Anas al-Barghouti, said Kifah could face charges of insulting the PA. No charges have yet been issued.
Kifah is a business student at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank. He is also a member of the Democratic Progressive Student Pole, the largest left-wing organization in the university.
Palestinian scholar Abdel Sattar Qassem argued that such arrests expose the moral bankruptcy and illegitimacy of the PA and its leadership.
“Political arrests have been a PA policy since its establishment and they witness increases whenever the PA sees itself under threat,” Qassem told The Electronic Intifada. “They target leftists and Islamists and anyone who is critical of the PA and its security coordination with the Israeli occupation.”
Qassem said that political persecutions and arrests by the PA are designed to serve two intertwined interests.
“They seek to protect the Israeli occupation and prevent any potential uprising against it and they also endeavor to cement the status quo and maintain the privileges that the PA has by preventing any potential uprising against it,” he said.
Many of those regularly arrested by the PA are known for activism against the Israeli occupation, according to Qassem. Arresting them, he argued, sends a message to the PA’s backers in Arab and Western governments that the PA will not allow another intifada.
When an uprising against the occupation began in October last, Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s leader, said that he wished to avoid an “escalation” with Israel. He has previously described the PA’s cooperation with the Israeli military and intelligence as “sacred.”
Most Palestinians remain reluctant to speak about the issue of political arrests by the PA.
While Kifah Quzmar’s family and friends were prepared to talk about his case, circulating the Facebook post that led to his arrest, other former detainees at PA prisons have avoided publicity for fear of retribution.
Reliable data about the number of people arrested on political grounds by the PA are very hard to find.
“The PA always denies that it holds political prisoners, regularly framing those arrests as either criminal or security,” Anas al-Barghouti, Kifah’s lawyer who also works for the Palestinian prisoner support group Addameer, said.
“We always struggle to compile names and approximate numbers of political detainees because the PA always tries to keep those facts censored,” Muhannad al-Azzeh, an Addameer spokesperson, told The Electronic intifada. “But from the information that we have managed to compile, there has been a noticeable increase in [detention] over the last few months.”
The increase can be linked to the beginning of student union election campaigns in universities.
Students affiliated to the Islamic Bloc have been the main targets; they have been pursued by both Israeli and PA forces. Leftist students — particularly those competing with Fatah, the dominant party in the PA — have also been targeted, albeit to a lesser degree.
Many Palestinian student activists describe the months preceding university elections as “arrest season.”
Arrests of students by the PA, either from their homes or university dorms, hit their peak in March just a month before the elections in most West Bank universities.
A number of female students, especially those affiliated to the Islamic Bloc, have been arrested.
Alaa Manasra, a postgraduate student at Hebron University, was arrested on her way to class on 7 March this year. She was released after seven hours of interrogation that focused on her activism.
Another female student at Hebron University, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes that there is direct cooperation between the PA and Israel in targeting students.
“The PA basically does Israel’s dirty work, breaking into our homes, confiscating our laptops and trying to stifle any form of activism inside universities to guarantee that the Fatah-affiliated student groups win the elections,” the student said.
The student believes that the arrest campaign has been more aggressive this year in response to the unexpected wins by the Islamic Bloc at Birzeit University, a traditional stronghold of Fatah’s youth wing.
Treated as enemy
Palestinian concerns that the PA is directly coordinating its activities with Israel were reinforced by the arrest of three youths who were allegedly planning an attack on Israeli military targets.
Bassel al-Araj, Haytham Siyaj and Muhammad Harb were arrested by the PA in April.
Anas al-Barghouti, lawyer for the three men, said that the PA tries to spin such arrests in a positive manner. “They claim that the arrests were to ‘protect’ those youths, which is quite ironic,” he said.
It is also quite common for Palestinians to be imprisoned by Israel shortly after being released by the PA.
A recent case in point is that of Khalil Canaan, who was arrested by Israeli forces from his home in Aida refugee camp beside the West Bank city of Bethlehem about a week ago. He had only been released from PA detention two days earlier.
Palestinians often say that being arrested by the PA is worse than being arrested by Israel.
“It hurts to be arrested and persecuted by your own people, by those who claim to represent the Palestinian cause,” Qassem said, referring to his personal experience of repeated spells in PA jails. “Criticism of the PA is labeled as treason and they treat you as an enemy for opposing Abbas.”
Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails receive considerable support, regardless of their political affiliation. Meanwhile, Palestinians jailed by the PA receive little solidarity, said Qassem, despite the terrible conditions they face.
“Abbas has repeatedly stated that he’d do anything to prevent the eruption of a third intifada,” Qassem said. “The ongoing repression and arrests demonstrate his commitment to protect Israel and his own status.”