"There's a man with a gun over there...telling me I got to beware...
Stop, hey - what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down..."
The chorus of "For What It's Worth", a popular 1960s song written by Stephen Stills and
recorded by Buffalo Springfield. Thanks to Hillbilly Love Child for the correct reference.
A Ph.D. student friend of mine, Nigel Parsons, had an interview with Gaza Police Commander Nasir Yusuf in early 1995. One of the purposes of the meeting was to find out exactly what Palestinian security forces existed. Here is the list Nasir Yusuf gave him, with a rough approximation of the Arabic names (corrections welcomed):
Quite a list. Anyway, with the increasing militarisation of Palestinian society post-Oslo, I felt it important in articles and in this diary to log some of these developments. The following is an article, written for the 1 March issue of Middle East International, about the Preventative Security force as an unofficial pre-Oslo entity, clearly manifesting all the fruits of unaccountability the concept conjures up. I also solicited early observations of human rights organisations relating to the violations of the Palestinian National Authority. This was the version I sent to MEI, the printed one was slightly different for people wishing to quote the actual MEI version.
Oslo ‘B’ or ‘2’ included the now thrice ratified phrase assuring us that Israel and the Palestinians "shall exercise their powers pursuant to this Agreement with due regard to internationally-accepted norms and principles of human rights and the rule of law." The unofficial consensus is that there has been a successful handover of human rights violations to the Palestinians along with the other former spheres of Israeli authority.
The Palestinians now have 1,950 square kilometres of the West Bank and Gaza but Israel, including the settlers who are outnumbered almost 8 to 1, maintain sovereignty over two-thirds of the land. Sitting down to read a human rights overview and seeing what one is tempted to term the 'bigger picture' of Palestinian abuses in essentially tiny geographical areas, one is shocked.
Two such reports were passed to me last year, one concerning the Palestinian Preventative Security Service (PSS) by B’Tselem and the other Al-Haq’s overview of human rights during the first year of the PA’s rule, May 1994 to May 1995. Despite draft versions of these reports being ready since last Autumn, only the B’Tselem report has been released in English with a big fanfare. This reflects the tendency amongst those in Palestinian circles to hesitancy in passing judgement and involving the international community at this stage, many preferring to simply observe and consider the evidence. This also signalled the beginning of a divergence between the work of the two human rights organisations, that has on occasion driven them to loggerheads.
B’Tselem’s Neither Law Nor Justice and the Al-Haq report both take us back to March 1995. Iman Shihab, a 24-year-old Ramallah resident, was driving home with a female co-worker from the Beit El Civil Administration when a car pulled out in front of them. Five young men with handguns, aged between 22 and 30, got out and ordered the two out of their car. Passers-by alerted by their cries kept away as they were threatened with guns and told by the men that they were "Preventative Security".
Both women were taken to a hilly area and separated. Iman was taken to the upper floor of a house under construction some 20 minutes into the hills. Accusing her of being a "collaborator", a man who called himself "Abu Amjad" told her to confess while slapping her. Tying her hands behind her with plastic rope and she was left in a painful position for two hours. Afterwards, Abu Amjad and others came upstairs and ordered her to strip until she stood in her underwear. They suspended her off the ground by her hands with a rope attached to the ceiling, sprayed her with water and beat her for four or five hours with a rubber hose and sticks until the sound of the muezzin’s morning prayers echoed across the valley.
Kept from sleep, Iman was interrogated all day, occasionally being beaten with a wooden stick until she cried out that she would sign anything to stop the torture. At the time of afternoon prayers, Abu Amjad took her to another room, sprayed her in the face from a tear gas canister and began to drip melted wax from candles all over her body while telling her to confess. He used pliers on her nipples and continued dripping candles on her throughout the day. After much similar treatment, she was told that if she did not confess they would distribute a leaflet where she lived saying that she was a collaborator.
Yet what was most disturbing about this story is what followed. Three men arrived and began yelling at the others. "We were looking for you for three days," they shouted, "An order has been given to release the girl." They phoned Jibril Rajoub, head of the PSS in the West Bank, to report they had found her. Iman was then taken by car to the PSS offices in Ramallah by the head of that office. They showed concern, took a statement from her and then released her.
This story is chilling in what it shows about the organisation and accountability of the Preventative Security Service (PSS). For three days, one branch of the Ramallah PSS hunted for another branch with a release order for the person being tortured. When they found the men, no action was taken and no compensation offered to victim. Iman Shihab is just one of 13 cases dealt with in the B’Tselem report. Since its release in August 1995, she has been intimidated into silence and Jibril Rajoub publicly denounced long time B’Tselem fieldworker Bassim Eid, who collected much of the material for the report, as a “collaborator”. Death threats suspected to be from PSS officers were made to him over the telephone. Yet at the same time, in an interview with a visiting Ph.D. student, Gaza Police Commander Nasr Yussef stated, "It is good that the [B’Tselem] report was released. Of course we have made mistakes. It is all part of the process." These conflicting reactions suggest a process of fluidity in the Authority’s attitude, and it is this which has caused the divergence of opinion between Al-Haq and B’Tselem.
Al-Haq’s report, although including material on Iman Shihab, covered a broader issue than B’Tselem’s, looking at the overall PA record on human rights. There have been extensive violations, including: collective mass arrests of alleged Islamic activists; wrongful arrest; mistreatment of prisoners and torture; excessive use of force; compromising freedom of expression and harassment of journalists and the media; harassment of human rights activists; compromising freedom of religion; and administrative abuses such as the security court system.
Al-Haq fieldworker Khalid Battrawi states that, "To tell the truth, at the beginning the Palestinian Authority was not doing well. We did not feel it was an authority practising real authority. Yet, although we are disturbed about the situation, it is still too early to judge. We are beginning to see ministries cooperating with our interventions, but if violations continue to happen, then we might come to a conclusion that this is a strategy." Al-Haq seems to have held back from widely publishing the report to give the PNA time to respond to direct interventions.
B’Tselem sees this as negative. "They are scared," says researcher Eitan Felner bluntly. From the Palestinian side, Al-Haq sees the B’Tselem report as being too hasty and its conclusions too tenuous. "I agree with Colonel Rajoub," says Battrawi, "when he said that there are a lot of cases in the B’Tselem report that the PSS has no relation to. It is not enough that someone comes and says, 'I am Preventative Security', anyone can do that. It is clear though, that the perpetrators in B’Tselem’s report represent one of the Palestinian security organs or Fatah."
Al-Haq’s reticence to be hasty is understandable. Being essentially a legal-organisation, it believes it necessary to have more than circumstantial evidence when intervening. Various Al-Haq sources believe that the report from B’Tselem, "the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories", was an attempt to justify its continued existence in the face of the retreating military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Perhaps a more significant reason for Al-Haq’s hesitancy to make a lot of noise is that opportunities never before afforded to a human rights organisations have been opened up, and there have been very positive responses to some of its interventions.
To begin with, some PA operating policies are being made public. Head of the civil police in the autonomous areas, Amil Ghazi Jabali, sent Al-Haq a copy of the Palestinian Authority’s regulations on arrest and search. Al-Haq noted these fulfilled the minimum international standards, "but this doesn’t mean that these have been totally implemented," Battrawi comments with a smile. "We have made use of these regulations by going to the Jericho Police College and giving lectures on them." It became clear that the officers were not familiar with the regulations.
Other opportunities have included the chance to discuss torture with the Palestinian Mukhabarat (Intellegence), a separate body from the PSS that undertakes interrogations related to public safety, order and security in Palestinian detention facilities. The situation for prisoners in these facilities is critical. With no real court system in the autonomous areas, there is no way for a lawyer to appeal a detention, unlike in the Israeli system. It is facts like these that have led B’Tselem to move fast.
Prisoners in Palestinian detention may be held for weeks without families being notified and are subjected to a variety of forms of torture including, most commonly, continuous beating all over the body, deprivation of sleep and tying the detainee in painful positions. For those who recognise the hallmarks of Israeli torture, the link is not so clear. This could be said of the PSS, most of whom were locally-recruited, "but most of the Mukhabarat [have come from outside and] are not people who have experienced Israeli interrogation," says Battrawi. "More often they are people who have experienced Arab prisons."
Al-Haq’s position is that any physical or psychological pressure is torture. The organisation continues to emphatically state to the PA that the rule of evidence must prevail. In plain English - to confront a detainee with evidence is a better way of obtaining a confession than to beat it out of them. "There comes a point," says Battrawi, "where you will say ‘whatever you want, I will confess’ yet you haven’t done anything."
Is this the status quo or just teething trouble while the PNA settles in to its role? "Yesterday," says Battrawi, "we were freely visiting all the detention centres and facilities in Jericho. Our lawyer went there, had free and private access to everybody, said whatever he wanted, asked whatever he wanted and immediately made his comments to the authority. So, you can’t tell. It’s too early to judge."
Perhaps there is a need for both public and private confrontation and the good-cop/bad-cop role that B’Tselem and Al-Haq seem to have slipped into may indeed be the best way to cope with the changing realities in Palestine. As Battrawi says, "We seek is to strengthen our relationship with the PA in order that we have the right to go and visit detainees, to talk with them freely, and give our comments to you. Then we will see how this develops. Everything is expected!"