Al-Jazeera / May 28, 2021
Dozens of Palestinian activists have been detained by the PA in the aftermath of Israel’s offensive on Gaza Strip.
Tarqi al-Khudeiri is back home with his family in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, but the 22-year-old activist, whose face and presence is well known in the city’s demonstrations, is still bewildered by his arrest at the hands of Palestinian security forces last week.
“The preventative security forces called my father’s mobile phone last Saturday and informed him that he and I need to both be present for a ‘friendly’ 10-minute chat at their headquarters,” Al-Khudeiri told Al-Jazeera. “They promised that my father and I would go home together.”
The officers then showed a video of a protest, claiming that Al-Khudeiri had chanted insults against late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which he categorically denied.
“Everyone knows I have a good relationship with the members and activists of the various political parties,” he said. “These protests were in support of the resistance and in solidarity with our people in Gaza during Israel’s offensive. It doesn’t make sense to use these protests to insult political leaders.”
The security forces changed tack, and informed Al-Khudeiri his life was under threat by unknown individuals who were affronted by the alleged offence and were out to get him.
“The security forces told me to spend 24 hours at their headquarters as a way of protection,” he said.
Al-Khudeiri, who has diabetes and suffers from other chronic illnesses, told his father to go back home and bring his medicines to the security headquarters.
“All of a sudden, without telling me anything, I was bundled up in a car and taken to the security complex [prison] in Jericho,” he said.
That night, the young activist was violently interrogated for many hours, and treated with such “visceral anger and depravity” that it shocked him.
“They threatened to hang me by my hands – a form of torture known as shabah – and assaulted me physically and verbally,” he recounted. “They handcuffed my hands behind my back and blindfolded me and made me sit for long hours on a low chair with no back.”
For the first 24 hours of his detainment, Al-Khudeiri’s family had no idea about his whereabouts. He was eventually taken to a solitary cell that was crawling with insects and “not fit for a human”. As his blood sugar levels plunged dangerously low, his pleas for a diabetes kit fell on deaf ears until he had a hypoglycemic attack.
His detention was extended another 24 hours, and he was banned from seeing a lawyer.
The interrogation started again the next day.
“It became clear to me that this issue of allegedly insulting a political leader was just an excuse to arrest me and grill me about other matters,” Al-Khudeiri said. He was interrogated about his student activism, his previous arrest by Israel in 2019, and about other activists and former prisoners.
“They did not like the fact that I am outspoken against the Palestinian Authority, and accused me of being a member of Hamas,” he said. “I replied that I am not, but even if I was it shouldn’t be a problem as they represent the resistance against the Israeli occupation.”
Eventually, the interrogators informed him that the prosecution was charging him with “stirring up strife”, “incitement” and “insulting symbolic leaders”.
On Tuesday, Al-Khudeiri was presented before the prosecution, who in contrast to what the interrogators had told him, said he was innocent and repeated the claim that he was being kept at the security complex for his own protection. They wanted to extend his detention by 15 days but eventually released him at “his own responsibility”.
Violating freedom of expression
Al-Khudeiri’s case is one of the dozens of recent arrests of Palestinian activists and university students by Palestinian Authority security forces in the occupied West Bank.
Other detainees include Mahdi Abu Awwad, Mustafa al-Khawaja, Akram Salamah, Anas Qazzaz and Hussam Amareen, a medical student at al-Quds University.
According to Shaker Tameiza, a lawyer with the Addameer prisoners’ rights group, the campaign of arrests began following the end of the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, and after the West Bank witnessed popular protests expressing their support and solidarity with their brethren in Gaza.
“The rate of these arrests is concerning,” Tameiza told Al-Jazeera. “If this keeps going, we could be looking at hundreds of political arrests in just a few months.”
In violation of the law, the detainees are transferred from their home cities or towns to the security complex in Jericho – referred to colloquially by activists as “Jericho’s slaughterhouse”.
“According to the testimonies we’ve heard, the arrested were subjected to torture in the form of shabah, verbal abuse, and physical beating,” he said.
“The law states that every defendant should be tried in his or her city,” he continued. “Their transference to Jericho means that lawyers do not have immediate access to them.”
All of the arrests are based on the violation of freedom of expression, such as social media posts and chants during protests.
“Most of the charges the activists are accused of are more or less the same, such as ‘stirring up sectarian and racial strife’ – which is taken to mean insulting the PA,” Tameiza said.
According to the Lawyers for Justice Network, the political arrests – which intensified since last week – “contradict the recent liberties’ decree issued by the president of the Palestinian Authority, explicitly and clearly”.
Protests seen as threat by PA
The crackdown on activists is not new, and is rooted in what political analyst Khalil Shaheen described as the PA’s “survival policy”.
The PA is hanging on to its legitimacy from the international community by solely adopting the two-state solution discourse and the so-called peace process negotiations, he explained.
“That means that it sees any other policy, even if it is rooted in popular protests, as a threat against it. Any deviation from this PA strategy results in the government cracking down on activists, as it is not in the PA’s interest to see protests turn into an Intifada.”
In the past, the PA has dealt with popular protests either by co-opting them or keeping a measure of control over them as a means to pressure Israel into returning to the negotiating table.
However, the recent events and developments on the ground – from the Sheikh Jarrah protests and Israeli raids into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, to the attacks on Palestinians inside 1948 territories, to the rockets fired from Gaza – have all served to fuel the situation.
“The PA is worried that armed confrontation with Israel will spread to the occupied West Bank,” Shaheen said. “On top of that, there’s a new generation of activists coming out that are not politicized according to party membership, and therefore cannot be co-opted. These youth have been at the forefront of confrontations with Israeli forces, either in Jerusalem or in Haifa, and are not traditionally known to the PA.”
The campaign of arrests as a fear tactic, which is taking place at the same time as Israel’s “law and order” operation within the 1948 territories where hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel have been rounded up, is in line with how authoritarian governments behave, Shaheen said.
“The PA rules with fear because it is desperate to maintain its authority,” he said. “This is why they have postponed elections, because they knew it would be an embarrassing defeat for the dominant party Fatah.”
For activist Al-Khudeiri, this is not the time for factions to score individual political points.
“Palestinians need to hold on to this unity that we’ve witnessed has been forged over the recent events in Sheikh Jarrah and the rest of Jerusalem, in Gaza, and in 1948 Palestine,” he said.
“We need to remain united under one flag to fight the Israeli normalization, occupation and security coordination as a way of burying the so-called peace process, which is as dead as it gets. At the end of the day, what we are doing in the streets is so that our people can thrive and live honourably and in freedom.”
Linah Alsaafin is an online producer with Al-Jazeera English