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A victim of Palestinian torture speaks out

December 4, 2008

I met a young man the other day in Hebron, a bustling Palestinian city on many hills, half an hour’s drive south of Jerusalem. He was pleasant, a little shy, a bit embarrassed at the fuss of inviting a foreign journalist into the modest apartment he shares with his wife and son.

We drank tea. He talked about how Hamas once tried to recruit him as a suicide bomber and how Israelis put him in jail for more than two years. Then he began to frown more, blinking through his glasses, and rubbing his aching joints.

He spoke about being bundled out of his home in the middle of the night, of being blindfolded and beaten and made to hang for hours from his arms with his wrists tied behind his back. This didn’t happen in an Israeli prison. This, he said, was the work of fellow Palestinians, part of a force deployed in recent weeks by President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city, which has long been a stronghold for Islamists.

Among the tasks for Abbas’s security forces is ensuring that Hamas does not challenge the president’s authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in the way that it did in the Gaza Strip last year, when the Islamists who had formed the Palestinian government following a 2006 parliamentary election victory, routed Abbas’s forces and took full control of the coastal enclave.

The main questions he was asked by his interrogators, according to the bearded young man who spoke to me, revolved around his involvement with Hamas and any plans he knew of for violence. He denied being a militant, though described his politics as Islamist. After a few days of mistreatment, and a week or so more in custody, long enough for bruises to heal, though not the pains in his joints and muscles, he was let go. Just one thing, he was told – “Don’t talk to the press.”

We asked the government about that story and some others documented in our story today as well as statistics compiled by the publicly funded Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights  which show a spike in November in complaints about torture in Hebron .

The government spokesman’s office denied its security forces practise torture or detain people on political grounds. The issue of torture was “exaggerated and totally untrue”. The official statement praised the security forces for managing difficult challenges in protecting the Palestinian public despite the Israeli occupation and despite activity by Hamas, which it accused of “crimes” in Gaza.

So who is right? It is hard to say exactly what all the facts are. You can judge for yourself something about the injuries inflicted on one of our interviewees in this video clip made in hospital where he sought treatment following whipping at the hands, he said, of security officers. But it is hard to verify every element of the allegation. Many human rights monitors have no hesitation in accusing both Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah forces of using torture and dubiously legal detention practices against their opponents in Gaza and the West Bank respectively. As journalists working here, we are also no strangers to attempts at disinformation.

 My personal sense, after my conversations and what research I and my Hebron-based Reuters colleagues were able to do in the tight-knit community there , is that the people we spoke to were not making up their experiences. The government spokesmen stressed that interrogation was part of detention. And, as the events in Gaza last year showed, Palestinian leaders face genuine armed threats from within their own communities.

The European Union, United States and others are backing Abbas as the legitimate leader of the Palestinians as they seek to negotiate statehood and a peace settlement with Israel. They shun Hamas, despite its victory in the parliamentary election, because it continues to fire rockets at Israel from Gaza and is pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state. Fuelling concerns that the schism may soon come to a new round of violence, Hamas says it will no longer recognise Abbas’s legitimacy as president after Jan. 9 , four years after his term began. The dispute over the law  shows little sign of becoming less bitter, despite attempts by Arab governments to get the two sides talking again.

The EU envoy to Israel, speaking to us for today’s main article , admitted concerns about allegations of torture and said they should be investigated. But Western governments, which once anathemised Abbas’s PLO as global terrorists, is keen to foster the Palestinian Authority as Israel’s partner for peace . The big powers are focused today on threats it perceives from the kind of militant Islam represented by Hamas and its Iranian backers. The European envoy had strong praise for what he described as Abbas’s “counter-terrorist” forces.

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