Omissions and Oversimplifications: HRW’s Report on PA and Hamas Torture
Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) October 2018 report “Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent: Arbitrary Arrest and Torture Under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas” marks a significant departure from this NGO’s record of criticizing Israel, and treating Palestinians as victims without agency. However, the intense anti-Israel activism of the report’s author, Omar Shakir (HRW’s Israel and Palestine Director), and its editors, Eric Goldstein (deputy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division) and Balkees Jarrah (senior counsel in HRW’s International Justice Program), suggests that the report is simply a fig leaf designed to create the appearance of balance in the group’s advocacy on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Indeed, in the three months since publication, HRW has not run public campaigns to accompany this report, as it has done with its reports alleging Israeli violations. For example, following the November 2018 publication of “Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land,” an HRW publication on Israel targeting Airbnb, the organization conducted a broad media campaign including radio, print and television interviews, and a social media campaign including hundreds of tweets by HRW and its staff. Although HRW claimed both reports were the result of two-year investigations, the resources devoted to campaigning against Airbnb listings in settlements overwhelm its almost non-existent efforts to condemn Hamas and PA torture.
Furthermore, the methodology in the report is shoddy (primarily unverifiable claims from interviews), reflecting an absence of serious analysis, and the failure to identify the most severe and unjust cases of Hamas and PA arrests and torture. In addition, the recommendations made by HRW to end the arbitrary arrest and torture of dissidents, are transparently unrealistic.
The report also contains a number of obvious omissions, such as Hamas’ persecution of alleged “collaborators” with Israel, the PA’s criminalization of selling land to Jews (punishable by death), as well as the torture of LGBTQ detainees and children in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian attacks against Israelis, which blatantly violate local and international, are also not on HRW’s agenda.
The following analysis demonstrates the various shortcomings in HRW’s report.
Similar to the organization’s reporting on Israel, HRW heavily relies on “evidence” provided by political NGOs and does not corroborate or verify this information with independent sources. For example, HRW cites Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) when it states that “Hamas authorities have also carried out 25 executions since they took control in Gaza in June 2017 [sic], including 6 in 2017, following trials that lacked appropriate due process protections and courts in Gaza have sentenced 117 people to death.” However, further research would show that Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, and since then, according to the IDF, is guilty of at least 130 cases of extrajudicial executions and death from torture in Gaza.
Likewise, the authors superfluously allege “harsh conditions and mistreatment” of Palestinians in Israeli police and military custody. This demonstrates that even when ostensibly writing about Palestinian violations, HRW finds a way to condemn Israel.
The report’s “recommendations” section (p. 13-18) lists proposed reforms of PA and Hamas prison and criminal justice systems. However, this ignores the corruption, inherently repressive legal systems, and poor human rights records of the PA and Hamas-administered areas and treats the two as if they are legitimate, democratically-elected governments capable of instituting widespread human rights reforms.
For example, HRW recommends that Mahmoud Abbas reconvene the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), to “enact meaningful reform to the Penal Code (13).” The PLC has not been convened since 2007, when Hamas violently expelled the PA and took control of Gaza, and when it was in session, it was never a fully-functional legislative body. The realization of this recommendation is so far-off, it makes it meaningless.
HRW’s further assumes that PA Attorney General Ahmad Barrak will advocate for freedom of expression and work towards ending the arrest and torture of dissidents. However, in February 2017, Barrak banned a Palestinian novel from bookstores for “sexually explicit language and immoral terms.” In June 2017, Barrak ordered internet service providers to block 11 news websites affiliated with PA opponents.
Additionally, HRW’s recommendations for Hamas are similar to its previous recommendations for the group, found in reports and interviews from after the 2014 and 2009 Gaza wars. In these publications, HRW pretends that Hamas sees itself as accountable to the Geneva Conventions and other international legal frameworks, and gives recommendations for reforms that whitewash Hamas’ nature as a repressive, thuggish terror group.
Finally, the report recommends that Qatar, Iran, and Turkey – Hamas’ major donor states – suspend their assistance to Hamas security forces involved in widespread arrests and torture, and issue a statement condemning Hamas torture. These recommendations ignore the three are themselves closed societies that also torture dissidents and are leading global funders of terror, and it is precisely this ideological affinity and lack of respect for human rights that inspires their funding for Hamas.
Minimizing Hamas Persecution of “Collaborators” with Israel
Hamas’ torture and executions of perceived “collaborators,” namely those who are alleged to have assist Israel in some capacity, is an acute problem in Gaza. HRW, however, does not explore charges of collaboration in-depth, as it does with “nonviolent offenses” detailed in the report. Instead, HRW simply refers to two instances where those interviewed explained “plain-clothed young men cursed him and accused him of being a ‘collaborator’” (62), and “Fouad said they also charged him with collaborating with Israel, which he firmly denies” (62).
Despite the lack of detail provided by HRW, a 2015 Amnesty International report found that 24 Palestinians were executed on charges of collaborating with Israel or Fatah during the 2014 Gaza war. According to Amnesty, in one incident, six men were executed by Hamas forces outside of a mosque in front of hundreds of spectators, including children.
Furthermore, in April 2017, as HRW was preparing the report, the Gaza Interior Ministry announced it was taking increased measures to arrest collaborators. This too is ignored by HRW.
Omitting PA Crime of Selling Land to Jews
Since 1997, selling land to Jews has been considered a crime, punishable by the death penalty under PA law. At least eight Palestinians have been executed for this offense, and many have received execution orders that have not been carried out. Legally, PA security forces are barred from operating in Jerusalem, yet Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid documented cases of Arab Jerusalemites who were kidnapped and tortured to death by the PA’s Preventive Security Agency in Ramallah for selling land to Jews.
In August 2017, the Israeli Jerusalem District Court ruled that the PA was responsible for the severe abuse of 52 Palestinians in the West Bank from 1995-2002. The 8,000 page judgement details gruesome forms of torture, yet is ignored by HRW.
Ignoring Torture of LGBT Detainees
Globally, for its fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, HRW reported expenses of $1.7 million devoted to issues of LGBTQ rights. Despite this investment, this report ignores the torture and execution of members of the LGBTQ community by Hamas and PA. Torture and abuse of LGBTQ Palestinians by Hamas and the PA is so frequent and severe that Tel Aviv University law professors and refugee law specialists Anat Ben-Dor and Michael Kagen have proposed that LGBTQ Palestinians be granted asylum in Israel.
For example, the report does not detail how in February 2016, Mahmoud Ishtiwi, commander of Hamas’s armed wing (Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades), was tortured and murdered by Hamas for purportedly being gay.
Disregarding the Torture of Children
HRW similarly minimizes the extent of Hamas torture of children in Gaza. In an August 2018 broadcast on PA TV, 13-year-old Muhammad Adham and his parents describe how he was beaten and tortured by six Hamas fighters in a Gaza mosque because he hit the son of a Hamas military commander. This incident is not mentioned in the HRW report, which was published two months after Adham’s interview was broadcast. In the interview, Adham’s father pleaded, “I implore the human rights organizations, the Arab states, and all of the organizations to stand with us” (emphasis added).
Similarly, HRW ignores that in 2013, two Gazan teens (ages 15 and 16), were arrested and tortured after writing anti-Hamas slogans on walls and being accused of having contact with Fatah.
Negating Palestinian Legal Obligations and Obstacles
In 2014, the PA delegation to the UN signed the UN Convention against Torture. It is also a signatory of nine additional international human rights treaties. Under international law, the PA is obliged to be held to these standards, which HRW demonstrates they are openly violating. Yet, HRW merely recommends that the PA (and Hamas, which is obviously not a party to international human rights legislation) follow these treaties.
HRW has not lobbied the International Criminal Court (ICC) to conduct a formal probe of PA and Hamas torture, as opposed to its petitioning of the ICC to open a formal investigation into Israeli actions in response to the 2018 violent protests along the Israel-Gaza border.
Additionally, the report relies on the 2003 Palestinian Basic Law as the legal precedent for ending Hamas and PA arbitrary arrests and torture. According to the UNDP, the Palestinian Basic Law is broad and unenforceable. The report additionally falsely states that the Palestinian Basic Law “binds authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza” (81). The 2003 Palestinian Basic Law was created as a proposed future constitution of a Palestinian State, but was never formally ratified into law by the PA. It has not been enforced by Hamas after seizing control of Gaza in 2007.1
- HRW’s 2018 report contradicts its October 2012 report “Abusive System: Failures of Criminal Justice in Gaza,” which refers to the Palestinian Basic Law as “quasi-constitutional (8)” and denies that Hamas is a legitimate government actor. The 2018 report however proscribes recommendations as if Hamas has legitimate governing authority. The 2012 report also questions the law’s enforceability in Gaza.