Confronting our tyrants: Incarceration and torture in Palestinian prisons

Findings by a Palestinian human rights group paint a grim picture of imprisonment and torture under both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas regimes. One guest blogger holds that despite the Israeli occupation, these political groups can no longer act with impunity under the guise of liberators.

By Talal Alyan

Confronting our tyrants: Incarceration and torture in Palestinian prisons
Around 200 protesters march to the Muquata, the Palestinian Authority (PA) headquarters, to protest against the latests wave of political arrests made by the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah, October 2, 2012. (photo: Activestills)

“The image before the return of the PLO was the image of the freedom fighter/ Now here is that same freedom fighter (chained with the conditions of his enemies), exercising his direct authority on the ordinary citizen, on the old men, on the students.” – Mourid Barghouti 

Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces recently arrested Zaher Ash-Shashteery, a representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). His alleged crime: he spoke out against the transgressions of the PA. Of course, it will come as no surprise to most Palestinians to learn about this arrest. We are all familiar with the constant human rights violations of both Hamas and the PA. We have all heard stories of protests being put down by Palestinian security forces, or of civilians being arbitrarily arrested and tortured.

It is a strange position that Palestinians find themselves in. Should we forfeit our grievances with these political powers and their cronies, and instead focus entirely on the ongoing occupation? Or should we reserve some of our effort to speak out against these ruling political factions? One main concern is that our complaints may be hijacked by sponsors of the occupation in order to divert attention from Israeli actions. This isn’t an unwarranted concern – the crisis in Syria, for instance, is often evoked to imply that we should not focus on the Israeli occupation, and that some injustices should be prioritized over others. For the same reasons that I reject this logic I also have to believe that we owe something to Palestinians languishing in the jails of Hamas and the PA. It is our responsibility to insist that their suffering not be secondary.

Arbitrary incarceration

The fear of being arrested suddenly and without charge by Israel is a frightening fact of life that most Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, have to live with. The psychological implications of going through your day knowing that you or your loved one might be snatched at any moment will for generations torment the Palestinian psyche. Unfortunately, anxiety over Israeli arrest is further agitated by a fear of abduction at the hands of the PA or Hamas. Family members of those arrested are often given no information about where their loved ones are being taken, or for how long they will be held. Similarly, the incarcerated are commonly denied access to a lawyer for extended periods of time. The Palestinian Authority arbitrarily arrested 755 persons in the West Bank in 2011. The number itself is likely an underestimate, as it only includes complaints lodged to the Independent Commission for Human Rights. The number of complaints is almost assuredly curbed by fears of retaliation. In the two years before 2011, there were around 3,045 complaints of arbitrary detention filed with ICHR against the PA.

The situation in Gaza is no less grim, with 271 complaints lodged against Hamas in 2011. The fact that these figures are significantly lower than those in the West Bank is likely due to a heightened fear of reprisal from Hamas. ICHR received 1,789 complaints about arbitrary arrests in Gaza during 2009 and 2010. Palestinian law prohibits arrests without warrants except in extraordinary circumstances. However, Human Rights Watch notes that warrants are often issued after the individual has been already been arrested and detained an extended time period.


The torture of detained Palestinians is a common occurrence in both the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian law strictly prohibits the employment of torture, as Article 13 of the Palestinian Basic Law dictates that any confessions or statement made during torture are to be considered “null and void.” Despite the clear illegality of evidence acquired by torture, confessions are often permitted in court cases and influence verdicts. Palestinians are also supposed to be given a medical examination prior to incarceration in order to establish the prisoner’s wellbeing before interrogation. However, the practice is rarely employed.

112 complaints about torture were filed with the ICHR against the PA in 2011, and Hamas was not far behind with 102 complaints filed. There were five documented deaths of Palestinians held in Hamas custody in 2011. It is worth reiterating that the listed number of individuals tortured by the PA and Hamas is most likely an underestimate. The ICHR notes the insistence on anonymity by most persons who register complaints – an indication of the concern most have about retaliation. In addition, Hamas prevents human rights workers from visiting individuals while they are being held, thereby preventing an assessment of ongoing torture. The torture methods range from beatings to mock executions, and the employment of electrical cables and strappado is also common.

Resisting all oppressors

The transgressions of the PA and Hamas do not excuse Israeli policy. They may be hijacked and exploited to conceal the occupation, but that possibility should not intimidate us into silence. Instead, it should stand as a testament to our consistency and our thirst for liberation – that we resist all forms of injustice.

It is often a misconception, believed by these authoritarian groups, that they can act with impunity under the guise of liberators. But if ever there was a commonality amongst Palestinians, a shared characteristic threading us together, it is our resentment of oppression. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority would do well to remind themselves of the endurance of Palestinian memory, and of our unwillingness to forgive subjugation regardless of the perpetrator.

Talal Alyan is a Palestinian freelance writer currently living in Syracuse, New York. He wishes to thank Nader Atassi for his advice and guidance.

Political persecution, torture as common practice and executions in Hamas-run courts
Human Rights Watch report on Hamas courts in Gaza
Palestinians and the Syrian Revolution: Lessons from the fight against fascism

One response to “Israeli army arrests Palestinian feminist lawmaker, months after her release”

  1. Firentis says:

    Jarrar is a member of the PFLP. The United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, and the European Union have designated the PFLP as a terrorist organization. So, a terrorist got arrested. Excellent! Hopefully they throw away the key.

    • Ben says:

      Yeah, the terror of women’s rights activism, international law and human rights for the women prisoners and children. It’s such a bummer.

      This is obvious political persecution, just as with the Birzeit students and with Hiba al-Labadi, but interesting larger political question is why is it that the Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Otzma Yehudit and the Yesha Council are not designated terrorist organizations? (Because the occupation is terror.) I guess it’s for the same reason the Romans and the British were not designated terrorists when they occupied Palestine–while the Jews resisting them then were designated terrorists by the Romans and the British and their cozy allies.

      Picture the Latin decrees: “This Jew was detained by Roman Imperial forces on August 20th at a crossing while traveling…his arrest was related to meetings he had with Jewish terror-organization (Zealot) affiliates during a previous visit, where he was visiting his sister….” And we know what decrees the British issued against folks like Begin and Shamir. And their “affiliates.” Yes sir “round up the affiliates, we got an occupied population to suppress.”

      • Itshak Gordine says:

        Yescha and the political parties you quote are respectable and have representatives abroad as opposed to the terrorists (considered almost everywhere as such ..) of the PFLP.

    • Bruce Gould says:

      @Firentis: Imprisonment without charge or trial: Jewish justice at its best.

  2. Bruce Gould says:

    A note on how the U.S. handles “terrorists”: Most “terrorism” cases are actually tried in civilian courts in a jury trial.

    “For years, the Justice Department has worked to ensure that terrorism suspects wind up in federal court and not in military commissions, and certainly not in indefinite detention without facing charge or trial…” – that last sentence bears repeating: not in indefinite detention without facing charge or trial.

  3. marilyn katz says:

    Under what definition of democracy could Israel be counted as one?

  4. Carmen says:

    The IOF are just a bunch of p@ssies. Afraid, like so many in this patriarchy, of strong women like Ms. Jarrar won’t bow to them or fear them. Strong women who are admired and loved by their people. If the true measure of a man was how he treats strong women, this is a huge fail, among so many others. #LOSERS

    • Lewis from Afula says:

      Please leave out your silly, American uber-feminist nonsense at home.
      Nobody believes in this rubbish.
      That is especially true for the polygamous, Gay-murdering, honor killing retards who are squatting in Judea & Samria.

  5. Itshak Gordine says:

    She is a member of an organization recognized by several countries as a terrorist. Around the world we are fighting against terrorism. When Isreael does it, it annoys the leftists.

    • Ben says:

      It’s political persecution. Around the world Slobodan Milosevich said he was “fighting terrorists.” Around the world the Apartheid South Africans said they were fighting “terrorists.” Around the world the (Israeli-arms-supplied) generals of Myanmar say they are “fighting terrorism.” Around the world the Chinese who viciously persecute the Tibetan and Uighur minorities say they are “fighting terrorism.” You should be careful with pronouns like “we,” as in “we are fighting against terrorism.” You want there to be a pure, noble “we” in which you dissolve and fudge the particulars of Israel’s tactics, but there is no such “we.” Thus endeth another chapter in your inveterate (Orwellian) misuse of language.

      • Itshak Gordine says:

        We must protect our civilians from danger, whether you like it or not. The PFLP is a terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians. We know that leaves you indifferent ..

        • Ben says:

          It has nothing to do with security. You can ritualistically chant “terrorist” a hundred times and it won’t change that fact. It has to do with Rina Shnerb’s death only as a collective revenge reaction. Those Israelis who kill Palestinians–carelessly, needlessly, casually–never get remotely similar punishment. Ever. See:

          15-year-old Palestinian Was Shot to Death. Israeli Soldier Who Fired at Him Got One Month of Community Service
          The soldier admitted that he had fired his weapon toward Othman Rami Halas, without the approval of his commanders. IDF sources: No proof that soldier’s action caused death

          It’s arbitrary, capricious arrest and detention without charge by the Israeli overlord. It’s collective vengeance. Jarrar is being punished for free speech against the occupation. And for refusing to bow down. And for being an effective leader, which is a grave, unpardonable sin in Israeli eyes.

          It’s political persecution. It makes no one safer, just the opposite. The Germans who occupied Paris insisted too that it was all about keeping the occupier safe. Were the power imbalance different Palestinians would round up Habayit Hayahudi and Otzma members every time the Israeli army carelessly, needlessly killed Palestinian civilians. I bet you’d like that, huh?

          Israeli deaths do not leave me indifferent. Fakery about “security” leaves me cold. Dishonesty and injustice leaves me cold. Indifference to Israeli lives sacrificed to the Settler Moloch leave me cold.

          I view you as deeply misguided at best. If you settlers truly cared about Israeli lives you would not keep putting soldiers and civilians at risk for your ruthlessly selfish acquisitive aims. Your cult project. So turn it around. It’s a given that you are utterly indifferent, at best, to Palestinian deaths. (Your far right fellow traveler from Afula takes open pleasure in their deaths—see the post below—just one example. That doesn’t bother you one whit.) That’s a given. But I view you as not caring about israeli lives either if it means giving up your fanatic, totalizing, narcissistic-messianic hypernationalism.

          • Itshak Gordine says:

            What do you know? You are not in Israel. Have you had access to justice records or are you relying on the statements of Haaretz or some leftists?

          • Ben says:

            Halevy, no one has access to “justice records” because it is a police state, a state in which arrest is capricious, defendants are not even defendants, are given no due process, are not allowed lawyers to defend themselves, where there is no public airing of evidence, where “military security” and such is used as an excuse to keep everything secret. Get real.

          • Itshak Gordine says:

            So it’s usually blah blah since you do not know anything about the file. You have only one priority: to slander the State of Israel.

          • Ben says:

            I hate to ruin your fairy tale but Stasi-style secret files with no public airing of evidence is prima facie evidence that a state actually has no case and knows it so it has to substitute bullshit like this: “in suspicion of being involved in activities which jeopardize the security in the area.” You and I both know that if they actually had anything at all on Jarrar they would announce it with trumpets blaring and sirens screaming on every TV channel, Netanyahu facebook page and tweet stream and the right wing TV shouters would be jabbering and foaming at the mouth about it.

            Exposing to light the organized crime of the state-sponsored settlement enterprise is not “slander.” As Justice Brandeis famously wrote:
            “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
            And see the fuller statement of that ethic, by James Bryce, to which Brandeis was referring:

            All of which is light years away conceptually from anything you’ve ever been taught to think.

        • Rivka Koen says:

          > “We must protect our civilians from danger”

          First of all, you don’t have any civillians. Second of all, this is a thought-terminating cliché and is very close to what white supremacists say in America when justifying their terrorist campaigns. words

  6. Lewis from Afula says:

    I hope all such PFLP terrorists are “taken out”.
    Actually, the entire PFLP leadership should be eliminated.
    We should start with this drekess first.

  7. Magdalena Collins says:

    Decent people of the world are with you. We are horrified with Israeli goverment.