The violence meted out by PA forces against Palestinian demonstrators Wednesday night was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. When it was all over, one thing became clear: the PA isn’t a subcontractor of the occupation, they are in lock step.
Having just witnessed her friend’s arrest, and frustrated by her failure to prevent it, a young activist stood in front of a line of police officers, defenseless, and instinctively shouted, “With spirit, with blood, we’ll redeem you Gaza.” Members of the Palestinian security forces, dressed in civilian clothes, knocked her to the ground. Two policemen joined in and began kicking the bleeding, terrified woman.
This was just one of the many scenes of violence meted out by the Palestinian Authority’s security forces against Palestinian demonstrators who had gathered in the center of Ramallah Wednesday night to demand an end to the PA’s sanctions against Gaza. It was the second such demonstration in the span of a week.
The first demonstration, on Sunday, was relatively uneventful, but on Wednesday the PA’s response was severe: police arrested 69 activists, some of whom were arrested after the protest while they were receiving treatment for their wounds in the hospital. Security forces attacked journalists, women, the elderly, and bystanders, confiscating and breaking cameras and phones. Meanwhile, groups of Fatah youth dressed in civilian clothes infiltrated the protest and meted out their own violence.
The trip to Ramallah, on a bus carrying activists from Haifa, went smoothly. But upon our arrival at Manara Square, we found an unexpectedly large number of Palestinian security forces: hundreds of armed, uniformed security forces — some in police uniforms, some special forces, others in military uniforms with balaclavas covering their faces. Everyone there that night understood that there were also members of secret police — dressed in civilian clothes — circulating among the demonstrators.
The police had preemptively declared the demonstration illegal the previous morning. According to the PA, the reason was “the desire not to disturb the residents of the city in their preparation for the upcoming Iftar celebration.” The protest was supposed to start at 9:30 p.m., but police prevented demonstrators from gathering in the square. Then suddenly, the police moved with great force toward one of the streets that split off from the square, and began firing stun grenades and tear gas toward the protesters.
I took out my phone to document what was happening. Security forces, their faces covered, ran toward me with M-16s raised. I froze, but continued to take photos. One of the officers grabbed and arrested someone standing close to me. Then, out of nowhere, I felt a sudden, painful blow to my back that knocked me forward.
The policeman who kicked me from behind, dressed in a blue uniform, called over to his friends, and the the two pounced on me and my phone was able to comprehend what was happening. Confiscating my phone was just the start.
The policeman who kicked me began to confiscate phones, stripping them out of the hands of people standing next me, even if they weren’t taking pictures. All of my requests to get my phone back were answered with curses and yells. I realized I had a problem.
Taysir, a friend from Qalandia Refugee Camp who was standing beside me, looked even more worried. “It’s not so bad,” I told him. “I’ll get the phone back.”
“I’m not so sure,” he said in a battle-worn tone, despite his young age. “They’re animals, Rami. They break phones and cameras then throw them out.”
Suddenly, we heard a shriek. PA forces with their faces covered were returning from the square with several arrestees. We saw some of them being beaten while the officers marched them up the street. We watched, mouths agape. “I cannot believe they are this violent — these are Palestinian police, not Israeli soldiers,” I said to Taysir. He smiled bitterly and told me to forget it. “It’s only going to get worse. Come with me to the camp, it will be safer there tonight.”
He was right. Determined to clear the streets, large groups of Palestinian security forces moved toward and targeted with tear gas and stun grenades any gathering of even a few people. Out of each group of protesters, they would grab at least one person — sometimes shocking them with devices that reminded me of a cattle prod.
Then came the undercover officers.
Among the protesters were also youth from Jalazun, a refugee camp strongly identified with Fatah. Suddenly, all together, they pulled out and put on baseball caps with the image of a keffiyeh printed on them, and began to arrest demonstrators in cooperation with the security forces. That’s when I knew the gates of hell were about to open.
I have been to many protests over the years, including ones where live gunfire was used against protesters. But I had never felt fear like that which I felt on Wednesday in Ramallah.
The presence of undercover police meant the beatings and arrests could come from any direction, and that is exactly what happened. Despite the police’s orders to disperse, there was nowhere to escape to. Shocked, I stood completely frozen. Time stopped as chaos unfolded around me: a woman was beaten badly before my eyes; no one among the hundreds of people nearby dared to help her. Others were arrested and led like animals by the Fatah youth. The police arrested tens of people, some of whom they threw to the ground. Some of us nearly suffocated from the tear gas.
I somehow managed to cross over to an adjacent street. At that moment, a group of young women, most of them journalists, passed by. One of them dared to chant in support of Gaza — not against Abbas or Fatah, but for Gaza. A stun grenade was thrown at their feet within seconds. A few moments later I meet a friend from Ramallah with tears in her eyes. “What happened?” I asked, “did they beat you?”
“I wish. One of the officers told me ‘what are you doing in the street, you whore? Get out of here immediately.’”
At this point I decided I had enough. I had to go to the police station to see what happened to the detainees.
Among those arrested was Munhad Abu Ghosh, a well-known anti-Abbas activist from Haifa. Upon his release (at the time of publishing, only five of those arrested were still being held), he described the threats he says he has received from Abbas supporters in months past. “They said they would send a junkie to take care of me in Haifa. It would only cost them $100-200.”
“At a certain point they told me that if I come to Ramallah, the Tanzim (a militant faction of the Fatah movement – r.y.) would shoot me in the legs, and an investigation will be conducted only for the sake of appearances,” he continued. That last threat, he said, was delivered only a couple of months ago.
Abu Ghosh is part of a growing group of Palestinian citizens of Israel who are very critical of Abbas and the PA, and who regularly participate in protests in the West Bank.
“[The PA] isn’t only using mafia tactics, they are taking advantage of these young people from the refugee camps (young Fatah activists from Jalazun refugee camp — r.y.),” he continued. “For them, beating up people here is an act of conquering a city to which they never felt a sense of belonging. Fatah is cynically exploiting the poverty and exclusion of Palestinian refugees. Those same kids, many of them under 20, have no idea what they did yesterday and how they were exploited.”
At the police station, I went between pleading with the policemen to return my phone and speaking with the families of the detainees who were standing outside, desperate for any information. The police refused to give any answers. At 2 a.m., still in pain from being kicked in the back, I found myself in a political argument with dozens of police officers. The brainwashing they had undergone was clear. When I accused them of using violence against activists, their responses were, “the protesters received money” or “this was a Hamas protest.” Abbas’ forces easily adopt Israeli propaganda, it seems. According to the stories they tell themselves, that many of those arrested were actually left-wing students from Bir Zeit University is not really important.
Despairing and in pain, I continued on to the next police station. By that time it was 3 a.m. I finally located by phone but then I encountered an unexpected obstacle — the duty officer refused to let me enter the station because I was wearing shorts. I began to lose it. “You came from Haifa with your shorts to protest here and intervene in our politics?” the policeman said to me. I couldn’t help but think of what the mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav, had said after policy violently repressed a protest there a few weeks earlier: “Arabs from outside the city” had come to “disturb co-existence in the city.”
That’s when I finally understood. The Palestinian Authority is not a subcontractor of the occupation. The Palestinian Authority is a full partner in implementing every Israeli tactic in oppressing the Palestinian people.
Suddenly, the beatings against the women who chanted in support of Gaza seemed logical. On Wednesday night, the PA announced openly and practically: just like Israel, we are against Gaza.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.