Palestinian journalists protest against the arrest of a colleague by the Palestinian Authority. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90) (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinian journalists
Palestinian journalists

Journalists and photographers protesting in Ramallah. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Ironically, this campaign against journalists, which has failed to draw the attention of the international community and mainstream media in the West, is designed to prevent the world from understanding that the Palestinian Authority is a dictatorship. So far, the plan is working.

By: Khaled Abu Toameh, The Gatestone Institute 

On May 16, Palestinian Authority (PA) security officers raided the home of Palestinian journalist Tareq Abu Zeid in the West Bank city of Nablus. After ransacking the house, the officers confiscated a computer and mobile phone before taking Abu Zeid into custody.

Abu Zeid, 40, who works for the Al-Aqsa TV channel, which is affiliated with Hamas, was held in detention for 37 days at the notorious PA-controlled Jneid Prison in Nablus.

On June 22, a Palestinian court in Nablus ordered the release of the journalist on 5,000 Jordanian dinars (about $8,000) bail. The same court had ordered Abu Zeid remanded into custody three times during his detention. The court had turned down seven petitions demanding the release of the journalist during his incarceration.

No charges have been filed against Abu Zeid, who is originally from the West Bank city of Jenin. It is also highly unlikely that he will ever stand trial.

Palestinian security sources said he was suspected of “publishing news that harms the public interest and fomenting strife” among Palestinians. Although the sources did not provide further details, it is believed that Abu Zeid was accused of publishing stories that reflected negatively on the Palestinian Authority and its leaders. In other words, the journalist failed to serve as a mouthpiece for the PA and its leaders.

Abu Zeid is not the first Palestinian journalist to be targeted by the PA. Such arrests have become commonplace under the Palestinian Authority. But now it seems that the PA has moved from the phase of intimidation to torture.

Upon his release, Abu Zeid accused PA security forces of torturing him physically and psychologically during his detention. He stated that he was held in solitary confinement and deprived of sleep for three days.

Palestinian journalists

Palestinian journalists gather in front of the Interior Ministry in Ramallah to protest an incident during which PA officers beat a number of journalists. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

According to his account, Abu Zeid was also subjected to shabah-style torture, where a detainee’s hands and feet are tied in painful positions while his head is covered with a bag. He said that he was also slapped on the face dozens of times by his interrogators during the first week of his detention. One of the interrogators threw him to the floor and kicked him in sensitive parts of his lower body, he added. “I was slapped on the face more than 100 times during the interrogation,” he recounted. “The interrogation sessions often began at 10.00 pm and lasted until the early morning.”

The interrogators tried to force the journalist to smoke a cigarette, although he does not smoke. When he refused, they threatened to extinguish the cigarette on his body. During the lengthy interrogation sessions, the interrogators also threatened to arrest Abu Zeid’s wife, a female colleague and his lawyer.

That would have been the closest he would have gotten to the lawyer: in the 37 days of detention, Abu Zeid claimed that he was prevented from meeting with his lawyer or any representative of a human rights organization. His mother and wife were permitted to visit him briefly, but only in the presence of security officers. He was banned from asking his wife and mother about his family members or talking about his detention conditions and interrogation.

Abu Zeid said that the interrogation focused on his work as a journalist and his relations with other Palestinian journalists. He was particularly asked about the sources of some of his reports and how he obtained information.

At one point, the interrogators asked Abu Zeid to sign a document stating that his detention was not politically motivated or linked to freedom of expression. When he refused to sign the document, he said, he was severely beaten.

While he was in detention, Palestinian journalists staged protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to call for the immediate release of their colleague. Abu Zeid’s father said that when he saw his son during one of the court sessions to remand him into custody, he “appeared like a statue without a soul or life.” These protests against the Palestinian Authority were almost completely ignored by the mainstream media and human rights organizations in the West.

Palestinian human rights groups expressed deep concern over the detention of the journalist, and called on the Palestinian Authority to respect freedom of the media and expression in the West Bank. One group, Hemaya Center for Human Rights, condemned the arrest of Abu Zeid as an assault on freedom of speech. “We emphasize the need to give space to freedom of expression and to refrain from making accusations in order to justify the suppression of freedom of the media and expression, which are guaranteed by the Palestinian Basic Law and international law,” the group said.

Yet the PA goes its un-merry way. Three days after Abu Zeid’s release, Palestinian security officers arrested another journalist, Amer Abu Arafeh. Abu Arafeh, who hails from Hebron, was arrested during a tour of Nablus. No reason was given for the arrest of Abu Arafeh, who works for a Hamas-affiliated news agency. His colleagues and family members said that Abu Arafeh’s arrest was directly linked to his work as a journalist and not his political affiliation.

Neither Abu Zeid nor Abu Arafeh are strangers to Palestinian prisons. The two journalists have been arrested several times, thanks to their unfavorable reporting on the Palestinian Authority and its security forces.

In the past few years, the Palestinian security forces have arrested several journalists and bloggers on various charges, first and foremost for criticizing President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior Palestinian officials.

Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. (Flash90)

Among those arrested are Yusef Al-Shayeb, who was accused of “insulting” the PA’s ambassador to France, Hayel Fahoum, and his deputy, Safwat Ibraghith.

Another journalist, Tareq Al-Sarkaji, was arrested by the Palestinian security forces in 2013 for writing an article in which he criticized the Palestinian Authority and its security coordination with Israel.

Then there is the case of journalist Tareq Khamis, who was arrested in 2012 for criticizing the arrest of another female journalist, Esmat Abdel Khaleq. Abdel Khaleq had been arrested after she posted a Facebook comment that was deemed insulting to President Abbas.

Other Palestinian journalists targeted by the PA in the past few years include Amir Abu Aram, Muhanad Salahat, Mohammed Awad, Adeeb Al-Atrash, Musa Al-Shaer and George Kanawati.

The Palestinian Authority does not take well to any form of criticism, but it finds particularly disturbing accusations lodged against its senior officials.

Palestinian security forces earlier this month summoned for interrogation journalist Mohamed Abed Rabbo after he published an investigative report about corruption of a senior Palestinian official. The report was published in the online newspaper Alaraby Aljadeed, whose offices in Ramallah have been raided in the past by Palestinian security officers.

In November 2015, Palestinian security forces summoned for interrogation the newspaper’s Ramallah bureau chief, Naela Khalil, on charges that she was working for an “unlicensed” publication. The Palestinian Authority suspects that the newspaper is affiliated with an arch-enemy of President Abbas, ousted Fatah strongman Mohamed Dahlan, who is living in exile in the United Arab Emirates.

The PA’s ongoing crackdown on journalists in the West Bank coincides with a report published last week by a human rights organization that talked about human rights violations in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The report noted that the year 2015 witnessed a “deterioration” in human rights in the territories and described the situation there as “catastrophic on all levels — political, security and human rights.” The report pointed out that Palestinians, including journalists, were being arrested by the Palestinian Authority because of their work and postings on social media.

Ironically, this campaign against journalists, which has failed to draw the attention of the international community and mainstream media in the West, is designed to prevent the world from understanding that the Palestinian Authority is a dictatorship. So far, the plan is working. Today, the victims are Palestinian journalists. Tomorrow, the victims will be Western journalists who dare to criticize the PA or publish reports that are deemed “offensive” to President Abbas.

Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.