Omar Kiswani, a student activist at Birzeit University in Ramallah, was not surprised when Palestinian Authority security forces began arresting and interrogating him and his cohorts following the student council elections last month.
Kiswani is a member of the Islamic Wafaa, a student group aligned with Hamas, which by a vote of 26 to 19 had won majority control of the council. In a surprise victory it had defeated the Martyr Yasser Arafat bloc, affiliated to the PA's ruling political party Fatah.
"I have been arrested by the [Palestinian] Authority twice," he told VICE News, explaining that he was detained most recently in the wake of the student elections. "Of course, they are now targeting Islamic activists because Hamas won in the elections."
"While they interrogated me, they only asked me about political opinions and activists I know," Kiswani added. "The officers treated me violently and made verbal threats. I filed a complaint, but I know the court will not deliver justice."
A new report released by the international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented a sharp uptick in the PA's arrests of student activists in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, apparently for affiliation to Hamas or for critical political views. Analysts say it is part of a wider attempt by the PA to control the narrative following the breakdown of the unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah — the political party which controls the PA — and the PA's increasingly shaky control of the West Bank.
Student elections are an important marker of the political mood in the West Bank, wrote the New York Times, citing a senior aide to PA President Mahmoud Abbas talking about the Birzeit victory. "We lost big," said Saeb Erekat. "I cannot give you a simple reason for it, but the Palestinian mood. My house feels suffocated."
According to HRW's report — Palestine: Students Detained for Political Opinions — at least 25 students from Birzeit University and other academic institutions were detained or summoned for interrogation by the PA following the elections. "It is deeply worrying that students are being held by Palestinian forces for no apparent reason other than their connection to Hamas or their opinions," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East and North Africa director. "Palestinians should be able to express critical political opinions without being arrested or beaten."
Adnan al-Dmiri, a spokesperson for the PA's security forces, rejected the claim that the students were targeted for their political beliefs. "We never arrest people for their speech or for their political affiliations," he told HRW, claiming that the students were arrested for "incitement of sectarian violence and other criminal charges."
But HRW researcher Sarah Saadoun dismissed Dmiri's assertion. "In the cases we saw, the PA hasn't actually presented any evidence of incitement," she told VICE News, adding that the spate of detentions follows "other arrests made over the last year which were not related to Hamas."
Ismail Nassar, a 25-year-old undergraduate and secretary of Birzeit's student wing of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), says that activists from his party and other leftist groups were pressured to vote for the Fatah-affiliated student bloc ahead of the elections. "Some activists or their parents were called at home," he recalled. "They were told to either vote Fatah or not to go to school on Election Day."
"For leftists, it's different than Hamas activists," he explained, "because the PA targets us indirectly. They even target Fatah members who are critical of their policies. This is a police state."
Sharif Nashashibi, a London-based analyst of Arab political affairs, said the wave of arrests was a continuation of a longtime crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, but could also be seen as part of a wider attempt by the PA to stifle criticism.
"This is a general crackdown on dissent and sympathy for Hamas is just part of it," he told VICE News. "The PA is just using Hamas as a boogeyman to justify it."
Nashashibi argued that the crackdown was further evidence that the unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah was a failure. "The national unity deal is in effect something that simply doesn't exist," he said. "For the purpose of domestic politics, neither side wants to admit it. But for all intents and purposes, it is six feet under."
Hamas activist Omar Kiswani told VICE News: "The oppression has actually gotten worse since the unity agreement. Our members have been targeted more often and more violently."
Bara al-Qadi, former director of Birzeit's student media club, echoed the sentiment that the PA was targeting anyone who criticized its policies, particularly the policy of security cooperation with the Israeli military. "The first time I was arrested [in September 2014] was for writing an article that criticized the security cooperation," he told VICE News. "That is the red line for the security forces."
Arrested twice and interrogated nearly a dozen times, he was most recently detained in January for suggesting that the PA's general commander of security be replaced with Captain Majed, a popular cartoon character in the Arab world.
In April, Qadi says he received a series of anonymous phone calls at his house warning him to stop criticizing PA President Mahmoud Abbas on social media. A few days later, while walking with his sister in downtown Ramallah, a group of masked men stuffed him into a car and kidnapped him.
"They were punching me for a half hour while driving around and threatened to shoot me in my leg," he said. He filed a complaint with the local police but is not hopeful for results, he said. "I am certain it was people affiliated with the security forces that kidnapped me."
Despite claiming to have been threatened with another kidnapping or more interrogation if he continues to lambast influential figures on Facebook, al-Qadi says he has no intention of stopping. "I will keep writing and speaking my opinion until they actually shoot me in the leg," he concluded. "After that, come back and ask me if I still plan on speaking out."
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