Severe human rights violations in inter-Palestinian clashes

1 Jan 2011

In the period around 2007, the Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas waged a violent struggle, primarily in the Gaza Strip. The fighting peaked in June 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Strip. In 2008, the violence abated but did not cease. Throughout the struggle, human rights violations committed by Palestinians against Palestinians increased, both in number and severity.

In 2007, at least 353 Palestinians were killed, 349 of them in the Strip, and thousands were injured, in the fighting between the factions. B'Tselem's figures indicate that at least 86 of the dead, 23 of them children, were passersby and were killed during street fighting or from gunfire during demonstrations. Some 300 of the dead were killed in the first half of the year, the vast majority of them in the Gaza Strip. 160 persons were killed in June alone. The casualties occurred during violent clashes between members of the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus, most of whom belong to Fatah and are loyal to Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas, and Hamas armed militias, headed by the Hamas Executive Force, which was subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior, and the 'Iz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

In 2008, 18 Palestinians were killed in the inter-Palestinian fighting, all of them in the Gaza Strip. 15 of the dead were killed in a single incident, in August, in an exchange of gunfire between police who had come to arrest members of the Hiles family.

Media reports and investigations by Palestinian and international human rights organizations indicate that in the weeks leading up to the Hamas takeover of the security apparatus in the Gaza Strip, the organization's armed militias abducted several senior members of the Palestinian Authority's security forces and executed them in cold blood, without trial. Other PA security officials who were abducted were tortured during interrogation. One of the severe practices that accompanied the abductions was shooting the victims in the legs as "punishment" before releasing them.

After the Hamas takeover was completed, the street battles came to an almost complete halt. However, since then, the ruling Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, headed by deposed PA prime minister Isma'il Haniyeh, has imposed an oppressive regime against its critics, especially those identified with Fatah. For example, the Executive Force carries out arbitrary arrests daily. The prisoners are usually held for several days and then released with no charges filed against them. Amnesty International has taken many testimonies from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have been arrested in this manner, in which the victims reported being ill-treated and tortured.

The Executive Force has frequently broken into the homes of Palestinians in search for weapons in the hands of opposition members. In addition, this militia has used excessive force in dispersing several demonstrations in the Strip in the last month of 2007. The gravest use of excessive force occurred on 12 November 2007 in response to a Fatah demonstration in Gaza City commemorating the death of Yasser Arafat: seven Palestinians were killed, including a twelve-year-old boy.

In days before and after the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip, armed militias identified with Fatah, spearheaded by the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, carried out revenge attacks against persons and institutions identified with Hamas in the West Bank. Here, too, abductions and executions took place, as well as torching and shooting businesses and charitable institutions linked with Hamas. In late June 2007, these attacks diminished, only to pick up again sporadically in the following months, mostly in the Nablus District. In the weeks preceding and following the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip, the PA's security forces, which are charged with law enforcement, refrained from taking any action against the militias in the West Bank. Among other things, they did not open investigations or bring to trial persons suspected of carrying out the attacks.

In addition, in June 2007, PA security forces in the West Bank - the Preventive Security body in particular - carried out mass arrests of Hamas supporters allegedly suspected of trying to run a branch of the Executive Force in the West Bank. Arrests continued, in smaller numbers, in the following months. According to Amnesty International and the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, most of the arrests flagrantly violated Palestinian criminal law, ignoring requirements such as the prosecutor-general reviewing the matter within 24 hours, the suspect being brought before a judge within 72 hours, and the right to consult with an attorney without delay. Most of the persons arrested were released without charges brought against them, reinforcing the concern that the arrests were arbitrary and were prompted by unacceptable political considerations. Moreover, some of the persons arrested reported to Amnesty International, PHRMG, and B'Tselem that they had been ill-treated and tortured during their time in detention.

At the end of August 2007, the head of the Palestinian Authority's emergency government, Salam Fayyad, announced that the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior had decided to close 103 religious, educational and charitable institutions linked to Hamas. He contended that these institutions operated in violation of the Palestinian Non-Profit Organizations Law. Based on the timing of the decision and its sweeping nature, it appears that like the mass arrests, this decision was made for unacceptable political reasons.

Under international humanitarian law, certain fundamental rules apply to every state, organization, or person taking part in a non-international armed conflict. Among these rules is the absolute prohibition on taking hostages, on extra-judicial executions, and on torture. These acts constitute war crimes, for which all those involved in their perpetration are held personally liable. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip have the obligation to investigate such cases and prosecute the persons responsible. In addition, both the PA and the Hamas government must respect other customary principles of law embodied in international human rights law, such as the prohibition on arbitrary arrest or detention.