American officials and journalists visiting the West Bank, if they are eager to boost the credibility of its unelected political leaders, like to speak about the professionalism of the Palestinian Authority’s security services. For instance, an aide to Hillary Clinton was recently quoted by Roger Cohen, saying:
[A]s we approached Ramallah there were these troops in berets. They were so professional, we thought at first they were Israel Defense Forces. But, no, they were Palestinians, this completely professional outfit, and it was clear this was something new.
What could be more inspiring — to a visitor from Washington — than Palestinians who looked like Israelis?
The Financial Times presents a much grimmer picture in which local human rights groups warn that a brutal regime is emerging with the authoritarianism of a police state. (As a report by David Rose almost two years ago makes clear, the trend is not new — but it is getting worse.)
Naiema Abu Ayyash’s worst fears were confirmed this month when she finally managed to visit her husband in Jericho prison.
Badr Abu Ayyash, 42, a farmer and local politician in the west Bank, was arrested by the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security unit on September 14. Aside from two brief and apparently supervised phone calls, his family was denied all contact with him.
“He looked very different,” said Ms Abu Ayyash, a mother of four. “He could hardly walk. He had difficulty breathing and was very thin. When he shook my hand, I noticed that he had no strength at all.”
She has no doubt her husband was tortured. “I started screaming at the officer: ‘What are you doing to him?”’ Her pleas fell on deaf ears. After a few cursory exchanges, her husband was led back to his cell.
According to former inmates and activists familiar with Palestinian prisons, Ms Abu Ayyash has every reason to be worried. They say prisoners affiliated with the Islamist Hamas movement, which runs the Gaza Strip, are beaten regularly and deprived of medicine and basic comforts such as blankets and mattresses.
There is evidence that a significant number of detainees are tortured during interrogation. The most common form of abuse is known as Shabeh, in which detainees are handcuffed and bound in stress positions for long periods.
Claims of torture and abuse by members of the Palestinian security forces are not new. There has, however, been a sharp rise in reported cases, leading Human Rights Watch to remark last month that “reports of torture by Palestinian security forces keep rolling in”. The New York-based organisation also bemoaned the “rampant impunity” of officers allegedly involved in the abuses.
Many analysts and observers fear that life in the west Bank is taking on an increasingly authoritarian hue. “I feel real concern that we are reaching the level of a police state,” says Shawan Jabarin, the director of al-Haq, a Ramallah-based human rights group.
It is a concern shared by Randa Siniora, the director of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, the ombudsman responsible for processing complaints against Palestinian officials. Her commission received more complaints about torture in the west Bank in October than in any month since mid- 2009. “We are looking at a very gloomy situation,” she said. “I am afraid that this [problem of torture and abuse] will become systematic.”