Hamas and Fatah hammered for human rights abuses against their own people

Independent Commission for Human Rights criticises Israel strongly but adds that security forces of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas carried out torture, arrests and arbitrary detentions of residents of the Palestinian territories.

** ADVANCE TO GO WITH STORY SLUG STOPPING TORTURE ** In this photo taken on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009, A Palestinian prison guard, left, and Palestinian Hamas prisoners are seen at Jneid Prison in the West Bank city of Nablus. Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have stopped torturing Hamas prisoners, ending two years of systematically abusing their political rivals, according to Hamas inmates, a local leader of the Islamic militant group and Palestinian human rights groups. (AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh)
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JERUSALEM // Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were subjected last year to an "almost systematic campaign" of human-rights abuses by their own rulers as well as by Israeli authorities, a Palestinian monitoring group has concluded.

The security forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas carried out torture, arrests and arbitrary detentions of residents of the Palestinian territories, the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) said in its annual report released on Tuesday.

The targets of repression were "freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression", as well as "civil society organizations in general and human rights organizations in particular," the report said.

The ICHR's assessment, covering developments in 2010, did not directly take into account the reconciliation deal reached between Fatah and Hamas late last month. Yet in a portent of possible difficulties to come, it blames many of the abuses on the rivalry between the two Palestinian factions and their competing security agencies.

"Due to the failure of the reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas throughout 2010, and the ongoing internal political division, the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been the main victims of the political dispute between both combatant parties," the report observed.

The Ramallah-based ICHR was established by Yasser Arafat in 1993 and operates with funds from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and Switzerland, as well as small contributions from the PA. The group does not, however, spare criticism of the Palestinian administration in the West Bank, warning that its security apparatus threatened to dominate affairs of state.

The "overwhelming majority" of those prisoners held in West Bank jails were members of Hamas, the report noted. It also cited 181 cases in which the PA's security apparatus delayed, circumvented or ignored rulings by Palestinian courts.

The ICHR's stern appraisal of the PA follows a report last month by Human Rights Watch, in which it accused its US-funded security agencies of "harassment and abuse of journalists" in an attempt "to prevent free speech and inquiry into matters of public importance".

Members of the media were being singled for mistreatment "solely because of their statements critical of the Palestinian Authority or their perceived support of its political rivals," the organisation said.

In response to the latest findings by the ICHR, Ghassan Khatib, a PA spokesman, said the West Bank's government was doing its best to "prevent such practices" even though "sometimes there are exceptional cases of violation, which the Authority does its best to hold perpetrators accountable".

The four-year split between Fatah and Hamas had made it "more difficult to abide by the laws and regulations," Mr Khattib added.

The ICHR was equally harsh in its criticism of Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

It noted a rise in torture allegations from the previous year and accused Gaza's interior ministry of failing to prevent military authorities from prosecuting and executing civilians. It also described six incidents in which unidentified "masked people" had kidnapped, shot, beat or tortured members of Fatah. Ministry officials in Gaza City could not be reached for comment.

Though critical of Palestinian authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the report's authors reserved their strongest criticism for Israel.

They accuse Israel and its military of stepping up "extrajudicial executions, killing civilians, detainment, erecting checkpoints, building and expanding settlements, expropriating land and building the annexation wall".

They also single out two Israeli military orders that came into effect last year and threaten so-called "infiltrators" in the West Bank with imprisonment and expulsion. It said that the definition of infiltrator was malleable enough to apply to any person living in the West Bank.

The report concludes that thousands of Palestinians living in the West Bank "could be immediately expelled" because of the new military orders. That predicament constitutes a "blatant contravention" of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which sets forth how civilians are to be treated in a time of war.