Violence among the Palestinians

Violence among the Palestinians

Erika Waak

Underneath the surface of the highly publicized Israeli/Palestinian conflict lies another level of suffering–one that is underreported and generally overlooked: the violence and human rights violations perpetrated by Palestinians against other Palestinians. This internal conflict affects the everyday lives of Palestinian people living in the occupied territories as their rights are debased by their own judicial system governed by the Palestinian Authority.

For over a decade the PA has violated Palestinian human rights and civil liberties by routinely killing civilians–including collaborators, demonstrators, journalists, and others–without charge or fair trial. Of the total number of Palestinian civilians killed during this period by both Israeli and Palestinian security forces, 16 percent were the victims of Palestinian security forces. More specifically, in the 1993 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the government of Israel states that 139 Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians. In 1992 it was 182 and in 1991 it was 140.

As part of the Oslo Agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, signed in September 1993, the PA agreed not to punish Palestinian civilians and collaborators. Miranda Sissons, researcher for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said in a personal interview that, as a result:

there were fewer street killings, but it still disappointed Human Rights

Watch standards. In the last five to six months, the situation has

deteriorated–there has been intensification, and Palestinian civilians are

reacting with a great deal of anger.

During the first intifada (uprising), which began in December 1987 and lasted until mid-1992, there were hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed by Palestinian security forces. Joel Himelfarb, assistant editorial page editor of the Washington Times, said in an interview that graphic photos of victims in the Gaza strip were published by the New York Times in its book the Near East Report.

Due to such crimes, some observers, including many within the Israeli government, conclude that the Palestinians aren’t capable of or ready for self-rule. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, “The Palestinian Authority wants to be treated as an equal with other governments. President Arafat must ensure that the PA has a functioning judicial system which operates to protect the human rights of all Palestinians.” It isn’t, however, surprising that such conditions should prevail. Subject, oppressed, or embattled peoples throughout history have commonly turned on themselves. The occupation and war conditions under which Palestinians currently live readily foster internal hostility and the loss of civil liberties. In fact, we see similar developments to a lesser degree in the United States as the armed-camp mentality promoted by the government’s War on Terrorism has created a pretext for creeping, large-scale losses of traditional liberties followed by significant violations. In both cases such developments need to be identified and addressed. And in neither case does such exposure necessarily constitute a denial of real external threats or a rejection of the legitimacy of responding to those threats.

Demonstrators and Journalists

According to Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World 2001-2002, the chaotic nature of the intifada along with strong Israeli reprisals has resulted in a deterioration of living conditions for Palestinians in Israeli-administered areas. The survey states:

Civil liberties declined due to: shooting deaths of Palestinian civilians

by Palestinian security personnel; the summary trial and executions of

alleged collaborators by the Palestinian Authority (PA); extra-judicial

killings of suspected collaborators my militias; and the apparent official

encouragement of Palestinian youth to confront Israeli soldiers, thus

placing them directly in harm’s way.

Groups of Palestinian civilians who are needlessly harassed, arrested, or killed by the Palestinian security forces include demonstrators, journalists, and clan members. It seems evident that any Palestinian civilian will encounter fatal opposition if she or he expresses any opinion other than that of the government. For example, there were reports of mass arrests when about thirty students were detained after a demonstration at Birzeit University on February 26, 2001. Then on February 29 the PA initiated new regulations, in contravention of existing law, that limited freedom of assembly. These regulations included a penalty of up to two months imprisonment or a fine if Palestinians organized processions, demonstrations, or public meetings without prior approval from the district police commander.

Late in 2001 Palestinian demonstrators were killed when they violently clashed with Palestinian security forces over the PA’s detention of militants suspected of masterminding attacks against Israelis. After the Israelis declared several ceasefires and during demonstrations in Gaza in support of Osama bin Laden in early October of 2001, Palestinian president Yasser Arafat called upon Palestinians to refrain from attacking Israelis. As a result Palestinian security forces chose not to open fire on Israelis but rather decided to shoot Palestinian civilian protestors, killing three. In a private interview Michael Goldfarb, senior press officer of Freedom House, said: “Any demonstration against the PA is not tolerated, and Palestinians are sent to jails and even shot and killed by security forces. Rocks are thrown, and the PA uses firearms.”

Journalists are also potential victims. Immediately following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Palestinian security forces threatened journalists covering Palestinian public celebrations on the West Bank. Palestinian journalists covering the intifada also faced harassment by the PA; those publishing stories deemed unfavorable were reportedly threatened. Broadcast media were frequently closed that year, and journalists and commentators were arrested for reporting criticism of PA policies, according to the Human Rights Watch 2001 world report entitled Palestinian Authority: End Torture and Unfair Trials. Militias affiliated with the PA have also tried to keep Israeli journalists out of Palestinian areas. In January 2002 a cameraman based in Gaza was arrested for filming the execution of accused collaborators.


The largest group of Palestinian civilians arrested and killed by the PA are those accused of collaborating and providing information for Israel. Marti Rosenbluth, Amnesty International’s country specialist for israel and the occupied territories, said in a an interview that Israelis have always had an extensive network of collaborators; they use local Palestinians, usually those who are well known in the community.

The PA society is fairly small and there is a lot of exaggeration about who

is a collaborator that isn’t true. Very often Palestinians are cut a deal

and paid if they provide information. Threats are made, drugs are involved,

or there may be a minor security offence. The Israelis are able to track

the movement of Palestinians and use the information to get to these

people. The Palestinian society acts vehemently toward these individuals

[the collaborators].

The Palestinian Human Rights Monitor report entitled “Human Rights and Legal Position of Palestinian `Collaborators'” published in 2001 explains why collaboration was such a widespread phenomenon during the first intifada.

First, Palestinians depended to a great extent upon the Israelis both for

their livelihood and for all kinds of permits. Israel could and did use

this dependency as a lever to obtain the information it wanted. Second,

until the time of the first intifada, no clear directives were ever issued

by the Palestinian leadership as to what behavior was acceptable or not.

The third point relates to the Palestinian social structure itself and its

basis on the hamula, the extended family or clan.

Problems that emerged as a result of collaborators at the time of the first intifada include Palestinian factions that comprised gangs of masked men who punished immoral behavior and pursued alleged collaborators. The report states:

At the same time, Israel increasingly needed collaborators to track down

wanted men and to gather information in those areas that Israeli soldiers

could not readily access. In the midst of this vigilantism many innocent

people–both women and men–were mutilated or killed as well, merely upon

the suspicion or rumor of collaboration or as a result of a personal grudge

or vendetta. [The first intifada] was a time of terror in the occupied

territories, where the most basic guarantees of the rule of law were

completely ignored.

In 1988, the early days of the first intifada, the Unified National Command required that all Palestinians resign from the positions they held in the Civil Administration and end all collaboration with Israel. However, because collaborators were such a convenient way for Israel to obtain information in the Palestinian territories they occupied, Moshe Arens, Israel’s minister of defense from 1990-1992, employed a more subtle policy that relied on the work of collaborators and undercover units. This led to the regeneration of the original collaboration network. But the situation changed once again with the establishment of the PA in 1994 and the creation of the Palestinian security services.

But regardless of how well or poorly Israel’s collaboration network functions, not everyone accused of collaboration is actually a collaborator. In fact, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitor, the definition of collaboration varies greatly from one source to another. For example some Palestinian factions during the time of the first intifada considered dealing in drugs or pornography as collaboration–under the assumption that such immoral behavior undermined Palestinian society and diverted it from the ideals of the uprising.

By the simplest definition, a collaborator is someone who has maintained contact with the Israeli authorities. During the first intifada, Israel defined collaborators as “Palestinians who are registered as having official intelligence contacts with one of the security branches operating in the Territories–the General Security Services (GSS), the Israel Police, the IDF, or the Civil Administration.” This definition also includes land sales agents who helped the government gain control of land in the occupied territories. Since the establishment of the PA, however, it has become difficult to identify any reliable definition of collaborators that is used consistently. PA prisoners are put into three different categories: criminals, political prisoners regarded as opponents of the peace process, and security prisoners or collaborators. The Palestinian Human Rights Monitor states:

There is no formal, written description of what exactly is considered

collaboration, but according to Hamdi el-Rifi, Director of the Prisons for

the West Bank and Gaza, security prisoners are accused of either spying or

selling land to the Jews. In fact, it appears that the label of

collaboration is applied even more generously than this, to stigmatize

whatever the regime dislikes. This comprises drug dealing and addiction,

since taking drugs weakens the Palestinian spirit and therefore, as in a

zero-sum game, favors the enemy’s side.

In some cases criticism of the PA is considered collaboration because criticism is felt to undermine Palestinian unity. Collaboration is a simple accusation that can be used to justify actions motivated through personal interest. Settlement of accounts within factions and families can be justified in similar terms. Steve Lipman, reporter for the Jewish Week, notes that a lot of Palestinian civilians are armed and that “different clans use violence as an excuse to get revenge against people that they don’t like.”

In the Human Rights Watch report, the number of Palestinian collaborators killed was lower when compared to the first intifada. But the exact numbers of collaborators are impossible to determine since collaboration isn’t a phenomenon willingly acknowledged by most of its perpetrators; the number is probably higher than what is recorded. Sissons said:

Since the [2001] report in November, I think that in April and May thirteen

collaborators were killed. In the last two months the number of

Pales-tinian collaborators that were killed is higher than in the last

thirteen months and its getting worse.

The dynamics are that the Palestinians have to blame someone for the violence. As a result, some collaborators move to Israel for better treatment and become part of the Israeli society, although they are despised by both the Israeli and PA sides.

Israeli security forces use collaborators to capture and arrest the wanted

Pales-tinian at their home. There may be three Israelis, the fourth person

is the Palestinian collaborator and is usually wearing black clothes and a

black hood–it’s very graphical. The collaborator goes to the home of the

wanted Palestinian and identifies the people in the houses, and the wanted

Palestinian is captured.

Arrests and Investigations

The various Palestinian security forces have so much independence that suspects are in practice deprived of judicial supervision of their detention. Arrests are made at the discretion of the security forces without an arrest warrant from the attorney general, no proper investigation is conducted beforehand, and the security forces rely on the interrogation of the suspect to corroborate the charges. The Human Rights Watch report says:

In practice no arrest warrant is usually issued before the arrest, although

the Attorney General’s office has this responsibility. Some judges …

collaborate with the security services and sign arrest warrants after the

fact without investigating the charges or interrogating the prisoners.

Judges [sign] blank warrants that the security services then use at their

discretion. The result is that collaborators are not officially charged and

are, therefore, kept outside the law.

Since both investigation and interrogation are carried out by the security services, and interrogation is often used as a substitute for a proper investigation, suspects are exposed to mistreatment. Torture also appears to be widely used during this interrogation phase.

The various security forces of the Palestinian Authority carried out

arbitrary arrests of alleged Palestinian collaborators with Israel. Many

were held in prolonged detention without trial and tortured; others were

sentenced to death after unfair trials and two were executed. Both Israeli

and Palestinian authorities failed to take the necessary steps to stop the

security forces … from committing abuses.

As of September 2001 the PA was holding about 450 people in detention without charge or trial. Most of these were suspected of being informants for Israeli security forces and others were alleged to have sold Palestinian land to Israelis.


Based on testimonies gathered by human rights organizations, it appears that alleged collaborators are almost invariably tortured, especially during the first phase of the interrogation. The December 1997 issue of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitor reported on eighteen people who died in custody, most of them seem to have been accused of collaboration. The data at that time showed a total of twenty-three deaths in custody since the establishment of the PA, including two cases in 1998, two in 1999, and one by July 2000. In the majority of these instances, death occurred in the first weeks of detention and, of the twenty-three cases, at least twelve clearly concerned alleged collaboration or land dealing. The PA’s reasons for detaining the accused are often difficult to determine, however, due to the absence of any official charges. But two possible conclusions can be derived based on the number of alleged collaborators among the cases of deaths in custody: either collaborators are more vulnerable to harsh treatment by the security services or collaboration is a handy label to make death in custody “acceptable” to both the public and the authorities.

By 2001 the PA hadn’t released autopsy reports in twenty-one cases of deaths in custody which had occurred in previous years. In the majority of these cases, no independent autopsies were performed to determine the cause of death. And the PA hasn’t made the results of its own investigations public, nor has it pursued criminal actions against those responsible. There are strong feelings on the street about those who have been imprisoned, and Palestinian citizens have even broken into the jails to free victims. According to the Human Rights Watch report, “The practice of incommunicado detention exacerbates the routine use of torture. Detainees are frequently subjected to “shabah” (prolonged sitting or standing in painful positions); “falaqa” (beating on the soles of the feet); punching; kicking; and suspension from the wrists.”

Extra-Judicial Trials

Most Palestinians are arrested without charge or trial, and if they are given a trial it usually lasts a very short period of time, typically less than one hour. Rosenbluth said, “It’s impossible to say if someone is wrongly accused. The PA offers very little evidence when arresting Palestinian citizens.” The proceedings give no legal rights to the accused, who is always pronounced guilty. During most of the trials that include criminal or collaborative cases, the alleged collaborator’s punishment is carried out extra-judicially and those who are prosecuted are guilty until proven innocent. Freedom House’s survey says:

Palestinian judges lack proper training and experience … and [defendants]

lack almost all due process rights. Suspected Islamic militants are rounded

up en masse and often held without charge or trial. There are reportedly

hundreds of administrative detainees currently in Palestinian jails and

detention centers. Defendants are not granted the right to appeal sentences

and are often summarily tried and sentenced to death.

Obtaining legal assistance is extremely difficult for prisoners, and many lawyers abandon cases after they realize that they can do nothing for the accused. Other lawyers simply refuse to handle political or security prisoners in the first place–one reason being that, in so doing, they could harm their image in front of the PA. Collaboration seems such a contagious accusation that, understandably few want to risk infection by defending those labeled as such. In the best situations, case files are transferred to human rights organizations such as the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza.

Amnesty International estimates that more than one hundred suspects of collaboration are currently detained by the PA without charge or trial, and only two cases of collaboration have actually been brought before the Palestinian supreme court for judicial review. There is an absence of due process in legal proceedings in civilian courts, and Human Rights Watch has sought to defend the independence of the judiciary against pressure and interference by the executive branch of government. Israeli responses to the current intifada, including the destruction of the Palestinian law enforcement infrastructure and severe restrictions on freedom of movement, have aggravated the deterioration of the Palestinian justice system.

Death Sentences

Palestinians are often executed because they allegedly cooperate with the Israelis. But even if the convicted person receives a fair trial that positively proves his or her actions, that individual shouldn’t be executed. Rosenbluth argues:

The societies that practice the death penalty immediately send a signal

that violence is acceptable which causes a clear breakdown of civil

society. The Israeli government bears a part of the responsibility for the

infrastructure of the Palestinian security because Israelis have destroyed

the police stations so that there are no prisoners in the occupied

territories. Those who are held in prisons are done so for their own

protection from being killed.

Some collaborators have been rounded up with no proof and killed or assassinated on the spot–for example, Goldfarb said that a suspected collaborator in Bethlehem was lynched, dragged, and then shot.

For alleged collaborators, some are arrested unofficially, punishment is

carried out extra-judicially in one hour with no appeal, and they are

issued the death sentence. There are some people on death row for which

Arafat has to sign off, and in some cases its outright murder and is

tolerated by the authorities with no punishment. This is problematic

because some parts of the Fatah can act with impunity.

Executions often take place immediately after sentencing and are carried out by firing squad. The European Union, Human Rights Watch, and Palestinian human rights groups have protested such executions, claiming that those convicted haven’t been afforded fair trials. Freedom House’s survey provides several examples of human rights violations:

In August [2002], four Palestinians were sentenced to death for allegedly

helping Israeli agents kill Palestinian militia members. The verdicts were

passed after a ten-minute hearing. In the same month, a suspected

collaborator, Suleiman Abu Amra, died during interrogation in a Gaza jail.

His body reportedly revealed evidence of torture. According to the

Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, alleged collaborators are

routinely tortured in Palestinian jails and are denied the right to defend

themselves in court. This practice is not prohibited under Palestinian law.

Amnesty International and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights informed the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel that six men had been sentenced to death by a firing squad in April 2002 by the State Security Court. This was after having been convinced of collaboration with the Israeli General Security Services according to Amnesty International’s April 10, 2002, report on the PA. Himelfarb said:

Those who are convicted have either been caught helping Israelis, spoken

out against Arafat, or are involved in rival criminal gangs, and these

individuals are hung after summary trials. Arafat creates an environment

where the violence continues while silencing would-be critics, and although

he could make the violence impossible, he doesn’t stop it.

In a letter written on January 2001 Human Rights Watch called on Arafat to immediately suspend all executions and retry those individuals with pending death sentences before courts that meet international fair trial standards. The letter added that Human Rights Watch was disturbed by the PA’s repeated recourse to the death penalty in cases in which defendants received grossly unfair trials before state security and military courts whose verdicts may have been influenced by political considerations. Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, writes:

These proceedings had little to do with justice. These men were executed

after trials lasting only a few hours, where they had no legal counsel or

right to appeal. The Palestinian Authority has failed to establish the

rule of law, and these suspicious deaths are the product of that failure.

People responsible for wrongful deaths should be brought to justice.


The suffering of those Palestinian civilians who are arbitrarily detained, jailed, or even murdered by the PA spreads within the community. There are severe economic consequences when a detainee is the family’s sole financial provider. Those alleged collaborators who are murdered are even denied burial in Muslim cemeteries. Social ostracism is also a reality for most alleged collaborators and their families. It’s usually irrelevant if the alleged collaborator is really guilty or obviously innocent, since the Palestinian society as a whole readily believes the stories conveyed by the PA. This is exceptionally problematic since at least 60 percent of the alleged collaborators killed during the first intifada were innocent.

The actions of the PA indicate that rights for Palestinians aren’t regarded as innate. If Palestinians are to experience those rights considered fundamental to every human being, pressure will need to be initiated by the outside world.

Erika Waak is an editor for the Humanist.

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Humanist Association

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