Palestinian authorities are silencing dissent by cracking down on free speech and abusing local journalists and activists critical of their policies, a leading international human rights group said Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch said both the Western-backed Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and its rival, the ruling Islamic militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, are "arresting, abusing, and criminally charging journalists and activists who express peaceful criticism of the authorities."
In 2007, Hamas ousted Abbas' Fatah forces from Gaza in bloody street battles, leaving the Palestinians divided between two governments. Attempts at reconciliation have repeatedly failed, and both Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority have periodically launched crackdowns against their rivals in efforts to consolidate power.
"The Palestinian governments in both Gaza and the West Bank are arresting and even physically abusing activists and journalists who express criticism on important public issues," said Sari Bashi, the Israel and Palestine country director at Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch said that in the West Bank, Palestinian forces arrested activists and musicians who "ridiculed Palestinian security forces" and "accused the government of corruption" in statements posted on Facebook or in graffiti and rap songs.
In Gaza, the rights group said an activist who criticized Hamas for "failing to protect a man with a mental disability" was detained and intimidated by the militant group, as was a journalist who "posted a photograph of a woman looking for food in a garbage bin."
The New York-based rights group said that in the incidents of abuse, "activists and journalists said that security officers beat or kicked them, deprived them of sleep and proper food, hosed them with cold and then hot water, and made them maintain uncomfortable positions for long hours."
Tarik Abu Zaid, a journalist with the Hamas-allied Al Aqsa TV station, said he has been arrested by the Palestinian Authority three times, most recently in March, and held for a month each time.
"For the first week, the investigation was friendly," he said. "But by the end of the first week, they started using several ways of physical and psychological torture to make me confess to charges that I didn't do." He said he was forced to stand and prevented from sleeping for three days and beaten in the genitals by an interrogator.
Jamal Dajani, spokesman for the West Bank government, said any such incidents were "isolated" and did not reflect official government policy. He said in some cases, journalists were arrested under defamation laws.
"These incidents have nothing to do with freedom of the press," he said. "The government is working on creating a better environment for press freedom. We believe in and support the freedom of speech and the right for journalists to operate freely in Palestine."
In Gaza, Hamas' Interior Ministry said it had a "full commitment" to freedom of expression and that Hamas holds no prisoners for their political or journalistic activities.
"What appears in the Human Rights Watch report has large mistakes and it contradicts the actual situation in Gaza," Hamas said.