On Wednesday 11 May, while seeking to apply for a job in one of Ramallah’s many cafes, 26 year-old Kefah Quzmar was assaulted violently and arrested by members of the Palestinian Authority’s General Intelligence, a branch of the burgeoning PA security forces. Quzmar was taken away and imprisoned for nearly two weeks, during which he was denied access to a lawyer and visits by his family. Moreover, for eight days he was kept in solitary confinement and prevented from studying for his upcoming university final exams.
What was his crime? What terrible transgression did he commit to deserve such treatment? Amazingly, he had simply updated his Facebook status.
Objecting to a similar arbitrary arrest of a friend, on 21 April Quzmar wrote that the Palestinian Security Forces were “rotten”. His full post said: “Do you know why the mukhabarat [intelligence service] is a rotten agency? Because the entire PA is rotten. Seif al-Idrissi is under arrest! #FreedomforSeif”
Though the authoritarian and anti-democratic nature of the PA has been increasingly clear over the past decade since the end of the Second Intifada, this kind of episode highlights the astonishing depth of perniciousness and absurdity to which it is prepared to descend.
“Hit me, but don’t break my sunglasses”
According to Kefah Quzmar, members of the security forces had harassed him during the week prior to his arrest at Birzeit University, where he studies. However, when they actually came for him they did so after he entered the coffee shop, while a Jeep – not an official police vehicle – waited outside. In his own words:
“They put their hands on my shoulders and they were very strong. I resisted by going limp so they had to drag me out. They handcuffed me and took me to the mukhabarat offices… on the way they hit me and tried to scare me; they hit my hands and back and one of them leaned over me and hit my head.”
Quzmar said that he was also bleeding from where the handcuffs cut his arms, but wasn’t prepared to give up, nor show that he was intimidated: “OK, hit me, but don’t break my sunglasses. They took off the sunglasses and hit me more. But it was not as bad. I was not really suffering.”
“Why are you calling us rotten?”
Once they arrived at the security base in Balou, an area in Northern Ramallah, the agents started their “investigation”. According to Quzmar, it focused entirely on his Facebook post. Again, he refused to back down:
“Why you calling us rotten?” they asked.
“Because you are rotten,” I answered.
“Why are you calling me rotten?” asked one.
“I don’t know you,” I replied. “I am talking about the mukhabarat. They are rotten when they work for the Israelis and when they arrest people who try to resist the occupation. That’s when it is rotten.”
After that exchange Quzmar was put in a cell. He was never sure how long they would keep him because there were always many threats to detain him longer and longer. Moreover, he knows of other political opponents of the PA who have been kept in detention indefinitely.
Yet worse was to come. He was kept behind bars for 15 days while the “investigation” was carried out; for 8 of those days, he was in solitary confinement. He described the conditions in which he was kept:
“In the cell it was really horrible. There was a small mattress on the floor, maybe two metres long and one metre wide. It was very worn and dirty. There was fungus growing on it and I was worried that it would infect my hands and feet.
“Of course there were many bugs and spiders, but the worst thing was that the light was on 24 hours a day and there was constant noise. Maybe from a machine to prevent me from sleeping. It didn’t work; I can sleep anywhere.
“I had no access to the yard. Only one bath during all this period.
“I know that a lot of people have been through worse and people expect you to be tortured in the prison; I wasn’t tortured. It was just disgusting.”
In the final two days Kefah Quzmar decided to go on hunger strike. This was because he was so frustrated that the guards would not let him have access to his university books so that he could study for his final exams. Fortunately, on the day after his 27th birthday, the court ruled that he could be released.
“I don’t know why they let me out specifically. I know there was a lot of pressure from people who were writing to MPs [internationally] and in the media and also many people who were getting angry and campaigning on Facebook.”
As I’ve written for MEMO previously, since the schism with Hamas in 2007, the PA in Ramallah has grown increasingly authoritarian. It has cracked down on political opponents, prorogued democracy and even turned on its own former leadership. Let’s be clear though, as a non-sovereign body born out of the flawed peace process with Israel and rife with corruption, the PA was never really a strong bastion of liberty, but at least in the past there were efforts to preserve the idea that it represented some kind vision of how life could be different from that under prolonged occupation.
Over the 23 years since it was formed, however, any hope placed in the PA has been dashed. Not only has the “peace process” been revealed as a “bill of goods”, but the PA leadership – with the support and backing of various western intelligence agencies – has grown progressively more dependent on the use of force in order to keep itself in power.
As a 2011 article by Aisling Byrne argued, such an outcome represents no real path to liberation or real sovereignty. Rather, it demonstrates the entrenchment of systematic corruption. “A police state is not a state,” wrote Byrne. “It is a form of larceny: of people’s rights, aspirations and sacrifices, for the personal benefit of an élite.”
Moreover, as Kefah Quzmar knows, even though his experience was an example of blatant and absurd abuse of power by PA security forces, it hardly represents the worst of such abuse. “I’m not the first. I’m sure I’m not the last. I am sure they will take more people. For example, Hamas people go through this all the time. I don’t like Hamas, but I can see this is a ridiculous situation between them and Fatah.”
Quzmar was eventually released without charge but there is a very real chance that this could happen again. When I asked him if he was concerned about this he said that it’s possible but he is not worried. “The investigator warned me when I was released not to write more stuff or they might send Fatah guys to beat me up. I was able to be strong inside because I counted on my friends and family and they supported me, but I don’t want this to be personal; this should be about anyone who gets arrested or goes through this bullshit.”
It is worth repeating that all of this, in all its pernicious absurdity, happened because the Western-backed, CIA– and MI6-linked PA Security Forces – which have been trained for years during the “War on Terror” – were profoundly intimidated by nothing more than a Facebook status update. You really couldn’t make it up.