RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- The Palestinian human rights ombudsman has been given a green light by the Hamas government to resume its work in the Gaza Strip, after their monitoring activities were blocked for several years.
Head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, Ahmad Harb, told Ma'an his visit to Gaza last week was "historic".
His ICHR delegation entered Gaza's internal security prison after a four-year hiatus, as well as the main civil jail in Gaza, which had not been monitored for two years.
ICHR met with Hamas officials and have agreed on regular prison visits and a full resumption of their work activities, Harb told Ma'an.
The treatment of detainees took on new urgency after a 27-year-old man died in police custody in Khan Younis, south Gaza, on Oct. 16.
Police say Mohammad Said Al-Zaqzouq committed suicide, and a police source told the Palestinian Center for Human Rights that officers gave him the blanket with which he later strangled himself.
Other inmates saw police beating Al-Zaqzouq with a stick on his feet, and around his body with a hose, according to testimonies collected by PCHR.
Harb said such cases highlight the importance of conducting independent investigations in Palestinian jails. Five people died in custody in the Gaza Strip in 2011, and two have died in West Bank jails to date this year, according to ICHR statistics.Barred from Gaza jails
The human rights commission was established by late President Yasser Arafat in 1993 to monitor human rights complaints against the Palestinian government.
Since the Palestinian Authority split into rival administrations in the West Bank and Gaza in 2007, the ICHR joined unions, civil society and other public institutions in facing suspicions about their loyalty.
Hamas felt it was unduly criticized by ICHR reports, blamed the organization for international condemnation of the government's human rights record, and banned it from jail visits.
After US-based group Human Rights Watch released a damning report on arbitrary arrests and detention conditions in Gaza earlier this month, Hamas expressed outrage.
But the report, which urged Hamas to allow ICHR to visit its jails, may have prompted the government to restore the commission's access in order to defend its record.
Another key factor in the government's change in policy is the commission's credibility amongst Hamas leaders in the West Bank, who it has defended against abuses by the Fatah-led authority, Harb says.
When Hamas parliamentarians wrote to him praising the ICHR, Harb says he took the opportunity to respond, reminding the elected MPs that only speaking out when the rights of Hamas members are violated was not befitting of their role as representatives of all Palestinians.
He believes the MPs and other Hamas members were crucial in persuading their colleagues in Gaza to grant the ICHR access last week.
In addition to prison visits, Harb says ICHR's work has been hampered in Gaza by Hamas' refusal to respond to human rights complaints, or allow the ICHR to independently investigate reported abuses. He is positive that dialogue will now resume with government officials.Battle on two fronts
The commission has had greater access in the West Bank, where its headquarters are based, but the commissioner-general emphasizes that both Palestinian governments view human rights through the prism of their internal conflict.
In the West Bank, Fatah-affiliated officials accuse ICHR of giving Hamas legitimacy by addressing the government in Gaza, and vice versa with Hamas' government, Harb says.
"The two parties, they look at the superficialities of things, they don't look at the essential things of what they are doing, or the seriousness of the violations taking place," he told Ma'an.
"They pay attention to the connotations of the word, whether it gives legitimacy or doesn’t give legitimacy, where there is recognition or acknowledgment of this or against this, more than the real violations."
Harb says when he started as commissioner-general in 2011, he was "very cautious, but I found that this over cautiousness almost handicaps your work, you cannot do anything ... you spend your time in linguistics."
"Let the politicians fight each other endlessly. I hope that they will find a way of reconciling their differences, but I cannot go along with this," he says.
Officials on both sides also criticize the ICHR for focusing on Palestinian violations, in the context of violations perpetrated under Israel's occupation of the West Bank, and blockade and military assaults on Gaza.
"This question is brought up every time," Harb sighs, saying the commission clarifies at every opportunity that it is legally mandated to monitor internal Palestinian violations.'Emotional'
The commissioner-general was relieved that in last week's meetings with Hamas officials, the accusation of the ICHR undermining their legitimacy appeared to have been cleared up by previous contacts.
He declined to give his assessment of Gaza's detention policies, noting that the commission will soon issue a report on its findings, and that his three-hour visit to the two jails is far from a comprehensive picture.
Nevertheless, he describes meeting some of the 30-odd prisoners affiliated to Fatah in Gaza's internal security jail as "very emotional." They were incredibly relieved to talk to someone, and criticized not only their jailers but also Fatah, feeling they have been forgotten, Harb says.
They are mainly held in solitary cells, and under military jurisdiction, ironically using the 1979 law of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Fatah-dominated body of which Hamas is still not a member.
Typical charges, such as collaboration with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, will not hold up in a court of law, so detainees face lengthy detention without charge. One Fatah affiliate has been in jail for four years without trial, Harb notes.
Both Fatah and Hamas deny they hold political prisoners, saying inmates are wanted for criminal charges not their political affiliation. ICHR notes that such detentions in the West Bank and Gaza regularly circumvent due process, and the charges are not generally convincing.
Another problem in Gaza is inadequate detention facilities, Harb says. He visited cells around 5-meters wide, crammed with up to 36 inmates. "I don’t know how they sleep, I don’t even know how they find a place to stand," he says.
"I saw some scenes I really couldn’t bear."'No civil oversight'
The Hamas government is building a new, modern jail in Gaza City, and assured him conditions were even worse before they took power from Fatah in 2007.
Harb was also delighted that several Fatah-affiliated prisoners he had met were released shortly after his visit. He praises Hamas' welfare payments to the families of prisoners who are breadwinners, around 600 shekels ($155) a month.
The commissioner-general is now particularly keen to follow-up complaints of torture in Gaza's jails, and examine Hamas' claim that it has disciplined hundreds of security officers for abuses.
But Harb says as far as he is aware, accountability for human rights violations by security officials is just as weak in Gaza as it is in the West Bank.
Gaza security officials scaremonger about "Fatah terrorists", while West Bank officers warn of a new "Hamas coup," to justify their actions, he says.
"If there is no civil oversight over the security, the security agencies tend to all the time to hide the truth and to exempt themselves from any responsibilities."
"And there is no civil accountability (over security forces), in the West Bank and in Gaza."