- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 31, 2010

RAMALLAH, West Bank | The rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have clamped down harder on opponents and critics in recent months — deepening a nasty split that could prevent Palestinian statehood even if peace talks with Israel kicking off this week succeed against long odds.

Reports by Palestinian rights groups highlight a surprising symmetry in the abuse that the U.S.-backed government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and his Iranian-supported rivals Hamas in Gaza inflict on each other.

Both governments carry out arbitrary arrests, ban rivals from travel, exclude them from civil service jobs and suppress opposition media, the rights groups say. Torture methods in West Bank and Gaza lockups include beatings and tying up detainees in painful positions.

Hamas and Mr. Abbas’ Fatah organization have harassed each other ever since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized Gaza in 2007. However, the crackdowns have become more sweeping in recent months as each aims to strengthen its grip on its respective territory.

Security agents in the West Bank recently broke up a meeting of independents opposed to Mr. Abbas’ decision to resume peace talks with Israel, despite government claims that it targets only militants who pose security threats.

In Gaza, Hamas is pushing legislation that is seen as an attempt to take over and silence the Independent Palestinian Commission for Human Rights.

“In both the West Bank and Gaza, we are going toward a … regime in which the security forces intervene in everything,” said Shahwan Jabareen of the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq.

For Gaza resident Assad Saftawi, 21, this has meant four stints in detention after writing an article criticizing Hamas for taxing cigarettes. Heart patient Mohammed Nahhal, a Fatah official, said Hamas prevented him from leaving Gaza for a medical checkup in Jordan, even after he obtained Israeli permission to leave the blockaded territory.

In the West Bank, Nawaf Amr, producer for Al Quds TV, a pro-Hamas satellite station, said his West Bank correspondents face frequent harassment, including having tapes seized and being called for interrogation. Hamas supporter Munir Morie, a 25-year-old carpenter, said he was tortured for a month this spring and still suffers from joint pain.

With each incident, the wedge is hammered deeper and the hostility grows between the two halves of what is meant to be a future Palestine, just as the U.S. relaunches Middle East talks at the White House this week in hopes of reaching an agreement within a year.

The talks aim to create a Palestinian state, but it appears unlikely that any deal could be implemented as long as the split persists, particularly if Hamas — shunned by Israel and the West as a terrorist organization — remains in charge in Gaza.

In the West Bank, touted by the international community as the cradle of a democratic Palestine, rights violations committed in the name of protecting that vision could end up destroying it, rights activists say.

Both sides have strong motives for keeping down their rivals.

Mr. Abbas fears a Hamas takeover of the West Bank and needs to keep the militants in check to maintain international support. Hamas appears increasingly intolerant of domestic challenges, both because of its isolation and its fundamentalist ideology.

Hamas is increasingly targeting independents and civil groups, which provide key alternative voices in the territory. Hamas has broken up more than 100 groups in Gaza that were once controlled by Fatah loyalists, said Hamdi Shakoura, who leads the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

Hamas recently banned anyone who held a government job before the group took over Gaza — meaning, mainly Fatah loyalists — from serving on the boards of such groups.

The government also stepped up its campaign to impose a strict version of Islam on Gaza’s 1.5 million people, most recently banning women from smoking water pipes in public and ordering mannequins wearing lingerie out of display windows.

The crackdown by Mr. Abbas’ government focuses largely on Islamists, and robust political debate still flourishes in some niches. Still, dozens of journalists have been detained or harassed in both territories, and each side bans the other’s newspapers.

The Abbas government said last fall that it was halting abuse in its prisons. Rights groups say it abated for a time, but complaints of torture, though not as widespread, have resurfaced.

Hamas activist Nouh Hreish said he was arrested and tortured for a week in December and that his family faced repercussions: His brother couldn’t get his taxi license renewed and another relative was fired from a teaching job.

“Today, people have the feeling that they live in a police state,” Mr. Hreish said.

Both governments insist that they target those who pose potential security threats. They say abuses are the work of individual officers, and violators are punished.

“We don’t permit two things: weapons and money laundering,” Mr. Abbas recently told reporters. “Aside from those two things, anyone can do anything he wants.”

Still, both sides appear to have carried out ideological purges.

Hamas gradually moved loyalists into teaching jobs after pro-Fatah teachers went on strike. The West Bank government has fired about 2,500 civil servants, most of them teachers, since 2007, said West Bank Hamas leader Mahmoud Ramahi.

Said Abu Ali, the West Bank interior minister, said many teachers have Hamas sympathies, but only those suspected of breaking the law, including by engaging in incitement, are targeted.

“This is a very sensitive sector,” he said. “We will not allow our society to turn into a Taliban one.”

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