Killing in the West Bank Exposes a Furtive War

Hamas Cleric Apparently Tortured to Death in Custody of Rival Palestinian Authority

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 17, 2008; A14

KOBAR, West Bank – When the preacher’s body arrived at the hospital, his back was scarlet where he had been whipped with pipes. His legs were black with bruises. His wrists were sliced open and bloodied.

The Palestinian Authority, which had been holding Majd Barghouti in an intelligence-service prison for the previous week, soon declared that the popular Hamas imam, or prayer leader, had died of a heart attack.

But eyewitness accounts, photographs, video and an independent Palestinian investigation released this month suggested that he was tortured to death during his February detention.

“They wanted the sheik to admit something he wasn’t going to admit,” said Midhat Amriyeh, a 27-year-old laborer who said he witnessed Barghouti’s death from a nearby cell. “There was no way out.”

Barghouti’s killing offers a rare glimpse into a subterranean war that plays out daily in the West Bank, where two Palestinian factions vie for power. Fatah, which dominates the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority, uses its power in the West Bank to keep Hamas at a disadvantage — banning Hamas newspapers, breaking up Hamas demonstrations and shutting down Hamas-affiliated social services groups. It has also arrested hundreds of Hamas activists in the West Bank.

Barghouti, who was suspected of involvement in Hamas’s military wing, is believed to have been the first to die under interrogation since tensions between the two movements flared into street fighting when Hamas took sole control of the Gaza Strip last June. But the independent report found evidence that torture is regularly used against political prisoners in Palestinian Authority facilities.

“It’s very shameful. The fact that the Israelis tortured us should mean that we never torture each other,” said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian politician who co-wrote the report. He is not directly related to the preacher. “Unfortunately,” he said, “some people are repeating what they themselves have been subjected to.”

A top Palestinian Authority official, Hussein al-Sheik, said the Palestinian Authority was not trying to kill Majd Barghouti. “We don’t have a policy of killing people,” he said. “Our policy is to maintain security.” The Authority’s intelligence service declined several requests to comment.

Congress last year appropriated $86 million in assistance to the Authority’s security services, but their officers remain undertrained and their facilities outdated. The investigative report released this month demanded that officials “take steps to punish all those who ordered torture, executed torture, assisted in torturing, supervised torturing or concealed acts of torture.”

Sheik and other Authority officials say they need to take strong action to counter Hamas, a radical Islamist movement. The Authority is clearly worried that Hamas has ambitions to extend its power beyond Gaza and into the other half of what could one day be a Palestinian state — the West Bank.

In January 2006, Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections. After a power-sharing arrangement crumbled last June, Hamas fighters routed Palestinian Authority security forces.

Historically, Hamas has been stronger in Gaza while Fatah has dominated the West Bank. But the trend lines of Palestinian public opinion in recent months have defied geography: Hamas’s popularity is surging across the board and Fatah’s is waning. Hamas’s appeal relies in part on a militant response to what it sees as Israeli aggression, such as the makeshift rockets that Gazans fire into southern Israel, while Fatah engages in peace talks with Israel that have yielded scant progress.

Fatah members in the West Bank tend to be organized in secretive cells centered on mosques, Sheik said. The cells are gaining support, he said, hoarding arms and preparing for the day when they are strong enough to carry out operations against their rivals.

According to Sheik, Majd Barghouti was at the heart of one such cell. “He wasn’t just a religious person,” Sheik said.

In between beatings during his interrogation, Barghouti was asked repeatedly by his jailers where he was stockpiling arms and why he was planning a coup against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, according to Amriyeh and another man imprisoned with the preacher.

Friends and family of Barghouti deny that he was ever involved in violence, though they readily acknowledge that he was a fervent member of Hamas. He was, they said, heavily involved in the organization’s social services network, distributing food and clothing to Kobar’s poorer families.

He was also a charismatic speaker, leading the sermons in the largest of three mosques in this tiny village in the central West Bank. He had a habit of speaking out against the Palestinian Authority’s crackdowns on Hamas, and his followers say that probably brought him unwanted attention from the intelligence service’s informants.

Days after his death in late February, dozens of mourners packed a community center in Kobar, eating from steaming plates of chicken and passing around cellphone video of Barghouti’s bloodied body, which had apparently been filmed by a hospital worker.

A picture of Barghouti hung alongside Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin’s, with an inscription: “They martyred you.” Yassin was killed by Israel in 2004; the inscription appeared to equate Israeli and Palestinian Authority violence against Hamas.

Barghouti, 44 and the father of eight, had finished leading evening prayers Feb. 14 when two cars full of plainclothes Palestinian Authority intelligence officers pulled up in front of the mosque. As rain poured down, they grabbed him, hustled him into the car and sped off, according to Omar Barghouti, a friend who witnessed the arrest.

At first, Omar Barghouti thought the imam had been taken by the Israelis. But then he noticed that one of the officers was a Palestinian with whom he had served 22 years in an Israeli jail. “Why are you doing this?” Omar Barghouti said he shouted as the cars pulled away. “This is why you were kicked out of Gaza. Haven’t you learned?”

From there, Barghouti was taken to a detention center near Ramallah. His fellow prisoners said he was held for hours in a stress position known as shabah, in which his hands were handcuffed behind his back and hung from the wall, with only his toes touching the ground. Periodically, his interrogators beat him with a heavy plastic pipe. In answer to their questions, he said repeatedly, “God will forgive you.”

Barghouti was denied the chance to see a lawyer and was never formally charged with a crime, according to the investigation.

After less than a week, guards had to help him to the bathroom, according to witnesses. “He was in a very bad state,” said Azzam Fahal, 35, who was in a cell a few feet away from Barghouti. “He was like a small boy walking for the first time.”

On his eighth night in custody, Barghouti called out in a faint voice that he was vomiting blood. He died the next day.

The news sparked an angry demonstration in Kobar. At Barghouti’s funeral, mourners chanted slogans against the Palestinian Authority and, in a rare sight for the West Bank, waved the green flag of Hamas.

Some called for a revolt. But Omar Barghouti, who was not directly related to the preacher, went to his friend’s old mosque to urge calm. Having spent nearly half his life in an Israeli jail, the 55-year-old did not want to see the rest of it consumed by a war among his own people.

“There are elements that want to escalate,” he said. “But our goal is to put down this fire.”

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.


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