At 4pm on Friday, 15 March 2019, thousands of Palestinians marched in protests in various areas around the Gaza Strip to demand an end to rising costs of living. In some incidents, protesters set tires on fire; however, the protests were largely peaceful, with chants against imposed taxes and unaffordable living costs. The protesters were met with excessive use of force by police and security personnel, some in uniform but others in civilian clothes. Protesters were attacked with batons and many were injured as tens of were taken to detention.
In the Middle Gaza district, hundreds of people, including women and children, assembled for 30 minutes near the service taxi station in the center of Deir Al-Balah town when another group of people who are believed to be supporters of Hamas approached the protesters and began shouting different slogans. The two groups clashed, throwing stones at each other. A person from the second group shot live fire into the air.
About 20 minutes later, a large police force came to the scene and dispersed protesters, using batons to beat them. The police chased protesters through the alleyways of the refugee camp in Deir Al-Balah and they detained tens of them. Others suffered from different wounds during attacks by the police, including journalist Mahmoud Al-Louh, 29, a resident of Al Nuseirat refugee camp and a correspondent to Al-Sha’ab Radio, who suffered bruises on his right hand.
The police and security forces broke into a number of houses in Deir Al-Balah, including those of journalist Osama Al-Kahlout, 34. Inside this house were Mr Jameel Serhan, 47, a lawyer and the director of the Independent Commission of Human Rights (ICHR) in Gaza, and Baker Al-Turkman, 38, the ICHR’s complaints coordinator. According to Serhan and Al-Turkman, they introduced themselves in their professional capacities and they also were wearing their vests, clearly marking them as human rights defenders. The police confiscated the two men’s phones and took them out of the house. A policeman from another force saw them and there attacked Serhan, hitting him in the face. When Serhan denounced the attack, a group of policemen attacked him and Al-Turkman as well as Al-Kahlout, using batons. The three men were taken to the Deir Al-Balah police station, from where Serhan and Al-Turkman were transferred to Al-Aqsa Hospital in an ambulance of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.
Serhan suffered from wounds in the head and bruises in his left hand as well as over his body, while Al-Turkman suffered from bruises in the head, back, and right hand. During their diagnoses, a policeman informed them they were under arrest. They were then released after half an hour and went to Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City to resume their medical treatment.
In the same context, security forces continued dispersing protesters in North Gaza, Gaza City, Rafah, Khan Younis, and Al-Nuseirat. Protesters were chased and assaulted, with tens arrested. Protesters’ phones were confiscated and journalists’ access to the protests locations was denied, apparently to restrict any coverage of violations. Different groups of people have been protesting in different areas when this press release was published, with the authorities in Gaza responding with force and an escalating campaign of arbitrary summons orders and detentions.
Al Mezan strongly condemns the continuing violations of the rights to peaceful assembly, to freed expression and from arbitrary detention, as well as the wounding and bruising of human rights defenders, journalists, and protesters. The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as in Article 26 of the Palestinian Basic Law (PBL) and in Articles 2, 3, 4, and 5 of the Palestinian Law No. 12 of 1998 on Public Assemblies. Under Palestinian law, citizens organizing public or private assemblies are not required to secure prior permission from competent authorities. The right to freedom of expression and free opinion has been protected in Article 19 of PBL. The freedom of journalists and media practitioners has also been guaranteed in Article 27 of PBL.
Al Mezan demands that the detainees be released and summons orders be ceased immediately, and calls on the de facto authorities in Gaza to enforce the law and honor Palestine’s legal obligations under international law, namely to protect citizens’ rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of opinion and expression, as well as freedom from arbitrary arrest. The attack on ICHR staff proves that the use of violence on protesters has no justification as protests have been peaceful.
The de facto authorities are under obligations to properly investigate the committed violations of protesters and journalists’ rights, to hold to account those responsible for breaching provisions of Palestinian and international law, and to ensure the freedoms of peaceful assembly, of opinion, of press, and from arbitrary detention are all protected and promoted.