RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Nearly two weeks after he was severely beaten by Palestinian security forces, Akil Awawdeh is still short of breath, still shielding his bruised chest with his hand and still haunted by the screams inside the police station.
“Never in my life have I seen such brutality,” said Awawdeh, a local radio reporter who has been covering Mideast unrest for more than a decade. “The sound of people screaming inside the police station, to this day I still hear it. It echoes in my head … I can’t forget.”
He was among several people who were beaten and detained at a police station on July 5, in one of the most violent incidents in weeks of protests against the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The demonstrations were sparked by the death of Nizar Banat, an outspoken critic of the PA who died shortly after being violently arrested by Palestinian security forces last month. The PA is widely seen as corrupt and increasingly authoritarian, and it has faced mounting dissent since calling off the first elections in 15 years in April.
Palestinian security forces, including what appeared to be plainclothes officers, violently dispersed the protesters, drawing expressions of concern from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the State Department.
Despite the crackdown, the US and European countries still view the PA as a crucial partner in managing the conflict, especially after the Gaza war in May. Western countries have trained and equipped PA security forces, who work with Israel to suppress Hamas and other armed groups — a policy that is extremely unpopular among Palestinians.
The security forces arrested at least six activists when they gathered in central Ramallah, where the PA is headquartered, on the evening of July 5. Family members, fearful that the detainees would meet the same fate as Banat, went to the police station to check on them.
Ubai Aboudi, a Palestinian-American civil society activist who was among those arrested, said his wife came with their three children, his 77-year-old father, who is a retired professor, and his brother. He said he and the original detainees were not physically abused, but that security officers turned their family members away.
“It wasn’t actually a political demonstration, the families were simply requesting to see us,” he said. His wife chanted “State of freedom, no political arrests!”
Awawdeh said he and a colleague arrived at the sit-in and began filming. When a security officer told them to stop filming they identified themselves as journalists but complied with the request, he said. Then riot police gathered in front of the station and an officer ordered everyone to leave within 10 minutes.
About three minutes later, the attack began.
Multiple witnesses said the police attacked everyone on the street — activists, journalists and observers — firing pepper spray, beating them with batons and pulling women by their hair.
Diala Ayesh, a human rights lawyer who was there as an observer, said she was handcuffed and dragged into the police station, and that some of the policemen harassed her and struck her on “sensitive places” on her body. She was among at least 15 people who were detained.
Once inside, Awawdeh and another man were dragged into a small room and severely beaten with batons. “I just kept telling them I’m a journalist,” Awawdeh said. “I told them from the moment I arrived that I was a journalist.”
He was left on the floor of the cell until a physician who was among those detained alerted the police, telling them his pulse was weak. He and the other man were hospitalized, and Awawdeh was treated for severe bruising on his chest. All the detainees were released over the next 24 hours.
More than a week later, Awawdeh was visibly shaken and seemed to struggle for air while recounting his experience to The Associated Press. He paused several times and held his hand to his chest throughout the interview.
Aboudi says his wife and children, a seven-year-old and five-year-old twins, were left on the street when their mother, grandfather and uncle were detained. He said they are “deeply traumatized.”
Palestinian officials have not commented publicly on the events of July 5. A police spokesman referred questions to a government spokesman, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Aboudi says Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called his father, who had once been his professor at Birzeit University, to apologize. “His apology is not accepted, because he promised accountability and we did not see any accountability,” Aboudi said.
Saleh Hijazi, the deputy regional director of Amnesty International, said the Palestinian Authority has attacked peaceful protesters in the past, going back at least to 2011. Israel also heavily restricts political activity in the occupied territories, and its security forces often clash with Palestinian protesters and detain prominent activists.
“Palestinians are getting it from both sides,” Hijazi said. “The message from both authorities, Israel being the one with ultimate power, is that there is no freedom of expression or assembly for Palestinians.”
If the PA’s crackdown is aimed at halting the protests, it hasn’t worked.
Demonstrators gathered in Ramallah again last Sunday, days after the attack on the sit-in. Awawdeh was back at his radio station this week and says he will continue to work as a reporter. Aboudi has been summoned to appear in court in September and could be taken into custody again, but he too says he is determined to continue his work.
“People are still shouting that we demand our freedom,” he said. “We want basic human rights, we want freedom, we want emancipation. We don’t care who has violated our rights, but these kinds of violations we will not tolerate.”
IMAGE: Palestinian journalist Akil Awawdeh poses for a portrait at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, July 14, 2021.