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Protest, arrests in Gaza over closure of youth organization

Dec. 5, 2010 6:43 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 7, 2010 9:45 A.M.)
By Jared Malsin

GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Palestinian police detained at least 13 young people who were protesting Hamas authorities' closure of the Sharek Youth Forum, a large independent NGO in Gaza Sunday.

Police spokesman Ayman Al-Batniji said 13 young men were taken into custody for holding a demonstration without a permit from the Ministry of Interior. He said the male detainees would be freed by sundown without being charged with a crime, while an unspecified number of female demonstrators had already been released.

The Gaza government shut down Sharek last Tuesday citing an ongoing criminal investigation into the group's activities and members. Sharek officials say the shutdown is a nakedly political attempt to crack down a liberal-minded institution.

One of the protesters, Ebaa Rezeq, told Ma'an that between 30 and 60 youths arrived outside the organization's offices around noon on Sunday holding signs. She said plainclothes government officers were waiting for the demonstrators, and ordered the group to speak with officials in the attorney general's office before holding the demonstration.

As the demonstrators walked from Sharek's office toward the attorney general's office, Rezeq said, police in jeeps arrived, ordering the group to disperse, then arresting several people.

"They were shouting at us 'we will beat you up and arrest you if you don't go home,'" she said. She said police also "hit and attacked" one female demonstrator.

After being dispersed by the police, Rezeq said the remaining protesters gathered outside the French Cultural Center, where again police arrived, arresting several more youths.

Rezeq estimated the total number of people arrested at more than 20, while another observer at the protest put the number at between 15 and 20.

After nightfall, protesters said three people were still in custody: Muhammad Ash-Sheikh Yousef, Assad As-Saftawi, and Mustafa Al-Ghoul.

Rezeq added that the student demonstration was not backed by any political party and was intended only as an expression of solidarity with the Sharek Youth Forum. "We are the kind of people who believe that these kind of actions are wrong, including closing Sharek," she said.

'Democracy' agenda

The UN-funded Sharek organization, which focuses on empowerment and capacity building among Palestinian youth in the West Bank and Gaza, has denounced the closure of its Gaza branch as an assault on an independent organization.

Sharek co-founder Sufian Mshasha told the Ramallah-based website Palestine Monitor that the closure was "prompted by our agenda of democracy, social development, and our insistence on holding activities for both genders."

The organization said its Gaza manager, Muheib Shaath has been summoned 15 times for interrogation by Hamas-allied police. Mshasha said the vast majority of the questioning focused on mixed-gender activities.

A summer camp run by Sharek in partnership with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was attacked in May.

Mshasha also said: "Our director is an observant Muslim, our IT technician wears a burqa. Almost all the women wear traditional Islamic dress and all our volunteers are from Gaza."

In a statement on its website, Sharek also disputed the legal basis for the closure, citing the Palestinian Charitable Societies and Nongovernmental Organizations Law of 2000, which says the closure of an organization must be based on a court ruling.

Gaza Attorney General Muhammad Al-Abed told the website Falasteen Al-An that Sharek was only closed temporarily while authorities continued an investigation into the organization. He refused to describe the nature of the investigation or any potential charges against the group.

"We do not want to disclose details in order to preserve the integrity of the investigation," Al-Abed was quoted as saying.

An independent observer with a leading NGO in Gaza told Ma'an that in fact, since the Attorney General is part of the judiciary in the Palestinian system, he legally does have the power to close organizations like Sharek, but that the closure was certainly a political move.

The Hamas government has closed a number of NGOs in Gaza since taking full control of Gaza in June 2007. Other organizations have remained open while allowing Hamas to place members on their boards of directors.

Since 2007 the Fatah-dominated government in the West Bank has also closed more than 300 Hamas and Islamic-linked charities and NGOs.

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