The issue of the Palestinian detainees in Saudi Arabia seems to have missed the agenda of the discussions. For Palestinian leaders, Saudi money and political backing far outweigh the fate of a few dozen Palestinians held without trial in an Arab country. Pictured: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visits Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz on December 30, 2015 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Thaer Ghanaim/Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images)
Dozens of Palestinians have been “disappearing” in Saudi Arabia in recent months and are believed are being held in detention in the kingdom’s prisons, according to Palestinian sources and international human rights organizations.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership in the West Bank, which regularly condemns Israel for arresting Palestinians suspected of involvement in terrorism and other anti-Israel activities, has been reluctant to speak out against the Saudi purge of Palestinians, ostensibly for security reasons, not to harm its relations with the kingdom.
The PA is not only keeping mum about the unprecedented Saudi crackdown, but it is also trying to prevent the families of the detainees from protesting in public. Last week, the PA’s Preventive Security Service summoned the family of Palestinian engineer Abdullah Odeh, being held in a Saudi prison, and warned them not to protest their son’s detention.
Odeh’s family was planning to arrive at a football match between Saudi Arabia’s national soccer team and the Palestinian national soccer team as part of the World Cup qualifier held on October 15 near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The family was warned that they would be beaten and arrested if they arrived at the Faisal al-Husseini Football Stadium to protest their son’s incarceration in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, the family was ordered to remove all social media posts denouncing the arrest of Odeh and calling for his release.
Odeh’s brother, Baraa, wrote on his Facebook page on September 6:
“My brother, engineer Abdullah Odeh, has been held in a Saudi prison for the past month and we don’t know anything about him. This is not how a prisoner should be treated in an Islamic country.”
In another Facebook post on September 11, Odeh’s brother wrote:
“My dear brother, engineer Abdullah. I hope you ate doing well and in good health. I wanted to let you know that we have appealed to the [Palestinian Authority] president, the government and ministries and embassies to get information about your condition… but they don’t care because your life, and the lives of those with you, are too cheap for them to pay any attention. Why is an expatriate who goes to earn a living being held without trial?”
Last week, Baraa Odeh was forced by the Palestinian Authority security forces to remove another Facebook post deemed offensive to the Saudis. In that post, he commented on the warm welcome the Saudi national soccer team received upon its arrival in Ramallah ahead of the match with the Palestinians. He wrote:
“My dear brother, engineer Abdullah. I apologize to you. My people gave a warm welcome to the Saudi national soccer team. We are proud of this reception. A Palestinian family has been subjected to injustice by Saudi Arabia, which has been holding my brother in detention without trial for the past two months. My brother worked as an electrical engineer in Saudi Arabia for five years. Tomorrow I will go to the stadium to hold a peaceful protest and carry my brother’s photo.”
The Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor (Euro-Med), a youth-led independent organization that advocates for human rights across Europe and the Middle East, said it has collected names of about 60 Palestinians detained by the Saudi authorities in recent months.
The organization said that it has documented testimonies from 11 Palestinian families whose sons have been detained or were forcibly “disappeared” during their stay in, or visit to, Saudi Arabia. The detainees include students, residents, academics and businessmen, Euro-Med said in a statement, adding:
“In fact, those people were isolated from the outside world without any specific indictments against them. They were not brought before the public prosecution, nor allowed to communicate with their relatives, or communicate with their lawyers.”
Selin Yasar, Euro-Med’s communication and media officer, said that the “campaign in Saudi Arabia of arresting Palestinians is but one in a long series of human rights violations in the country.”
The family of one of the Palestinian detainees in Saudi Arabia told the organization that they were prevented from asking about his fate or the place of detention. “My biggest heartache is not knowing anything about my husband,” the detainee’s wife complained. “I don’t know if he is alive, dead, healthy or tortured, and this made his disappearance more painful for my children, his parents, and his siblings.”
Another Palestinian family whose son is being held in Saudi Arabia said they lost contact with him last July; since then, they have heard nothing about his fate or whereabouts. During the same month, the Saudi authorities also arrested a 60-year-old Palestinian businessman who has been living in Jeddah for decades. Euro-Med reported that one of the detainee’s sons said that the Saudi authorities confiscated his money, threatened his family members to keep silent, and prevented them from leaving Saudi Arabia. Even Palestinians who went to Mecca for the Islamic pilgrimage (hajj) have fallen victim to the Saudi “security-motivated” detentions. According to Euro-Med, the families of the detainees remain silent on the matter “in the hope that the nightmare of enforced disappearance would come to an end, and they would return to normal life.”
Euro-Med wrote in another statement:
“The Euro-Med considered the practices of the Saudi authorities a flagrant violation of the requirements of justice, which guaranteed everyone the right to a fair trial including knowing charges against them, the right to defense and access to a lawyer…
“It also affirms that the relevant authorities do not comply with the international legal rules that guarantee the simplest rights of litigation for any individual, the most important of which are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
While the PA leadership has been silent over the “enforced disappearances” of Palestinians in Saudi Arabia, other Palestinians, including Hamas, the terrorist group in control of the Gaza Strip, have been vocal in their protests and are calling on the Saudi authorities to release the detainees. Hamas says that one of its leaders, Mohammed al-Khoudari, was also arrested several months ago by the Saudi authorities. Earlier this week, the families of some of the detainees protested in the Gaza Strip against the arrest of their sons in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi authorities have offered no explanation for the widespread campaign targeting Palestinians in the kingdom. It appears that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his officials in Ramallah fear that any criticism of this behavior would jeopardize the financial handouts and political support they receive from Saudi Arabia. Abbas and the PA leadership have long tip-toed around any Arab country that mistreats Palestinians or subjects them to discriminatory laws, as in Lebanon.
Abbas was scheduled to arrive in Riyadh this week for talks with King Salman bin Abdel Aziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on ways of strengthening bilateral relations. The issue of the Palestinian detainees in Saudi Arabia seems to have missed the agenda of the discussions. For Palestinian leaders, Saudi money and political backing far outweigh the fate of a few dozen Palestinians held without trial in an Arab country.
It is only Palestinians who are held by Israel for terrorist-related crimes who Abbas and his friends remember to mention in their endless litanies of complaints. Why spoil relations with Saudi Arabia, one of the PA’s prime cash cows, because of a handful of Palestinians who, together with their families, are being denied basic rights in an Arab country that continues, in public, to state its full support for the Palestinians and what they perceive as their rights?
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.