Dozens of men believed to be plainclothes Palestinian security personnel broke up a gathering of activists opposed to new Mideast peace talks on Wednesday, reflecting the Palestinian leadership's sense of vulnerability as it prepares to launch negotiations with Israel next week.
President Mahmoud Abbas has come under widespread criticism at home for caving in to US pressure to join the negotiations without an Israeli pledge to freeze all construction on land claimed by Palestinians.
The attempt to stifle dissent appeared to reflect concerns that the unhappiness could escalate into public unrest.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, about 200 activists from various opposition groups had gathered in a meeting hall to issue a declaration opposing the peace talks when dozens of young men sitting in the audience stood up, hoisted posters of Abbas and shouted slogans in support of the Palestinian leader.
The meeting quickly broke up in a confused scene of shouting and finger-pointing, without any resolution being approved.
One of the organizers, independent lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti, and activists from other factions said the young age of the men, the well-organized nature of the protest and the fact that uniformed policemen were waiting outside to question activists showed the men were security officers.
The crackdown was a "stark violation of human rights by the Palestinian Authority," Barghouti said.
Adnan Damiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security forces, denied the charge, but the official Palestinian news agency WAFA said Abbas has ordered an investigation into the incident.
'Meeting is just a start'
One leading human rights group, Al-Haq, said police grabbed one of its members and confiscated his camera and injured another who came to his aid.
"Al-Haq has repeatedly denounced violations of human rights committed by Palestinian security forces. Today's incident is a further example of the increasing climate of violence and intimidation that is effectively transforming Palestinian society into a police state," the group said in a statement.
Abbas is under fire from many Palestinians for agreeing to speak directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads a hard-line government, especially without winning a complete halt to Israeli settlement construction.
Many Palestinians fear the Americans are biased toward Israel and that Abbas will come away from the negotiations empty-handed.
A 10-month slowdown in West Bank settlement construction by Israel is set to expire at the end of September, and the government is divided over whether to extend it. The Palestinians have warned they will pull out of the new round of negotiations if building is resumed.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party is a major partner in the governing coalition, said Wednesday that maintaining tight restrictions on building would "punish" tens of thousands of Israelis living in the settlements.
"We don't need to create unnecessary conflicts but we don't need to punish and we don't need to fold either," he said.
Critics have accused the Palestinian Authority, which has repeatedly postponed elections, of creeping toward authoritarianism. Abbas' forces have periodically prevented rallies and protests of other groups perceived to be interfering with his political objectives. Early last year, West Bank police quickly broke up rallies protesting Israel's offensive in Gaza, which is ruled by Abbas' rivals in the militant Hamas movement.
Abbas, a political moderate who is supported by the West, has repeatedly cracked down on Hamas since it seized the Gaza Strip by force in 2007. He has always said the clampdown was linked to security concerns, and has denied restricting freedom of expression.
Abdel Rahim Mallouh, one of the organizers of Wednesday's opposition gathering, said the members had hoped to kick off a wider campaign against peace negotiations.
"The meeting is just a start. One of our options is going to the street and demonstrating against negotiations while settlements are being built," Mallouh said.