Home inFocus The Governance Issue (Fall 2023) What the Palestinians Need

What the Palestinians Need

Khaled Abu Toameh Fall 2023
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech during a rally marking the anniversary of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Photo: Fadi Arouri/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

Under the kleptocratic Palestinian Authority (PA) and the theocratic Hamas regimes, Palestinians have no freedom of speech and no independent or free media.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip live under two regimes that crack down on critics, and imprison and intimidate journalists, human rights activists and political opponents. Those who dare to criticize the Palestinian Authority or Hamas often face various forms of punishment, including torture and incarceration.

Take, for example, the case of legal expert Dr. Mohammed al-Talbani, who was forced to sign a pledge not to offend Hamas or its government on social media. The move came after he criticized death sentences issued by Hamas courts in the Gaza Strip.

Al-Talbani told the Palestinian news website Amad:

I received a call in which they [Hamas] asked me to come to the Shejaiya police station – the Cybercrime Investigation Department. There was a complaint against me for comments I made on my Facebook page about executions in the Gaza Strip. They had taken took a screenshot of these comments, and considered them as a mockery against Hamas.

Al-Talbani said that the interrogators also delivered a “veiled threat”: He had better not write anything against Hamas or else he would be summoned again.

They asked me to sign a pledge so that the complaint would not be transferred to the Public Prosecution and become an official case,” he recounted. “I agreed to sign the pledge that I will respect the Palestinian law and not offend the [Hamas] movement and the government.

In another incident in the Gaza Strip last May, Hamas security forces questioned songwriter and composer Massoud al-Draimli and five other people after they produced a video clip without receiving prior permission from the authorities. The video clip included a female singer – Hamas was furious.

Al-Draimli and his friends were forced to delete the song and sign a pledge not to perform any lyrical work without the approval of Hamas. Al-Dreimli later said:

I posted the video of the song on Facebook on Thursday, and an hour later, the [Hamas] General Investigation Service called me and ordered me to delete the video. They summoned me for interrogation about the participation of a girl in singing. They said that this is forbidden and that I did not obtain a permit to film the song.

The situation under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is not any better. There, Palestinian security forces continue to arrest, harass and intimidate political activists, university students and academics.

In only a few weeks, the PA security forces arrested and threatened a number of Palestinian political activists who called for reforms.

On November 7, Palestinian security officers broke up a press conference held by the activists in Ramallah.

Palestinian activist Omar Assaf said that the security officers cut off the electricity to stop the conference, and then used force to prevent him and his friends from completing it.

Fakhri Jaradat, another activist said:

The security forces raided the headquarters of the People’s Alliance for Change when the press conference started. They cut off the electricity, detained some participants. They also forced the journalists to stop covering the event.

A few days earlier, the Palestinian Authority security forces banned several activists from participating in a video conference organized by a group called the Palestinian Popular Conference (PPC) to protest against PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s hegemony over the Palestinian leadership and refusal to share powers.

Omar Assaf, the political activist, was arrested by Palestinian Authority security forces while he was on his way to prepare for the conference.

The Palestinian security services subsequently arrested another activist, Bashar Takrouri and confiscated the mobile phone of a third activist, Jamileh Abed. A number of journalists who came to cover the event were also detained by the security officers.

The PCC said that the crackdown is aiming to “silence the voices calling for the reform of the PLO.” It condemned the detention of the political activists and journalists and remarked that the crackdown “reinforces the national need to rebuild the PLO on democratic foundations to allow the revival of the Palestinian political system and preserve the rights and dignity of the Palestinians away from the hegemony of the security services.”

The Palestinian NGO Network and the Council of Human Rights Organizations also denounced the Palestinian Authority crackdown and said that peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are rights guaranteed in the Palestinian Basic Law.

“The principle of the rule of law is the basis of governance in Palestine, and all authorities, agencies, bodies, institutions and persons are subject to the law,” the two groups said.

We consider that prohibiting and preventing the holding of peaceful activities and gatherings, especially those calling for reforming the Palestinian political system, is a very dangerous step for the future of the existing Palestinian political system and for the social fabric. The continued restrictions on peaceful activities and assemblies harm the image of Palestine at the international level, and place Palestine in the company of violators of human rights.

The Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) condemned the crackdown, as well:

The commission considers that storming a closed meeting and depriving attendees of completing their press conference constitutes a violation of the citizens’ right to express their opinions freely, a violation of their right to political participation and to hold private meetings…

“The commission again calls on law enforcement and official authorities to respect freedom of expression, and to stop prosecuting or harassing opponents for expressing their opinions.

For the fifth time since 2019, Israelis, on November 1, voted in yet another national election. Their Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank and Gaza Strip can only watch with envy as Israelis practice a basic democratic right to elect their own leaders.

There are two reasons why, under the current circumstances, the Palestinians cannot hold elections.

First, the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip due to the ongoing dispute between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The PA fears that Hamas will not allow a free election in the Gaza Strip, especially in light of Hamas’ crackdown on its opponents there. Similarly, Hamas fears that the PA will not allow a free election in the West Bank, especially in light of the continued security crackdown on Hamas members there.

Second, the high probability that Hamas would win.

The last Palestinian presidential election took place in 2005, when Mahmoud Abbas was elected for a four-year term to succeed Yasser Arafat. Nearly two decades later, the 87-year-old Abbas remains in power – although his term in office expired in 2009.

During this period, Abbas saw nine Israeli prime ministers and presidents come and go through free and democratic elections.

The last Palestinian parliamentary election was held in 2006. It resulted in a victory for Abbas’s rivals in the Islamist movement Hamas.

A year later, Hamas expelled Abbas’s Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip through a violent coup. Since then, the Palestinian parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), has been paralyzed due to the (ongoing) dispute between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

By contrast, Israelis have since 2006 held nine elections for their parliament, the Knesset.

Just when it seemed that the Palestinians were finally headed toward holding parliamentary and presidential elections last year, Abbas decided to call off the vote.

Although he cited Israel’s alleged refusal to allow the Palestinians to include Jerusalem in the electoral process, it is widely believed that the real reason behind the decision was his fear that his corruption-riddled and fragmented Fatah faction would, as widely predicted, lose the elections to Hamas.

While one can understand why it is not a good idea to hold elections that would help Hamas extend its control to the West Bank, there is no reason why Palestinians should be arrested and intimidated for demanding freedom of expression and an end to corruption.

Unsurprisingly, violations committed by Palestinians against Palestinians are virtually always ignored by the Western media and the international community. Such abuses are of no interest to Westerners because they cannot be blamed on Israel. By turning a blind eye to the violations, the international community and communications  media effectively incentivize the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to continue their repressive measures against their own people.

Sadly, it does not look as if the Palestinians are coming any closer to freedom of speech or freedom of assembly – unless it is to denounce Israel. Rather, as their corrupt and incompetent leaders clearly do not care about their well-being, it looks as if they are going in exactly the opposite direction.

While, literally across the street, the Israelis have free debate in newspapers, quarrelsome programs on television and protests, the Palestinians continue to find themselves arrested, silenced and terrorized for daring to demand the freedoms they see every day next door.

Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem. This article is reprinted with permission of the Gatestone Institute.