Abbas and Palestinian Authority increase campaign to silence dissent

Ramallah - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (AFP)

Dalal Yassine

Mondoweiss  /  August 12, 2021

The PA has announced new moves to limit freedom of expression for Palestinians already living under Israel’s occupation. Mahmoud Abbas hopes to extinguish criticism, but these repressive policies will only generate even greater hostility.

Late last month, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Council of Ministers announced a new decision to limit freedom of expression for Palestinians already living under Israel’s occupation. The PA eliminated Article 22 of the “Code of Conduct and Ethics for Public Service,” which stated that public employees have the right to express their opinion verbally or in writing, including on social media. Article 22’s only condition was that employees note it was their personal opinion and not that of the government agency where they worked. This is the latest move by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to further curtail the few freedoms Palestinians have and strengthen his tenuous hold on power. 

The PA’s decision comes on the heels of the torture and murder of activist Nizar Banat. In response to a wave of protests over the assassination, PA security forces and thugs aligned with Abbas’s Fatah movement attacked demonstrators. This was followed by the arrests and intimidation of activists as well as journalists, and the employees of legal assistance and human rights organizations. To prevent protests from spreading, Abbas is hoping to extinguish criticism from inside and outside the PA and Fatah. 

Article 22 protected public servants from disciplinary prosecutions by the heads of the PA’s departments and governmental institutions. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh justified abolishing the article by claiming that freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Palestinian Basic Law. The Basic Law was supposed to be a temporary Constitution, but it has become permanent. In addition, the PA’s institutions are guided primarily by the Code of Professional Conduct and not the Basic Law. Although Article 19 of the Basic Law prohibits infringing freedom of opinion and the right of expression in all forms, the PA consistently violates these rights. 

After abolishing Article 22, actions were taken against internal critics. One of the most prominent was Ehab Bessaiso, President of the Palestinian National Library and former Minister of Culture. Bessaiso criticized the killing of Banat on social media and was dismissed from his position. According to the leading Palestinian human rights organization, Al-Haq, a number of public officials were summoned by their superiors and were questioned about their statements on social media. In addition, the Palestinian Preventive Security Services interrogated Palestinians who expressed opinions about recent events.

The PA is the largest employer on the West Bank and the heads of departments and governmental bodies are largely drawn from Abbas’s Fatah movement. Abolishing Article 22 is meant to ensure their compliance and loyalty. It also extends to their family members who are dependent on PA salaries. 

Abbas has grown more desperate and authoritarian since splits emerged in the Fatah movement over planned elections. In March, Nasser al-Qudwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew, announced he was running in the scheduled Palestinian Parliamentary elections on his own electoral list. Al-Qudwa’s “Freedom” list was endorsed by Marwan al-Barghouti, the imprisoned Fatah popular leader. Abbas retaliated by dismissing al-Qudwa from the board of directors of the Yasser Arafat Foundation and expelling him from Fatah. In early May, Abbas cancelled the Parliamentary elections and they have not been rescheduled. The Freedom list was popular among members of Fatah and there is increasing resentment within the movement over Abbas’s actions. 

Abbas and the PA have a long and notorious history of human rights abuses and passing laws that undermine Palestinian rights. The Cyber Crime Law has been used to silence online criticism and threaten journalists. Under this law, public prosecutors issued a warrant for Nizar Banat that resulted in his arrest and murder.

An official committee was created to investigate Banat’s murder and 14 Palestinian security personnel were arrested. Banat’s family has yet to receive the death certificate and is currently working with local and international human rights organizations to prepare a judicial memorandum to be submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC). An ICC investigation would be a major embarrassment for Abbas and the PA. To prevent this from occurring, Abbas is attempting to resolve the issue through tribal intermediaries. However, Banat’s family has rejected reconciliation attempts. Meanwhile, they have been monitored and harassed by the PA’s security services. 

Abbas has relied on U.S. and Israeli support to maintain his rule. But after 16 years, American support may finally be weakening. During a recent UN Security Council session, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, expressed concern over “recent reports of the Palestinian Authority acting to restrict Palestinian freedom of expression and harass civil society activists and organizations.” Washington also expressed concern about Banat’s murder and demanded a full investigation into the circumstances of his death and the accountability of those responsible. It remains to be seen what, if anything, the Biden administration will do to ensure accountability. If the United States plans to push Abbas to the side, his replacement is unlikely to be an improvement. 

But Abbas is not leaving quietly. Ten years ago, in the midst of the Arab Spring protests, Abbas promised in a television interview that unlike other Arab leaders he would “resign before the first demonstration against me.” He added, “Before four, ten, or twenty demonstrators called for Mahmoud Abbas to step down, I would resign.” “If the people were against me, I would leave,” Abbas said. Yet as thousands demonstrated and demanded his resignation after Banat’s murder, Abbas worked behind the scenes to maintain his rule. 

Living under Israeli occupation and Abbas’s authoritarian regime, Palestinians that criticize the PA are faced with losing their employment, arrest, torture, and even murder. Even though the recent protests demonstrated that the PA has lost its legitimacy, Abbas ensures loyalty through fear. He controls access to public funds and jobs and commands aggressive internal security forces. This guarantees more repressive policies in the future that will generate even greater hostility from Palestinians whose dreams of freedom are being smothered by a corrupt and brutal authority. 

Dalal Yassine is a Non-Resident Fellow with the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center in Washington, DC