Palestinians face a trilateral crackdown

Sunday 04/09/2016

Human Rights Watch has released a report accusing Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip of “arresting, abusing and criminally charging journal­ists and activists who express peaceful criticism”.
“The crackdown directly violates obligations that Pales­tine recently assumed in ratify­ing international treaties protecting free speech,” the report added.
The report joins a growing list of others documenting human rights abuses by both the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs parts of the West Bank, and Hamas, which has governed Gaza since 2007. They have both used their rivalry as a pretext to maintain and intensify their respective crackdowns, with each faction smearing any dissent or unflat­tering reporting as an act of sabotage by the other.
This intolerance is fuelled by two seemingly opposing sources. On the one hand, the geographic separation and isolation of the West Bank and Gaza and the help Israel gives the PA in driving Hamas underground in the West Bank have solidified the feud between the Palestinian factions as well as their monopolies on power.
Hamas knows the PA cannot challenge it in Gaza and the PA knows its rival cannot do so in the West Bank, so they both feel relatively free to govern with increasing authoritarianism. This has resulted in stagnation in both territories, with two one-party systems claiming to represent Palestinian interests.
A lack of national elections since 2006 means Hamas has ruled Gaza for almost a decade and Mahmoud Abbas has been PA president for almost 12 years, despite his term officially ending almost eight years ago. The Palestinian Authority announced in June that municipal elections would take place in October and Hamas agreed to participate. However, bickering erupted immediately, threatening to scupper the vote.
This leads to the other motiva­tion behind the crackdowns: They may not feel threatened by each other but they know that Palestinians are increasingly fed up with the status quo of Israeli occupation, colonisation and blockade, in addition to their own leaders’ political infighting and economic mismanagement.
Not only have both parties roundly failed to realise Palestin­ian national aspirations but the PA insists on security coopera­tion with Israel despite the vast majority of Palestinians opposing this.
There is a growing public sense that both factions have become too comfortable in their own fiefdoms, placing party politics and preservation above national interests. Privately aware of this, Hamas and the PA are trying to ensure this increasing public frustration does not boil over and threaten their positions.
Opinion polls indicate that most Palestinians want Abbas to resign. There were mass protests recently in Nablus, the West Bank’s second-largest city, after a Palestinian was allegedly detained and beaten to death by PA security forces.
In the case of Gaza, Hamas has little incentive to abide by international treaties protecting free speech because they were ratified by the PA. This further highlights the bipolarity of Palestinian politics, which is sustained by the international community’s insistence on only dealing with the Palestinian Authority.
The great tragedy in all this is that Palestinians not only have to contend with abuses by Israel but also by their own leaders, those who claim to represent a national liberation movement that is supposed to champion and respect Palestinians’ fundamen­tal rights.
It would be the height of irony and folly for Hamas and the PA to assume that they can indefinitely silence Palestinian dissent, when both factions have proudly highlighted the people’s stead­fastness in resisting decades of Israeli oppression. There is no reason to believe that Palestin­ians would more willingly accept suppression by their own leaders; the contrary may indeed be the case.