Palestinian Assault on Freedoms
A novelist, a journalist and a university professor walk into a bar. Sounds like a joke, but it stops being funny when these three figures are the latest victims of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) crackdown on public freedoms, above all, freedom of expression.
The crackdown is yet more proof of the violent intolerance that the Western-funded PA has long shown its critics.
It is also a sad reminder that more than two decades after the foundation of the PA, Palestinians are as far from democracy as ever. In fact, the Palestinians seem to be marching in the opposite direction -- towards establishing a regime that is remarkably reminiscent of the despotic and corrupt Arab and Islamic governments.
PA officials like to boast that Palestinians living under their rule in the West Bank enjoy a great deal of freedom of expression, especially compared to the situation under Hamas in the Gaza Strip. However, a good look at the actions of the PA and its various security branches shows that they are not much different than those enforced by Hamas.
Sometimes it even seems as if the PA and Hamas are competing to see which one of them can most successfully silence critics and cracks down on journalists. This is the sad reality in which Palestinians living under the rule of these two parties have found themselves.
While it is understandable why an extremist Islamic movement like Hamas would seek to muzzle its critics, there is no reason why a PA government funded by Americans and Europeans should not be held accountable for persecuting dissidents and throwing objectors into prison.
By failing -- or, more accurately, refusing -- to hold the PA accountable for its crackdown on public freedoms, American and European taxpayers actively contribute to the emergence of another Arab dictatorship in the Middle East.
Hundreds of Western-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs), operating in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, pay scant attention to the real problems facing Palestinians as a result of the actions of their PA and Hamas governments. The same applies to Western mainstream media and human rights organizations and advocates.
This willful neglect by the West encourages the Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to continue repressing their own people. There are times, however, when the international community pays attention to the plight of Palestinians: when the complaints concern Israel.
The PA government bans a Palestinian novel and confiscates copies from bookstores. Where is the outcry? There is none to be heard from the international community - because Israel was not behind the incident.
This is what happened last week when the PA Prosecutor-General issued an order banning the novel "Crime in Ramallah" by the author Abbad Yahya under the pretext that it contained "indecent texts and terms that threaten morality and public decency, which could affect the public, in particular minors."
Yahya said he was summoned for questioning and his editor, Fuad Al-Aklik, was detained for 24 hours. PA policemen raided several bookshops in a number of Palestinian cities and confiscated all copies. The author, who is on a visit to Qatar, has since received multiple death threats and is afraid to return home.
The decision to ban the novel prompted 99 Palestinian writers, academics and researchers to sign a petition criticizing the PA authorities and calling for rescinding the ban. The petition called on the PA to cancel its punitive measures, which "cause harm to the Palestinians and their struggle for freedom from oppression, dictatorship and censorship." The petition warned that the ban was a "grave breach of freedom of expression and creativity" and creates a situation where authors are forced to practice self-censorship.
The petition signed by the prominent Palestinians does not seem to have left an impression on the PA leadership in Ramallah.
Undeterred, PA security forces arrested journalist Sami Al-Sai, from the city of Tulkarem in the northern West Bank, for allegedly posting critical comments on Facebook. The PA has accused Al-Sai, who works as a correspondent for a private television station, of "fomenting sectarian strife."
This is an accusation that is often leveled against journalists or authors who dare to criticize the PA leadership. A PA court has ordered Al-Sai remanded into custody for 15 days. Protests by some Palestinian journalists against the arrest of their colleague have thus far fallen on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, Palestinian professor Abdel Sattar Qassem, who teaches political science at An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus, is facing trial for "extending his tongue" against PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior PA officials. He is also charged with spreading "fake news" and "fomenting sectarian strife." The decision to prosecute Qassem came following a TV interview where he strongly criticized Abbas and commanders of the PA security forces. Qassem has long been a vocal critic of the PA leadership and as a result he has been arrested on a number of occasions; shots have been fired at his home.
These three cases are only the tip of an iceberg of oppression. It is very difficult to distinguish between Mahmoud Abbas's government and the Arab and Islamic dictatorships, where human rights violations and assaults on public freedoms are the established norm. In his despotic behavior, Abbas has also shown himself to be rather akin to his clampdown-prone predecessor, Yasser Arafat.
Dr. Khalil Assaf, member of the Palestinian Public Freedoms Committee in the West Bank, accused the PA of systematic assaults on public freedoms and human rights.
He noted, for example, that refusing to issue or renew passports was one the measures taken by the PA to punish its opponents. He also accused the PA of "inventing" a law that authorizes its governors to order the detention without trial of any Palestinian. He pointed out that although the Palestinian High Court had ruled that this law was illegal, the PA governors continue to use it to detain Palestinians.
"Palestinians are being detained for days without being brought before a judge and houses are being searched without warrants," Dr. Assaf complained. "Detainees are often prevented from contacting their families to inform them of their incarceration." He also noted that Palestinians are sometimes denied driving licenses or jobs because of their political activities. Palestinians are also being detained or summoned for interrogation because of their posts on Facebook, he added.
Many Palestinians used to say that their dream is that one day they would have a free media and democracy like their neighbors in Israel. But thanks to the apathy of the international community, the Palestinians have come to learn that if and when they ever have their own state, its role model will not be Israel or any Western democracy, but the regimes of repression that control the Arab and Muslim world.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.