The Palestinian Authority is facing an enormous public backlash for the arrest of at least 30 people on Saturday and Sunday, among them two women, Dr. Kawthar Abwainy and social activist Doha Ma’adi.
The PA faces accusations of rampant corruption and nepotism and an ongoing crackdown on personal liberties.
Activist Jihad Abdo and Maher al-Akhras, both outspoken critics of the PA, were also among those taken into custody. Akhras, who was previously arrested six times by Israel for his affiliation with the Islamic Jihad organization, went on a long hunger strike while in Israel’s Ofer Prison last year.
The PA also arrested Prof. Imad Barghouthi, from Al-Quds University’s Physics Department, and renowned poet Zakaria Mohammad. Both men were released on Sunday.
Mohammad wrote a scathing post on Facebook denouncing the PA’s harsh measures: “It never occurred to us, even in our worst nightmares, that the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] would turn into a repressive power under occupation [Israel] and serve it.”
Those arrested are accused of taking part in an “illegal gathering” and “stirring up sectarian strife,” which is a term the PA often uses to characterize all forms of criticism of the Palestinian leadership.
Esmat Mansour, a Ramallah-based political analyst, told The Media Line that PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ tolerance for criticism is decreasing by the day, with his security forces quick to arrest anyone who dissents under any pretext.
There is no dialogue on any issue between the PA and the Palestinian street, Mansour said. “They do not seek to build bridges with people.
“What is the idea of arresting the protesters, a poet, a thinker and a scientist? They want to oppress people. It is clear that they are paving the way for a new future,” he exclaimed.
“Even the most powerful dictatorships were afraid of arresting poets because they knew that it would be a harbinger of their end and that they were completely bankrupt,” Mansour said.
The demonstrators had planned to call for accountability in the death of Nizar Banat, an outspoken activist and critic of the PA who died in custody on June 24 after Palestinian Preventive Security personnel arrested him.
His death sparked massive domestic and international condemnation of the PA; the US State Department said in a statement that it was “deeply disturbed” by Banat’s death.
Following Banat’s death, several demonstrations erupted throughout the West Bank, as protesters chanted, “No to a police state” and, “We hold the president of the Palestinian Authority responsible for Banat’s assassination.”
Activist Issa Amro told The Media Line that the PA is becoming impatient with people continuing to take to the streets to protest.
“They know very well they are an illegitimate and undemocratic government and leadership in the eyes of the people.”
The PA is sensitive about its image on the international stage, which is one of the reasons for its current crackdown on protesters and the journalists covering them. The more media coverage the protests get, the more pressure the PA comes under from the international community, including the United States and the European Union.
“The [Palestinian] Authority violates human rights, violates democracy, violates laws, treaties and international agreements that it has signed without being held accountable by the international community,” said Amro.
“They are afraid for their personal interests and are worried that the door to accountability will be opened for the existing abuses and corruption,” he added.
The 85-year-old Abbas is also facing internal division inside his Fatah party.
Mansour said Abbas and the tight circle around him are growing frustrated with the opposition. “There is a state of disintegration and internal conflict between the factions in power trying to protect their interests, and the people are paying the price for it.”
Abbas was elected president in 2005, for what was supposed to be a four-year term.
He dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2019, effectively suspending a main pillar of Palestinian democracy, and has been ruling via executive orders.
It is one-man rule in the territory under Abbas’ control in the West Bank, and he has total and unprecedented control over the Fatah party, the PA, and the PLO, as he is simultaneously the head of all three bodies.
The autocratic president has been facing a legitimacy crisis, and the only way out of it was to call elections. But Abbas’ decree to hold elections, issued in January, exposed him to the electorate, throwing his political future into the unknown, and providing opponents from within the Fatah movement a rare opportunity to challenge his rule.
He canceled the parliamentary election slated for May and the presidential vote set for July, blaming Israel for not allowing Palestinians living in east Jerusalem to vote.
Many didn’t buy his excuse.
“They do not want to resort to elections and democracy, but rather to oppression and to subjugate the Palestinian people by force to accept the current leadership,” said Amro.
Palestinians accuse the international community of looking the other way. The economic situation in the Palestinian territories is teetering on the verge of collapse, and the internal Palestinian divide is growing deeper.
“It seems that there is American support from the current US administration without making the PA accountable for its actions, and without any consideration for human rights. Human rights are red lines,” said Amro.
Observers argue that not holding the PA accountable has emboldened it. They say the Palestinian leaders feel a sense of security and impunity through which they want to prove themselves and establish that they are capable of ruling the Palestinian people in the West Bank.
Amro said what worries him is that the relationship between the PA and the US administration and others is based solely on security cooperation.
“I blame the international community for what is happening, and I also think that they encourage the PA to take these steps. The Biden administration recognized the legitimacy of the Palestinian political leadership, despite their lack of legitimacy.”
Reem al-Omari, a Ramallah-based journalist and the host of a morning talk show, told The Media Line the Palestinian people are resentful and dissatisfied with events, but they do not react.
“Unfortunately, many fewer people express their feelings of resentment than in the past.”
She attributes this to fear.
“When repression increases, fear increases. For they see that whoever speaks out will be arrested. People want to protect their livelihoods,” Omari said.