PA Under Fire for Decree Regulating Civil Society Organizations
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gives a speech marking the 15th anniversary of the death of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Nov. 11, 2019. (Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images)

PA Under Fire for Decree Regulating Civil Society Organizations

President Mahmoud Abbas' decree effectively turns the NGOs into departments operating as part of the government

Palestinians are furious over a decree signed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that would increase his control over Palestinian civil society organizations.

The harsh criticism of the head of the Palestinian Authority stems from a belief by jurists that the presidential decision signed on Friday will restrict the activities of nonprofit groups, practically turning them into government agencies.

Majed al-Arouri, a Ramallah-based legal and human-rights expert, questions the timing of the announcement.

“Certainly, the timing of the decree has to do with the elections. It is clear that there are powerful centers and influential parties in the PA who do not see holding elections as in their interest. Thus, sparking any crisis that may affect the elections and constitute an obstacle may turn against holding the elections,” he said.

Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for May and July, respectively.

Arouri told The Media Line that the reason behind imposing restrictions on civil society institutions also has a lot to do with the inactive Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the standing Palestinian parliament.

“There is no political opposition or parliament in Palestine, and thus nonprofit civil institutions play an important role in being the last line of defense and monitoring the government. They are the only voice out these days to criticize the officials and the executive authority,” he said.

“There is a desire on the part of the PA government to control the institutions of civil society and turn them into departments operating within the government,” Arouri added.

The new decree forces the nongovernmental groups to submit their yearly plan of action to the government and an estimated budget for the new fiscal year.

Arouri said that the latest decree sees the civil society’s work as “part” of the government.

“There is no justification for such decisions, when we talk about moral traditions, at a time when you are heading for elections that do not make fateful decisions that determine the future of the people,” said Arouri.

The decree was secretly approved by the PA government one week before it was officially published, adding to the anger and suspicion of the reasons behind it.

Dr. Isam Abdeen, a law and human rights lecturer at Birzeit University and at the Arab American University, both located in the West Bank, described Abbas’ move as a “sinister” step to tighten his grip on power amid his continued assault on Palestinian institutions.

It is, he said, “as if the president wants to weaken all institutions. His recent decisions have weakened the legislative and judicial branch, civil institutions, unions and federations. What’s left?”

“The president makes these decisions and puts the constitution under his shoes. He knows there will be no opposition from his rival [Hamas], and it seems that they are sharing the spoils to topple all of their opponents,” he said.

Al-Haq, an independent Palestinian human rights organization, in a statement released on Saturday rejected the decree-law issued by Abbas, describing it as an “assault on the right of public bodies in unions, professional unions and civil organizations.”

The president makes these decisions and puts the constitution under his shoes

Abdeen agrees, calling Abbas’ decree an “assault” on public freedoms ahead of the Palestinian general elections. He accuses the two largest Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, of planning the outcome of the scheduled May parliamentary elections with little to no regard for the people or the constitution.

“The goal of what happens is either it leads to the cancellation of the next elections, or that there are two agreements between the two major parties, the price of which will be to overthrow the constitution, freedoms, values, the system of rights, and any voice opposing them,” he said.

Abdeen said that this isn’t the first time such a decree has been introduced by the PA.

“Two previous decrees were passed, one in 2007 that effectively shut down one hundred organizations, and another in 2015 that created a commission that reported directly to the president, overseeing that groups’ activities,” he said.

Abdeen says this time around is different because the decree gives the PA government “unlimited control over the civil organization.”

The decree limits the organizations to using just up to a quarter of their yearly budget for salaries.

“I believe that these adjustments have not been thought of at all. These civil organizations are service-based institutions and rely heavily on the human capacity that provides these services. To limit their operational budget to 25% can never be accomplished,” Arouri said.

He warned that thousands of jobs will be lost as a result.

Arouri also is suspicious that recent successes by these NGOs against Israel may have something to do with the presidential decree.

“I fear that there will be behind-the-scenes political deals to punish the civil institutions that have played a major role in influencing the ICC investigation,” he said. The PA could, for example, trade its slowing down the ICC investigation in exchange for restarting peace negotiations with Israel.

The Palestinian civil society groups also have been dealt several financial blows in recent years.

The European Union demanded that funding to Palestinian NGOs hinges on them disclosing their employees and beneficiaries on the grounds of political affiliation, creating an uproar among dozens of these groups.

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