Activists say President Abbas has used the fight against COVID-19 as an excuse to curtail civil liberties
Nizar Banat, a resident of Hebron in the West Bank, is a political and social activist, a father of four, and a carpenter.
Several years ago, Banat started speaking about his dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority. He said he was not previously politically active and that he reached this stage because he believed that the PA had hit rock bottom.
He uses social media to criticize the PA with daring videos posted on Facebook. And this criticism has landed him in hot water with the authorities.
“I’m a wanted man by the Palestinian Authority because I stood up to them with a simple demand: to implement their own laws and stop corruption. Corruption is unusually rampant for us.”
PA security forces raided his home two weeks ago at 2 am. He was not at home; he was tipped off and left before they came.
“I have previously been arrested and acquitted five times by the authority. They arrested me while they knew that I was innocent. The judge told me that I was innocent, the public prosecutor said, ‘We know that you are innocent,’ and the security apparatus said I was innocent, but orders to arrest me came down from above.”
Banat is on the run now. He sleeps in a different place every night. It took us weeks of phone calls and text messages until we were able to arrange a meeting with him in the southern West Bank. Banat takes these precautions because he knows that he is wanted by the security services.
“A while ago, they approved privileges for employees of the Office of the President, promotions to the rank of minister without any legislation and without the permission of anyone,” Banat charges, while calling for oversight and accountability.
“There are thousands of ordinary citizens who are just as qualified if not even more qualified for these jobs than the relatives of these officials. This is a gross injustice.
“To end corruption, we must have free access to information. I want to know on what basis recruitment and promotions take place.”
Banat is like many others who have publicly criticized President Mahmoud Abbas for his one-man rule. They claim that this has destroyed public trust and confidence in the PA, and that authority must be limited.
“Mahmoud Abbas’ powers as the president of the PA, as well as his powers as head of the PLO, must be defined. … As for me as a Palestinian, I refuse to have a faction governing the Palestinian scene through power alone, regardless of who is that faction. I do not and will not belong to any faction.”
Banat is referring to Fatah, Abbas’ ruling party.
Weary of the PA’s corruption, difficult economic conditions, and poor government performance during the coronavirus pandemic, Palestinian activists held a rally in Manara Square in Ramallah, the West Bank, on July 19, with the slogan “Fed Up.” Palestinian security forces sealed off the area and arrested many of the activists.
PA courts charged the anti-corruption activists with violating the state of emergency that President Abbas had declared in the Palestinian territories in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. The activists were accused of creating mass gatherings that endanger public health.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and civil society organizations harshly criticized the PA for arresting nearly 20 activists.
“[The arrests are] a vindictive punitive measure that is inconsistent with public rights and freedoms,” said AMAN, a civil society organization that advocates for greater transparency and accountability in Palestinian governance.
Activists say the arrests are politically motivated and accuse the PA of attempting to suppress freedoms and crack down on civil liberties.
Palestinian officials vehemently reject the activists’ allegations.
The Media Line made several calls to the attorney general’s office, but he refused to comment on the issue.
Many of the activists were released on bail last week after being held for 10 days.
A number of the anti-corruption protesters are active on social media, where they have criticized the PA for widespread corruption, poor handling of the pandemic, and nepotism.
Mohammad Khader, a legal scholar at Birzeit University’s Institute of Law, told The Media Line that the increase in protests could be attributed to the public’s feeling that the ruling elite was ignoring it, and these protests have in turn brought a wave of human rights violations.
“The violation of human rights, arrests, and the curbing of freedoms are related to an escalation in popular criticism.”
Khader says that the Palestinian leadership feels threatened by the street’s criticism.
He argues that the leadership is fearful of giving space, no matter how small, for people to vent and complain, afraid that this will morph into something bigger.
“The PA tries to curb and stop any type of popular accountability and accuses it of deviating from the equation it accepts, and therefore uses its security apparatus,” says Khader.
The biggest example of corruption and misuse of power, says Khader, is in the Constitutional Court. There, two female employees thought that reporting suspicions of corruption to the president of the court and his office manager, who is his nephew, could lead to holding those responsible accountable.
But, Khader says, the female employees’ actions backfired. “The head of the anti-corruption commission dealt with this file in a way that violates the law and the case was closed.”
Consequently, the president of the Court pursued criminal charges against the two employees and formed an administrative investigation committee in preparation for their conviction.
“Despite it becoming a public issue, and the PA’s interest in at least pretending to address it, the nature and relationship of those involved didn’t allow this to happen.”
Dr. Issam Abdeen, a Ramallah-based expert on human rights law, told The Media Line that the charges against the detainees are “flimsy, and they denote the bankruptcy of the bankrupt PA and its branches.”
Abdeen accused the PA of “handcuffing and silencing” the people.
“Corruption of power is systematic within the PA, not a phenomenon that will disappear with time,” he added.
Abdeen accused the PA of using the coronavirus pandemic to shift people’s focus off of it. He argues that President Mahmoud Abbas’ state of emergency declaration was unnecessary.
“The authority has announced a contingency law to deal with the corona pandemic, but there are regular laws such as the Public Health Law and others that are able to deal with such an event. The constitutional state of emergency must cease immediately. The declaration of a state of emergency came only to restrict rights – freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly. This is a violation of international standards.”
Abdeen sounded the alarm saying the PA is on the path of becoming a police state, and it’s jeopardizing its international standing
“We are slipping toward a police state that violates the law, the rights and dignity of the people and places the country on the edge of the abyss, or the crater of a volcano that can explode at any moment.”
“We are facing a confirmed violation of freedoms, as well as international conventions and agreements on civil and political rights to which Palestine acceded without reservations.”
Abdeen joins many Palestinians who accuse the PA of a blatant absence of transparency and accountability, claiming it is caused in large part by the “absence of the legislature and its oversight.
“The more miserable the conditions of people, the deeper the failure caused by the governing body, and the more their freedoms are violated,” Abdeen said.
The people are dissatisfied with the political performance of the PA and its leadership. There is a stalemate in negotiations with Israel, while the relationship with the United States has been cut off since President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The internal Palestinian division deepens, the absence of the Legislative Council and the executive’s interference in the judiciary by sacking independent judges and appointing others directly from Immediately before the president to ensure approval of the latter’s executive decisions. Add to this the weakness of the Palestinian economy and the frequent cuts of pensions. All of these things combined created a state of dissatisfaction with the performance of the Palestinian Authority on all sides.
“We are on our way to the unknown. There are no signs of any willingness to review and evaluate the situation. Things are moving without a clear plan. Decision-making is improvisational. The PA is governed by decrees signed in the middle of the night by the president. It is the executive branch that legislates. There is an absence of community and civil organization participation, both of which were marginalized to an unprecedented degree.”
Fareed al-Atrash, a Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist based in the West Bank, told The Media Line that demonstrating is a right that is preserved by the constitution and should be protected. “All over the world, people go out to demonstrate peacefully against their governments and are treated with respect. Only here, 20 people go out and are accused of having a conspiracy and foreign agendas behind them and that they want to topple the president and the government and threaten national security.”
Amer Hamed, an outspoken critic of the PA who was released from jail last week, told The Media Line in an interview after his release that “detention is price activists expect to pay,” adding, “They will continue their fight against rampant corruption because they believe in the rights of citizens.”
Mahmoud Dodeen, an assistant professor of private law at Qatar University, told The Media Line that the latest arrests and curtailment of freedoms are a phenomenon that has existed since 2007.
“Neutralizing [parliament] from exercising its legislative and oversight roles adds to the domination of decision-making by the authority and its security arms.”
Many people in the Palestinian territories believe that the judiciary is not independent, and that interference with its activities by the executive and security services has increased, especially in regard to extending the detention period of detainees as a way to curtail freedom of speech. Dodeen says only one man governs the PA.
“The executive branch dominates the Financial and Administrative Control Bureau and the Anti-Corruption Commission. Abbas makes appointments and dismissals on his own.”
Palestinians speak of corruption and complain about it on social media and in social gatherings but rarely have there been massive protests calling for change.
Dodeen says there are several reasons behind the Palestinians’ reluctance to demand change.
“There are three groups of people: The larger group is dissatisfied with what is happening but is silent since it benefits from the services of the authority and fears that if it criticizes, it will be restricted and deprived of some advantages. Another group does not directly benefit from the services of the authority but does not dare speak for fear of arrest, or has relatives who benefit from the authority,” Dodeen adds. “A smaller group speaks boldly about corruption and the importance of fighting it. But it is largely ineffective. The vast majority no longer believes in the usefulness of talking about reform and fighting corruption. As far as they are concerned, hope in the whole political system has been lost.”
Hasan Awwad, an expert on Palestinian politics, told The Media Line that “fear” is behind the PA’s decision to arrest anyone who disagrees with it.
“The PA is getting scared of the rising number of public figures who gain publicity based on criticizing the PA’s corruption; political failure is fueling public dismay.”
Awwad claims that the security apparatus, not the rule of law, controls the PA.
“The security forces are controlled by a network of elites … who work hard to cover up corruption for each other. They are protecting each other through suppression, arrests, online attacks on public figures and journalists and whitewashing the members of [their own] group. Basically, if you want to criticize the elite, you have to take into consideration that you’ll be framed as a person with a ‘foreign agenda.’”
The Palestinian Authority came into existence with the landmark Oslo Accords, signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel more than a quarter of a century ago.
“The PA leadership lacks the political will to fight corruption. In addition to its weakness, the PA is weak against its leadership. The elite control the institutions and kind of built informal institutions that coexist with and are more powerful than the state’s institutions. Then there are the weak institutions and governance. The PA has proven its ability to construct nice, fancy buildings but has failed to build effective and functional government institutions.”
Awwad says people do not fight corruption in big numbers because the PA “made sure to keep civil society and the media – the main factors in fighting corruption in real democracies – weak.
“The PA has created an environment of fear and institutionalized clientelism, nepotism, and patronage that has led to a weak and divided society,” he says.
Financial donors, he adds, are responsible for corruption in the Palestinian territories.
“Donors know about corruption and some of them support it. They believe that rebuilding institutions in post-conflict states (including the PA) requires supporting the elite who control the central government. This, however, gives them the power to block the re-emergence of any conflict.”
Activists say that their arrest was punishment for demonstrating against corruption, which does not sit well with top officials.
Many say that Abbas has weakened the PLO and its institutions. This, they claim, makes it easier for him to rule.
“By doing so, Abbas ensures no strong challenge to his rule and he keeps everyone busy trying to preserve their own livelihood.”
Palestinians may not fully appreciate that Abbas’ policies could weaken the PLO, which kept the Palestinian cause alive, and lead to the decline of the Palestinian national movement.
Activist Khaled Dweikat told Media Line that arrest was the first step in the fight against corruption.
Dweikat, who was not among the detainees, said that more than 10 people were held in one room whose area did not exceed 6 square meters and that there were only four mattresses and a toilet is in the same room.
The health of some of the detained activists deteriorated to the point that they required hospitalization. One of them, Jihad Abdo, underwent a catheterization.
Increases in patronage and nepotism have particularly angered the Palestinian street in recent years. Prominent officials appoint their relatives to top jobs even while financial resources are scarce and hiring, in general, has been frozen.
The PA is facing a massive financial problem stemming from the US cutting off millions of dollars in aid. Interim financial payments have come from the EU and wealthy Gulf states.
Donor states are part of the problem because funding mostly focuses on enabling the existing system, and this means that funding contributes greatly to maintaining the status quo.
Moreover, Palestinian Authority officials sometimes benefit personally from this funding by creating fake programs.
Ziad Abu Zayyad, a former Palestinian official, wrote on his Facebook page  that the current political conditions are responsible for the unrest.
“Before chasing and arresting activists, it must be asked how the conditions of people have reached what they are. There is an absence of the rule of law, there is a loss of confidence in the judiciary, anarchy, and security chaos.”
Abu Zayyad says this has created an environment suitable for corruption, and the PA must work at regaining the confidence of the people.
“They have to restore the rule of law to its prestige, and independence to the judiciary, and restore parliamentary life to us with free and fair elections, at which point the situation will change.”
Nizar Banat, the activist and carpenter from Hebron, is still on the run. The PA is after him, doing everything it can to bring his arrest or surrender.
He told The Media Line that he is worried for his life and doesn’t trust the PA.
“I don’t trust the authority; I don’t know what they’ll do if I surrender. I’m interested in delivering my message before I surrender. Being on the run and chased is humiliating and there are psychological effects on my family, too. I don’t want them to raid my home again.”
Banat says that what he and other activists are doing is a good first step, but he argues that without international pressure, the PA leadership won’t relent in going after them.
“I want to send a message to the Europeans. I am asking the EU to stop funding the PA security forces, and for the next stage I appeal to the European people and the Americans to stop financing the security services.”
According to a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 62% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign and more than 80% say that the PA misuses funds.
One PLO official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity told The Media Line, “We are responsible for what is happening. We ignored the people’s needs for far too long. The problem is, no one is courageous enough to stand up and say it publicly, including me.”
PA officials have pushed back against the criticism by protesters.
In response to the criticism, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced in late June the creation of a special council to monitor appointments and promotions in the Palestinian civil service.
No one from the PA that we contacted was willing to speak to The Media Line on this issue.
Prime Minister Shtayyeh’s office, contacted by The Media Line by phone, had no comment on the story.