From the Inside: The Palestinian Authority’s suppression of protests and free speech

The escalating violence by the PA against the Palestinians who oppose its policies or criticize Abbas’s decisions is horrifying.

By ALI SALIM
June 27, 2018 22:40
A Palestinian protester holds up a sign that reads 'Gaza unites us,' during a demonstration

A Palestinian protester holds up a sign that reads 'Gaza unites us,' during a demonstration in Ramallah calling on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to lift sanctions on the Gaza Strip. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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In mid-June, the Palestinian Police Forces attacked hundreds of Palestinians, including intellectuals, academics and civil society figures who demonstrated at Al-Manara Square in the middle of Ramallah. They were protesting against Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas’s inhumane policy of punishing Gaza by forcing collective economic sanctions on it.

The protest and discussion about the PA’s Gaza policy was a scene that we rarely see due to its abuse of freedom of speech; these attacks went virtually unseen due to the same policy.

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The Palestinian Security Forces broke up the demonstrations by beating up the demonstrators, pulling them onto the streets and arresting them in an inhumane manner, in scenes that sadden the heart and show the real face and duty of these security forces – to protect Abbas and his regime, no matter what and how.

The Palestinian leadership act as if the harm done to those Palestinians who participated in the protests could be easily remedied by some bombastic proclamations or even apologies by Abbas or any of the heads of his many security forces. But we must consider carefully what happened in Ramallah this time, examining the values and basic positions of the PA to determine exactly to what extent the PA implements these fundamentals in practice.

Furthermore, it is important to investigate to what extent the PA is committed to the international norms that relate to human and civil rights. It is incredible that the PA has signed more than 55 treaties although there have been no reported inquiries or investigations of PA compliance. And yet, Abbas and his diplomats constantly and proudly speak in public about their success in joining those treaties on the behalf of the State of Palestine!

As a Palestinian who sees a huge problem which should have been fixed years ago, I believe that the unjustified brutality and humiliation committed by the PA Security Forces must be carefully examined, not by me as a Palestinian who cannot even write his true name on this article – since he sincerely believes it is far too early to lose his life – but by the main supporters of this new-born dictatorship: the West, the world of democratic and Western values. I am not exaggerating when I say that the amount of violence and brutality that we witnessed last week in Ramallah was unprecedented. I am not saying that it is the first – and it absolutely will not be the last.

LOCALLY, the escalating violence by the PA against the Palestinians who oppose its policies or criticize Abbas’s decisions is horrifying. This escalation can be obviously understood as a reaction to Abbas’s grave failure in dealing with the social, economic and political challenges that have been recently plaguing the Palestinians.

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And yet, it can be understood, in the context of other Arab regimes, as easily anticipated behavior by a regime that has long been connected to the tradition of other nationalist Arabic regimes (Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, etc.) which have massacred their own people. The Palestinian leadership never opposed or condemned their brutality.

In fact, the PA explicitly and shamelessly supported the Syrian Assad fascist regime, for instance, regardless of the massacres that his regime committed against the Palestinian refugees in Al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, where thousands were murdered and others were ultimately forced to flee.

Again, what happened in mid-June did not reach public news channels – not even in the West, which otherwise focuses so closely on the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of anyone but the Palestinians themselves.

Next September will mark 25 years since the Oslo Accords were signed. In that time, the Palestinians have suffered greatly under the brutality of Arafat and his political party Fatah.
Nowadays, Abbas continues what his mentor started. Apparently Arafat taught him the lesson very well to condition the Palestinians to treat this brutality as acceptable, as normal – they understand that living under an Arab regime means there are no other options. And today the Palestinians actually thank God for the blessing of living under the rule of a dictator who is “less brutal than others.”

But what scares me the most is the new discourse of Abbas and his regime. This discourse demonizes any opposition against Abbas, Fatah or the PA’s deteriorating governmental performance. It claims that any opposition to them is part of “a foreign political conspiracy that is supported by foreign dirty hands” against this super national regime, particularly now, when Abbas and his regime are wholeheartedly opposing US President Donald Trump’s actions. In this respect, the claims of a “foreign conspiracy” are the same justification that the region’s Arab dictators claimed to justify killing any resistance or revolution against them, which ended up with them massacring tens of thousands of their own people.

THE REPRESSIVE acts committed by the Palestinian Security Forces were not surprising to me, but I was surprised by some other things. I was shocked by the astonishing explanations offered by the PA security leaders to justify their brutality; by the public threats made by the Mayor of Nablus, Akram al-Rjoub, to any Palestinian who participates in these demonstrations; and finally, by the reactions to what happened in these demonstrations.

I personally think that non-Palestinian and also non-Arab observers should be aware of the way Abbas reacted to these demonstrations. It has not been widely reported in Western or non-Arabic media.

Why were Abbas and his security forces so violent and aggressive this time? Subsequent demonstrations in Bethlehem on June 20 and Ramallah on June 23 were met with less of a crackdown. The exaggerated reaction earlier in the month shows that something is being concealed from the public that Abbas doesn’t want the world to know about. This is especially true now, when the entire world is critiquing Israel for the siege it imposes on the Gaza Strip and blaming it for the violent escalation on the border that has taken place since late March, culminating in dozens killed on the same day as the official US embassy move to Jerusalem: May 14, 2018.

It seems so absurd to me, and even shocking – but I think that the entire world would be justifiably horrified by the bitter truth if they knew it: that Israel is not responsible for the crisis in Gaza. Instead, responsibility for the crisis lies not only with Hamas but also with Abbas! There is a serious crisis on the Palestinian domestic level represented by Abbas’s economic and humanitarian sanctions on Gaza, sanctions which have no acceptable justifications.

These sanctions started in 2017 by reducing the salaries of PA workers in Gaza by 30%. Now the reduction in their salary has reached 50%. This coincides with the decreasing amount of fuel, gas and health services in Gaza, in addition to sanctions applied by the PA on humanitarian aid that it had been providing.

I remember very well what happened a few weeks ago – several crossings between Israel and Gaza were completely burned by Palestinian demonstrators who also burned Israeli fields and agricultural areas. Despite this severe damage, Israel did not cut off food or medicine to Gaza; instead, it was Hamas which claimed to have refused receiving those necessities, depriving Gazan citizens. On the other hand, the PA’s Abbas decided to stop providing medicine and to shrink health care services, catastrophically depriving Gazan citizens from receiving these necessary supplies and services.

This bizarre contrast raises the question: Who should be perceived as more pro-Palestinian – Abbas and his regime or Israel?

BACK TO the reactions to what was done by the security forces in Ramallah. Internationally, the United Nations, which is rarely critical of the PA, criticized the crackdown on June 16. As a general rule, the UN refrains from denouncing or criticizing the PA. There were also demands that the PA remove the restrictions and sanctions it had imposed on Gaza, pay the salaries of its workers there and reinstate the health services that have been cut since 2017.

The UN Secretary General elaborated that the official Palestinian actions against Gaza added more complexities to the already-complicated situation there.

On the Pan-Arab level, the Arab Federation for Human Rights condemned the Palestinian officials’ violence and incitement against the peaceful demonstrations that were demanding the removal of PA sanctions on Gaza. Such condemnation is rarely heard in the Arabic media. This is a potentially dramatic change in the way the Arab world perceives the Palestinian Authority.

Most of the Arab media used to condemn and blame Israel – “the Occupation” – for the human rights abuses in the West Bank. But the actions taken this time by the international community and even the Arab world offer a starkly different and more accurate approach.

I guess that if Israel had committed such brutal acts against the Palestinians, this would be the top news in the English-speaking media. But, unfortunately, when it comes to Abbas committing the same acts, we rarely hear about it there – even though the European and American journalists who cover Israel live in or travel frequently to Ramallah, and are well aware of the kinds of violence committed by Palestinian Security Forces in general, and particularly about what happened there in mid-June.

The Palestinian Coalition for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights condemned the unjustified brutality and violent acts committed by the PA security forces. It demanded the resignation of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah, for his dereliction in calling to account the heads of the Palestinian Security Forces. The coalition demanded that the Palestinian Police immediately release those who were inhumanely arrested for no reason other than exercising their basic right to demonstrate peacefully.

The Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, represented by lawyer Farid al-Atrash, condemned the brutality of the forces in breaking up the demonstrations. He called for the Palestinian people to take action and demonstrate more against this brutality. He also called on Abbas and his regime to take responsibility and protect the Palestinians instead of attacking and humiliating them.

THE HEAD of the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations, Issam al-Arouri, condemned the brutality of the PA forces and called on the Palestinian public prosecutor for civil affairs to conduct a deep and serious investigation regarding the public threats that the Mayor of Nablus, Akram al-Rjoub, spread while he was inciting personally against anyone who participated, or even anyone willing to participate in future demonstrations.

Al-Arouri added that the mayor will be held fully responsible if he or anyone in his family is attacked or harmed. Al-Arouri elaborated that he did not do anything illegal, on the contrary: he was practicing his right of expressing his views by peacefully demonstrating against the PA’s collective punishment of Gaza – as would any rational human being in the entire world.

What Al-Rjoub did was unprecedented. He spoke up in public, surrounded by PA security forces and Fatah members, who were also warning people not to participate in future demonstrations. I say this was unprecedented because of how I felt when I heard him speaking. I was scared. Some politicians here seem to think the country is their parent’s property, so they treat the inhabitants like a feudal lord would, threatening them with the lash if they don’t obey. This is such a barbaric act and cannot be condoned in any society.

Al-Rjoub is originally from Hebron, which is well-known as having one of the most obstinate of Palestinian mentalities, characterized by intolerance and fanaticism. I would like to share what al-Rjoub said publicly in this clip so that you, dear reader, can understand the language and the discourse that the leaders of our so-called democratic Palestinian state use – a state which is exorbitantly financed by the West, and which is publicly lauded for having proudly signed 55 human rights treaties.

Another unprecedented decision was Abbas’s consultations with Palestinian governorships to declare the demonstrations and public gatherings banned, justifying this by claiming they disturbed the peace. The irony and hypocrisy here is in the implementation of the decision. The Palestinian Security Forces attacked the demonstrators who were demonstrating against Abbas’s sanctions – but they didn’t attack the Fatah demonstration that took place next. Tens of Fatah members and policemen with civilian clothes demonstrated in favor of showing support for Abbas and the PA but, obviously, such demonstrations do not disturb people’s day-to-day life. In other words, demonstrations that support Abbas and his regime are not disturbances, but demonstrations against the Abbas regime are.

I WAS AMAZED by the Palestinians’ reaction to what happened: They courageously spread the truth on social media, sharing their thoughts and what they went through during these demonstrations.

Social media is critically important to Palestinians, as it is the only platform where a Palestinian may have some space to express his/her mind. But, unfortunately, Abbas was not satisfied with abusing the Palestinians’ public ability to exercise their freedom of speech. He decided to also go after them online on social media!

A few years ago, Abbas issued the Cyber Crimes Law – a law that allows the Palestinian Security Forces to arrest and put on trial any Palestinian who criticizes Abbas, Fatah leaders or the Palestinian Authority on social media.

However, both the official and individual Palestinian reactions went viral, spreading all over Palestinian social media in Arabic. This is what inspires me to share the truth in this article, so that English speakers will be aware of the truth of Abbas and his brutal undemocratic regime.

For instance, one man named Ahmed B. shared on Facebook what he thought of the demonstrations. He said that a Palestinian policeman threw a flashbang stun grenade which fell between his legs, causing him to lose consciousness until he woke up and found himself at Ramallah hospital. He witnessed the way that the masked Palestinian Security Forces invaded the hospital and arrested injured people among those who participated in the demonstrations so they won’t report the brutality of the police to the media. “My physical wounds will heal, but the wounds that those masked Palestinian policemen caused will never heal,” Ahmed said.

Ziad A. also shared a story about his experience of the demonstrations. He noted that the leadership justified the crackdown by noting that the head of the security forces had said the people were “demonstrating without permission.” They also justified the brutality of the security forces by claiming that the demonstrators cursed the policemen.

Ziad said that all of those arrested by the police were accompanying them peacefully without any resistance, but the police insisted on beating them up and dehumanizing them in public so they can be an example to anyone who thinks about opposing Abbas. He also wondered: “Even if the demonstrators were cursing the police, does it need all this brutality? Are we dealing with policemen who are aware of their duties or are we dealing with hot-tempered teenagers who cannot distinguish between their profession and their personality?”

Salma M. also shared what she witnessed, by relating the story of a guy wearing eyeglasses who was demonstrating and was beaten up by a Palestinian policeman. It was an unforgettable scene, she said. The policeman was slapping him across the head so hard that the eyeglasses were thrown from his head onto the street and the policeman stepped on them, crushing them. The policeman arrested that guy, who was demonstrating for a vision of freedom – but that vision was destroyed by police brutality which even cost him his eyeglasses!

Bassam F. shared another sad but true story which represents the policy of the Palestinian Security Forces: do whatever you want but not in front of the cameras! Bassam shared what a Palestinian police officer said after making sure no cameras were on him. The officer ordered other policemen who arrested a demonstrator: “Do not beat him up now in front of the cameras, leave this till we get to the car – then we will teach him how to behave.”
The officer then mocked the arrestee, and was laughing with the huge, masculine policemen: “It looks like he does not have any fitness – you caught him quickly.”

I BELIEVE that I have provided many answers for questions you readers might have in your minds about the truth of the PA. Now it is my turn to ask the questions which constantly chase each other in my tiny mind.

Do the American and European decision makers, as main supporters of the Palestinian Authority, know about this? Do the European Police, whose EUPOL COPPS (EU Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support) training program generously supports the Palestinian police, know about this? Are the EU Police aware of how the Palestinian Security Forces invaded the hospitals and arrested injured people? Does Interpol, which let the Palestinian police join their international police cooperation organization, know this? Do they think that this brutal behavior fits the values of police work?

When will the world stop its blind support of the Palestinian Authority? Does the international community and the Western world see how the PA, and Abbas personally, contributed to the humanitarian crisis of Gaza? This is a crises that pushed thousands of Palestinians to commit a kind of collective suicide on the borders of Gaza by protesting against Israel during the “Great March of Return” in which more than 100 of them died. The Palestinian leadership has been contributing heavily to this crisis since 2007.

Do Americans and EU residents realize they personally contribute to the PA Security Forces? In fact, the PA receives almost half of its funds from the US and the EU. So, do taxpayers support the abuse of people here? The PA spends 33% of its budget on the security forces while spending only 25% on education and health care. How can one justify their silence in the face of this?

The author, whose name has been changed at his request to protect his identity and his livelihood, is a Palestinian from the West Bank.

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