The Palestinian Authority is facing criticism for issuing a decree that allows it to tighten its grip on Palestinian civil society organizations, effectively turning them into government-controlled departments.The decree was published on March 2, one week after it was secretly approved by the PA government.Palestinian civil society organizations said they learned about the decree only when it was published in the PA’s official gazette. Critics described the decree as a vicious assault on public freedoms ahead of the Palestinian general elections.The new decree obligates civil society organizations to present to the PA government an annual action plan and estimated budget for the new fiscal year.“This means that these groups will be working for Palestinian ministries and not in accordance with their own vision, mission, goals or programs,” several Palestinian society organizations said in a joint statement.“In other words, the civil society organizations will be treated as government departments of ministries, to whom they will report. This undermines the professionalism, independence and freedom of civic activity, including the organizations’ monitoring role over the performance of the executive authority and their objective to hold this authority accountable for its violations.” The controversial decree also stipulates that employee salaries and running costs of the civil society organizations cannot exceed 25% of the annual budget.“This means that the executive authority is now in control of the groups’ budgets, how they are distributed, their ceiling within the overall budget and the amount of expenses,” the civil society organizations said. “This will result in civic work becoming more like contracting and commercial projects, aimed at stripping them of their national, rights-oriented core. Furthermore, the decree, which granted the government the power to issue regulations on conditions for funding, revealed its attempts to override and dissolve civil society organizations.”The organizations complained that the decree was issued “within the framework of several ongoing decrees that are drafted in full secrecy and in the midst of the major and accelerating deterioration of the Palestinian political system.”They pointed out that the decree contradicted the agreement reached last month in Cairo between Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian factions to boost public freedoms ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections, slated for May 22 and July 31 respectively.“Additionally, the decree hinders the right of assembly and organization and the right to exercise activities independent of ministries and the executive authority,” the civil society organizations charged. “It also transfers the civil society organizations to ministry branches, which will confiscate the role of their boards of directors. The decree violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 20) and The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 22), which confirms the basic right of freedom of association, independence of activities and financial sources. It also violates several resolutions issued by the UN Human Rights Council, including Resolution (22/6) of 21/03/2013, which calls on states not to impede the functional independence of associations and not to impose restrictions on potential sources of funding in a discriminatory manner.”Other Palestinian human rights groups and factions said that PA President Mahmoud Abbas was not entitled to issue such decrees on the eve of the parliamentary election. The parliament, known as the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), is the only body authorized to pass legislation, they added.The PLC, however, has been paralyzed since 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip after overthrowing the PA and expelling its security forces. Since then, Abbas has taken advantage of the absence of a functioning parliament to pass more than 300 laws through “presidential decrees.”Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said that the latest decree was a “continuation of the attempts by the Palestinian Authority leadership to control all fields of public work and tighten its grip on the political system.” The Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization also criticized the decree and said it would give the PA more tools to curtail public freedoms and impose restrictions on civil society groups.