A leading Palestinian human rights activist has claimed that freedom of speech is far greater under the Hamas regime in Gaza than in the Fatah-controlled West Bank.
Khalil Abu Shamala, director of the al-Dameer Centre For Human Rights – which works in both Gaza and the West Bank – said that although there were still occasional arrests of Fatah members, “nowadays we don’t document many violations”.
He noted that this was partly down to Hamas’s weakness in the face of international pressures, particularly the breakdown of relations with the Egyptian regime.
In the past, Hamas has made large-scale arrests of journalists and called many others in for questioning, with opposition activists and bloggers facing harassment.
But although abuses still occurred in Gaza, Abu Shamala said that government forces in the Palestinian Authority–controlled West Bank took much harsher action against critics.
“Freedom of expression in Gaza is better than in the West Bank,” he told Index on Censorship. “We have many cases where the PA arrest and attack people because they criticize them on Facebook, and many Facebookers in the West Bank use alternative names, not their real names. But here, they speak without any harassment by Hamas.”
A rift between Hamas and Fatah, which culminated in the Islamist group seizing power in the Strip in 2007, has led to the creation of two near-separate entities in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas refuses to recognise the Jewish state and is under an embargo by Israel and the international community.
“I don’t know why, but in the West Bank, Palestinian Authority security systems have cooperation and coordination with Israel – and they don’t want to give the opportunity for a third intifada, and they don’t want to allow Hamas or those who are against the Palestinian Authority [to speak out] because they know many of the Palestinians in the West Bank hate the Palestinian Authority,” Abu Shammala continued.
Hamas has previously issued proceedings against Abu Shamala for his outspoken criticism of the Islamist group.
“After they took over Gaza, they wanted from the beginning to impose their Islamic agenda on the society,” he said, adding that his organisations and others had tried to combat these efforts.
The Hamas deputy foreign minister, Ghazi Hamed, denies that his government took any action to silence their critics.
“We are not oppressing people and people can speak loudly, can criticise the government, can criticise Hamas,” said Hamed. “We never put anyone in jail who criticizes Hamas or write something against Hamas. We have different organisations, political parties, even writers, they have full freedom to write what they want.”
UPDATE 27 April: Communications Minister Mashhour Abu Daka resigned yesterday, citing personal reasons. Abu Daka reportedly accused al-Mughni of “gagging free expression” shortly before his resignation.
The Palestinian Authority has reportedly enforced a block on accessing sites critical of President Mahmoud Abbas by pressuring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) since February.
Local news agency Ma’an made the discovery in cooperation with Open Observatory of Network Interference and after a member of Prime Minister Salam Fayyed’s cabinet agreed to speak publicly about the story. The blocking of sites including Amad, Fatah Voice, Firas Press represents a crackdown on those which tend to cover internal Fatah politics and are thus critical of the President, who is already being accused of a power grab due to his ever-increasing number of roles within the Authority. Due to some of the sites being loyal to former Fatah official Muhammed Dahlan, Ma’an describes how following a political spat between Dahlan and Abbas, resulting in a raid on Dahlan’s house, “the Palestinian Authority was complaining about its inability to shut down alleged Dahlan media based abroad” from June 2011. Four of these sites are currently blocked, meaning that the PA have no qualms about censoring sites based outside of their jurisdiction if it suits their political purpose.
According to Ma’an, the order to block the sites was hand-delivered by the Palestinian Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni to the CEO of the Palestinian Telecommunications Company (or PalTel) and other smaller ISPs based in the West Bank. Ma’an also state that al-Mughni, whose name appears to be increasingly connected to cases of crackdowns on the press, including the arrest without charge of several journalists in recent weeks, has dismissed these claims and refused to respond to questions on the topic.
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Advocacy Coordinator Danny O’Brien stated in response that “by blocking these websites, the Palestinian Authority is creating a dangerous new infrastructure for the suppression of speech in its own country.” With the PA already entering a phase of arresting journalists whose work or opinions they dislike, “a dangerous new infrastructure” which censors the internet appears to be precisely the right description.
Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship told Ma’an: “The blocking of these sites seems to be blatantly political. This kind of action is not the kind that any genuine democratic government should be involved in, and it reflects extremely poorly on the Palestinian Authority.”
In February, Abbass’ own Communications Advisor as well as PalTel representatives spoke out against Denial of Service attacks that were frequently disabling certain news sites or even making internet access an impossibility in the West Bank. PalTel Chief Executive Ammar al-Ikir went as far as to state that “there is an electronic war against Palestine, which began after Palestine became a member of UNESCO.”
Yet the same representatives who spoke out against an external attack on internet access and net freedom are those who are complicit in blocking sites for political gain from within. The only positive element of the situation is the hope that the discovery of Abbas’ and the PA’s efforts to clamp down on dissent is likely to be entirely counterproductive in its effects.
Two arrests linked to Facebook posts critical of the Palestinian Authority (PA) have spurred a variety of human rights and media freedom groups to call on the PA to stop harassing their critics.
On Wednesday 28 March, Palestinian Preventative Security Forces detained lecturer Ismat Abdul-Khaleq “after they read a quote on her Facebook page accusing President Mahmoud Abbas of being a traitor and demanding he resigns,” lawyer Issam Abdeen of the Palestinian rights group al-Haq told the Associated Press.
Defaming a public official is illegal in the West Bank. As happened in the recent case of detained journalist Yousef Al Shayeb, Abdul-Khaleq was told that she will be held for two weeks while the Public Prosecutor’s office “searches for evidence”. According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, she is being held in solitary confinement.
On Sunday 1 April, journalist Tariq Khamis was arrested after discussing Abdul-Khaleq’s arrest on Facebook. Khamis told the website Electronic Intifada that he believed his arrest was connected to an article he wrote about youth groups that were critical of the authorities. He told Reuters that during his three-hour interrogation, “I was questioned on my work as a journalist, and they confiscated the files on my laptop.” He added “the authorities are afraid of journalism.”
Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Al-Haq and Reporteurs Sans Frontieres have all expressed their concern at the way critical voices are being targeted and detained by the PA.
The authorities emphasise that the judiciary and the government are two separate entities, but criticism of the authorities can result in incursions by security and judicial sources. Adnan Dmeiri, the spokesman of the security services which detained and questioned both Abdul-Khaleq and Khamis, claims “freedom of expression stops at defamation”. Yet his following statement, that “any citizen can respond to insults and baseless accusations with a lawsuit” does not hold true. Due process has not been followed and citizens are detained by the state while government bodies search for evidence against them. Even if Abdul-Khaleq, Khamis or even Yousef Al Shayeb are never formally charged, a message has been sent to PA’s critics in order to intimidate them. Its actions undermine its efforts to present themselves as a democratic body in a bid for further recognition and foreign investment.
Ruth Michaelson is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah. Follow her on Twitter @_Ms_R
Israeli troops have stormed two Palestinian TV stations, seizing equipment and forcing them to close. In the early hours of 29 February, members of Israel Defence Forces (IDF) raided Al-Wattan and Al-Quds Educational TV in the West Bank, territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. During the raid on Al-Wattan, four members of staff were held for several hours, whilst 21 computers and live broadcasting equipment were taken, along with administrative files and official documents. Broadcasting equipment was also seized from Al-Quds Educational TV. The IDF said the raids were carried out because the “pirate” TV stations were broadcasting without a licence.