Israel: Free expression hangs in the balance

When the most distinguished former chair of Israel’s Supreme Court, the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Aharon Barak, said that he would go before a “firing squad” if it would help prevent what he sees as an existential threat to his country’s democracy, it’s a safe bet he was talking about something momentous.

Barak’s January denunciation of the attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to neuter the Court was just part of what has brought many tens of thousands of Israeli citizens out in unprecedented protests across the country. An impressive array of judicial, political, ex-military and intelligence leaders have warned that Netanyahu’s programme is leading Israel on a path akin to that of authoritarian governments like Hungary and Poland at best, and dictatorship and “fascism” at worst.

The coalition formed on 29 December is easily the most right wing in Israel’s history and includes in key Cabinet posts two religious and avowedly extreme and anti-Arab supremacists, Bezalal Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, both determined that Israel should annex the occupied West Bank. Their appointment adds a volatile new element to a conflict in which 14 Israelis and 70 Palestinians have been killed this year alone.

But it is the “reforms” to the Supreme Court drawn up by Netanyahu’s justice minister Yariv Levin which, opposed by an Israeli majority in opinion polls, have unleashed a wave of outrage on the streets. These include clauses heavily curbing judicial review, removing the criterion of “reasonableness” by which it can judge government decisions, for appointments of the Court to fall under the direct control of the government, and for judgements ruling that a government decision in unlawful or conflicts with semi-constitutional Basic Laws to be overruled by a simple majority in the Knesset (parliament).

The Court is hardly the “overmighty” bastion of liberalism depicted by its critics. Last year, for example, it approved the planned eviction of 1000 southern West Bank Palestinians from their homes purportedly to make way for an Israeli military firing zone. But it remains the last hope for individuals, Jewish or Arab, fighting against unjust decisions, whether legal or administrative. What’s more in Israel’s single parliamentary chamber system the Court is the only check and balance on the executive and the Knesset majority it invariably commands.

The changes to the Court should not be seen in isolation from other measures planned or already in various stages of enactment or proposal. These include allowing the death penalty – unused since the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s execution in 1962 – for Palestinian terrorists, and the power to deprive Arab—though not Jewish—terrorists of residency as well as citizenship. Fears of secular Israelis have been fuelled by calls from ultra-orthodox parties for an end to the ban on segregation of men and women at publicly funded events, while Smotrich has even called for the banning of Arab political parties, representing nearly 20% of the Israeli population. Already under way is a bill to curb the law officers’ power to declare the prime minister unfit to rule. Many Israelis also see the wider judicial reforms partly as an attempt by Netanyahu to escape the possible consequences of his ongoing trial on three corruption charges.

The Netanyahu coalition agreement provides for prohibitively high taxation of Israeli civil-society organisations, several defending Palestinian human rights, which draw funding from mainly European governments, including Britain’s. The measure will not mostly apply to the many right-wing, pro-government advocacy groups because they are mainly funded by rich individuals, especially in the USA.

There has not yet been any legislative attack on Israel’s still fairly vibrant press, albeit in a market dominated by the pro-Netanyahu freesheet Israel Hayom. But writing after the election last October Aluf Benn, editor of the liberal newspaper Haaretz, pointed out that existing legislation for ordering a state of emergency lays down powers for a press clampdown, and suggested that Netanyahu, Smotrich and Ben Gvir wanted a state “in which criticising the government or replacing it will only be a pipe dream.”

In a sense, however, the changes to the Supreme Court are the programme’s hinge, by severely weakening its right to strike down any of these or other measures because, say, they do not conform with the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. Indeed if so far vain attempts by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog fail to secure a compromise on the changes, and the government  passes the Court legislation by the end of March as it intends, a major stand-off between it and the Court is in prospect, leaving much of Israel—perhaps even including senior Army figures—having to choose between its recognition of  an elected government and its respect for  the law as it has prevailed since the state’s foundation 75 years ago.

The Palestinian Authority is worse than Hamas for free speech, activist claims

khalilsA 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.”

Report finds challenges to digital freedom in Palestine

(Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The internet is a vital platform for Palestinians to express themselves, but web access and targeting of social media users, bloggers and journalists remain big challenges, according to a new report from the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedom (MADA).

“The internet and the broad tools of communication made available by the social networks gained great importance specifically in the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, who have been under firm siege by the Israeli occupation forces since 2006, and for the Palestinian people in general due to the dispersion they have experienced since the Nakba of 1984 [sic], and now they can communicate with their relatives and friends in the different parts of the world quickly and immediately”, said Mr. Mousa Rimawi, MADA’s general director.

The report states that 67% of Palestinians polled by MADA in 2012 believe Facebook contributes to the promotion of freedom of expression.

However, the latest figures quoted show that internet penetration in Palestine is at 32.1%; 34.3% in the West Bank and 27.9% in the Gaza Strip. Lack of infrastructure due to the Israeli occupation and high service charges are the biggest blocks to access, the report finds.

The report also highlighted threats to journalists working in Palestine. Examples included the imprisonment of Al Quds TV reporter Mamdouh Hamamrah for posting an image deemed to be offensive to President Mahmoud Abbas, and the arrest of journalist Esmat Abdel Khalek for a comment she made on Facebook demanding an end to the Palestinian Authority.

“Violations against journalists and citizens simply for expressing their opinions lead to the strengthening of self-censorship, which is incompatible with the idea of ​​having the social platforms that is suppose to make it easier for citizens and journalists to express their opinions”, said Riham Abu Aita, a MADA spokesperson.

The article was edited on 30 September at 12.00 pm to acknowledge an error in the quote from Mr. Mousa Rimawi, which gives the year of the Nakba as 1984, it took place in 1948.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas under fire for web censorship

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 AmadFatah VoiceFiras 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.