The Palestinians’ Democratic Deficit


abbasBy David Keyes

Last week, a 26-year-old Palestinian activist, Anas Awwad, was sentenced in absentia by a court in Nablus, the West Bank, to one year in prison for “extending his tongue” against the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, on Facebook. Thousands have joined a Facebook group to show their solidarity with Mr. Awwad, but the damage has been done. Free speech has been set back, and a chill sent throughout Palestinian society.

It should come as no surprise that the Palestinian Authority is cracking down on basic freedoms. From the top down, a culture of repression reigns supreme. President Abbas’s term ended four years ago. He has clung to power as an unelected autocrat for nearly half a decade. In November, a senior adviser to Mr. Abbas, Mohammad Shtayyeh, told me that Mr. Abbas had no desire to continue ruling, but that he simply could not leave because of the divisions in Palestinian society. Suppressing criticism by resorting to a 50-year-old Jordanian law – designed to punish critics of Jordan’s monarchy when it ruled over the West Bank – has not helped burnish the questionable democratic credentials Mr. Abbas so often claims when meeting Western leaders.

This is not the first time the Palestinian Authority has used antiquated laws to clamp down on Internet activists. Last year, the Palestinian blogger Jamal Abu Rihan was arrested for starting a Facebook campaign called “The People Want an End to Corruption.” Like Mr. Awwad, Mr. Rihan’s crime was “extending his tongue” against the Palestinian leadership. In April, the university lecturer Ismat Abdul-Khaleq was arrested for criticizing Mr. Abbas on Facebook. Days later, a journalist, Tarek Khamis, was detained for criticizing the Palestinian Authority’s treatment of Ms. Abdul-Khaleq. George Canawati, the director of a Bethlehem radio station, and the journalist Rami Samar were similarly detained for posting criticisms of the Palestinian Authority on Facebook.

So long as Mr. Abbas says he is committed to peace, there appears to be little pressure from the West on issues of human rights. Human rights for Palestinians, it seems, continue to play second fiddle to the peace process.

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