Saturday, February 16, 2013

Palestine’s Democratic Deficit

Published: February 12, 2013

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.
A good indicator of how committed a government is to upholding peace with its neighbors is its commitment to protecting the human rights of its own citizens. Nations that disregard the freedoms of their own people are not likely to care much about maintaining peace with their historic enemies. Palestinian human rights, in other words, are key to the peace process.
In Gaza, where Hamas shuts down social media conferences, represses women, tortures dissidents and arrests journalists, there is scant hope for constructive steps toward regional peace. With the latest crackdown on free speech, the Palestinian Authority seems to be moving in a worryingly similar direction when it comes to human rights.
Last August, in a speech encouraging jihad against enemies who set foot on Muslim land, the deputy speaker of the Hamas parliament, Ahmad Bahr, called on God to kill all Jews and Americans as well as their supporters. “Count them one by one, and kill them all, without leaving a single one” he said.
Rather than repudiating such genocidal rhetoric, when an Al Jazeera interviewer asked Mr. Abbas last year if there were political and ideological differences between his party, Fatah, and Hamas, he replied, “In all honesty, there are no disagreements between us.”
But there should be enormous — indeed unbridgeable — gaps between any potential peace partner and a terrorist organization that acts tyrannically and calls for the annihilation of a people.
The sentencing of Mr. Awwad reminds us that despite rhetoric to the contrary, the Palestinian Authority has little respect for democracy and freedom of speech. Rather than continuing to give Mr. Abbas a free pass, the West should roundly criticize crackdowns on dissidents and stand firmly with Palestinian democrats. A positive first step would be linking Western economic aid to the Palestinian Authority’s respect for free speech. Human rights, too often seen as a diversion from the peace process, are in fact the secret to it.
David Keyes is executive director of Advancing Human Rights.

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