Palestinian Demonstrators Underscore the Palestinian Authority’s Legitimacy Problem

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

A protest against police brutality in Ramallah at the start of this month was met with truncheons by the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security forces. Unsurprisingly, there was an Israeli precipitant to this reaction: the Washington Post’s Benjamin Gottlieb explained that this was actually the second confrontation between demonstrators and police in Ramallah that weekend. The first clash occurred when the PA invited Israeli VP Shaul Mofaz to come to Ramallah, the PA’s capital in the West Bank, to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas.

Because of the protests, the visit was put off as the police moved in to contain the demonstrators. The now-postponed visit, and the reactions to it by Palestinian activists, stand as apt reminders of the tension inherent in the Palestinian Authority’s very existence.

The Israeli veep was invited by the PA because after joining his political party, Kadima, with Netanyahu’s governing coalition to form a unity government, he was appointed to serve as “minister without portfolio” on the stalled peace process. Huwaida Arraf, one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement, was one of those who criticized the PA for even inviting Mofaz in the first place because he served as IDF Chief of Staff, and then Defense Minister, at the onset of the Second Intifada.

Gazan blogger Mohammed Suliman summed up the unequal relationship between Ramallah and Jersualem in his coverage of the protests: “An intricately designed hierarchy where Abbas’s [sic] placed underneath Israel yet extends his hand upwards to them forming the PA-Israel alliance.” Indeed, despite its close cooperation with the IDF since 1994 in arresting suspected militants, the PA does not even have total control of its own funds or its security forces, whose training and equipping have for the past eighteen years been finalized by the American, Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian governments. The training and arming of these security forces, who have been accused of torturing detainees and vigilantism, has been asore point for years among Palestinians.

Several demonstrators and reporters were injured during the weekend protests, and critics charged the PA with trying to impose a media blackout on the day’s events. The PA is often suspect of members of the press, even those at state outlets, and this past year — after failing to secure settlement building freezes, difficulties in making progress in much-trumpeted unity talks with Hamas, or win international recognition as a state through the UN — has apparently stepped up its efforts to censor the press. Concerns have been growing over the years that the PA is using charges of incitement or collaboration with Hamas to quash criticism of its actions (Hamas, for its part, will also harass critical individuals and outlets on spurious charges of collaboration or undermining their authority).

One of the most notorious cases this year has been that of Yousef Shayeb, a reporter working for the Jordanian daily Al-Ghab. He had reported early this year that officials at the General Delegation of Palestine in France were engaged in corrupt financial practices, nepotism and were passing information about Muslim organizations in France on to Mossad. He named several high-ranking members of the PA/PLO serving in the EU in this report, which prompted Ramallah and several of those named in it to charge Shayeb with libel. As the authorities in Ramallah detained Shayeb and built their case up against him, all the while pressing him to reveal his anonymous sources, Al-Ghab disavowed itself of Shayeb’s reporting and fired Shayed, saying he had improperly vetted his sources. Shayeb has not yet been tried for libel, but may face further jail time and a significant fine if convicted by a Palestinian court.

Reports on other actions against reporters suggest that Shayeb’s detention and interrogation came at a time this past spring when the PA was increasingly cracking down on online criticism of Abbas. West Bank journalist Tariq Khamis told Electronic Intifada that when he was brought in for his alleged ties to a man who had called for Abbas’s overthrow, the Palestinian police interrogated him about a story he’d written a West Bank paper about Palestinian youth groups critical of Ramallah’s negotiating track with the Israelis. George Hale has reported that Palestinian ISPs have been ordered to block websites critical of Abbas, even though Palestinian media officials have said there is no law authorizing Ramallah to make these move, and at least one top media official subsequently resigned in protest.

Israel continues to exert even greater pressure on Palestinian and international journalists in the West Bank, but sometimes, these Israelis actions actually benefit the PA too, since as the Committee to Protect Journalists has noted, West Bank media outlets like Wattan TV targeted by the IDF have also “been a thorn in the flesh of the PA for most of its existence”. In fact, this marks the sixth time Wattan TV has been shut down — the first five times it was forced to suspend its broadcasts, it was due to the Palestinian Authority’s actions.

Social media is helping Palestinian activists dissatisfied with both the Fatah and Hamas’s governance reach wider audiences. So in Ramallah, there can be few Palestinian protest chants more unnerving these days than those that end with SCAF comparisons.