From self-determination to dictatorship: With a rod of iron

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has long ceased to pursue the national aspirations of its population and established a security apparatus designed to secure the status quo. Meanwhile in Gaza, the de facto Hamas regime is planning to hand over control to its military wing. Commentary by Abdalhadi Alijla

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Abdalhadi Alijla

In 1993, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation signed the famous Oslo Accord, which allowed Arafat to return to parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, establishing a Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian Authority and the elected Palestinian National Council. The agreement stipulated a five-year framework, intended as a transitional period that would ultimately result in peaceful settlements based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 – and thus the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Yet in 2017, the Palestinians are arguably worse off than ever. They have no state, no Palestinian Authority, no sovereignty and no self-determination. Instead they have two new authoritarian regimes in a dual-entity-under-occupation: Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank.

In both areas, the Palestinian people are suffering, not only from the ongoing Israeli occupation but also from the two regimes that govern the territories with an iron fist. Hamas in the Gaza Strip has controlled the besieged area since 2007, when Palestinian Authority troops collapsed following deadly clashes with the military wing of Hamas, Al Qassam.

″Another wasted generation″

Military tribunal in Gaza pronounces the death sentence for three Palestinians accused of murdering a leading Hamas figure, Masen Fukaha, in March 2017 (photo: picture-alliance/AP Images/A. Hana)
Make way for the military: in Gaza Al Qassam has advised the leading Hamas politicians to create a political vacuum, thereby clearing the way for military rule. Hamas is to waive its political rule and Hamas-led security forces be limited to carrying out civilian missions. Hamas′ military wing intends to fill the resulting security vacuum

Since then, Hamas has exerted control over the Gaza Strip, consolidating its grip on power while ignoring the suffering of its own people. The politically opportunistic Hamas now rules Gaza at the expense of another wasted generation.

Recently, pressure on both Hamas and the Gazans has been mounting. A lack of electricity, the ongoing Israeli siege, PA salary cuts and the introduction of forced early retirement for PA employees who draw their salaries directly from Ramallah, among other things, means the Gaza Strip economy has taken a beating.

Nevertheless, this did not prevent Hamas from arresting those young people who took the streets and used social media to call for public services and an end to division. Hamas alleged that the activists and journalists detained had been ″misusing technology″. Social media, long regarded by Gazans as an essential vent for expressing their opinions, has now become the target.At the same time, Hamas has been working as a de-facto peacekeeping force along the Gaza-Israeli borders. Using Qatar as a go-between, Hamas has co-operated with Israel on many occasions. According to many sources, this co-operation is intended to prevent any escalation in the Gaza Strip – still reeling from the war in 2014 – and to help facilitate humanitarian aid to Gaza.

While tightening its grip on the Gaza Strip, Hamas also met with its long-standing arch-enemy Mohammed Dahlan. Backed by Egypt, an understanding was reached between the two parties, thus lending Hamas a new lease of life.

This may well prolong the political divisions between Hamas and Abbas, while making the situation more precarious for Abbas-affiliated Fatah members resident in the Gaza Strip.

Political opportunism at the expense of public welfare

At the same time, Abbas is pushing ahead with harsh measures that will put the educational and health sectors in the Gaza Strip at risk. The PA in Ramallah recently cut salaries and enforced early retirement for thousands of public sector employees. Yet neither Hamas nor any other group is in a position to take over their management.

This move by the PA is set to have far-reaching social and economic ramifications for Gazans in general, increasing the number of those living beneath poverty line. As Omar Shaban, an economic commentator told Al Jazeera: ″The stagnant economy in Gaza needs to be stimulated with movement in the markets, but with no salaries, the workers will not pay back their debts for the store owners and everyone will be in hot water.″

In recent weeks, the military wing of Hamas advised the leading Hamas politicians to create a ″political vacuum", thereby clearing the way for military rule in the Gaza Strip. Under the plan, Hamas is to waive its political rule over the Gaza Strip; at the same time Hamas-led security forces will halt their security operations and only carry out civilian missions. The resulting security vacuum in Gaza would subsequently be filled by Hamas′ military wing, which would deploy its forces throughout the area.Hamas′ military intentions are not only risky, they are also likely to endanger the lives of dozens of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Let us not forget that the Hamas military wing summarily executed dozens of civilians without trial or serious interrogation during the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza. Similarly, during the first Intifada, dozens (if not hundreds) were executed for minor offences such as using drugs, working on Israeli farms, working in the Israeli civil service, or owning pornographic videos. In many cases, the allegations turned out to be personally motivated and baseless.

Palestinian people hold banner during the #SavePalPeople social media campaign in Gaza, April 2017 (photo: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Faiz)
Beware the cyber crime law: social media – a lifeline for the Palestinian people is under attack. Waved through by President Abbas, the new legislation bears a strong resemblance to similarly restrictive laws passed by other authoritarian regimes. In the first few days following implementation of the law, the PA blocked more than a dozen of websites, including several relating to Hamas and Mohammed Dahlan

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority is putting personal whim before the national will of the Palestinians. Abbas and his security apparatus have transformed the Palestinian Authority into a state instrument designed to cement the status quo, which implies serving and prolonging the occupation.

During the first week of August, the Palestinian Authority arrested five journalists in the West Bank for allegedly ″leaking sensitive information″. Intended in retaliation for the arrest of a Fatah journalist and activist Foad Jarada two months previously, the arrest of the five journalists merely sealed a swapping deal with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip.

Undermining fundamental freedoms

The arrest took place under the new Palestinian cyber crime law. The latter was approved by the Palestinian president without consulting civil society or seeking public justification. Contrary to what one might expect, the law limits freedom of speech and intensifies arbitrary arrests. In the first few days following implementation of the law, the PA blocked more than a dozen of websites affiliated with Hamas and Mohammed Dahlan. The new legislation is that of an authoritarian regime. It aims to curb freedom of speech on social media and online platforms that have proved effective in spreading information and raising awareness.

As a result the Palestinians are facing two different regimes that undermine their freedom of speech, imposing harsh measures that restrict their national aspirations. This is likely to be the norm for the next few years, with both parties doing their best to maintain the status quo to serve their own interests.

The Palestinians will continue to suffer, not only because of the Israeli occupation, but also at the hands of their own governing bodies and political parties. Instead of coming up with new solutions and strategies to tackle the currently worsening situation, which merely benefits Israel, those in power apparently prefer to rule their own people with a rod of iron.                                                     

Abdalhadi Alijla

© 2017

Abdalhadi Alijla is a research fellow at the University of Milan and the executive director of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies Canada (IMESC). He serves as the regional manager for Gulf countries at Varieties of Democracy Institute, Gothenburg University, Sweden.