Palestinian journalists have once again fallen victim to the continuing power struggle between the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has jurisdiction over parts of the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist movement that is in control of the entire Gaza Strip.
Neither the PA nor Hamas is any champion of human rights, especially freedom of the media. The two parties regularly crack down on their critics, including journalists who do not toe the line or dare to report on issues that are deemed as reflecting negatively on the PA or Hamas.
The past few weeks have been particularly tough for Palestinian journalists. In this period, several journalists found themselves behind bars in PA and Hamas prisons, while others were summoned for interrogation and had to spend hours in interrogation rooms facing and detention centers.
To make matters even worse, a new Cyber Crime Law passed by the PA paves the way for legal measures against Facebook and Twitter users who post critical or unflattering comments about President Abbas and his senior officials. Critics say the law is a grave assault on freedom of expression and it will be used as a tool in the hands of Abbas and his henchmen to silence their critics or throw them into prison. In addition, the PA has blocked more than 20 news websites that are affiliated with Hamas and Mohammed Dahlan, an ousted Fatah leader who has long openly challenged Abbas.
The PA-Hamas war is hardly a secret. The two entities use every available method to bring each other down. Abbas's PA has not hesitated to take extreme measures against the two million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. These measures include depriving the Gaza Strip of medical supplies, electricity and fuel, as well as forcing thousands of PA civil servants into early retirement and cutting off salaries to thousands of others.
Hamas's retaliatory capacity towards the PA for these punitive steps is limited -- by Israel. Fortunately for Abbas and the PA, Israel is sitting in the middle between the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Had Israel not been so situated, Hamas and its Gaza Strip followers would have marched into the West Bank and taken over Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority, and overthrown Abbas's PA.
In the absence of options, Hamas has sought help from Abbas's arch-enemy, the ousted Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, who has been living in exile in the United Arab Emirates for the past six years.
Dahlan has caused Abbas many sleepless nights; Abbas has developed a particular paranoia against Dahlan. Abbas believes that Dahlan has only one goal: to remove him from power and end his regime. Abbas may not be wrong.
Hamas is now prepared to swallow a condition it has been trying to avoid for a long time: an alliance with Dahlan, a man it has despised for two full decades. What is Hamas hoping to gain from this reluctant alliance? Given Dahlan's strong ties with Egypt and some wealthy Gulf countries, Hamas is probably hoping for an end to its isolation in the Gaza Strip.
While awaiting the return of its presumptive "savior," Dahlan, Hamas, which is beginning to feel the impact of Abbas's sanctions against the Gaza Strip, has bared its fangs towards journalists, who are not known for their sympathy for the Islamist rulers there.
In a bid to exert pressure on Abbas to halt his punitive measures, Hamas's "Internal Security Apparatus" arrested Fuad Jaradeh, a correspondent for the PA's Palestine TV in the Gaza Strip. The charge? "Security-related offenses."
Palestinian journalists and family members take a different view of the incarceration, however. In their view, the arrest was aimed at pressuring Abbas to backtrack on his sanctions against the Gaza Strip. Abbas is indeed hoping that the sanctions will drive Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to revolt and bring down Hamas.
The 82-year-old PA president remains mired in the humiliation he suffered when Hamas expelled the PA from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007.
Abbas holds a personal grudge against Hamas because he also believes that before expelling the PA from the Gaza Strip, Hamas had planned to assassinate him by detonating explosives in a tunnel under his motorcade. The alleged plot was foiled when a Hamas official defected and revealed the plan to Abbas.
So, the Palestine TV correspondent, Jaradeh, was actually taken hostage by Hamas. Several operatives belonging to Abbas's ruling Fatah faction in the Gaza Strip were also targeted by Hamas, which detained some or summoned them for lengthy interrogation.
Enraged by the Hamas measures, Abbas ordered a crackdown on journalists employed by Hamas-affiliated media outlets in the West Bank. The result was that seven journalists found themselves in detention on charges of working for "hostile and unauthorized" media organizations.
This charge is transparently absurd, because Hamas-affiliated television stations and news websites have been operating under Abbas's PA for years. Besides, all the journalists rounded up by Abbas's security forces have been working in public and their identities are well known to his security forces.
The arrest of the seven journalists was a direct effort to squeeze Hamas into releasing the television correspondent, Jaradeh.
In other words, the Palestinian Authority took the seven journalists hostage in order to secure the release of its own newsman from a Hamas prison. The PA certainly did not awaken one morning and discover that there are Hamas-affiliated journalists and media organizations in the West Bank. It is not even charging the journalists with membership in Hamas.
As it turned out, the PA hostage-taking paid off, and Hamas was forced to release Jaradeh after 70 days in detention. In return, the PA security forces released six of the seven journalists, who were even allowed to return to their jobs and resume their work under the PA. Suddenly, these journalists were no longer a security threat and their working places were no longer "hostile" and "unlicensed."
After their release from Abbas's prisons eight days later, the journalists who had been held hostage talked about having undergone physical and verbal abuse.
Mahmoud Hamamreh, one of the released journalists, recounted:
"Some of us were beaten and humiliated. We were held in tiny cells and treated as criminals. The officer in charge of the investigation told us that we were being held hostage until Hamas releases journalists it is holding."
Hamas and Abbas have turned Palestinian journalists into weapons in their internecine war. Palestinian journalists are now being targeted not only for expressing their views and reporting in a way that angers their leaders; they are also arrested and tortured in the process of the settling of scores between Abbas and Hamas.
The Palestinians indeed live under two dictatorial regimes, where freedom of expression and freedom of the media are violated on a daily basis. By taking journalists hostage, the PA and Hamas have demonstrated that they are operating more as militias than as governments. We have before us a preview of the deadly drama of any future Palestinian state.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.