The Palestinian Authority (PA) is facing sharp criticism over its attempt to "encroach" on the judicial authority and turn it into a tool in the hands of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Palestinian lawyers, judges and legal experts say that a new bill proposed by the PA government in the West Bank would have a negative impact on the independence and integrity of the judiciary system.
The PA leadership's bid to take control over the judicial authority comes on the heels of an ongoing crackdown on the Palestinian media and journalists. In recent weeks, PA security forces have blocked more than 20 news websites and arrested scores of journalists. In addition, Abbas has approved a Cyber Crimes Law that gives his security forces expanded powers to silence his critics on social media.
Protests by Palestinian journalists and some human rights organizations have thus far failed to persuade Abbas to abandon the Cyber Crimes Law and punitive measures against reporters. As of now, Abbas's campaign to muzzle his critics appears to have worked.
Deterred by the new law, which was passed secretly and without consultation with the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate and the Palestinian Legislative Council, and the arrest of seven journalists in the past few weeks, many of Abbas's critics are keeping a low profile.
This month, PA security forces arrested Mashal Alkouk, a Palestinian-American, for posting critical comments on Facebook. Alkouk, a prominent member of the Palestinian community in the US, was arrested on August 19 when he came to the West Bank to attend the wedding of a family member. He was released four days later.
A statement issued by his friends in the US strongly condemned Alkouk's arrest as a "flagrant assault on individual and public freedoms and freedom of expression."
The statement noted that Alkouk was arrested for his public activities on website called "Palestinians in the US." It said that the website is based in the US and serves as a platform for Palestinian and Arab activists living in the US.
The arrest of the Palestinian-American activist is clear proof that Abbas's long arm reaches any critic, even one with US citizenship.
Now that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority leadership have succeeded in their effort to intimidate social media activists and journalists, they are turning their repressive gaze on judges and lawyers.
For Abbas and his senior officials in Ramallah, the international community's silence over the crackdown on journalists and social media activists is a green light to pursue similar measures against the judicial authority.
Palestinian judges and lawyers say they are going to put up a fight against Abbas's latest bid to turn the judicial system into his personal instrument of reprisal. They have already begun a series of public protests to demand that the PA government abandon its plan to amend the law of the judicial authority in a way that allows the executive body to interfere with the work of the judges and courts.
Osama Al-Kilani, Chairman of the Palestinian Judges' Forum, warned that the proposed bill would have a negative impact on public freedoms and people's rights.
He also cautioned that the PA government's attempt would shatter Palestinians' confidence in their judicial system. "The new bill will place the judicial authority under the tutelage of the executive authority," Al-Kilani complained.
Palestinian lawyers have joined the protest, warning that the PA government was seeking to turn the judicial system into a branch of the executive authority. "This will put an end to the independence of the judiciary," they said in a statement. "This is also an assault on the principle of separation of powers."
Critics also argue that the proposed bill violates the Palestinian Basic Law, which stipulates that the Palestinian Legislative Council is the only party authorized to introduce changes and amendments to existing laws.
Pointing out that the PA government's proposed bill authorizes the executive branch to dismiss judges, the critics say that this constitutes a breach of the Palestinian Basic Law and jeopardizes the independence of the judicial system.
They also take issue with the proposed bill because it makes the prosecutor-general subordinate to the PA government – another violation of the Palestinian Basic Law.
The controversy surrounding the PA government's new bill targeting the judicial authority is yet another indication of how the Palestinians are marching backward, and not forward, in establishing proper and transparent state institutions.
Like the journalists, the judges and lawyers have good reason to be worried, largely because the international community does not seem to care much about human rights violations and assaults on public freedoms by the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Abbas sought to become his people's editor-in-chief by controlling the Palestinian media, and he got what he wanted, despite protests by Palestinian journalists.
Now, Abbas seeks to become the chief judge of the Palestinians by changing the law so that he would be able to meddle in the internal affairs of the judicial authority and fire or appoint judges whenever he feels like it.
Abbas and his government are quietly and successfully turning the PA into an autocratic one man-show, making it a private Abbas fiefdom. After the journalists, the media and the judiciary, it remains to be seen whose turn is next.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.