Hajer Harb, a courageous Palestinian journalist, has been found guilty by Hamas of exposing corruption in the health system in the Gaza Strip. On September 13, a Hamas court sentenced her to six months in prison and a fine. It was the first sentence of its kind to be passed on a female journalist in the Gaza Strip.
Harb, however, is unlikely to serve her prison term in the near future; she recently left the Gaza Strip to Jordan, where she is receiving medical treatment after being diagnosed with cancer.
Her illness, however, did not stop Hamas from pursuing legal measures against her for her role in exposing corruption in the Palestinian health system. Instead of suspending the legal proceedings against her, the Hamas court chose to sentence her to prison in absentia.
If and when she recovers from her illness and returns to the Gaza Strip, Harb will be arrested and sent to prison for six months. She will also be required to pay the 1000 shekel ($250) fine that was imposed on her by the Hamas court.
Harb's ordeal began in June 2016, when she published an investigative report that disclosed how Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) were using medical care to blackmail Palestinian patients. Her report exposed how some physicians and Hamas and PA officials were demanding bribes in return for issuing permits to patients to leave the Gaza Strip for medical treatment in Israel, the West Bank and some Arab and Western countries. Those who cannot afford to pay the bribes are left to die in understaffed and under-equipped Palestinian hospitals, the report revealed.
Harb's investigative report -- a rare practice in the world of Palestinian journalism -- enraged Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials. Palestinians referred to those involved in the corruption scandal as the "mafia of destruction," as was reported for the first time by Gatestone Institute.
After Harb published her report, she was summoned for interrogation by Hamas authorities. Her interrogators demanded that she reveal her sources and the identity of those involved in the corruption scandal.
"I told them that I'm a journalist and I cannot provide them with the identities of the sources without a court order," she said.
"The prosecution told me that I was facing the following charges: impersonation of another person (they claim I did not reveal my real identity during the investigative report); slandering the Ministry of Health, publishing inaccurate and incorrect information and working with 'foreign parties' (by preparing a report for a London-based television station under the pretext that the media organization is not registered with the Press Office in the Gaza Strip)."
It is both tragic and ironic that in the end, Harb herself had to apply for a permit to leave the Gaza Strip for medical treatment. She found herself in the same situation as the patients about whom she reported, who had to pay bribes to Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials to leave the Gaza Strip. Unlike those patients, however, she did not have to pay anyone a bribe in return for a permit to leave the Gaza Strip. Harb's friends say she was allowed to leave after Palestinian human rights groups intervened.
The verdict on Harb has sparked widespread condemnations among Palestinians, especially Palestinian human rights activists and journalists.
The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) denounced the court's verdict and said it was a "very serious precedent against media freedoms." In a statement, MADA said that it sees this as another "setback to the growing repression of media freedoms" under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. "MADA, wishing a speedy recovery for our colleague [Harb], strongly condemns this decision, which lacks fair trial procedures."
Harb's lawyer, Mervat Al-Nahal, said that her client had been charged with libel, publishing inaccurate news about the Palestinian Ministry of Health, and impersonation, but that her client, while receiving medical treatment in a Jordanian hospital, learned about the court verdict through the media.
The Palestinian political analyst Jihad Harb (no relation) said that the Hamas court verdict was not only aimed at silencing journalists, but also at protecting corruption and those responsible for it in the Gaza Strip.
"The court ruling against the journalist did not come as a surprise," he said. "However, it came as a shock because of the magnitude of the assault on freedom of expression and the media." He pointed out that instead of launching an investigation against those involved in the corruption scandal, Hamas chose to punish the journalist who revealed how patients were being mistreated and abused by senior health officials.
The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate has also strongly condemned the verdict against the journalist and urged Hamas to rescind the decision. "This is a dangerous precedent and a flagrant violation of freedom of expression," the syndicate said. It also called on international human rights organizations to intervene with the Hamas authorities to prevent them from imprisoning the journalist because of her investigative report.
A Palestinian writer, Talal Al-Sharif, who also expressed solidarity with the journalist, pointed out that he too had been sentenced to
a six months in prison for an article he wrote in which he criticized Hamas. Al-Sharif said that after he published the article, he was tried on charges of defamation. He also noted that no one from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah had ever contacted him to support him or denounce the Hamas verdict passed on him.
Al-Sharif was naïve to think that the Palestinian Authority would come out in his defense. The PA itself has long been waging a campaign of intimidation against journalists, writers and political opponents in the areas under its control in the West Bank.
In recent weeks, scores of Palestinians, including journalists, have been arrested by Palestinian Authority security forces. Some were arrested for openly criticizing the PA, while others were taken into custody for "undermining state security" and insulting senior Palestinian leaders ( "extending their tongues", according to the PA law).
Meanwhile, Palestinian journalists and human rights activists are campaigning against President Mahmoud Abbas's new Cyber Crime Law, which gives his security forces expanded powers to crack down on social media users, especially those who dare to express views deemed critical of his leadership.
The court verdict passed on Hajer Harb, and the ongoing punitive measures against Palestinian journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, serve as yet another reminder that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have no respect for freedom of expression and media freedoms. Hamas and the PA may be at war with each other, but they both agree that the media is an enemy that needs to be defeated, to prevent the world from learning about corruption and repression.
For now, it appears that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have succeeded in silencing Palestinian journalists and writers. This is happening, of course, while the international community and so-called pro-Palestinian groups around the world bury their heads in the sand, and refuse to see anything wrong on the Palestinian side.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.