In the past two weeks, Palestinians received yet another reminder that they are living under undemocratic regimes that have less than no respect for public freedoms.
The regimes of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip never miss an opportunity to remind their people of the dire consequences that await anyone who speaks out against the leaders. The two Palestinian regimes have been forcing it down the throats of their people for many years.
Still, some Palestinians seem surprised each time the PA or Hamas send their police officers to break up (or, more precisely, to break bones in) a demonstration in Ramallah or the Gaza Strip.
The streets of Ramallah and Gaza City showcase, yet again, that the Palestinians' true tragedy over the past five decades has been failed and corrupt leadership -- one that keeps dragging them from one disaster to another; one that never offers them any hope; one that has been radicalizing and brainwashing its people; one that steals large portions of the financial aid provided by the international community, and one that has brought them nothing but dictatorship and repression.
The Palestinian Authority is nearly 25 years old, but it continues to act as a corrupt dictatorship. Like most Arab regimes, the PA and its leaders have zero tolerance for any form of criticism.
Ask Palestinian journalists, bloggers and pundits in the West Bank and they will tell you (in private and anonymously; they would like to save their skins) how the Palestinian Authority cracks down on them and imposes severe restrictions on their work. In the past year alone, at least 11 Palestinian journalists and political activists have either been arrested or summoned for interrogation by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. The charge: voicing various forms of criticism against the Palestinian Authority or one of its senior officials, including, of course, President Mahmoud Abbas.
Earlier this month, the Palestinian Authority went one step further in demonstrating to its constituents what dictatorship looks like. Hundreds of Palestinians were staging a peaceful demonstration in the center of Ramallah to call on Abbas to lift the sanctions he had imposed on the Gaza Strip a year earlier. The sanctions, which severely aggravated the economic crisis in the Gaza Strip, included firing thousands of PA civil servants and cutting off social assistance to many families. Abbas has also refused to pay for the electricity and medical care that Israel supplies to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Abbas placed the sanctions on the Gaza Strip in the hope that affected Palestinians would revolt against his enemies in Hamas. So far, however, his measures seem to have backfired. Hamas is still in power and there is almost no real challenge to its rule over the Gaza Strip. Also, Abbas does not want to bear any responsibility for his people in the Gaza Strip; he wants the Gaza Strip to be the problem of Israel, Egypt and the rest of the world. Anyone who thinks that Abbas is eager to go back to the Gaza Strip is living in a dream world. (Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority and Abbas from the Gaza Strip in 2007).
Abbas does not like to be reminded of his responsibility for what many describe as a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, and he does not want any Palestinians to protest the punitive measures he imposed on the Gaza Strip.
First, Abbas issued a directive banning Palestinians from protesting in the major cities in the West Bank.
His directive, however, did not stop hundreds of Palestinian activists from taking to the streets of Ramallah on June 13 to condemn Abbas's sanctions. What was supposed to be a peaceful protest turned out to be one of the most violent clashes between Abbas's security forces and demonstrators, whose only crime was that they were calling on their leader to lift the sanctions he imposed on the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians in the West Bank are also trying to show solidarity with their brothers in the Gaza Strip. They seem to be beginning to realize that Abbas, instead of helping the people in the Gaza Strip, is actually punishing them by cutting off their salaries and denying them medical and humanitarian aid. The Ramallah protest also came amid growing criticism (mainly from the Gaza Strip) that the Palestinians of the West Bank are indifferent to the suffering of their brothers in the Gaza Strip.
On instructions from Abbas, dozens of Palestinian policemen, both in uniform and civilian clothes, attacked the protesters with brute force, using clubs and tear gas. More than 44 protestors were arrested and 20 injured. The brutality, however, did not end there. Palestinian policemen later raided hospitals and medical clinics in Ramallah to arrest injured Palestinians suspected of taking part in the peaceful protest. At least five Palestinian and foreign journalists were wounded during the police assault, while many others had their cameras and other equipment confiscated.
"The Palestinian Authority has crossed all red lines," said a Palestinian protester who was beaten up by Palestinian policemen during the demonstration. "They treated us as if we were the biggest enemy of the Palestinians. We have no idea why they used such force against us. This is a real crime and a violation of Palestinian human rights."
The Palestinian Authority has defended its brutal assault on the peaceful protesters by arguing that the demonstrators had failed to obtain a permit for their protest. But since when do Palestinians need a permit from their leaders to demonstrate? Well, in this instance they do need a permit because the protest was directed against the Palestinian Authority and Abbas.
Demonstrating against Israel or the US and burning their flags and posters of Israeli and American leaders do not require a permit from the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. In fact, the Palestinian leaders in Ramallah have played a major role in initiating anti-Israel and anti-US demonstrations, especially in recent months. It is one thing to shout chants against the US and Israel, but it is a completely different story when a Palestinian shouts chants against his leaders. Such a Palestinian would be lucky indeed if he winds up in hospital with only with a broken limb.
So Abbas, who is already punishing his people in the Gaza Strip under the pretext of fighting Hamas, is now telling his people in the West Bank to keep their opinions to themselves or pay for the impudence with broken heads and broken bones.
Abbas's warning was echoed by one of his senior officials, Akram Rajoub, who serves as "governor" of the West Bank city of Nablus. In a video posted on social media after the violent Ramallah incident, Rajoub is seen and heard threatening any Palestinian who demonstrates against President Abbas:
"We will curse the father of anyone who protests... From now on, we're not afraid and we don't care. We will strike back at anyone who curses us and harms our dignity. Cursed be the fathers of those who say bad things about us!"
Rajoub's threats, which sound more like the language of a street thug than a senior official, came in response to widespread criticism of the Palestinian Authority's brutal violence against the Ramallah protesters. His threat is seen as an attempt to deter other Palestinians from speaking out against Abbas's sanctions on the Gaza Strip.
Rajoub's threats represent a massive mockery of truth on the part of the Palestinian Authority. On the one hand, Abbas and his officials continue to hold Israel responsible for the misery of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and are calling on the international community to condemn Israel for its policies in defending itself against attacks (from the Gaza Strip), while it is, in fact, Abbas himself who is largely responsible for the current crisis. It is because of Abbas, and not Israel, that the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip get only four or five hours of electricity every day. It is because of Abbas, and not Israel, that tens of thousands of Palestinian employees have not been receiving salaries for the past few months. It is because of Abbas, and not Israel, that hospitals in the Gaza Strip lack medicine and medical equipment.
These are only some of the inconvenient truths that Abbas and his cronies in Ramallah do not want the world to know or the Palestinians to talk about. That is why Abbas sent his police officers to Ramallah to beat up the protesters, whose only crime was that they had dared to call on their leader to remove the sanctions on the Gaza Strip.
For now, Abbas appears to have achieved his goal of silencing and intimidating his critics. The violent scenes on the streets of Ramallah on June 13 served as a sufficient deterrent. As one Palestinian activist commented:
"It's become safer to demonstrate against Israel than against Abbas or the Palestinian Authority. Israel is at least a country of law and order and they have human rights organizations and a powerful media and judicial system. We can only continue to dream of having something like what the Jews have."
The fact that Abbas is running a one-man show in the West Bank and is cracking down on public freedoms does not mean that his rivals in Hamas are any better. Sometimes, in fact, it is hard to distinguish between Abbas's regime and that of Hamas. The two often use the same tactics to impose terror and intimidation on their people. Hamas is bad, but who said that the Palestinian Authority is good?
The scenes we witnessed on the streets of Ramallah in mid-June were replicated in Gaza City a few days later, when Hamas used the same tactic to break up a peaceful protest. On June 18, Hamas policemen and militiamen attacked a group of Palestinians who were holding a peaceful protest to call for Palestinian unity. Again, several Palestinians ended up in hospital, while scores of others were arrested by Hamas. Hamas also justified the use of force by arguing that the protesters had failed to obtain a proper permit.
In both Ramallah and Gaza, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas managed to send a message to their people that anyone who speaks out against his or her leader will have his bones or skull smashed. Hamas and the PA despise each other and have been ripping each other to pieces -- figuratively and literally -- for the past decade. At the end of the day, however, Palestinians know that the power struggle between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas is not between good guys and bad guys, but between bad guys and bad guys. These bad guys are no different from other Arab dictatorships that enslave and kill their people.
If the Palestinians ever wish to seek a better life, the first thing they need to do is rid themselves of the "leaders" who have destroyed their lives.
Bassam Tawil is a Muslim Arab based in the Middle East.