The Palestinian Authority and Hamas may disagree on many matters, but they share considerable common ground in their efforts to silence their critics and prevent the emergence of new voices seeking a better life for the Palestinians. (Image source: iStock)
The first promise the new Palestinian Authority (PA) government made after it was sworn in last month was that it would honor public freedoms, particularly freedom of the media and freedom of expression.
Ibrahim Milhem, the new spokesman for the PA government, headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, said in a radio interview that no Palestinian journalist would be arrested for expressing his or her views. Milhem promised that his government would allow the press to play its role as a watchdog over the performance of the ministers and their ministries.
Palestinian journalists living and working in PA-controlled territories in the West Bank welcomed Milhem's statement and expressed hope that it would mark the beginning of a new era between the media and the government.
For the Palestinian journalists, the promise indicated a refreshing change of direction, particularly after years of PA crackdowns on freedom of the media in the West Bank.
Under the previous PA government, headed by Rami Hamdallah, Palestinian journalists and social media users faced various forms of harassment and persecution.
According to Palestinian journalist Nur al-Din Saleh, the PA measures include arresting and summoning reporters and social media users for interrogation. The measures, he said, are in the context of the PA leadership's policy of "silencing their voices and combating freedom of expression." Since the beginning of the year, Saleh noted, the PA security forces have arrested or summoned for interrogation several journalists, including Ziad Abu 'Ara and social media activists Mutasem Sakf al-Hait, Ayman Abu Aram and Mahmoud Abu Hraish.
Palestinian journalist Khaldoun Mazloum said that the PA has been pursuing a "gagging" policy to prevent the media from exposing its practices against Palestinians, including those who protest its policies and decisions.
Mazloum criticized the PA-affiliated Palestinian Journalists Syndicate for failing to take a strong stand against the crackdown on freedom of expression in the West Bank. "The syndicate is only documenting the Palestinian Authority's practices and issuing statements of condemnation without taking any real steps," he said. "That encourages the Palestinian Authority to commit more crimes against its citizens."
The Palestinian journalist most recently arrested under the Hamdallah government was Hazem Nasser, who works for the Palestinian An-Najah television station in the West Bank city of Nablus. He was released three weeks later.
It now seems that the Shtayyeh government is following in the footsteps of the former Palestinian government concerning freedom of the media in the West Bank.
Days after the new government's spokesman vowed that his government would adopt a new policy, the PA security forces arrested Khalil Thwaib, a media student at Al-Quds University in the village of Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem. Thwaib, a resident of the town of Bet Sahour, near Bethlehem, was reportedly arrested by the PA's Preventive Security Service after he interviewed families of Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel. His father, Khaled, said that the arrest of his son contradicted the PA government's pledge to halt its crackdown on the media.
Upon his release the following day, the media student said he was interrogated about the interviews he conducted with the families of the prisoners. The PA interrogators, he added, checked his Facebook page and asked him about the nature of the questions he asked during the interviews.
Last week, the new PA government again broke its promise when it ordered the arrest of Palestinian writer and researcher Yasser Mana', a resident of Nablus. His wife, Anhar, said that a Palestinian court ordered her husband remanded into custody for one week. She said she had no idea why Mana' was arrested. "Masked security officers raided our home in a brutal manner," she said.
Sources in Nablus said that Mana' was apparently arrested for publishing articles about the last round of fighting between Hamas and Israel. They said that Mana' is an "expert" on Israeli affairs and regularly translates articles from the Israeli media. The PA apparently found Mana's articles to be supportive of Hamas, the sources speculated.
Emad Abu Awwad, director of the Al-Quds Center for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, denounced the arrest of Mana' as a "catastrophe." He said that if it is true that Mana' was arrested for supporting the Palestinian "resistance" groups in the Gaza Strip, then the Palestinian Authority security forces "must arrest a large number of people in the West Bank. We are facing a real catastrophe."
The new PA government has also demonstrated its intention to continue the security crackdown on Palestinian university students in the West Bank. Last week, the PA security forces arrested Ahmed Mohammed Darwish, a student at An-Najah University in Nablus. Darwish was apparently arrested because of his affiliation with the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Bloc student list on campus and for criticism of the PA.
The arrest of the university student is a continuation of the policy of the previous PA government, which also saw the arrest of scores of university students in the past few years. Shortly before the new PA government was sworn in, students at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, protested the "politically motivated" arrests carried out by the PA security forces in the West Bank. The outcry came after the PA arrested university student Mahdi Karajah.
For now, it seems that Palestinian journalists and political activists in the West Bank will continue to face repressive measures by the new PA government. That, however, does not mean that the situation in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip is any better.
A "fact sheet" published last month by the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights revealed that "arbitrary detention of Palestinians by the local [Hamas] authorities is among the most common violations of human rights in the Gaza Strip." The center said that the "practice is perpetuated by the intra-Palestinian political split [between the West Bank and Gaza Strip], whereby persons with an opposing political opinion and/or affiliation to that of the local authorities are arrested or harassed, including in public and while participating in peaceful assemblies. This practice is meant to control and intimidate any opposition to the local authorities."
The center also noted that violations of the right to free opinion and expression have intensified throughout the period of the division between Hamas and PA President Mahmoud Abbas's ruling Fatah faction.
"Attacks on these rights have resulted in the spread of fear, and a context in which Palestinians' opinions and freedom to define their political affiliation are suppressed," the center said. "Journalists' work to expose violations is also significantly restricted, as individuals attempt to avoid harassment and punishment for their work. Practitioners of printed, audio, and video media, as well as artists, have been subjected to the violation of their rights, including journalists being denied permission to cover events."
As far as many Palestinians are concerned, there is no difference between Abbas's Palestinian Authority and Hamas when it comes to their people being able to tell the truth as they see it. The two rival parties may disagree on many matters, but they share considerable common ground in their efforts to silence their critics and prevent the emergence of new voices seeking a better life for the Palestinians. While this muzzling of Palestinian mouths is perfectly visible to the naked eye, the jaundiced eye of the international community and media sees flaws only in Israel.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.