Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his officials are taking advantage of the world's preoccupation with coronavirus to intimidate and silence their critics at home. Pictured: Abbas delivers a speech in Ramallah, on May 5, 2020. (Photo by Nasser Nasser/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Palestinian leaders are using the state of emergency announced in the West Bank after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic to restrict freedom of expression, punish journalists and arrest political rivals.
This crackdown is happening at a time when the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership is continuing its campaign of incitement against Israel -- by falsely accusing Israelis of, among other things, deliberately spreading the disease to Palestinian villages and cities.
On April 14, PA government spokesman Ibrahim Milhem came out with the latest libel against Israel. He told reporters:
"The settlements are incubators for the [coronavirus] epidemic, and also the workplaces in Israel, hotels, buses, gas stations, and direct mutual contact with Israelis. Israel is having trouble because Israelis are not observing the preventative measures because they love money and want to continue to turn the wheels of production."
On the one hand, the Palestinian leadership is proceeding with its vicious campaign of incitement; on the other hand, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his officials are taking advantage of the world's preoccupation with coronavirus to intimidate and silence their critics at home.
On March 5, Abbas issued a "presidential decree" declaring a "state of emergency in Palestine for one month," after seven cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Bethlehem. The state of emergency has since been extended by another 30 days.
Palestinian journalists and human rights activists are now accusing Abbas and his government of using the state of emergency not only to fight the pandemic, but also to silence and intimidate those who dare to criticize Palestinian leaders or call into question their handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The most recent victims of the Palestinian leadership's clampdown on public freedoms are two journalists working for the Palestinian Authority's official news agency, Wafa. The two, Jafar Sadaqa and Rami Samara, were recently informed by their superiors of the decision to suspend their salaries. Their crime: "Failing to comply with the state of emergency."
Palestinian journalists have strongly denounced the decision to suspend the salaries of Sadaqa and Samara as a "flagrant assault on freedom of expression."
Wafa, which serves as a mouthpiece for the Palestinian leadership, did not provide details regarding its decision to deprive the journalists of their salaries. The two men were only told by the news agency that they had "failed to comply with the state of emergency." They were also told that they would be questioned by an investigative committee after the state of emergency ends.
Ahmed Assaf, the General Supervisor of the Palestinian Official Media, did not even wait until then. Assaf instructed the Palestinian Ministry of Finance immediately to halt the salaries of the journalists, without offering any explanation.
The Palestinian journalists, however, said the decision was taken because of comments Sadaqa and Samara had posted on social media platforms about the Palestinian government's handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Apparently, the comments (which were later deleted) included criticism of, and sarcastic remarks about, the Palestinian government's performance during the coronavirus pandemic.
Palestinian political analyst and journalist Nour Odeh, who previously served as the first female spokesperson of the Palestinian government, expressed concern in a Facebook post that the Palestinian Authority was taking advantage of the coronavirus state of emergency to crack down on public freedoms, particularly freedom of speech:
"From the very first moment of the declaration of the state of emergency [in mid-March], the government asserted that the state of emergency was linked to the pandemic and that it would not allow it to be used to infringe on the rights of citizens, including freedom of expression. Unfortunately, for more than two weeks, we have been quietly following the consequences of exploiting the state of emergency to suspend the salaries of our colleagues, Sadaqa and Samara. According to the [Palestinian] Civil Service Law (Articles 68, 69 and 70) and according to the [Palestinian] Basic Law, what happened with the two colleagues is illegal and a flagrant violation of their civil rights and their rights as employees in the public sector. The law prohibits the imposition of any punishment on an employee before the investigation is completed. In addition, the law does not allow at all the suspension of a salary as a punishment. This is a disgraceful exploitation of the state of emergency. Blackmailing people is immoral and legally unacceptable."
Palestinian journalist Yousef Shayeb condemned the punitive measure against the journalists, dubbing it "catastrophic." He said in a Facebook post that he was particularly outraged because the journalists were punished before their case was brought before an investigation committee. He pointed out that Sadaqa and Samara were being punished for simply expressing their personal views on social media platforms. "We are horrified that the Palestinian Authority is using the pandemic-related state of emergency as a gag policy," Shayeb remarked.
Addressing Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, he added:
"If you want to use the state of emergency for more encroachment [on public freedoms], we prefer to die from coronavirus and not from coercion, repression, and authoritarianism. Either freedoms are safeguarded, or you publicly announce that you are no better than others in terms of violating public freedoms. We don't want our fellow citizens to run over us with the coronavirus truck or cut off our tongues."
As many journalists were complaining about assaults on freedom of expression by the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian human rights group Lawyers For Justice revealed that Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have used the coronavirus to arrest several Palestinians political activists.
In the past two weeks, the group said, Palestinian security forces arrested six activists for carrying out political and relief activities during the coronavirus state of emergency. The relief work includes the distribution of food parcels to needy families, Lawyers For Justice added.
The six detainees are: Mujahed Amarneh, Eyad Nasser, Mujahed Salim, Zakariya Khweiled, Ahmad al-Khawaja, and Mujahed al-Khatib.
"During its follow-up on the cases of political detainees, Lawyers For Justice noted a failure [by the PA] to ensure fair court proceedings," the group said in a statement published on April 20.
"We were unable to submit requests for the release of the detainees because the courts are on holiday. The six men were arrested because of their political activities and for expressing their views [on social media]."
Muhanad Karajah, director of Lawyers for Justice, said that the Palestinian security forces have arrested another five political activists since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced the state of emergency last month. "Some of the detainees complained that they had been tortured while they were held in prison," Karajah added.
"At the beginning of the [coronavirus] crisis, we documented only one politically-motivated arrest. Later, however, we began receiving reports about several people who were either arrested or summoned for interrogation by the Palestinian security services. I believe that there is a decision from the political leadership to carry out arrests [of political opponents]. I believe the arrests will continue after the state of emergency is lifted. I hope that international organizations would exert pressure on the Palestinian Authority and those who fund it to stop the arrests of political activists and human rights advocates."
Palestinians who thought that the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic would prompt their leaders to replace bad habits with good ones are in for disappointment. Palestinian leaders have never tolerated criticism, particularly when it comes from Palestinian journalists and political activists.
For these leaders, the state of emergency is a suitable occasion to intimidate and silence critics. The suspension of the salaries of the two journalists aims to send a warning to all journalists: "If you dare to say anything negative about your leaders, you will lose your bread and butter."
Bassam Tawil is a Muslim Arab based in the Middle East.