Palestine’s Other Oppressor
Pre-dawn raids are commonplace in this part of the world. Doors are battered down in the wee hours of the morning and stun grenades are lobbed inside, with authorities rushing in – torches blinding those in their path – to snatch an unwitting victim from their slumber. They are handcuffed, blindfolded and thrown in the back of an armoured truck for an interrogation, barrelling down the street with the pleading and screams from their distressed family members fading in the distance.
The raid is over in just a few minutes.
In many cases, a Palestinian suspect is thrown into the back of a truck with I.D.F (Israeli Defence Force) plastered on the side. However, there’s also an equally sinister enemy: one that is betraying the human rights of its own kind.
The number of people arrested by the Palestinian Authority (PA), currently headed by Mahmoud Abbas – whose four-year term has now entered its 13th year – is growing at an alarming rate. Worse still, Palestinians are being locked up for months, often without formal charges being laid against them for something as innocuous as a social media post.
Last year, Mahmoud Abbas’ government passed legislation that punished those found guilty of upsetting Palestine’s “social harmony” with up to 15-years of hard labour. According to David Yusef, an advocacy coordinator prisoner support and human rights association at Addameer, the passage of this legislation meant little more than “the formalisation of pre-existing PA policies, which have been used to silence dissenting voices.”
“The law itself made the arrest and prosecution of dissenting voices much easier, and with an apparent air of reason,” David warns. “That said, the legislation, which can hardly be calling that since it is more of a decree coming directly from President Abbas, is a dangerous step in regard to the restriction on free speech.”
One such individual on the receiving end of Abbas’ fury is Ahmad al-Awartani, a 25-year-old Palestinian engineer who remains behind bars in a Jericho prison notorious for abusing inmates with torture following their unlawful arrest. Ahmad took to social media to express his dissatisfaction with a regime that, for years now, has been plagued with allegations of corruption and nefarious means to suppress all those who expose Abbas’ despotism.
“I do not support or pledge allegiance,” Ahmad wrote on his Facebook, responding to posters of Mahmoud Abbas that had popped up in his village of Anabta. Two weeks later, he was taken by the PA and thrown without charge into a prison cell where, to this day, he remains.
Ahmad’s brother Rami tells me that he too was arrested by the PA, and was “beaten so badly [he] fell into a coma”. Rami, who has since left Palestine, was quick to shift the conversation back to his brother, whom his family members are not allowed to visit.
“Until this moment, he is there in that jail,” he says. “There is no charge, the lawyers have met him, and requested him to be released, as it is not a lawful imprisonment. It’s a strange and disgusting thing to keep him there for a Facebook post.”
“For Palestinians, social media is one of the only ways we can share our ideas and opinions without putting ourselves in the line of bullets and tear gas. Now they have closed this channel because they are scared of the people expressing their opinions about the Israeli occupation and the PA,” Rami continues, adding his frustration at the fact that a presidential election is nearly a decade overdue.
Yumna Patel, a journalist at Al Jazeera and Ma’an News, who first published Ahmed al-Awartani’s case, reveals that Ahmad’s tragedy is one of many, particularly for those in her line of work.
“Journalists, authors, poets, academics, artists and activists are the most commonly in the firing line,” she says. “Any Palestinian nationalism shown in songs, artwork or poetry can be deemed as incitement, taken down and then the offender, arrested.”
“Most Palestinians, unless they’re an Abbas crony, or have a government job, hate the PA … They can see their own government locking them up.”
Yumna continues to explain that in the aftermath of the of the Oslo Accord – which at the time was heralded by the west as a great step toward regional peace – Palestine became “a puppet of Israel, in a successful move to create an illusionary democracy, giving the Palestinians just enough hope to keep quiet and not rebel.”
A culture of fear and distrust
It is now widely-known that in the aftermath of signing the Oslo Accord in 1993, the newly-formed Palestinian Authority began cooperation efforts with Israeli security agencies on two fronts. First, there was the seemingly justified attempt to stifle acts of aggression and violence before they occurred; second, the less than justifiable crackdown of dissent, often against its own citizens. This dissent in a modern context has moved into the online realm; so too have the money and resources.
According to a 2014 report from the EU’s Institute for Security Studies, 44 per cent of public sector employees in the PA work in security – a whopping 80,000 people. The majority of the PA’s annual budget is allocated to this sector. The same study references survey results that claim that 81 per cent of Palestinians believe the PA and its officials are corrupt.
Addameer’s David Yusef says the situation is made more complicated by the fact that, “the PA is the single biggest employer in the occupied Palestinian territories”.
“This engenders a strange kind of relationship where people recognise the problems within it, but choose not to engage with them,” he says. “On the other end, there is a disdain for the PA. This stems from the belief that the PA is ultimately a collaborator with the occupation, and simply hands out money to seek loyalty.”
2018 statistics obtained from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research show that 62 per cent of the 1,200 respondents surveyed believe that the PA eavesdrop on Palestinian citizens. The current state of distrust toward the PA can be seen in the fact that less than 23 per cent evaluate Palestinian democracy positively, and, on average, 68 per cent of the public demand the President resigns, with demand for Abbas’ resignation standing at 81 per cent in the Gaza Strip.
Two sides of the same coin
Yumna Patel believes that the PA sustains the occupation just as much as Israel. “They go hand-in-hand,” she says. “Israel needs the PA to remain in power, because they keep the population docile and under control.”
As a journalist, Yumna acknowledges that it’s more difficult than ever before to report due to the potential of reprisal from a government that does not take kindly to criticism; interviewees feel the same.
“It’s a touchy subject because people are scared to talk to you as a journalist,” she says.
Despite this, she believes she owes it to the people. “It’s not about making Israel’s government look worse than the PA to get sympathy for the Palestinian people, because they’re both doing horrible things to the Palestinian people. They’re two sides of the same coin,” she explains.
“Abbas is holding on to power by throwing people in prison. The Israeli occupation may be the other present force, but the PA is the one that lives next door. People are scared it’ll turn into a situation like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, where they’re scared to say anything critical, even to family or friends, for fear of being arrested.”
Rami al-Awartani and his family, who remain unsure when they will see Ahmad again, are certain the Palestinian Authority is using methods of torture in the Jericho prison; Rami suffered them first-hand. Rumours of such mistreatment, combined with the frequent reports of Palestinians being arrested for online dissent, are successfully creating culture of fear in the minds of young Palestinians whom, despite growing frustrations and rejections of the PA’s legitimacy, are unable to freely express their opinions or engage in political discourse. There have been mentions of plain-clothed police taking notes and names at popular events, even birthday parties; reminiscent of Iran’s infamous Savak force that terrorised the domestic population until the Shah was overthrown.
The sad reality is that it might take something similar to the 1979 Iranian revolution to enable Palestinians’ right to freely engage in political discourse, and ultimately have a functioning democracy. As it stands, they are living in an Orwellian nightmare; first facilitated by Israel, now relentlessly enforced by their own “democratically” elected authority. This betrayal from the government has not gone unnoticed, but is sadly becoming exponentially more dangerous to rebel against due to the sophistication of technology and ruthlessness of the PA.
“Because I support my brother, maybe I’ll go to prison too.” Rami says, ending our conversation with the sentiment that, “We’re losing.” As I attempt to cheer him with an insistence the battle wasn’t over, his silence is haunting, and emphasises just how little we in the west know about the political stagnancy in Palestine and the current state of hopelessness.
**Update: We have since been informed Ahmad’s sentence has been extended indefinitely, so at his brother’s request and in Ahmad’s honour, have added some more pictures that have been supplied by his family. The rest of the photos are by the author.