Hamas Builds Separate Courts in Gaza

While all eyes were turned to the meeting at Annapolis late last month, Hamas' government in the Gaza Strip tightened its grip on three important civilian institutions: the court system, the municipality and the Central Palestinian Bureau of Statistics.

In taking over these branches of governance, Hamas deepened the institutional rift between its dominion and the Fatah-led West Bank. The fact that these institutions are now under Hamas' auspices add to the Strip's character as a separate entity.

The takeover of the civil courthouse occurred on November 26. Two days later, on November 28, Hamas forces took over the statistics bureaus and shut them down. The next day, the municipality received a new director general, who put in place other moves aimed at consolidating Hamas' hold on the city. The takeover on the bureau statistics came after the office refused Hamas' demand to oversee a general census which is currently being conducted. Hamas demanded control over the release of the data gathered in the census.

The court's hijacking was conducted in a polite and quiet manner, but a large police contingent was deployed in the courts compound. Several representatives from the Islamist organization's justice authority, the Higher Justice Council, arrived at the courts and demanded the keys to all the offices, informing management that all judges were under its jurisdiction and were now required to follow its orders.

The judges refused to accept the order, but one of the clerks gave the representatives the keys. Subsequently, the courts' former managing body, the Higher Judicial Council, left their offices and announced they were temporarily stepping down - including 48 judges.

At a press conference last week, representatives from four of the area's prominent civil rights organizations said they were so far unsuccessful in persuading Hamas to release its hold on the courts.

In fact, the physical takeover of the courts was the culmination of a gradual process.

On August 14, Hamas' justice minister decided to suspend the Gaza Strip's attorney general.

Two days later, Hamas' Executive Force raided the attorney general's Gaza offices. The officers assaulted the attorney general, arresting him and his aides. On August 29, Gaza received a new attorney general, complete with staff, who replaced the previous attorney general, who had been appointed to the post by the Palestinian Authority.

The aforementioned Higher Justice Council was formed on September 4. Its mandate put it in charge of the justice system in Gaza. Its newly forged charter also stated it had the authority to appoint judges - a privilege previously reserved for the Palestinian Judicial Higher Council.

The Higher Justice Council wasted no time and appointed seven new judges. They had passed the Palestinian Authority's legal council exams to the bench, but they had not been appointed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as required by law. The seven new judges reviewed cases at a separate building, near the courts compound.

All the while, Hamas officers would harass the old guard at the justice complex, as well as senior officials in the legal system.

Hamas said their actions were the result of Abbas' orders, that allegedly paralyzed the legal system. According to Hamas, it was the leadership in Ramallah who gave the order to suspended the attorney general, thereby making legal dealings between civilians and the government impossible to review.

Hamas also alleges that Ramallah-based officials ordered the courts to refrain from cooperating with the police in Gaza.

Hamas said that in so doing, the Palestinian Authority made carrying out sentences impossible. Debt collection by the court, Hamas said, was also made impossible.

Indeed, human rights organizations warned Abbas and his prime minister in Ramallah, Salam Fayyad, that these orders would encourage Hamas to set up its own justice system.

Regardless, the Palestinian bar instructed its 1,000 attorneys in Gaza not to cooperate with the new, Hamas-appointed judges.

Hamas' legal authorities and the authority's legal representatives did meet to try and work out a cooperative agreement, but negotiations broke down after Hamas insisted on appointing more judges, whose service at the bench would be, in fact, illegal.