Hamas Names Judicial Committee to Fill the Gap

The director of the Gaza Strip-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights warned three days ago that Hamas could establish military tribunals and Sharia (Islamic law) courts as a response to measures taken by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and the first concrete indication of this possibility came yesterday.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Raji Sourani suggested that Abbas' decision to freeze the work of the Chief Prosecutor's Office in the Gaza Strip, and the order to law enforcement agencies -- including the police -- not to show up to work, would lead to such a course of action by Hamas.

"In 1967, there were three judges in my family," said Sourani. "I remember a discussion between a few judges, immediately after the occupation of the Strip, and my uncles said that the civil court system must go into operation immediately. One of his colleagues argued that this would be tantamount to collaborating with the occupation, but they said: 'We do not care about the occupation, we care about the civilians, and they need working civilian courts.'"

Abbas is not acting according to this logic, and in the absence of a Chief Prosecutor or police to carry out the orders of judges, the court system in the Gaza Strip has been at a standstill in recent weeks.

Yesterday, it seemed that Surani's predictions were coming true, at least partly. A spokesman for the Executive Force at the Interior Ministry in Gaza -- which is the special paramilitary force Hamas set up after it won elections in early 2006 -- announced that two weeks ago a special judicial committee had been set up and assigned the role of filling the vacuum created by the dysfunctional court system. The committee includes a lawyer for the Palestinian military tribunal, a specialist in Sharia law and the head of the Gaza Strip Central Prison. The spokesman said that the committee is meant to hear the complaints of the citizenry.

Issam Younes, director of Al-Mizan, another human rights organization operating in the Gaza Strip, told Haaretz that he was under the impression that the intention is to deal with the citizens' increasing complaints against the Executive Force, and not offer an alternative to the civilian courts.

If indeed the idea behind the committee is to provide an alternative to the civilian court system, Yunes said, such a decision will be heavily criticized and opposed.

Even if the new judicial committee has a narrow scope of authority, it still only reinforces the trend toward twin institutions.

In the West Bank, opposition to Abbas and his decrees has already proved itself. On July 6, he issued a presidential decree, under the state of emergency at the time, in which he declared any violation against members of the security forces and officials of the civil service will be handled by military tribunals. Another presidential decree, on June 20, targetted the non-governmental organizations operating in the territories, who were given a week to register anew at the Palestinian Interior Ministry.

When accompanied by suspensions to a number of articles in the Basic Law on the authority of the parliament, it seemed like an attempt to set up military rule in the PA's West Bank enclaves.

Human rights groups and jurists publicaly expressed their concern about the decrees and the direction that Abbas' moves were leading the PA, even though many of them recognized the constitutional authority of the chairman to dismiss the Fatah-Hamas unity government and create an emergency government.

Several days ago, these two decrees were allegedly rescinded as a result of the public pressure. Even though the opponents of the decrees say they have not received written confirmation, Dr. Camille Mansour, a jurist, said that he is certain they had been rescinded.

Mansour, who will head the law faculty at Bir Zeit University in September, said that this is an example of the strength of Palestinian civil society.

Nonetheless, there are two Palestinian governments considering themselves legal. All efforts to rally the Palestinian parliament for a vote in favor of the current emergency government of Salam Fayad are unlikely to bear fruit in the near future. As such, Fatah announced that the scheduled session of parliament today is merely the opening of the summer session.