With No State in Sight, Palestinians Adapt to Limited Self-rule

Gaza is busy with the first death penalty imposed on a woman. Over in the West Bank, the people increasingly believe the PA is a permanent institution despite all the predictions otherwise.

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Palestinians watch an anti-Israel rally organized by the Hamas movement in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, July 29, 2016.
Palestinians watch an anti-Israel rally organized by the Hamas movement in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, July 29, 2016.Credit: Suhaib Salem, Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Amid the fears about new fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza, the army’s arrests in the West Bank, the reports on the Amona outpost and new expropriations of land, the Palestinians are busy with a few internal matters, or at least semi-internal ones.

On Wednesday October 5, a precedent was set in Gaza. For the first time a Palestinian court imposed the death penalty on a woman – in Khan Yunis. A district court had convicted her of the premeditated murder of her husband.

The victim’s name was reported back in January after his body was found: 36-year-old Riad Abu Anza. The press simply published the defendant’s initials, even though it was widely known who she was and which family she came from.

Immediately after suspicions fell on her, a Hamas delegation visited the murdered man’s home and, in a press release, asked that the family and others show restraint and let the legal system do its job. This phrasing was a clear warning signal that a blood feud would be hard to control.

Abu Anza’s body, bearing the signs of many stab wounds, was found on Saturday, January 30, where the Israeli settlement Atzmona used to be (the area of the former Gush Katif settlements is now known as “the liberated territories”). The family had reported him missing three days earlier.

Within six hours the police in Gaza had reached his wife, who at first denied any involvement. But when faced with concrete evidence, she confessed. A security camera in the area (which has been turned into flourishing agricultural projects under Hamas or people linked to the group and military bases) had filmed Abu Anza with a woman covered up to her eyes by a niqab. Later, a footprint at the site matched the woman’s shoes perfectly, and blood was found on her clothes.

At the beginning of the trial, a public defender was appointed for her. Feminist activists told Haaretz that because she confessed, she did not seek the services of an independent lawyer. Palestinian human rights activists visited her in prison; she told them that when she was a university student, her family married her off to Abu Anza, who was older than her, against her will.

He had mental health problems. The Palestinian media reported he was “simple,” neighbors said he was “unfortunate.” He divorced his first wife because she had borne no children. His second wife gave birth to a boy.

The feminist activists said he allegedly beat her and abused her regularly, and when she ran away to her family they took her husband’s side and forced her to return to him. The activists said they expected the judge to take these circumstances into consideration.

If this is really what led to the murder, this is also a failure of women’s rights groups and the Palestinian social affairs ministry. She didn’t consider those a place to turn to; maybe she didn’t know there was anywhere to turn to. Now, she has the right to appeal her sentence of death by hanging; the activists hope that this time she will be persuaded to use a private lawyer.

People watching as Hamas militants surround Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel before they executing them in Gaza City, August 22, 2014. Credit: Reuters

According to Palestinian law, the carrying out of a death sentence (which is based on Jordanian, Egyptian and the PLO’s revolutionary law) is only possible if it is confirmed by the president of the Palestinian Authority. But the Hamas regime in Gaza no longer recognizes the validity of Mahmoud Abbas’ presidency. Since the split to two Palestinian governments in 2007 and the establishment of a separate judicial system for Gaza, the great majority of death sentences have been imposed there, and only in Gaza have they been carried out.

Since 2005, Abbas has not signed death sentences; it’s likely that criticism from Palestinian and international human rights groups has had an effect. Since 1994, 72 death sentences have been handed down in PA courts. Since 2010, only two have been ordered in the West Bank.

Officially 13 death sentences were carried out, according to the B’Tselem website. But some prisoners sentenced to death were murdered while in PA prisons, and some were killed by armed men after they escaped from prison during the Israeli bombings in the winter of 2008-09.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks to the media in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 23, 2016. Credit: Mohamad Torokman, Reuters

Since the establishment of Hamas’ separate legal system in 2007, another 68 death sentences were ordered in the Gaza Strip, 33 of which were carried out. These figures do not include the prisoners killed by Hamas during the Gaza war in the summer of 2014.

A senior Hamas official told a European guest that if not for the death penalties, families would have been trapped in blood feuds. But a human rights activist in Gaza says some people still act to take revenge all the same. “Unfortunately, the majority of the public in the Gaza Strip still supports the death penalty,” he said.

Abbas’ goons

On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 4, several dozen men and women answered the Palestinian Youth Movement’s call to take part in a Ramallah demonstration against President Mahmoud Abbas attending Shimon Peres’ funeral. About 15 minutes later other young people arrived carrying Fatah flags; they voiced their support for Abbas and Fatah’s leaders over the years. “We’re convinced that [the leadership] knows what’s good for the homeland and the people,” one protester told reporters.

Gaza children protesting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' attendance at Shimon Peres' funeral, October 2016. Credit: AFP / Mahmud Hams

This scenario has been repeated innumerable times in recent years. Especially at demonstrations whose main target is Abbas, counterdemonstrations occur where at least some of the participants are men with salaries paid by the PA security services. These men initiate the confrontation. On Tuesday afternoon, several demonstrators, both men and women, were beaten.

Female demonstrators complained that their attackers also harassed them sexually. Muhannad Karaja, an attorney for the Addameer prisoner support and rights group, was present as part of his job inspecting the authorities’ conduct at public events. He was beaten on the face and head and needed medical care.

He identified his attackers as members of the security services. Others stood on the sidelines and didn’t come to his assistance, even though it was known he was a lawyer.

The attack on him and the violent dispersal of the demonstration led to a series of condemnations. The bar association held protests in several West Bank cities on Wednesday. Human rights groups demanded that the attackers be prosecuted. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine blamed the attack directly on Abbas.

Meanwhile, the news site Amad (which is Fatah-leaning and opposes Abbas) has learned that the preventive security service made arrests in order to question members of the Shabiba, the Fatah youth movement, in Bir Zeit. This happened right after the group came out with leaflets calling on Abbas to resign because he had attended Peres’ funeral.

According to the report, the PA security agency suspected that deposed Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan was the man behind the Shabiba call. Incidentally, already on Wednesday Amad reported that Abbas had been lying low for two days; that was before the official report that Abbas had been hospitalized for heart tests.

Former Palestinian Fatah higher-up Mohammed Dahlan speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 3, 2011.Credit: AP

Pesky independent teachers

The PA Education Ministry has clearly warned teachers who plan to renew their strike. In the best case, their salaries will be reduced. In the worse case, they will be fired. In harsh language they were told, in a press release, that “the ministry will not stand with its hands tied in light of the organized and overt attempt at subversion, and the insistence of some on participating in the destruction of teaching in Palestine by renewing the strike in our schools.”

The Education ministry’s press release, cited by Palestinian news agency Wafa, is full of other harsh statements such as “the incitement (by some of the teachers) joins the Israeli attack on the Palestinian Education Ministry. Don’t get carried away, personal considerations and private interests are involved here.”

In March, the teachers in government schools agreed to suspend their strike, which the public had supported, after Abbas promised to intervene to adhere to clauses in the 2013 wage agreement. But the promises – especially to adjust wages to the cost of living – have yet to be fulfilled.

Meanwhile, an independent teachers’ union was established – outside the traditional union that’s an integral part of the PLO and is subordinate to Fatah and its chairman. Apparently this independent activity is particularly what angers the Palestinian authorities.

Improved social security law

And now for the good news. The law for social security for employees in the private sector, which was approved by Abbas in February, was amended and improved after a storm of criticism. The criticism was reflected in demonstrations, study days with the participation of social activists and university professors, complaints in the media and public gatherings.

Since the Palestinian Legislative Council was stripped of its legislative powers in 2007, legislation has been transferred to the ministers and Abbas. This of course has reinforced the PA’s authoritarian nature.

But sometimes elected members of the PLC manage to intervene in the process, discuss drafts and raise objections, as they did in this case of the social security law. The tiny left-wing parties have played an important role here.

The improved law, which was well received, was announced on Wednesday, September 28, and includes the following achievements: a government (the state, in the law’s formulation) guarantee for employees’ pension fund, a change in the ratio between the employee’s contribution and the employer’s contribution from 7.5 percent and 8 percent of the salary respectively to 7 percent and 9 percent, and a reduction in the employment period that triggers a pension from 360 months to 300 for a man and from 300 to 240 for a woman.

Also, the minimum pension payment will be 75 percent of the monthly minimum wage (currently 1,450 shekels [$382]), a woman will have the right to maternity leave after three months of work instead of six, there will be a tax exemption for a one-time withdrawal of the savings in the pension fund, and the number of workers’ representatives in the social security council will increase from four to seven.

Finally, there will be affirmative action for the disabled, who will enjoy a pension after 10 years of work, and a payment to disabled children if an insured parent dies, even if the children are over 21; affirmative action for workers in dangerous jobs; and the transfer of the pension to the husband if the insured wife dies.

Aside from the achievements of the Palestinian social protest, the passing of a social security law – which refers to scenarios of payments and repayments that will happen decades from today, and whose formulation preoccupied much of the Palestinian public for months – indicates something else. Despite all the predictions of an imminent collapse – whether because Abbas has no successor, because of Fatah’s instability, or because Israeli restrictions dictate a weak economy – the tense relations between the public and the institutions of limited self-rule are resulting in an adaptation to the present situation.

The current situation is therefore not dependent on one person alone. Despite the harsh internal criticism of the PA, of its political and national failures, the view of it as a fixed, existing institution is becoming rooted.

The turning of the PA into a state seems very distant. But it turns out that the very expectation that it will fulfill its role and serve society is another way of sustaining it.

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