Analysis |

Palestinians Fear Abbas Is Increasingly Becoming a Dictator

The Palestinian Constitutional Court ruled that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can revoke the parliamentary immunity of Palestinian Legislative Council members, thus effectively enabling him to sideline rivals.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at a rally marking the 12th anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat, Ramallah, West Bank, November 10, 2016.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at a rally marking the 12th anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat, Ramallah, West Bank, November 10, 2016.Credit: Abbas Momani, AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

An academic from the Gaza Strip wrote on Facebook in response to Donald Trump’s election victory: “As a first step Trump will order to prepare security reports about the perverts in his party who voted for Clinton, and set up a constitutional court to fire Congress members who didn’t vote for him.”

The average Palestinian has no difficulty understanding the barb. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been conducting for years a purge and silencing campaign against those he sees as supporters of Mohammed Dahlan, or deviate from the official party line. Even Nikolay Mladenov, the special UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, hinted in public at Abbas’ silencing efforts.

On Wednesday evening an inauguration ceremony for the Yasser Arafat Museum was held, by invitation only, in Ramallah. The museum itself opened to the public yesterday, on the 12th anniversary of Arafat’s death. Mladenov, who was among the speakers, pointed out landmarks in the life of “the leader who turned refugees into a nation.”

“He was a man who respected his opponents’ opinions,” he said. Right or wrong, this statement is in keeping with the way PLO and Fatah members remember Arafat, when they contrast his leadership with that of Abbas.

The Palestinian Constitutional Court ruled on November 3 that Abbas can revoke the parliamentary immunity of Palestinian Legislative Council members, thus effectively enabling him to sideline rivals. In the short term this upholds Abbas’ 2012 order to revoke Dahlan’s parliamentary immunity.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Mohammed Dahlan. The rift between them continues to threaten Palestinian consolidation.Credit: AP

The PLC has not engaged in legislation since 2006. The sharp protests of its members and Palestinian human rights groups against this ruling don’t stem from concern for Dahlan’s reputation and fate. Dahlan, an inspiring anti-occupation Fatah activist in the ‘80s, and head of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, turned into a businessman with global interests. If rumors are correct, Dahlan is spending tens of millions of dollars to secure the allegiance of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians and their opposition to Abbas’ faction.

The protesters see the court’s verdict as another step in what appears to be Abbas’ strategy toward a dictatorial regime.

The law to establish a Constitutional Court was enacted in 2003 to issue opinions and interpret unclear constitutional clauses in case of disagreement between the executive and legislative authorities.

In January 2006, on the eve of Hamas’ election victory, when Abbas was already president, the law was changed drastically. The PLC’s partnership in appointing judges and the court’s authority to monitor and supervise the president’s activity were revoked. Despite this the Constitutional Court remained out of work, because no judges were appointed.

This past April, a nine-judge panel was selected for the Constitutional Court. The appointments were immediately challenged by 18 Palestinian human rights groups, who claimed all the judges were Fatah members or close to Fatah. They also said that although the judges were supposed to be sworn in by the three authority heads (executive, legislative and judicial), they did so in the absence of the legislative authority head.

In a new opinion released this week the same human rights organizations protested the court verdict authorizing the president to revoke PLC members’ immunity. They say the court said (before it became the Constitutional Court) that the Palestinian Basic Law is not above other laws. They also said that the emergency state, under which the Palestinian Authority has been operating since 2007, gives the president almost unlimited powers.

A member in one of the organizations said these steps indicate preparations for a court that would be subjective to the executive authority. He said that on the basis of the “State of Palestine’s” constitution draft, which was issued a few months before the Constitutional Court was set up, the objective is to authorize this court to determine who would be appointed acting president, if the sitting president dies.

In today’s state of affairs this means one thing – to prevent PLC Speaker Aziz Dweik, of Hamas, to become acting president, as stipulated in the PA’s Basic Law. But the decision will also enable revoking the immunity of other parliamentarians, who are critical of the Palestinian government. Even if their immunity is not removed, the ruling has a cooling effect that could silence criticism.

A Palestinian journalist dared to write in Facebook this week: “The Palestinian dream has disappeared and the nightmare has begun. The dream of an independent Palestinian state has disappeared, because the political power turned the national project into a personal, partisan project.”

This is a demonstration of courage at a time when, according to Palestinian reports, Palestinian security forces are arresting writers of critical posts.

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