Two separate and seemingly unrelated steps taken recently by the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, are indicative of the increasingly authoritarian and autocratic nature of the regime in the Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank.
One step has to do with the Palestinian justice system and the other with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and both show just how faithful the PA remains to the role essentially assigned to it by the Oslo Accords – maintaining a fluid and dynamic status quo to the Palestinians’ detriment while serving Israeli security interests.
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The first measure was the presidential decree signed by Abbas and issued on Friday, October 28, announcing the establishment of a “Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies and Agencies.” Heading this council, whose declared purpose is to discuss bills related to the judicial system, to resolve related administrative issues and oversee the justice system, will be none other than PA President Abbas, who is also the chairman of the PLO and of Fatah.
The other members are the presidents and heads of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the Court of Cassation, the high court for administrative issues, the security forces’ courts and the Sharia court. The justice minister, public prosecutor and the president's legal adviser will also serve on the council. It is slated to meet once a month.
Palestinian legal experts and human rights organizations announced their vehement opposition to this new supreme council, saying it contradicts the principle of separation of the authorities – legislative, judicial and executive – and violates several sections of Palestinian Basic Law and the international conventions to which the PA is a signatory.
In media interviews, these experts and organizations say this is the latest of a series of decisions that have shifted legislative authority to the executive branch and its head, while also infringing on the independence of the justice system and subordinating it to Abbas and his cronies.
Shortly after Hamas emerged victorious in the 2006 Palestinian election, Abbas and Fatah stopped the Palestinian Legislative Council from regularly convening and doing its work. At first, they blamed this on Israel’s arrests of numerous elected members of Hamas, as well as the absence of the necessary quorum for enacting legislation.
After the brief civil war that erupted in Gaza in June 2007 between Hamas and Fatah, and with the division of Palestinian self-government between the two regions and the two organizations, the Palestinian parliament officially ceased to function. Nonetheless, Hamas representatives in Gaza continued and still continue to meet as the legislative council and pass laws that apply only in Gaza.
In the West Bank, on the other hand, “legislation” is accomplished via presidential decrees. Over the past 15 years, Abbas has signed around 350 presidential orders – far more than the 80 pieces of legislation that were debated and enacted by the first legislative council during its decade of existence in 1996-2006.
Abbas relies upon a very broad interpretation of article 43 of the amended Palestinian Basic Law from 2003 that gives a presidential decree the power of law only "in cases of necessity that cannot be delayed and when the Legislative Council is not in session."
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Until 2018, some parliamentarians in the West Bank continued to meet unofficially and attempted to be involved in discussions about “bills” being debated by the government, and to represent the public before the authorities. But that year, at Abbas’ instruction, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Legislative Council must be dissolved, despite the fact that the Basic Law stipulates that its tenure only ends when a new election is held.
According to the Basic Law, in the event of the PA chairman’s death, he is to be replaced by the speaker of the parliament. This position was held by Hamas representative Aziz Dweik from Hebron. The general view was that by disbanding parliament, Abbas and his allies were seeking to preemptively thwart such a scenario. Although the Constitutional Court ordered at the time that a new election be held within six months, Abbas and his people have managed to postpone this again and again.
Meanwhile, during this period, Abbas also increased his involvement in the judicial appointment process, seeking to guarantee judges’ loyalty to him and to Fatah. Additionally, the executive branch he controls often does not abide by the independent rulings of judges, such as orders to release people being detained without trial, or orders to resume payment of salaries and various allowances to Abbas’s political rivals.
Palestinian Justice Minister Mohammed al-Shalaldeh promised that the new supreme council for the judicial system was not intended to infringe on the system’s independence. But the experience of Egypt – which evidently served as inspiration for the authors of the Palestinian presidential decree – indicates that the opposite is true.
A supreme council that oversees the Egyptian justice system was established by President Gamal Abdel Nasser back in 1969. In the first decade of this century, thanks to the efforts of human rights organizations and jurists, its power was scaled back, but current Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi granted it broader and more invasive authority than in the past.
In a conversation with Haaretz, non-governmental attorneys theorized that one reason for the establishment of this council is to thwart possible legal opposition – via the Constitutional Court – to the crowning of Hussein al-Sheikh as the next PA president. Al-Sheikh, the son of a refugee family that has acquired affluence over the years as the owners of various businesses and companies in Ramallah, is one of the Fatah officials closest to Abbas – and to Israel, as well.
For nearly 15 years, he has been in charge of the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry – which is subordinate to and coordinates with the policy of COGAT, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories unit, and served as a liaison with Israeli officials. In May, Abbas appointed him secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee in place of the late Saeb Erekat; as part of this position, he also heads the PLO’s negotiations department. Many Palestinians assume that his appointment as the next PA chairman would be quite pleasing to Israel.
The second measure recently taken by the PA was blocking the Palestinian Popular Conference – 14 Million (named for the number of Palestinians worldwide) from being held in Ramallah. The idea behind the convention was to rehabilitate the PLO, initially by holding a pan-Palestinian election in which Palestinians throughout the diaspora and in all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea could vote for the Palestinian National Council, the PLO parliament. The convention was due to be held on November 5 at the Cultural Hall in Ramallah, in Jordan and in a number of cities in Europe and South America.
The organizers say that the PLO, the body that is supposed to represent Palestinians worldwide and be the source of political authority and ideology for them, has essentially been swallowed up by the Palestinian Authority, Abbas’s presidency, and the Fatah movement. Its funding is dependent on the PA, its institutions have been hollowed out and Abbas controls the dates of its gatherings and the appointment of its representatives.
The organizers of the 14 Million Convention are opposed to the Oslo Accords (“a second Nakba,” some of them call it) and are of the opinion that only a reconstructed and democratic PLO “that does not operate as a subcontractor for Israel” can and must develop a strategy to combat Israeli apartheid and colonialism and thereby serve as a source of hope for the people. The organizers are either currently or formerly associated with the various Palestinian groups that make up the PLO – from Fatah to leftist organizations – while some are independent.
But at the beginning of last week, the convention planners were surprised to be informed by the Ramallah Municipality that the Palestinian security agencies had forbidden the convention from proceeding. They also forbade the El Bireh Municipality from allocating a hall to the organizers for the purpose of holding a press conference.
Despite the obstacles, the organizers decided that convention would go ahead as planned via Zoom and Facebook, and that the representatives in Ramallah would speak from the offices of the Palestinian Popular Coalition – a relatively new organization of mostly longtime political activists. On Saturday morning, security forces, some in civilian dress, were deployed in large numbers next to the building where the coalition’s offices are housed, warned people against entering and arrested veteran activist Omar Assaf and detained him for several hours.
Nevertheless, various speakers were able to deliver their speeches via Facebook, and they chose to highlight different things: harsh criticism of the PA and security coordination with Israel; a call to action on the basis of the 1968 Palestinian National Charter, sections of which were annulled in the 1990s as a result of Israeli and U.S. pressure; and the demand for fulfillment of the right of return. What all had in common was the emphasis they placed on the importance of democratic general elections to create an elected and representative leadership for the entire Palestinian people: in historic Palestine, on either side of the Green Line, and throughout the diaspora.
The idea of holding a direct election for a pan-Palestinian parliament in the framework of the PLO has been suggested for over a decade by Palestinian activists in various organizations around the world, and the conference organizers stressed that they were integrating several similar proposals, which the PLO under Abbas’ control has consistently ignored.
In yet more evidence of how opposed Abbas and his people are to the initiative to revive the PLO, on Tuesday morning, Palestinian security forces raided the Ramallah offices of the Bisan Center for Research and Development (one of the NGOs that Israel declared a terror organization) and interrupted the press conference that the convention organizers were holding.
At this stage, restoration of the PLO as the source of authority and decision-making appears far from achievable. It is also unclear how much support the initiative will attract from young people who have never known the PLO as the organization that was once perceived by Palestinian refugees as a political and national home and a source of pride. It is also still too early to see how and if Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be included in the process.
However, young people could well be excited by the prospect of holding general elections for a pan-Palestinian organization that transcends the borders of Gaza and the West Bank. The organizers openly state that the present unelected and undemocratic leadership is not a proper representative body and is incapable of contending with the dangers posed by Israeli policy.
The actions taken to suppress the initiative belie the unpopular leadership’s fear of any talk of elections, let alone holding them, and underscores its fear of the argument that the Oslo Accords only worsened the Palestinians’ situation. Its actions also show how tenacious it is about maintaining the material advantages and status it has acquired for itself and its inner circles.
The initiative to rebuild the PLO aspires to overcome the split in Palestinian geography, society and politics. This split is also one of Israeli policy’s most conspicuous political achievements in the past 30 years. The PA’s oppressive actions are directly helping to preserve this Israeli achievement.