Opinion

President Abbas, Assure Us You’re Committed to a Democratic Palestine

When you arrest peace activists for satirical Facebook posts, even longtime supporters of Palestinian independence like us must ask: Do you have the courage for democratic leadership? | Opinion

Mahmoud Abbas arrives to cast his vote at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, December 3, 2016.
Ahmad Gharabli, AFP

To President Mahmoud Abbas:

Fatah has just concluded its seventh general congress in Ramallah, Palestine. This congress had major consequences on hundreds of young Palestinians. Those who shared views and opinions, online and off, that were not necessarily in alignment with the Fatah leadership, were arrested. Many were arrested for posting dissenting views on Facebook. Among them was one of our Falcon Movement leaders and a Palestinian political and peace activist: 29-year-old Issa Abu Hantash. He is still in the custody of the Palestinian Preventative Security Force in Qalqilyah.

We know from reliable resources that, even though he is currently being held without charge, he is accused of insulting you, President Abbas, in a satirical Facebook update criticizing the Fatah congress. He now risks being prosecuted for expressing his opinion, and might end up with a conviction.

Freedom of expression in Palestine is severely limited; even journalists can't work freely. Since your government aims to create a democratic Palestinian state, we feel obliged to remind you that freedom of expression is an essential part of democratic rule. The Palestinian leadership should be able to tolerate being assessed and being criticized.

Clearly, the overall situation in Palestine makes it difficult to build stable and well-functioning social institutions, but that is no excuse for violating human rights, and definitely not an excuse nor a justification for an authoritarian style of leadership. These violations offer a gold mine for those who never want to see the realization of your dream of a democratic and independent state. They use these cases to say that the Palestinians are not ready to govern themselves.

Right now, a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine seems very distant, and in the not-too-distant future, even impossible. Israel continues the expansion of new settlement housing on occupied Palestinian land, a project that seeks to prevent the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state. The international community must act. We Swedish Social Democrats support your struggle, and we stand behind your demands. Sweden showed its support by being the first European state to recognize the State of Palestine, in October 2014. Our government demonstrated support for and solidarity with the Palestinian people to continue their struggle for an independent, free and democratic state.

The labor movement in Sweden has for a long time supported the Palestinians' aspiration of independence and of self-determination in the establishment of a state where all Palestinians are guaranteed freedom and justice. Unfortunately, there are concerns about the democratic process in Palestine. Arresting young people because they express legitimate opinions is not a sign of the development of good democratic norms for Palestine. For us in the labor movement, freedom of speech is a cornerstone of a democratic society and system. It is completely unacceptable to arrest and therefore silence people because they have criticized the Palestinian leadership.

A brighter future for Palestine and the Palestinian people is possible, but only if we are honest with each other and prioritize democracy, peace and development. Palestine could become a model for the entire Middle East, but to reach that point it needs a leadership that has the courage to lead the development of a truly democratic political culture in Palestine. You have been reelected, re-endorsed, to lead that work. Now show the world – and most of all, the Palestinian people – that you deserve that confidence.

Anders Österberg is a Social Democratic Party member of the Swedish parliament and President of the Swedish Falcon Movement and works on behalf of childrens' rights in Sweden and Palestine. Follow him on Twitter: @vastgotapower.