Out of ideas, Palestinian Authority censors critics

The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas is growing increasingly intolerant of criticism. Last week the PA blocked eight websites tied to an Abbas rival.

Over the past year, there have been growing questions about whether the long-promised "two-state solution" for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains viable, with West Bank settlements expanding, direct talks largely cut off, and the growing impression that neither side is willing to make the compromises that would be required to move the ball forward.

The most tangible positive result on this path was the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) after the 1993 Oslo Accords, a sort of proto-Palestinian government for an eventual state.

Recently, one of the highest-profile people to throw in the towel on Oslo was Yossi Beilin, a lead Israeli negotiator on the Oslo Accords. He urged PA President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon the Oslo process as a "farce."

He wrote: "Dissolving the Palestinian Authority and returning daily control to Israel would be an action nobody could ignore... Do not hesitate for a moment!"

The PA's democratic mandate expired nearly two years ago, when scheduled elections were cancelled because of the five-year rift between Mr. Abbas' Fatah Party, which is dominant in the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist movement that now runs the Gaza Strip as a separate Palestinian enclave.

Amid on-again, off-again reconciliation efforts, the PA has trundled on under Fatah's guidance, and has shown increasing signs of authoritarianism and thuggish control of free speech, even as the Arab countries around them struggle to put that behind them.

Last week that PA blocked eight websites tied to a Fatah rival of Abbas, which had been heavily critical of the president, in an unprecedented case of Internet censorship. Communications Minister Mashour Abu Daka, who shortly thereafter resigned, told the Maan News Agency that Abbas' Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni "made up his own laws to justify what was solely his decision. Blocking websites is against the public interest. I oppose it without exception.”

In March, Palestinian reporter Yousef al-Shayeb was arrested after a report alleging corruption at the Foreign Ministry, and Mr. Mughni defended the arrest as justified, calling Mr. Shayeb's reporting libelous. Two bloggers who criticized Abbas online were also recently arrested. And next week, the independent Palestinian Wattan television station is facing a $1 million defamation case over its reporting on alleged corruption involving a senior PA official.

The crackdown on the press is part of a broader pattern. In the West Bank, Hamas activists have been subject to arrest for their views for years now. (Hamas behaves in much the same manner against political opponents in Gaza, where authorities have also violently disbursed pro-Fatah demonstrations.)

In one week in April, the Palestinian rights group Al-Haq reported eight politically motivated arrests alone. "Most were university students suspected of being affiliated with Hamas and who had previously been arrested several times by the PA security forces or by the Israeli occupying forces. Others were arrested for making political statements on social networking sites or for drawing satirical cartoons."

Among those arrested was Jamal Muhammad Abu-Rihan, a political activist. His crime? Running a Facebook page that campaigns against official corruption. That sort of arrest was far too common in Mubarak's Egypt, and in Syria today.

Hamas and Fatah have dramatically different visions of the future for the Palestinian people, with Hamas far less compromising when it comes to negotiating a peace with Israel, and interested in pursuing an Islamist form of government that alarms Palestinian Christians and secularists.

Fatah and Hamas fought a brief civil war for control of Gaza in 2007, after Hamas won elections held the previous year, but Fatah refused to cede power. In Gaza, Fatah lost. There have been few signs of real healing since. 

There has been some speculation that Palestinian elections may be held this year, but as yet no tangible evidence. A reconciliation deal between the two sides announced last year appears to have led nowhere.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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