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WEST BANK: Poll finds Palestinians afraid to criticize authority

December 20, 2010 | 11:41 am

A Palestinian public opinion poll published Monday in the West Bank city of Ramallah found out that only a quarter of the Palestinians in the West Bank believe they can criticize the Palestinian Authority. In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the record was even worse as less than a fifth of the Palestinians there believed it is possible to criticize Hamas rule of the coastal enclave.

The poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), said the percentage of Palestinians who believe it is possible to criticize their authority has dropped over the years, from more than half in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in September 2007 to the current figures.

What apparently has prompted this gradual, yet sharp decline is the general feeling of the Palestinian public, whether in the West Bank, ruled by the liberal and Western-backed Palestinian Authority, or in the Gaza Strip, ruled by the fundamentalist and traditional Hamas, of becoming increasingly ruled by a police state.

Curtailment of freedoms in the West Bank began after the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 after an armed battle against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority forces. In retaliation against the takeover and fear that Hamas operatives in the West Bank may also try their luck against the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority prompted the latter to strike hard against Hamas activists.

Hamas demonstrations and public gatherings were banned and hundreds of Hamas activists were arrested. Journalists, who tried to cover the crackdown against Hamas, were also punished. Some were arrested and many were beaten and their cameras confiscated.

Hamas in the Gaza Strip did the same thing against Fatah activists and journalists who attempted to cover the crackdown against Fatah activities.

While the crackdown in the West Bank started against Hamas activists, it developed over the years to include any protest activity by any political group.

Palestinian police cracked down on Palestinians who tried to protest the visit of President George W. Bush to Ramallah in January 2008, and when Israel attacked the Gaza Strip in December 2008, Palestinians in the West Bank who went to the streets to protest the Israeli assault were stopped by the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.

Last August, police disrupted a meeting for the forces opposed to the start of direct negotiations with Israel. Journalists and human rights organizations who tried to document the police crackdown were also assaulted and beaten by the police, who seized their cameras and computers.

The crackdown went many steps further when in November the security forces arrested a journalist from a radio station in the West Bank city of Bethlehem for reporting about a feud between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, a story that was covered extensively by non-Palestinian media. The journalist was released five days later after strong protests by fellow journalists and human rights organizations.

Fear of criticizing the authority or reporting on something that would upset it prompted Palestinian journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to exercise self censorship, which some organizations said limits creativity and hinders development of the Palestinian media.

Human rights organizations have regularly reported on abuse of freedoms in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet, even though the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip have constantly claimed that they were not against freedoms, their actions on the ground proved the exact opposite. Human rights organization even went as far as demanding from Western countries to base their relations with the Palestinian Authority on its human rights record.

Palestinians believe this crackdown against personal liberties and freedoms, mainly freedom of expression, in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, will continue and even increase as long as Fatah and Hamas remain at war against each other and as long as there is a split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

However, the same poll said belief that the split is permanent increased from 30% three months ago to 39% in this poll. The percentage of those who believe that unity will be restored soon dropped from 14% to 8% during the same period.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

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