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Concern grows over Abbas’ autocratic tendencies

Several Fatah figures are worried that President Mahmoud Abbas is overstepping his authority and trying to impose his rule over the legislative and judicial branches.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah August 26, 2014. Abbas, 79, says he will not stand in future elections, so it is only a matter of time before he passes the baton to a new leader, one whom the vast majority of Palestinians - 4.4 million in the West Bank and Gaza and nearly 7 million elsewhere around the world - hope will lead to the foundation of an independent Palestinian state. The problem is that Abbas has not named a successor and sh

The sight was unusual and the purpose was even more bizarre. A large contingent of the Palestinian police force surrounded the office of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which has not been in session for years. Palestinian police showed up in the afternoon of Dec. 2 and have been stationed outside all its entrances and exits since.

Jehad Harb, a researcher at the PLC, told Al-Monitor that when he asked the police officers about their presence, they told him that President Mahmoud Abbas instructed them to prevent PLC Secretary-General Ibrahim Khreisheh from reaching his office. The Palestinian media reported that Khreisheh was fired from his position by Abbas, allegedly over his public support for the head of the civil servants union, Bassam Zakarneh. Khreisheh is a member of Abbas’ Fatah revolutionary PLC. Zakraneh and his deputy, Muin Ensawi, were arrested on Nov. 6 for leading an "illegal" union. Both were released on Nov. 13, but the union has been declared illegal and the legitimacy of the union is now to be evaluated in a Palestinian court.

Left-wing PLO Executive Committee member Tayseer Khaled expressed dismay at the sight of the police. “At a time that parliaments around the world are voting in recognition of Palestine, it is unacceptable that the Palestinian police surround our own parliament,” Khaled, a senior member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was quoted as saying.

Najat Abu Bakr, an elected Fatah legislator from Nablus, told Al-Monitor that the presence of armed police on PLC premises is a direct violation of Clause 51 of the Palestinian Basic Law, which states that only the head of the legislature can order the police on PLC premises. Abu Bakr said that it is a gray zone, because the PLC has not been in session for years. “The constitutional crisis is the result of a lack of consensus within the parliament’s own factions,” he said. Abu Bakr was not the only Fatah legislator to complain. The head of the parliamentary faction, Azzam Ahmad, spoke publicly against the police presence saying that the decision about who is the secretary-general of the legislative PLC is the sole prerogative of the PLC itself.

The efforts of the Palestinian executive to control other branches of government are not restricted to the legislative branch, and experts have complained of an overreach into the judicial branch as well.

Majed Arrouri, an expert in judicial affairs, told Al-Monitor signs are growing that Palestine is moving toward unifying all branches into one branch and under one person. “A look at the appointment of the current and previous heads of the Higher Judicial Council shows a clear violation of the Basic Law.” Arrouri said that both heads of the judiciary came from the executive branch and were not nominated by the Judicial Council, as the law directs.

Arrouri points out that this kind of overreach appeared in the case of the release of Zakarneh, who was detained for questioning by a judicial order for 15 days. He told Al-Monitor, “Zakarneh was released on orders of the executive branch without even going through the motions of letting the judiciary make the decision.”

Attempts to monopolize Palestinian rule in the hands of the executive is not restricted to the three branches of government. The head of the Palestine TV news department, Ahmed Zaki, was summarily fired this week allegedly because of his stance against an interview with the controversial Egyptian media celebrity Tawfiq Okasha. Zaki had called Okasha an “Israeli spy” and said that he would have nothing to do with the interview.

The Palestinian executive branch is also accused of carrying out a witch hunt in response to any criticism of the president. Al-Monitor has learned from journalists in Bethlehem that political satirist Abdel Rahman Thaher and Mahmoud Rizk have left for Jordan rather than face a summons by the Palestinian attorney general and preventive security forces for the “Zinco” TV program that criticized Abbas on Roya TV in Jordan.

Efforts at the United Nations and in European capitals notwithstanding, Palestinians are whispering their displeasure at the way the Abbas administration is being run. One knowledgeable political source who wished not to be identified said that he worries about a return to the days of Arafat rule. The absence of checks and balances has raised many eyebrows.

Palestinian civil society has for a long time given a pass to the Palestinian president and accepted that some of the controversial decisions made by the presidency come from a need to keep the situation under control while the future of Palestine is being decided. This leniency will not continue if the present violations of the Basic Law and democratic principles are not respected. Perhaps presidential and parliamentary elections are the fastest way to resolve this constitutional impasse, but in the meantime, Palestinians are calling for a stricter interpretation and application of the law and the democratic process.

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