Ramallah, West Bank – The presence of police on the streets of Ramallah on Tuesday was markedly thin compared to the previous days, when hundreds of Palestinians were prevented from marching on the “Muqata”, the seat of power of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
It allowed hundreds of Palestinians to come out and voice their anger over the police brutality that greeted this weekend’s demonstrations against PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ planned meeting with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz.
The angry demonstrations forced the meeting to be scrapped. But the high-handedness of the security forces – batons were freely used and profanities hurled at men and women alike – has led to more anger.
Reports of journalists being specifically targeted prompted groups, such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, to call on the PA to ensure the safety of reporters.
“Palestinian journalists have a right and a duty to document demonstrations,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon in a statement. “Authorities are responsible for ensuring that journalists can carry out their work without the threat of assault.”
Faced with the outcry, Abbas has ordered his interior minister to form an investigative commission headed by independent political figure Munib al-Masri and including the director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, Ahmad Harb.
“We will not permit any type of violation of freedom of expression and the right to free assembly, including the right to protest in a manner consistent with the law,” Abbas said in a statement carried by the official WAFA news agency.
There is speculation that the public outrage coupled with what seems to be a call for restraint by foreign dignitaries in the occupied territories is what resulted in the near-complete pull out of policemen and security personnel from Tuesday’s protests.
The PA has worked with various international actors, including the United States and the European Commission, to reform their security forces at the behest of their western backers.
Spokesman Benoit Cusin for EUPOL COPPS, a European Union body that has been training Palestinian police since 2006, said the EU was “concerned” at the use of “excessive force”, but welcomed the PA’s decision to start an investigation.
|Reports say that journalists were targeted by police [Reuters]
“The EU continually stresses the necessity to uphold international human rights standards and respect fundamental freedoms, in particular the right to peaceful protest and demonstration and freedom of expression and the media,” said Cusin.
During the recent protests, Palestinians called for an end to the PA’s security liaising with Israel; some even called for the PA to be dismantled.
The protests shed light on the ongoing critiques within Palestinian society about the security force’s true purpose. Their stated strategic objective is to maintain law and order and gain the confidence of the international community to pave the way to statehood.
However, with little to show in the way of the peace process, many Palestinians can’t help but view them as a tool to crush political dissent.
“The security force’s job is to suffocate us,” said Eyad Radhi, a 38-year-old man. “They want to beat us into submission. They are just tools for the Israelis.”
A general atmosphere of discontent and frustration has been sweeping across the West Bank in recent months. A moribund peace process, high levels of unemployment and a status quo plagued with mushrooming settlements have left many Palestinians disillusioned and angry.
The demonstrations came on the heels of a PA announcement that it may have to delay – or possibly stop – this month’s payment to more than a hundred thousand employees on its payroll.
A recent poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research showed a significant decrease in the popularity of Abbas and his party, Fatah, due to recent infringements on press freedoms, most notably the closure of websites critical of the Palestinian president.
The poll’s findings also reflect a lack of confidence in the Palestinian leadership regarding the failure to form a unity government between the two rival parties, Fatah and Hamas.
Outside Abbas’ “Muqata” headquarters, flag-waving Palestinians chanted in unison: “The people want to bring down Oslo”, “Down with military rule” and “No to negotiations”.
Tuesday’s protesters had a clear message: they would no longer tolerate any remnants of the Oslo Peace Accords signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993.
“We are against all kinds of normalisation. Our goal is to unite our society and maintain its dignity. There can be no dignity with the likes of Mofaz in our midst.“
– Aghsan Al Barghouti, youth activist
In a post on the Facebook page of Palestinians for Dignity – the main catalyst behind the protests – the group outlined their demands, including “a strategy of resistance capable of achieving the aspirations of our people for freedom and independence”.
“We need a national resistance strategy and an end to negotiations as they stand,” said Aghsan Al Barghouti, a youth activist. “We reaffirm our right to freely express ourselves without the kind of repression we were met with last week.”
Electronic scuffles on Facebook and Twitter were unleashed following the violence last week, and many demonstrators were labelled as “collaborators with foreign agendas”, implying that the protesters were paid to cause a schism between Palestinians.
“This is ludicrous,” said Al Barghouti. “We are against all kinds of normalisation. Our goal is to unite our society and maintain its dignity. There can be no dignity with the likes of Mofaz in our midst.”
Tens of Palestinians from Haifa joined the protest to drive the same point home. “We are against Oslo and negotiating with the Israelis is futile,” said Thaera Zuabi, a 28-year-old woman from Haifa.
While all protesters were united in their outcry over infringement of the right to expression, some feared this was not the time for internal feuds.
Bilin village protest leader Abdullah Abu Rahma said the Israeli occupation was the biggest “beneficiary” of any inter-Palestinian conflict. He expressed fears that these demonstrations would be used by “other parties to create chaos and lead Palestinians toward internal strife”.