Two presidential decrees recently issued by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud 'Abbas aroused intense criticism in the PA. The first, issued on March 2, 2021, imposes severe restrictions on the activity and finances of Palestinian civil society organizations. The second, issued three days later, on March 5, suspends internal elections in all Palestinian professional unions for six months. The civil society organizations fumed over the decrees, which they said were aimed at restricting their independence and preventing them from performing their duty of overseeing the government's performance. They called them anti-democratic decisions that contravene the Palestinian Basic Law as well as international conventions, and demanded that they be revoked.
These decrees are part of a series of anti-democratic measures recently taken by 'Abbas in order to tighten his grip on all the Palestinian oversight institutions and consolidate his autocracy. They come in the wake of several decrees issued in January 2021 that increased his control over the judiciary by replacing several judges with associates of his. Those decrees, too, evoked outrage, both from Palestinian jurists and attorneys who fear the undermining of the PA judiciary, and from 'Abbas opponents, who warn that control over the judiciary could allow him to influence the planned upcoming elections or even to cancel their results.
'Abbas signs a presidential decree (Source: Ramallah.news)
New 'Abbas Decrees Restrict Civil Society, Suspend Professional Union Elections For Six Months
Civil Society Organizations: 'Abbas' Decrees Violate International Conventions
he International Commission to Support Palestinians’ Rights (ISCPR), for example, stated that the March 2 decree "widens the [already] extensive oversight powers of the executive branch… and severely restricts the freedom of action of non-profits and non-governmental organizations," when the government should actually be protecting this freedom "in accordance with the Palestinian Basic Law and international human rights [conventions] to which the State of Palestine is signatory." It also questioned "the timing of the decree… [which came] concurrently with the initial preparations for the elections, in which [non-governmental] organizations play a major role, whether by raising awareness [of the elections] or by overseeing them…" Regarding the decree postponing elections in the professional unions, the ISCPR stated that it "contravenes the spirit [of democracy] and of the presidential decree that announced the holding of elections to the PLC, the presidency and the PNC." I It exhorted the professional unions to oppose this decree, which, "like previous ones, was issued without consulting anyone," and called on 'Abbas to stop issuing "unnecessary" decrees and revoke the recent ones.
A statement issued by the Palestinian
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The Decrees Are Part Of 'Abbas' Efforts To Bolster His Status As President, Take Control Of The Legislative And Judiciary Branches And Weaken PA Oversight Institutions
As stated, 'Abbas' latest decrees restricting the freedom of civil society organizations are part of his recent policy aimed at bolstering his status as president and especially at neutralizing any independent element that can oversee and criticize his performance.
Since Hamas' 2007 Gaza coup, the PA has no functioning parliament. The PLC elected in 2006 is not recognized by the PA, and was, in fact, officially dissolved in 2018 by the Constitutional Court, which was itself established by 'Abbas in a presidential decree two years earlier. In the absence of a functioning parliament, 'Abbas governs by issuing presidential decrees that serve as a substitute for legislation. That is, 'Abbas, the head of the PA executive branch, has essentially usurped the authority of the legislature.
Moreover, 'Abbas has recently been using these decrees to take over the judiciary branch as well. As part of this, on January 11 and 12, 2021, he issued decrees that changed the structure of the Palestinian court system, and also appointed his associate, 84-year-old Judge 'Issa Abu Sharar, as the permanent head of the High Judicial Council (the PA's highest court).
The decrees were also condemned by Palestinian journalists, who expressed concern that PA judges will from now on be appointed based on their loyalty to 'Abbas, and that the president will use the court system to disqualify candidates and lists, thus interfering in election results and crippling his rivals. But the graver concern among Palestinian jurists and 'Abbas rivals is that the president will take advantage of his control of the High Judicial Council and Constitutional Court to cancel the elections or postpone them indefinitely if this serves his interests, or to cancel their results if he loses.
The PA has so far avoided giving clear answers to the concerns raised about the abovementioned decrees. Asked in a January 21 interview whether the decrees pertaining to the judicial system did not constitute an infringement by the executive branch on the authorities of the judiciary branch, and would not adversely affect the elections, Palestinian Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh replied that, after the elections, the new PLC will be able to amend and even cancel any presidential decree, but ignored the question of decrees' impact on the elections themselves.
* S. Schneidmann is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 Lab.pna.ps, March 2, 2021.
 Qudsn.net, March 6, 2021. This decree has yet to be published in the PA's official gazette.
 For example, on February 20 'Abbas issued a decree ordering to stop political arrests and allow freedom of political action ahead of the elections (Wafa.ps, February 20, 2021). Palestinian human rights organizations state that the decree has not been implemented, and that political freedoms in both the West Bank and Gaza are only deteriorating. (Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, February 25, 2021).
 Lab.pna.ps, March 2, 2021.
 Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), March 6, 2021.
 Icspr.ps, March 4, 2021.
 Icspr.ps, March 6, 2021.
 Ichr.ps, March 4, 2021.
 Alhaq.org, March 3, 2021.
 Pngoportal.org, March 4, 2021.
 Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), March 7, 2021.
 Pflp.ps, March 4, 2021.
 Safa.news, March 7, 2021.
 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1433, Fatah-Hamas Schism Widens Further Following Ruling By Palestinian Authority Constitutional Court – Established By Palestinian Authority President 'Abbas – To Disband Palestinian Legislative Council, January 22, 2019.
 Wafa.ps, January 11-12, 2021. Among those forced into early retirement were even some relatively young judges, such as Ahmad Al-Ashqar. Facebook.com/100000112317816, January 14, 2021.
 The latest decrees issued by 'Abbas only increased the Bar Association's determination to continue this campaign, which includes the boycott of bodies which were established, or whose members were appointed, by an 'Abbas presidential decree, such as the High Judicial Council. Facebook.com/Palestinebar, January 17, 2021; March 6, 2021.
 Such as 'Adli Sadeq, identified with the camp of Muhammad Dahlan. Al-Arab (London), January 16, 25, 2021.
 As part of understandings with Hamas and the Palestinian factions, and in order to allay these concerns, on March 1, 2021 'Abbas issued a decree establishing an elections court, comprising judges from both the West Bank and Gaza, whose function will be to resolve electoral disputes. However, it seems that Palestinian jurists are already in disagreement about its authorities and whether or not it is subordinate to the High Judicial Council and Constitutional Court. For example, jurist Samer Najm Al-Din contends that the electoral court's rulings can be appealed before the High Judicial Council, whereas jurist Ahmad Al-Khaled believes that the electoral court's rulings are final. Qudsn.net, March 1, 2021.
 Alaraby.com, January 21, 2021.