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March 15, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1564

New Decrees By Palestinian Authority President 'Abbas Restrict Civil Society

March 15, 2021 | By S. Schneidmann and H. Varulkar
Palestine | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1564


 

Introduction

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.[1] The second, issued three days later, on March 5, suspends internal elections in all Palestinian professional unions for six months.[2] 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.  

The decrees stand in contradiction to the official discourse of the PA leadership about reviving Palestinian democracy ahead of the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the presidency and the Palestinian National Council (PNC), as well as some measures the PA has ostensibly taken in this direction.[3] 'Abbas is apparently promoting the elections in order to burnish the PA's democratic image and gain the approval of the Biden administration, while at the same time using the decrees to cement his one-man rule and perhaps even predetermine the election results or prepare the ground for canceling them or their results, if necessary.  The contrast between these two tactics – of promising democratization on the one hand and restricting democracy on the other – is casting a pall over the preparations for the elections and putting their feasibility in doubt.

This report reviews the recent decrees, the criticism they sparked in the Palestinian civil society sector, and the attempts of President 'Abbas to take control of the various Palestinian institutions and suppress criticism against him.


'Abbas signs a presidential decree (Source: Ramallah.news)

New 'Abbas Decrees Restrict Civil Society, Suspend Professional Union Elections For Six Months

'Abbas' March 2 decree (Decree No. 7 of 2021) – signed by 'Abbas on February 28, 2021 and published in the PA's official gazette on March 3, 2021 – essentially subordinates Palestinian NGOs to the PA government, granting it the authority to intervene in their activity and budgets. For example, Article 2.1 states every organization "must submit to the relevant [government] ministry its yearly plan of action and estimated budget for the new fiscal year, which must conform to the work plan of the relevant ministry." Article 2.2 states that each organization must submit to the ministry two reports before the end of the fiscal year: "an annual report containing a full description of the association's or institution's activity over the year," and "a financial report signed by a qualified accountant or auditing body, detailing in full the association's or institution's income and expenses…" Article 3.3.states that "the association's administrators' wages and operating budget must not exceed 25% of its annual budget," and Article 4 states that the organizations' fundraising activities must conform to "a mechanism to be published by the government."

The requirement to limit wages to 25% of the budget is one that many organizations will be unable to meet, and the decree implies that organizations that fail to meet this criterion will be dissolved. Moreover, the decree authorizes the government to seize the assets of dissolved organizations and incorporate them directly into the PA budget. Article 5.2 states that the assets of a dissolved organization will be transferred either to the PA treasury or "to a similar Palestinian association or institution."  According to Article 6.2, the PA government will determine the fees to be collected from the organizations "for appeals submitted to the [relevant government] ministries."[4]

It should be mentioned that the decree does not explain the urgency of the measures, nor does it set out clear criteria for implementing them.  

On March 6, 2021, it was leaked that, one day earlier, 'Abbas had issued another presidential decree, on "suspending elections in the [professional] unions and popular associations and organizations." This decree not yet been published in the PA's official gazette. According to the content reported in the media, it too contains no explanation regarding its aims and timing, and its purpose therefore remains unclear. The London-based daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid assessed that it is meant to suppress internal conflicts within Fatah, headed by 'Abbas, so as to preserve its unity ahead of the elections, and also to curb potential conflicts between Fatah members and members of the professional unions.[5]

Civil Society Organizations: 'Abbas' Decrees Violate International Conventions

As stated, the recent decrees were met with fierce criticism, especially from civil society organizations, which demanded to revoke them immediately, claiming that they  transcend the authority of the president and are a flagrant violation of the Palestinian Basic Law and of international conventions to which the PA is signatory. They described the decrees as an attempt to dismantle the entire Palestinian civil society sector or turn it into an arm of the PA government under 'Abbas, adding that, if implemented, they will prevent the organizations from fulfilling their duties, which include oversight of the government's performance. Many asked why these decrees were issued now, ahead of the planned elections.

The 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…"[6] 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.[7]

A statement issued by the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) said that the March 2 decree "imposes unfair and unnecessary new restrictions" on civil society organizations, turning them into "nothing more than departments of the relevant [government] ministries – [a move that] blatantly contravenes the character of their activity and the rationale for their public action as organizations that oversee the performance of the official [state] institutions." It added that curbing the freedom of these organizations and interfering, without justification, in their budgets could cause many of them to close down, thereby depriving their members of their livelihood. The ICHR expressed its support for the civil society sector and for "the legal and legitimate struggle [of this sector] to have this decree revoked," and demanded that 'Abbas stop issuing such decrees until after the establishment of the next PLC."[8] 

Another Palestinian human rights organization, Al-Haqq, circulated a legal analysis of the March 2 decree on the civil society organizations, and stated that issuing it without any explanation or announcement by the government indicates "a clear intention to eliminate what still remains of the [PA's democratic] political regime while the public is preoccupied with the election process."[9] Similar statements were made in a position paper by a group of Palestinian NGOs, which also launched a protest campaign against the decree.[10] Representatives of the professional unions announced a parallel campaign against the decree suspending internal elections, which they described as unconstitutional and unjustified."[11]

Palestinian opposition movements, including Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), condemned the decrees as well. The PFLP stated that they contravene the understandings between the Palestinian factions regarding the election procedures, and that "there is concern they could be used to intervene in the results of any future democratic [election] process."[12]    Hamas activist Marwan Abu Ras said that 'Abbas, whose term in office has actually ended according to the Palestinian constitution, is forcefully usurping the authorities of the legislative branch and has thus become an absolute ruler, like a Pharoah.[13]

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.[14] 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). Al-Sharar had been appointed as the interim head of this council, meant to serve for only six months. The decrees also ordered several judges into "early retirement."[15] Many Palestinian jurists protested that the decrees contravened of the Palestinian Basic Law, as well as the democratic principles of the separation of powers and independence of the judiciary, and the Palestinian Bar Association has been campaigning for their cancellation for several weeks now.[16] 

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.[17]  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.[18]

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.[19]

 

* S. Schneidmann is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1]  Lab.pna.ps, March 2, 2021.

[2] Qudsn.net, March 6, 2021. This decree has yet to be published in the PA's official gazette.

[3] 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).

[4] Lab.pna.ps, March 2, 2021.

[5] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), March 6, 2021.

[6]  Icspr.ps, March 4, 2021.

[7] Icspr.ps, March 6, 2021.

[8]  Ichr.ps, March 4, 2021.

[9]  Alhaq.org, March 3, 2021.

[10] Pngoportal.org, March 4, 2021.

[11]  Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), March 7, 2021.

[12]  Pflp.ps, March 4, 2021.

[13]  Safa.news, March 7, 2021.

[15]  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.

[16] 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.

[17]  Such as 'Adli Sadeq, identified with the camp of Muhammad Dahlan. Al-Arab (London), January 16, 25, 2021.

[18]  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.  

[19]  Alaraby.com, January 21, 2021.

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