The Palestinian Authority will never achieve the moral high ground if it continues violating the free speech of activists like Kifah Quzmar

The case of Kifah Quzmar is typical of the Palestinian Authority’s total disregard for the free speech of Palestinians; the same Palestinian citizens it consistently claims are denied basic rights under occupation. Time and time again, the Palestinian Authority demands basic respect for human rights from Israel, and time and time again these calls go ignored. The Palestinian Authority needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror if it wants to be taken seriously as a human rights defender. While the PA continues its current program of demolishing democratic representation in the West Bank, clamping down on political freedoms, and arbitrarily arresting students for expressing their opinions, it has little hope of achieving even a modicum of human rights credibility.

A member of the left-wing Progressive Democratic Student Pole at Berzeit University, Kifah Quzmar first landed himself in hot water with the Palestinian Authority a few years ago, when he was hospitalised after a brutal beating by PA security forces after a protest against secret meetings and negotiations between the PA and Israeli officials. Since that date, he has been repeatedly summoned for interrogation by the Palestinian Authority for speaking out against their abuse of the Palestinian citizens they purport to defend. In the latest violation of Quzmar’s political rights, the following (translated) Facebook post appears to have landed him in trouble:

“Do you know why the mukhabarat (intelligence service) is a rotten agency? Because the entire PA is rotten. Seif al-Idrissi is under arrest! #Freedom for Seif”

Following this post, Quzmar was arrested by the mukhabarat on May 12 and remains arbitrarily detained with no ability to contact his family. The horrible irony of this situation is apparently lost on the PA. His unlawful detention has now been extended for an additional fifteen days, far beyond a reasonable time to be detained without charge even for a genuine crime, let alone for merely exercising your human right to freedom of expression.

Quzmar is not alone. In fact, he is one of over 150 Palestinians detained for ‘incitement’ after posts on social media critical of the ruling establishment; among them are leftists like Quzmar, as well as members of the Islamic Bloc, all opposed to PA security coordination with Israel. But opposition to government policy is not a crime, it is a political right; Quzmar’s detention is a gross violation of the right to free speech.

Amidst the heavy criticism of Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian Authority’s poor human rights record often escapes the same level of scrutiny. But according to Human Rights Watch there are numerous “credible” reports of torture carried out by the Palestinian Authority against their own citizens. This includes forcing detainees into stress positions, the use of sleep deprivation, denial of access to toilet facilities and verbal abuse. Certainly during my time in Palestine, many Palestinians I spoke to expressed that it was common knowledge that the use of torture in Palestine’s prisons was rife, and many professed to know people to whom this had happened. Human Rights Watch has also documented the Palestinian Authority’s systematic violent targeting of protestors, a culture of impunity over violence against Israeli civilians and security forces, and routine legal discrimination against women. I have previously discussed disastrous press freedom and strict controls placed on media deemed critical of the PA, which centre around attempts to curtail the political activities of supporters of Hamas.

Quzmar’s arbitrary detention is part of a broader picture of crackdowns on student activists and protestors by the Palestinian Authority, who have stepped up their campaign of attacks on students in recent weeks during the period of typically contentious campus elections, widely viewed as a microcosm for disbanded national democracy. My visit to the West Bank last year coincided with student elections at Birzeit, where a Hamas victory resulted in mass arrests and detentions for student politicians. Yet ironically, it is this form of authoritarian leadership that is likely to drive more Palestinians into supporting Hamas, not away from them. A pattern of political degradation in the West Bank has spun into a death spiral, a vicious cycle whereby the PA attempts to extend and prolong its grip on power by attempting to silence those who oppose it, counter-productively eroding any faith Palestinians might have left in its weak leadership. The result is a serious erosion of democracy, the entrenching of bitter political divisions, an increase in support for more extremist and violent views, and the severe curtailment of basic civil liberties like freedom of expression. At a time when Palestinians should stand united in opposition to Israel’s military dictatorship, the Palestinian Authority’s war on civil society should send alarm bells ringing for anyone who holds a hope that one day Palestine might be free.

There is something you can do to help Quzmar, and to ensure that many like him in the future do not end up in the same position. Drop an email to info@palmissionuk.org, the Palestinian Mission in London, to make sure they know that people are watching, and that violations of free speech against Palestinian citizens like Kifah Quzmar don’t just constitute a human rights violation, but also seriously undermine the Palestinian Authority’s claim for moral superiority in the pursuit of a free Palestine.

If the PA wants to remain a credible partner to the peace process, and continue to position itself on the moral high ground as it pursues Israel through international legal mechanisms like the International Criminal Court or UN Security Council, its credibility as a leadership that respects human rights is crucial. In the case of Kifah Quzmar, and many like him, they have fallen far short of this unambitious goal. How does the Palestinian Authority think it has any chance of achieving independence if it can’t even treat its own citizens, and their opinions, with a modicum of dignity and respect?

UPDATE: Thanks to international pressure, Kifah Quzmar has been released. Thank you for all the support from everyone who emailed – you have made a real difference.  

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