Today, an EU recognised human rights defender and anti-occupation activist has been harassed and arbitrarily detained by the EU funded Palestinian Authority (PA). This is yet another sign of the increasing drift towards authoritarianism by President Abbas and his PA, who have implemented several measures over past months to clamp down on popular criticism and restrict Palestinian freedom of speech.
It is in the EU’s interest to speak up given that President Abbas’ recent measures are further fragmenting Palestinian politics and stifling civil society, both of which need to flourish if the EU wants Palestine to preserve non-violent strategies and plurality going forward. While its ability to protect human rights defenders from Israeli threats and persecution may often be limited, the EU can make a real difference when dealing directly with the PA.
Issa Amro was arrested by PA security forces in Hebron and detained – without an arrest warrant and allegedly on the orders of President Mahmoud Abbas – after writing Facebook posts criticising the PA’s ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression. In his first post, Issa condemned the arrest of journalist Ayman Qawasmeh just days after the Israeli army shut down the radio station he runs. In another post, he offered to help journalists and other victims of PA repression to have their complaints heard by the EU.
Since the beginning of this year, PA forces have carried out more than 80 attacks against journalists and media activists, and passed a draconian law curbing freedom of speech on the internet. This is in addition to taking punitive measures against residents of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which have increased humanitarian suffering there.
Hebron is a segregated, Israeli occupied city, and an extremely dangerous place for human rights defenders who face violent attacks by Israeli forces and settlers on a daily basis. Issa Amro continues to be targeted by Israel for his prominent work resisting the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and exposing human rights violations against Palestinians in the city. It is for this work that the EU recognised him as a human rights defender.
Issa Amro is currently on hunger strike under detention by the Preventative Security Services (PSS) – an intelligence agency charged with protecting national security and accused of systemic human rights violations, including torture. The PSS and other security agencies not only carry out arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders and journalists with impunity, but they also do this through the PA criminal justice system that the EU has granted millions of euros in support.
Issa is charged with “causing sectarian strife” and “insulting authorities” according to Jordanian penal code of 1960 and “causing public disturbance” according to the Electronic Crimes Law that President Abbas recently introduced. The law imposes tight controls on media freedom and bans online expression and dissent, with offenders facing heavy fines and severe prison sentences. In an unusual move, European diplomats were barred from attending Issa’s pre-trial hearing today in which his detention was extended for four days.
All of this has made the work of Issa Amro and other human rights defenders even more dangerous; to such an extent that Palestinian activists now describe themselves as being under occupation by both Israel and the PA. While Issa may ultimately be released, these events should act as warning for international donors.
Alarm bells regarding the increasing authoritarianism of the PA have sounded before but gone unheeded. In 2013, Amnesty International published a report exposing systematic violation of freedom of expression by the PA. The watchdog made a specific recommendation to the EU to review aid delivered to the PA police and security forces, and to ensure that it is not facilitating human rights violations. In August last year, Human Rights Watch also published a report warning of a major crackdown on journalists by PA forces.
International organisations have only amplified what local Palestinian groups have been warning over the years: that the PA is becoming an authoritarian regime that is shrinking the space for freedom of expression and popular participation. These are developments that make a post-Abbas transition potentially even messier and increase Palestinian resentment of the PA.
Given that the EU is the largest donor to the PA it bears at least partial responsibility for the current of course of events. It also has a responsibility, according to its own guidelines on human right defenders, to protect Issa Amro and other human rights activists against such attacks.
The EU’s financial support gives it easily deployable leverage over the PA that it could use to contain developments on the ground. The EU, in particular its high representative, Federica Mogherini, should make clear that the PA’s actions are not only negative for Palestinians themselves, but increasingly prejudice long term stability in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and the potential for a free and democratic Palestinian state.
But although its own reporting has expressed concern over PA human rights violations, the EU has so far refrained from altering its relationship with the PA. EU aid policies and support for the Palestinian police have helped build up a Palestinian security force that works effectively with its Israeli counterpart to rein in Palestinian violence and non-violent protests. These security centred policies will be unsustainable if they undermine the EU’s stated support for democracy and political plurality in Palestine. In fact, it is precisely these internationally-backed state-building policies and their focus on short-term fixes that have contributed to the current predicament, by failing to ensure the development of effective accountability mechanisms for the PA, and turning a blind eye to President Abbas’ monopolisation of power.
At the very least, the EU must ensure that it lives up to the principles guiding its foreign policy and ensure the PA’s respect for and protection of human rights. The EU must also place greater emphasis on reforms to the PA security sector in order to promote genuinely accountable institutions in line with its Action Plan on Palestine. More fundamentally, though, the EU should pressure Abbas to roll-back his recent authoritarian measures, including those against Gaza, and instead push him to respect the international human rights obligations that the PA has signed up to. He should begin by protecting human rights defenders such as Issa Amro who oppose Israel’s occupation on a daily basis, and launch a real process of democratisation.
The EU may not be able to end Israel’s occupation on its own, but it should at least work to show that it is the champion of human rights it claims to be.
Saleh Hijazi is a human rights activist, Policy Member of Al-Shabaka, and advisor to Al-Quds University Human Rights Clinic where he worked as academic coordinator and lecturer. Saleh was previously Amnesty International’s researcher on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Hugh Lovatt is Policy Fellow and Israel/Palestine Project Coordinator for ECFR's Middle East and North Africa Programme.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.