From the frying pan into the fire? Abu Tir deportation trial continued until 12 July

An Israeli court on Sunday continued the detention of Hamas-affiliated East Jerusalem politician Mohammad Abu Tir for another week, until Monday 12 July.

On the basis of a “deportation” order pending since 2006, Israeli Police took Abu Tir’s Permanent Residence ID card soon after he was released from jail in May, after serving a more-than-four-year sentence following his election to the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC) on the Hamas-backed Change and Reform Party ticket.

Three other East Jerusalem Palestinian parliamentarians, elected on the Hamas-backed ticket in 2006, are also under Israeli “deportation” orders — Ahmad Atoun, Mohammad Totah, and Khaled Abu Arafeh. News reports indicate that the Israeli Police have called their families, looking for them. Meanwhile, at least two if not all three have been participating in a public sit-in in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) office in East Jerusalem, protesting the “deportation” orders.

Israel contends that East Jerusalem Palestinian politicians who serve in the PLC — at least, those on the Hamas-affiliated ticket — are “disloyal” to the State of Israel.

[Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — appointed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to head an Emergency Government post in June 2007, in the wake of a crisis which saw Hamas expel Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security forces in Gaza — is a permanent resident of East Jerusalem without any problem…]

Abu Tir was arrested last week while driving in a Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem near his home of Um Tubas (Sur Bahr) — and jailed for not having a valid ID card.

He is accused of “illegal entry into the State of Israel”.

Abu Tir and his three colleagues want to stay in Jerusalem for reasons of normal human emotions. They are also taking a political stand in favor of Palestinian national rights.

YNet reported that Abu Tir said in court last Thursday: “I am prepared to do anything in order to stay in Jerusalem”. According to YNet, Abu-Tir “refused the imprisonment alternative offered him by which he would be banished from Israel and NIS 100,000 (about $25,700) bail be posted that he not return to the area within the Green Line”. YNet added that “Abu-Tir’s lawyer, Attorney Osama Saadi, explained that he contacted the interior minister last week on behalf of his client and three other civilians whose permanent resident status has also been revoked. According to him, they asked that a letter be sent regarding talks ‘on the highest levels between the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel’. ‘We believe that the decision is not a legal one, but a political one’, said Saadi. He also asked for another opportunity to settle the matter out of court”. This is published here.

If these East Jerusalem politicians are deported to the West Bank — where an adamantly anti-Hamas campaign has been underway for years — they will not be in a comfortable situation.

In fact, they would be going from the frying pan into the fire…

But these pending “deportations, like a number of other “provocative” and “unhelpful” measures, particularly in East Jerusalem, appear to be on hold pending Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington this week. He is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday.

Deportation is an explicit violation of the Road Map backed by the U.S. and the Quartet of Middle East negotiators (U.S., Europe, Russia, and UN). The Road Map has also been endorsed in UN Security Council resolution 1515 of November 200.

For the elected East Jerusalem parliamentarians, the situation is not good.

The PLC to which they were elected has been moribund for years — because Israeli arrests of Hamas-affiliated Palestinian parliamentarians following the 2006 elections made it impossible to convene a quorum of members to take decisions.

And now, the four-year term of the Hamas-dominated PLC is considered to have ended in January 2010.

Despite the stated support of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for the four East Jerusalem men facing possible “deportation” — possibly to the West Bank — they would not necessarily be in a safe haven.

If the four men continue to refuse to sign an unequivocal renunciation of their ties with Hamas in order to stay in Jerusalem — as Israel (if not also Abu Mazen) insists — they would nonetheless then come under huge political and security pressure to abandon any activities with Hamas anyway, if they are “deported” to the West Bank where both Israel and the PA have been carrying out a crack-down on Hamas for a couple of years.

This is a very tough situation, full of political hazards.

With Abu Tir’s release from Israeli jail in May, it would have become possible to reconvene the PLC — but that was not done, ostensibly because of the continuing division between the West Bank and Gaza, controlled by Hamas since mid-June 2007. However, a reconvened PLC could also immediately vote to repel legislation approved by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas under emergency powers. In any case, some believe its term has expired anyway.

According to a report just published by the Carnegie Endowment, the author, Nathan Brown (professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment) found during his visit to the West Bank that “The fact remains, of course, that a campaign for ‘security’ is often synonymous with the attempt to suppress Hamas. And as a result other problems — political interference, illegal detentions — do not seem to have been addressed. Or, rather, they have been addressed — by a decision at senior levels (the security service heads and perhaps the president himself) that the struggle against Hamas takes priority over the law”.

Discussing the case of the Palestinian teachers union, Brown notes that “Of its original nine founders, four are in Israeli prison, four were arrested by the Ramallah PA and released only when they disassociated themselves from the effort, and only one remained unmolested. (And he reports that the association itself remains closed despite its obtaining a court order that it should be allowed to operate)”…

Brown notes that “The U.S. backers of the Ramallah PA would likely regard the price of a crackdown on Hamas as a necessary price for Palestinians to pay. But even if that is the case, the unmistakable result is not institution building but institutional paralysis in civil society and a marked retrogression from the Oslo years … Palestinian democracy has simply come to an end in both halves of the PA. The president’s term has expired, the parliament’s term is also expired, no new elections are in sight, elected local officials selectively dismissed, and local elections have been cancelled. Opposition supporters have been ousted from the civil service and municipal government and their organizations have been shuttered. Activists are detained without charges; court orders are ignored; and the broader citizenry is increasingly administered according to laws that are drafted by bureaucrats out of public view. To the extent that Fayyadism is building institutions, it is unmistakably doing so in an authoritarian context. There is no reason to associate Fayyad personally with the most egregious aspects of this new authoritarianism, but there is no way his cabinet could have been created or sustained in a more democratic environment. I was somewhat surprised to find on my recent trip a degree of politically-generated fear on the West Bank. This should not be exaggerated—nobody could ever mistake Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestine for Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. Indeed, all the information on which I base my analysis was freely and openly supplied by West Bank Palestinians who still show a strong diversity in political views. But on top of a general feeling of political alienation, there is clear nervousness that the wrong kind of politics can hurt your career or, in some cases, lead to your arrest”.

Brown says that the Fayyad government has been engaged purely in administration, rather than development of political institutions: “the effort on the part of Fayyad government—and at least some of its political backers—is to ensure that even repressive political measures are taken within a clear legal context (so that opponents are charged not with opposition but for real legal infractions and are prosecuted through the regular legal system). Such a system would still be viewed as repressive by many, but at least it would be regularized and have some procedural safeguards. But it has not emerged”.

Brown expresses a degree of sympathy for the circumstances in which the current Palestinian Authority (Ramallah) is operating, but noted that “the [Fayyad] government has brought into being an ad hoc and completely unaccountable legislative process”.

Legislation, in recent years, is only through Presidential decree, under emergency powers — in the West Bank.

In Gaza, PLC members who were elected in 2006 continue to meet and adopt regulations.

Brown explains how this is filtered through the Fayyad cabinet, giving it a veneer of greater … well, process: “the greatest strides in reviewing, modifying, modernizing, and unifying Palestine’s legal framework were taken when there was a viable parliament (between 1996 and 2006). The process was messy, contentious, and uncertain. But it also resulted in laws that were far more solidly based, liberal in spirit, and regarded as legitimate. Since the January 2006 electoral triumph of Hamas and the arrest by Israel of many Hamas deputies later that year (paralyzing the parliament), that legislative process has come to an end. But if the rule of law is to prevail, laws have to be written. The Fayyad cabinet has not so much developed institutions to fill this gap as it has improvised an ad hoc mechanism. That mechanism is probably about as sound a one as can be devised under the difficult political circumstances in which it operates, but it cannot be regarded as healthy institutional development or state building nor can it be used to meet the lofty goals described in the plan [for Palestinian statehood by 2011]. The Fayyad cabinet has tried to fill the vacuum created by the breakdown of parliament by devising a legislative process that seizes on the president’s authority to issue emergency decisions with the force of law in cases when parliament is not in session. A committee of legal advisors for the various ministries reviews (and sometimes drafts) legislation to forward to the cabinet; the cabinet then forwards legislation to the president to be issued”

This Brown notes, is causing problems — “severe problems”, he says: “First, rather than unifying the West Bank and Gaza, every legislative step taken by the Fayyad cabinet deepens the split between the two halves of the PA (the same is true of legal measures taken by a rump Palestinian parliament that meets under Hamas leadership in Gaza). Second, the process is an administrative one that bypasses many of the steps that would be involved in a parliamentary legislative process: there is no separation of powers and little oversight; the process is generally carried out with limited public scrutiny and consultation. In a sense, an appointed cabinet that serves without the confidence of the parliament and without any constitutional basis has transformed itself into a legislative body. Third, these political problems with the process lead the cabinet to restrict its usage largely to more technical and administrative areas; it simply has been politically unpalatable to deliver the comprehensive program of legislative development and modernization … with such an ad hoc structure”.

Brown also says that “As has been shown time and again in recent years (most recently with the Gaza blockade), both Israel and the United States have unfortunately but unmistakably (and quite consistently) maintained policies until a crisis forces them to reevaluate. Israel does so out of a lack of alternatives, an ability to tolerate the status quo, and (for some) a conviction that the country is better served by continuously outmaneuvering rather than coming to terms with the Palestinian national movement”… The full report by Nathan Brown for the Carnegie Endowment, published in June 2010, is here.

For another comparative analysis of the post-2007 situation — with a different focus but drawing many similar conclusions — see the presentation given by Dr. Yezid Sayegh at The Palestine Center of The Jerusalem Fund in Washington D.C, in March 2010, here.

Meanwhile, in a completely different but now related context [the Israeli proposal to “deport” Palestinian prisoners who may be released in an exchange that would free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, being held somewhere in Gaza], Haaretz reported today that the head of the Israeli Defense Forces Central Command, Avi Mizrachi, “the most senior IDF officer in charge of security in the West Bank, told Haaretz six weeks ago that he was ‘not afraid’ of Hamas activists returning to the region [the West Bank] and that the IDF and the security forces could handle it … When Haaretz asked Mizrachi whether freeing Hamas activists would lead to an increase in attacks, he said: ‘I am not afraid of terrorists going back. It takes them a long time to get reconnected to the area’.”

The Haaretz story noted that “The IDF believes that even if a large number of Hamas members are returned to the West Bank, there will be no organizational infrastructure to receive them and the Shin Bet will find it relatively easy to observe them. bMoreover, the Palestinian Authority security forces are very concerned about Hamas gaining strength, and would do anything they can to limit its activists the moment they return”. This is reported here.

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