PA announces move to boost independence of its judiciary, drawing praise from US

Abbas’s step comes days after Washington panned Israeli judicial overhaul law; PA president has been trying to subjugate judiciary for years, and local critic says move is cosmetic

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the Arab League's "Summit for Jerusalem" in Cairo, on February 12, 2023. (Ahmad Hassan/AFP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the Arab League's "Summit for Jerusalem" in Cairo, on February 12, 2023. (Ahmad Hassan/AFP)

In parallel with the judicial overhaul that has been making headlines in Israel over the past months, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced a move of his own on Wednesday, by scrapping a 2022 decision that would have restricted the independence of the Palestinian judiciary.

The decision, known as Decree 17, would have established a “Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies and Authorities” with the power to review legal cases, headed by Abbas himself, who would have also had the ability to determine its membership and set its meetings.

The scrapping of Decree 17 was published in the PA Official Gazette and immediately drew praise from the US, though a local journalist noted that the change was essentially meaningless.

“We applaud President Abbas’ decision to nullify the Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies and Authorities. An independent judiciary is essential for any successful society and crucial for any future Palestinian state. We welcome further PA initiatives aimed at improving governance,” the US office of Palestinian Affairs tweeted on Thursday.

The plaudits for Ramallah contrasted starkly with the disappointment Washington expressed earlier in the week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passed the first piece of legislation of its judicial overhaul.

Abbas’s new body was never fully established, but it would have led to a significant curbing of the Palestinian judiciary’s independence by assuming full control over the PA’s judicial system.

The German Representation in Ramallah also praised the decision, tweeting: “Canceling last year’s decree consolidating judicial councils under single executive control is an important step. Independent judiciary and separation of powers are of vital importance. We encourage further judicial reform and will support the PA in this endeavor.”

Abbas’s original decision to establish the council was met with sharp criticism last year, with human rights groups alleging that the body would rule in favor of specific power groups within the PA and the Palestinian economy, without prior consultation with relevant authorities and without clarification as to the purpose of the decisions it issues, according to Arab News.

Discontentment with attempts by Abbas to take control of the legislative and the judiciary branches of power have been simmering in the Palestinian territories for years.

The legislative branch, the Palestinian Legislative Council, was inactive from 2007 until 2018, when it was officially dismantled by the Palestinian Constitutional Court in anticipation of elections to be held in the following six months, which were then canceled by Abbas himself.

As for the judiciary, Ali Al-Sartawi, a former Palestinian justice minister, told Arab News that Abbas has precipitated a “state of legislative chaos” in the Palestinian territories by creating new legislation through the issuance of presidential decrees on a weekly basis, in violation of the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers inscribed in Palestinian law.

The issuing of presidential decrees, which number some 400 to date, began after the separation between Fatah, which controls the PA, and Hamas in 2007, and increased in frequency and remit over the years, covering sensitive matters such as electoral law and the funding of NGOs, according to Qatari news website al-Araby al-Jadeed.

A legal amendment proposed in 2018 to give Abbas authority over the appointment and removal of the head of the Supreme Court prompted over half of the judges on the Court to resign in protest.

In July 2019, Abbas dissolved the Supreme Court altogether, and later replaced it with a Transitional High Judicial Council headed by an octogenarian judge named Issa Abu Sharar, a decision rejected by the Palestinian Bar Association, which considered the council illegitimate since its judges were appointed instead of elected.

Further amendments to curb the judiciary and subject its authority and appointments to the executive were passed in 2021, prompting unprecedented protests by the Palestinian Bar Association in Ramallah.

Palestinian lawyers demonstrate in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, on July 25, 2022, to reportedly protest the Palestinian President establishing laws by decree which they consider a violation of the independence of the judiciary. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

Several judges who protested the changes were forced into early retirement or transferred to work in state institutions under direct PA control, in a move that was qualified as “personal revenge” by a judge from Nablus quoted by the Middle East Eye.

Moreover, Abbas’s announcement on Wednesday of the elimination of  the Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies and Authorities was apparently only a cosmetic change, according to Palestinian journalist Younis Tirawi, since it did not affect a previous presidential decree that was also aimed at establishing control over the Palestinian judiciary.

In August 2019, Abbas issued a decree for the creation of a “Coordinating Council for the Justice Sector,” a body chaired by himself and comprising justices personally appointed by him. That decree is still in force. The 2022 decision that was withdrawn on Wednesday only affected a consulting body, but Abbas’s plan to assert his control over the PA’s judiciary has apparently not been shelved.

Most Popular
read more: