Abbas closes websites, launches libel suits against critics, freezes out top officials

Palestinian leader ramps up pressure on aides and journalists who query his line

A Palestinian man using the Internet. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)
A Palestinian man using the Internet. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is shutting down his critics’ websites, launching libel suits against opponents, and reportedly freezing out top officials, including his own prime minister, for not doing his bidding.

Abbas’ communications minister, Mashour Abu Daqa, confirmed late Thursday that the attorney general’s office ordered several websites shut down over the past six months, raising new concerns about freedom of expression in the West Bank. The sites belong to Abbas official-turned-rival, the former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan.

Abbas is also reported to have fallen out with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, for failing to turn up to a meeting last week with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at which Fayyad was supposed to have delivered Abbas’s terms for renewing peace negotiations. Fayyad stayed away at the last moment, and a lower-level PA official delivered the letter instead.

And earlier this week, Abbas was reported by the Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi to have dismissed veteran official Yasser Abed Rabbo from his position as head of the PA’s media department. Abed Rabbo also reportedly refused to deliver the letter, and had already ired Abbas for opposing the PA chief’s unsuccessful bid to attain UN recognition for “Palestine” last September.

Dahlan was the leader of Fatah in the Gaza Strip before the organization’s ouster by Hamas in 2007. On his arrival in the West Bank, he was blamed by colleagues for the loss of Gaza, and an intense rivalry began between him and Abbas.

Dahlan has accused the Palestinian president of being a weak leader and of allowing his sons to benefit financially from his rule. Fatah booted out Dahlan in June, and took away his bodyguards, because of his repeated criticism of Abbas. Dahlan, who has since left the Palestinian territories, has also been accused of illegally enriching himself through corruption.

Last month, Palestinian journalist Asmat Abd Al-Khaleq was arrested after making comments on Facebook critical of the Palestinian Authority and Abbas.

Security forces have also arrested three more journalists and an anti-corruption activist who have criticized Abbas and other Palestinian officials on Facebook. The Abbas government has also sued two of the journalists and the activist on charges they defamed the president and other senior officials.

Palestinian media in the West Bank are for the most part official or sympathetic to the Palestinian Authority, forcing West Bankers to voice their dissenting opinions on Facebook. But the government fears Facebook’s power because of the role it has played in energizing revolts that have toppled long-entrenched regimes in the Arab world.

The West Bank crackdown has been criticized within the Palestinian Authority and in Washington, too.

“We are concerned about any uses of technology that would restrict access to information,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday. “We’ve had these concerns in other parts of the world, and we wouldn’t want to see the PA going in the direction that some of those regimes have gone in.”

Abu Daqa, the communications minister, said the shutdown of the websites was “bad for the image of the Palestinian Authority in the modern world.”

He also predicted it would ultimately be ineffective because the websites could continue to reach readers by switching to other domains in a cat-and-mouse game with authorities. Abu Daqa is leaving his post, reportedly for personal reasons.





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