Since 2007, the occupied Palestinian territories have been under divided control. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) administers parts of the West Bank, while Hamas governs the Gaza Strip. Just this Wednesday, Fatah and Hamas announced a new unity government, sparking hope for future cooperation. Though previous attempts at reconciliation have all failed, there is one thing that unites these otherwise divided groups – an intolerance and persecution of dissent.
Last April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report about both Hamas and Fatah suppressing political opposition to their rule. HRW’s country director for Palestine, Sari Bashi, stated that the “Palestinian governments, operating independently, have apparently arrived at similar methods of harassment, intimidation and physical abuse of anyone who dares criticize them.” These methods include the arrest and abuse of journalists and those who openly oppose the government.
Examples of this suppression are numerous. Over recent days, demonstrations broke out in Gaza over the growing electricity crisis there. Protesters denounced both PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Hamas security forces arrested participants and assaulted journalists at the demonstration. They also detained a comedian who posted a video online, critical of Hamas. In the West Bank, the PA has regularly arrested individuals for sharing statements critical of the government on Facebook, mirroring, in many ways, the practices of Israel’s occupying forces and neighboring Arab autocrats.
Both Hamas and Fatah have directed their oppressive tactics at one another’s members. Mass arrests by the PA of Hamas members in the West Bank are a relatively regular occurrence. Hamas has similarly targeted and arrested Fatah members in the Gaza Strip.
Both parties have also targeted smaller, rival factions. Fatah’s dominance in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has given it control over the funding that other Palestinian factions receive. In the past, it has used this power to cancel payments to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as punishment for criticizing President Abbas. For its part, Hamas canceled a conference by the PFLP in Gaza last year without warning or explanation.
Both groups are similarly hostile to dissent from within their ranks. Former Gaza-based Fatah leader and strongman Mohammad Dahlan, who is himself no liberal democrat, has spent recent years trying to challenge Abbas’s leadership position. Before the recent Fatah conference, Dahlan’s supporters were purged from the party, paving the way for Abbas’s unanimous reappointment as party chairman.
Stifling democratic expression is yet another way Fatah and Hamas suppress dissent. This January, Abbas entered the thirteenth year of his four-year term as president, which began in January 2005. Recently, PA-appointed judges postponed municipal elections, which would have granted Palestinians a democratic voice for the first time since 2007. Their decision saved Fatah from a likely electoral defeat to Hamas.
Efforts by Abbas, Haniyeh, and the Palestinian political classes to immunize themselves from dissent have contributed to a growing disconnect between Palestinians and their leaders. A recent poll found that 64% of Palestinians think Abbas should resign. 76% consider the PA’s institutions to be corrupt. In the West Bank, only 36% of respondents reported that they could criticize the PA without fear of consequences. A full third of respondents said they do not support any Palestinian political party, a greater percentage than those who support either Hamas (21%) or Fatah (29%).
The shared autocratic tendencies of Hamas and Fatah, embodied in their intolerance of dissent, have prevented true Palestinian political unity. It remains to be seen if the new reconciliation agreement, sparked by the election of Donald Trump, can succeed where others have failed. One thing is for certain, however: the longer these factions jealously cling to power by suppressing dissent, the more their people will start to look for alternatives.