Those who reflect on the process of democratic transformation in the Palestinian context can notice the specificity of this process that distinguishes it from other similar processes of transformation in other Arab countries.
Written by: Amjad Bashkar
Those who reflect on the process of democratic transformation in the Palestinian context can notice the specificity of this process that distinguishes it from other similar processes of transformation in other Arab countries. In the years of 1996-2006, a unique democratic process was born after which a kind of optimism emerged on the future of democracy in Palestine, of which all the electoral processes occurred during that period, including: the first legislative and presidential elections in 1996, the presidential elections in 2005 and the second legislative elections in 2006 – all of which were implemented with a high degree of integrity and transparency. However, the optimism that flourished in light of the future of the democratic process in Palestine suffered a great setback following the division that affected the Palestinian political system in 2007.
As a result of the Palestinian political split, with Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority controlling areas of the West Bank, Palestinian society became more divided than ever which led to a significant decline in the manifestations of the democratization of Palestinian society. It can be said that the most prominent of these manifestations was the decline in the role of the authority (both authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) in favor of increasing the roles of other traditional social structures, such as tribal committees while decreasing the freedom in partisan work and civil society institutions, freedom of the press and freedom of opinion and expression.
The rise of the role of traditional social structures in the Palestinian context became evident after the faltering of the democratic process and the Palestinian division in 2007. The informal justice system became the new means of dealing with judicial processes, especially in murder cases and acts of violence against women. The authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have often appeared as a sponsor of the option of tribal reconciliation in many cases of family conflict or violence, and have not taken any social or legal measures to prevent these crimes from happening. This has led to repeated cases of murder and violence against women who are victims of the customs and traditions of this traditional structure which lacks rationality. The system of clan reconciliation, often makes false pretenses to protect perpetrators of murder and violence against women and children, which is one of the worst consequences of the Palestinian political division. As the rate of violence increases, mainly against vulnerable groups, it is apparent that the human rights situation in Palestine is deteriorating.
The continuation of the authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, backed by this system, strengthens the ability of tribal committees as dominant powers that control and interfere in all aspects of Palestinian life. Often times, they are placed as an alternative power to the authority, as they are able to keep society under control under emergency situations when the respective authorities cannot. This might explain why the Palestinian Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh, has recently tried to appease the tribal committees, after the emergence of controversy over the Family Protection Law, in which many tribal committees disagreed with this Law under the pretext that it destroys Palestinian families. Moreover, Dr. Shtayyeh invited them to stand with him to combat the COVID-19 pandemic by adopting a code of honor that encourages the compliance of preventative measures and prohibits the implementation of weddings and gatherings.
The regression in the human rights situation in Palestine can be seen from more than one level and dimension. It is not only observed by the increase in the rates of violations committed against vulnerable groups in the Palestinian society, but also by the decline in freedom of the press and freedom of opinion and expression. According to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms—MADA, in 2019 there was a sharp decline in the field of media freedoms, where the Center indicated that the Ramallah Magistrate Court’s announcement regarding the closure of 49 websites comes as a major setback to the scene of media freedoms in Palestine. The Center also indicated that there are 46 cases of arrests and detention committed by the two authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip against journalists, 15 and 31, respectively. Additionally, the Center also recorded many cases of summons and interrogation that were directed at male or female journalists in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These and other violations come as an explanation for the decline in the position of Palestine in the Press Freedom Index. According to the Center, Palestine ranked 137th according to the index published by Reporters Without Borders related to freedom of the press, thus registering a three-point decline from what it was in 2018.
Violations against women and children or against journalists and the freedom of opinion and expression, all come as a sign of the great impact of the faltering democratization process on Palestinian contexts, which affected civil society on several levels. Its manifestations appeared in the lack of protection provided to its institutions working in the field of defending human rights, and the negligence of the authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in stressing the necessity of unifying and amending laws and legislations related to the protection of human rights. This issue was marginalized and made the last of the priorities rather than at the forefront of the ladder!
The holding of general elections is a major tool not only for the return to democratic life, but rather it is to ensure that there is no decline in the social and political development, rights and freedoms are protected, and optimism returns for the future of democracy in Palestine.
The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author and not necessarily the opinion of the Association or donor.