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Palestine Drops Gift in Israel's Lap

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The intra-Palestinian war of words and the mutual violations of the freedom of press and expression by the Hamas - led government of Ismael Haniyyeh in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah – led government of Salam Fayyad in the West Bank have presented Israel with its biggest propaganda prize that is overshadowing the violations of human rights committed by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

The Palestinian Center for Press Development and Freedom "Mada" had this to say on Palestinian media during August this year: There were "more violations of media freedom in the Palestinian territories particularly by the Executive Force (of Hamas) in the Gaza Strip and the (Fatah-led) Palestinian security agencies (of the Palestinian Authority) in the West Bank, in addition to the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). Nothing changed in the status of the media that was closed by both sides, or prevented from distribution, whether in the West Bank or in Gaza Strip."

On July 14 "Mada" described the violations of press freedom during the preceding month of June as a "massacre of Palestinian media" committed by Palestinians themselves, including Palestinian armed groups; media institutions were attacked, burned, ransacked and destroyed, printing and distributing of newspapers were banned, and journalists were arrested, threatened and shot at. The violations led to a "serious compromise of press freedom;" Palestinian journalists had become too scared to cover the events and disseminate information, which "reinforced self-censorship by journalists and independent media." Objective reporting was absent and "few local media maintained impartiality."

On September 10, the plight of Palestinian media caught international attention when The New York Times reported that Fatah in the West Bank has closed Hamas-affiliated media outlets and prevented Hamas-supported newspapers from circulating or Hamas television from broadcasting; equipment has been confiscated or destroyed, six Hamas journalists have been arrested and 12 more beaten. In Gaza Hamas has done the same to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA)-controlled media. At least eight outlets were closed, including three newspapers.

The next day a group of intellectuals in Gaza demanded in a statement that the Palestinian media not be crushed between "the hammer of Ramallah and the anvil of Gaza." Some journalists, like Saifuddin Shaeen, correspondent of Al-Arabia satellite TV station and Majdi Al-Arabeed, the director and owner of the "Voice of Liberty" fled Gaza while Mohammad Shteiwi, the director of al-Aqsa satellite TV station in the West Bank, went into hiding. 700 employees of the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) are now staying home because they could not do their work. Independent journalists and media outlets have resorted to self-censoring, a practice they mastered long before Hamas came into power.

The Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights called on the PA and "the political powers in the OPT to take all the necessary measures to guarantee that journalists are kept outside the political struggle." The Foreign Press Association, which represents the foreign media in Israel and the Palestinian territories, condemned "this kind of dangerous infringement of professional journalists." On August 28 the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers (WAN) -- which represents 18,000 newspapers with a membership including 76 national newspaper associations, newspaper companies and individual newspaper executives in 102 countries, 12 news agencies and 10 regional and world-wide press groups -- condemned the increasing harassment of journalists and the deterioration of working conditions for Palestinian journalists in the OPT.

Fayyad's government found itself obliged recently to apologize to Reuters for violations during a suppressed Hamas-led protest by university students in the southern West Bank city of Hebron. Hanniyeh's government had to admit and apologize publicly for similar violations in the Gaza Strip. One could review their mutual records on the violations of the other side as well as the reports they selectively quote from international organizations of human rights to condemn each other to have an overall idea of their serious disregard of the recognized standards of free press and expression.

Defunct Press Law Activated

Hamas, trying to contain the drive towards partisan propaganda away from professional journalism, dug out of the PA archives what was in practice a defunct Palestinian press law designed to silence dissident journalists, ban the publication of information likely to "endanger national unity, incite crimes or hatred, division and religious dissent" and publication of "secret information" about the police and security forces. This law was practically not in force because the public official media network as well as the private sector media were overwhelmingly controlled or owned by the ruling Fatah movement; their self-censorship made up for enforcing the law.

Fatah's 40-year old monopoly of power first within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) then later within the PA, which was created as a limited self-rule authority after the Oslo Palestinian – Israeli peace accords of 1993, has led to monopoly of media. In 1999, Article 19, a human rights organization to defend and promote freedom of expression and information worldwide, criticized in a memorandum to the PA the Palestinian Press Law for including articles that contradict with the international standards of Press freedom and freedom of free flow of information.

The law institutes a number of restrictions on the content of what may be published, many of which are unacceptable broad and/or vague. For example, publications must not "contradict the principles of ... national responsibility" or publish material that is "inconsistent with morals" or which may "shake belief in the national currency." (Ironically Palestinians have yet to have a national currency). These restrictions are backed up with censorship powers as publications must deposit copies with the government prior to distribution. The law also provides for harsh sanctions for breach of its provisions, in many cases extending to jail terms.

However, "We are all bound by this 1995 press law, and its articles carry the force of the law," said a statement from Hamas' "information ministry" in Gaza. Referring to a newly-created governmental committee to oversee media, the statement said this committee had the right to conduct raids against media premises and bureaux and "to summon their members over issues relating to their work. We will not deal with organizations which do not have authorization or do not respect the rules." Hamas spokesman, Tahar al-Nunu, who heads the committee said: "We cannot change this law, it is the only one we have."

Moreover, Hamas for the first time ever cracked down on Internet Web sites. The Open Net Initiative (ONI) has studied the status of Internet censorship in 40 countries including the OPT. ONI's researchers found no filtering at all in Russia, Israel or the Palestinian territories despite political conflicts there (2007). This finding tells that the cyber freedom is aught to be absolute in the West Bank and Gaza contrary to all Arab countries without exception. This has now to change.

Internet plays a vital role as a means of communication between the more than 3.5 million Palestinians under the Israeli military occupation since 1967 and the outside world; it also serves as a vital means of communication among the Palestinians themselves, whether between those besieged in the Gaza Strip and their compatriots in the West Bank as there is no territorial linkage between the two areas, or between both areas and the Palestinian Diaspora, or among the cantons of Palestinian population in the West Bank, where more than 550 Israeli military roadblocks and a longer than 700km Apartheid Wall (called a security fence or barrier by the IOF) isolate the urban centers from each other as well as from the countryside villages and towns which they serve.

However the journalists are not helping to ease their work. More than 14 years of Fatah's monopoly of power have created a Fatah-led media network with Fatah-affiliated journalists who in the current crisis could not resist taking sides; neither could the new emerging Hamas-led media journalists. Both are giving each of the two rival governments reason to harass them on security grounds. Journalists in their majority on both sides are compromising their professionalism with biased reporting, giving priority to political loyalty.

Killer Language

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*Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist in Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine. He is based in Ramallah, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
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