Palestinian Authority blocks dozens of websites critical of Abbas government

The Palestinian Authority has blocked access to dozens of news websites and social media accounts in the occupied West Bank in its ongoing crackdown of opposition voices and those critical of Mahmoud Abbas’ presidency.

The decision was reportedly made last Thursday by a magistrate court in Ramallah, but only came to light this week when Palestinians protested the move in the streets and on social media.

The exact number of sites that were blocked remained unclear, with most local media reporting a total 59, and other sites, like the Times of Israel, quoting anonymous government sources who put the number at 49.

Most of the sites that were blocked are those critical of the PA and Mahmoud Abbas, or are said to be “favorable” to his political rivals like Mahmoud Dahlan and Hamas.

The court’s decision was made in accordance with the widely condemned Cyber Crimes Law, passed unilaterally by Abbas in 2017 as an attempt to silence growing criticism of him and his government.

According to local media, the court’s decision was made on the pretext that the barred sites “threaten national security” and “disturb public order.”

Some of the sites, like Voice of Fatah — known to be affiliated with Dahlan — that appeared on the list this week were part of a dozen sites that were initially blocked back in 2017. 

The repetition of some sites reportedly has to do with the fact that each order barring a site or social media page lasts only six months, and needs to be renewed accordingly.

Among the sites ordered to be blocked were the website and social media accounts of the Hamas-affiliated Quds News Network, a widely popular news source for young Palestinians given the network’s strong social media presence.

Palestinian journalists took to the streets in the Gaza Strip outside the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate office in Gaza City. Protesters held signs reading “banning is a crime” and “the suppression of media freedoms will not pass.”

One protester was photographed holding a sign that read “where are the occupation websites on the ban list?”

In a statement, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate said  “this is a black day in the history of the Palestinian media.”

The Hamas movement also condemned the move, saying “the Palestinian Authority is burying its head in the sand in its attempts to prevent freedom of expression and return the national press to a dark era”.

It remained unclear if the ban on the sites would extend beyond the West Bank and into the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian-American activist Mariam Barghouti slammed the “authoritarian measures” on Twitter, saying “the Palestinian Authority and all of its leaders (regardless of their own internal disagreements) are consistent in their suppression of Palestinians.”

Palestinian writer Saleh al-Naami tweeted:

“Unfortunately, the decision to ban dozens of sites and pages shows that the authority of Mahmoud Abbas is a classic example of small authoritarian regimes that employ the judiciary in the services of their miserable agendas.”

According to Middle East Monitor, the Palestinian Commission for Human Rights is expected to appeal the decision.

Mahmoud Abbas and the PA have increasingly come under fire in the past two years for online censorship security and campaigns of politically motivated arrests.

In the PA-controlled West Bank, there is a growing sense of discontentment with the government and its leaders, who continue to prioritize their consolidation of power and resources over the rights of the people.

Dozens of Palestinian citizens, mainly youth, have been arrested and tortured by the PA over social media posts critical of Abbas and his regime.

It is estimated that in 2016 alone, PA security forces arrested at least 220 Palestinians for social media posts, while Hamas authorities detained 45 Palestinians for similar reasons in Gaza.

A poll published by Palestinian NGO 7amleh over the weekend found that two-thirds of Palestinian youth are afraid to voice their political opinions online.

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