Last Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority refused to grant permission to a group of Palestinian activists for a solidarity rally with the people of Tunisia for their overthrow of the Tunisian president.
The French newspaper Le Monde reported that a few dozen Palestinians who defied the ban arrived in the square in Ramallah where the rally was to take place only to find a different Fatah rally taking place in support of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
A correspondent for Le Monde, Benjamin Barthe, observed a heavy police presence around the square and “the presence among the demonstrators of many mukhabarat (secret police) officers left little doubt about the Palestinian Authority’s intention to prevent any expression of solidarity with the ‘jasmine revolution’ ” in Tunisia, which led the president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee into exile.
The reporter also mentioned that when a Palestinian began to wave a Tunisian flag, an officer grabbed it, and said that it was disturbing the other demonstration in honor of the prisoners.
Omar Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian human rights activist who was meaning to attend the Tunisia rally, told the French newspaper: “It’s unbelievable. … The police are in the process of confirming the charge that the Palestinian Authority is on the side of Ben Ali and that it also fears the people and the street.”
As Roee Ruttenberg, an Israeli journalist, explained this week, “many Palestinians feel a certain kinship with the people of Tunisia.” After the Palestine Liberation Organization was banished from Lebanon in the 1980s, Tunisia hosted it until Yasir Arafat’s return to Ramallah in the 1990s. After his own return from exile, the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, “maintained very close ties to the ousted Tunisian leader, Ben Ali,” Mr. Ruttenberg added.
In addition to historic ties and sympathy for the trials of a personal friend, the Palestinian president might have good reason to fear the example set on the streets of Tunis. As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley pointed out in The New York Review of Books this week, the Palestinian Authority, which controls local affairs in about 40 percent of the West Bank, is “a government that rules by decree, with little democratic legitimacy — Parliament has not met in years and elections are long overdue.”
Some Western diplomats believe these repressive tactics will spark a popular backlash and hurt the P.A. “This is of concern to us,” says one European diplomat. Human rights abuses threaten not only to “damage the long-term legitimacy and credibility of the Palestinian Authority” but raise difficult questions for donors: “If we are building a police state – what are we actually doing here?”