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PA blocks 11 websites in West Bank, denies political motivations

June 16, 2017 10:08 P.M. (Updated: June 18, 2017 11:15 P.M.)
Bethlehem (Ma’an) -- At least 11 Palestinian news websites -- all allegedly affiliated with either the Hamas movement or Muhammad Dahlan, a political rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- have been blocked in the occupied West Bank, with top-level officials from the Palestinian Authority (PA) insisting to Ma’an that the sites were not shut down because of their affiliations.

Al Jazeera reported that the sites were shut down following a directive from the PA Attorney General Ahmad Barak, which sources confirmed to Ma’an.

All the targeted websites are based outside the West Bank, Al Jazeera said, quoting an anonymous source who spoke to the Turkish Anadolu news agency on Thursday.

The source, an employee at a Ramallah-based internet service provider (ISP), reportedly told Anadolu that the ISP was informed on Thursday of a decision by Barakat to block 11 Palestinian websites.

Among the blocked websites were the Palestinian Information Center and the Shehab News Agency -- affiliated with Hamas -- and the Voice of Fatah, “known to be close to Muhammad Dahlan,” Al Jazeera said.

According to Al Jazeera, Iyad al-Qarra, editor of Palestine, a Hamas-affiliated paper, confirmed that the newspaper's website had been blocked in the West Bank, which he said was “part of an ongoing policy of suppressing Palestinian media freedom,” in a post on his personal Facebook profile.

"Our colleagues with technical expertise are currently trying to undo the move, as our newspaper, through its website, has tens of thousands of readers across the West Bank," al-Qarra said.

Also on Thursday, according to Al Jazeera, the pro-Dahlan Amad news website issued a statement saying that it, too, could no longer be accessed in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, a senior official from the PA spoke to Ma’an on Thursday, denying the reports, saying the websites were blocked due to a number of pending cases against them for reporting false information and being “unethical.”

The official said the websites were accused of "forgery" -- publishing false news, and "slander." 

In a statement Thursday, the Hamas movement denounced the West Bank-based attorney general for "following orders by PA President Mahmoud Abbas" to block the news sites.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said in the statement that the decision was "a direct assault on freedom of opinion and expression, which reflects the dictatorial approach of Abbas and his authority toward our people."

Barhum called upon the Palestinian people to confront this "immoral approach" and to work to thwart all of Abbas' plans to "terrify our people and deny them their freedoms."

The Fatah-led PA has been under fire from several political opposition parties, particularly Hamas, for online censorship, security coordination with Israel, and campaigns of politically motivated arrests. However, Hamas has also been accused of silencing dissident voices in the Gaza Strip, where a number of Palestinian journalists have recently been detained.

Earlier this week, Hamas released a statement saying the PA arrested four Palestinians, including two university students, a lawyer, and a teacher, as the faction has routinely reported of politically motivated arrest campaigns carried out by the PA to quash dissent.

Meanwhile, Samidoun reported on Tuesday that rallies were being planned in Ramallah to demand the release of 23-year-old university student and active youth organizer Nasser Jaradat, reportedly detained for writing a Facebook post critical of Fatah Central Committee member Jibril Rujoub, who said that the Western Wall in occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City should “remain under Jewish sovereignty.”

Spokesperson for the Palestinian security services Adnan Dmeiri told Ma'an at the time that he had "no idea" about Jaradat's case, but said "I can confirm that we don't arrest anybody for expressing their opinion."

However, Palestinian prisoners’ solidarity network Samidoun said that Jaradat’s arrest was part of an ongoing trend of the PA “arresting Palestinians for voicing their political opinions on Facebook,” as part of Israel’s widely condemned policy of security coordination with Israel that critics have described as a “revolving door” that funnels activists from PA jails to Israeli prisons.

The left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) released a statement last week condemning Jaradat's detention, saying that the PA has shown "great disregard for the sentiments of the Palestinian people," and that “the Authority should be holding accountable and arresting those who disregard and undermine the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, not those who criticize the policy of security coordination and the Palestinian Authority’s political direction and leadership.”

Hundreds of Palestinians have been detained for social media activity in recent months. Israeli news daily Haaretz reported in April that Israeli forces detained at least 400 Palestinians in less than a year over social media activity, and that 400 others were detained for the same reason by the Palestinian Authority through security coordination with Israel.

Hamas claimed in an earlier report that a total of 103 Palestinians were detained by the PA over the month of May, including 67 former prisoners of Israel, 83 former political detainees of PA, three journalists, 15 university students, one high school student, and four imams.

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