Never use the phrase “your mother”Thursday 07/12/2017

“This July, Gazan journalist and activist Amer Balousha published a post on Facebook in which he wondered whether his leaders’ mothers also have to sleep on the floor in order to cool themselves down in the unbearable summer heat.“

Granted, a Palestinian journalist as experienced as Amer Balousha should never have used the phrase “your mother” in connection with the actions of Hamas or PA leaders. That way, trouble lies. Precisely. Neither Balousha’s words, nor the reason for his words, were lightly chosen.

Balousha’s purported crime, “Misuse of Technology,” doesn’t exist within Palestinian law, but why be picky? Suppression of free speech by either Hamas or the PA would be merely a boring ‘dog bites man’ story, except that Balousha belongs to a grassroots, bottom-up, youth-centered political movement that is demanding organizational reconciliation and political reforms from both Hamas and the PA. Al-Monitor, an Arab publication, termed these so-called “Patriots to End the Split” a “first-of-its-kind popular movement in Palestine”.

Balousha, with other Gazans, smashed through an earlier tipping point amidst the drastically curtailed electrical service triggered by PA pressure on Hamas earlier this year. Desperate Gazans had flooded the streets, risking their lives to vote their anger against the regime. Significantly, Hamas hadn’t dared crush the rebellion. Instead, they began ratcheting up the pressure on free speech to play for time, while reaching out to former enemies, including the PA, to craft a new political arrangement. Meanwhile, the heat has continued to rise month-by-month, not only in the homes of Gazan mothers, but far more so in the power corridors of Gaza and Ramallah.

Meanwhile, in parallel, the PA has also been concocting absurd laws to cover the unjust arrests of political activists and journalists.

Most notably,  Issa Amro, an intense proponent of (mostly) non-violent resistance against Israel, was arrested this summer for criticizing the arrest of a PA journalist, Ayman Quwasme, who had himself called for Abbas to resign.  Quwasme, director of Hebron’s Freedom Radio, had posted this to Facebook, stripping away the fiction that blamed Israel for the PA’s direct suppression of speech: “This media network is in an area that is under the complete control of the Palestinian Authority, yet, they remain silent, and cannot protect us. We have nothing to do with incitement. We try to deliver the message of the simple people in need, to the officials. We try to be the voice of the voiceless, and that is why we keep getting attacked and harassed.”

Why, though, was Abbas incensed with Quwasme, and willing to endure near-universal condemnation over the arrest of Amro?  Because the PA, like Hamas, has reached the end of its perceived legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.  The regime, like its spiritual brothers elsewhere, now suppresses free speech in a manner that “is not much different than that (experienced) under Bashar Assad’s Syria or even North Korea.” Even an Israeli General’s son petitioned Abbas for Amro’s freedom. This demonstrates why organizations like JIJ defend the free speech rights of all. Something more truly human than the typical enmity between Israel and the Palestinians has come into play here.

The Balousha incident would be just another forgettable statistic in the battle over speech, except for Amer Balousha’s formal, active connection to the group of “Patriots”.  Even so, mainstream media reports have missed it.

His arrest suggests a fresh way for us to ‘read’ the relative progress of the reconciliation process between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority ‒ keep a record of which dissenters are allowed to speak up, and whether those speakers include those whose lives have been devastated by the corrupt, venal and pointless war between Hamas and the PA since 2006.

Balousha was freed fairly soon after his arrest, pledging not to speak about the incident on social (or traditional) media. Notably, neither he nor the “Patriots” have silenced themselves when it comes to a host of other flashpoints.

Since this grassroots youth movement seeks the inclusion of all Palestinian political groups in a multi-party internal reconciliation ‒ 13 parties, to be precise ‒ we may expect free-speech suppression by both Hamas and the PA to increase, not decrease, in the short-term. They disagree about much else, but form a perfectly united front against free-speech.

Unfortunately for their shared kleptocracy, an entire generation of disenfranchised Palestinians have nothing to lose in their struggle for human rights because they have grown up learning, bitterly, that they surely have nothing to gain by silence.

When 500 young Gazans are willing, as they were this month, to be photographed and surveilled in public for the cause of speech and justice, even Hamas can feel the earth move beneath its feet. Israel has become the least of this younger Palestinian generation’s problems or adversaries. Ask Issa Amro about that. Regional peace may depend, in decades to come, upon this group of young Palestinian leaders who are, today, well-known only to the security forces in Gaza and Ramallah. Alas, many of these 500 may come to be remembered as martyrs to the cause of free speech at that same future date.

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