Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s control over the Palestinian political and judicial systems is a topic of daily discussion among Palestinians. Following his October 28, 2022 decree no. 17, ordering the establishment of the Supreme Council of Judicial Bodies and Authorities (SCJBA) that he would head, many criticized his increasingly authoritarian rule. But decree no. 17 has many precedents; since 2007, Abbas has issued some 400 decrees entrenching his authority over the judiciary.
In consolidating the domination of the executive authority over the judicial system, Abbas’s decrees contribute to shielding him and the ruling elite from accountability. This policy brief examines how Abbas has managed to tighten his grip over the Palestinian judicial system in the West Bank, and examines the ramifications of these actions on Palestinian civil society. It ends with suggestions for ways to confront Abbas’s authoritarian rule and reform the status quo.
Abbas and the ruling Fatah elite have interfered in the affairs of the judiciary in the West Bank since the start of Palestinian political division in 2006. This was made clear through key developments, including: the appointment of judicial and public prosecution positions based on security clearance and political loyalty; direct interference in the appointment, dismissal, and forced resignation of High Judicial Council (HJC) presidents; tightened control over the Supreme Court and over the budgets of the judiciary; failure to implement judicial rulings; and continued attempts to amend the Judicial Authority Law.
Despite widespread condemnation of these maneuvers from Palestinian civil society over the years, Abbas not only did not retract the decrees, he also issued new problematic ones. In this way, decree no. 17 fits within a trajectory of legal measures that have entrenched his domination over the judiciary. Indeed, the decree stipulates that the head of the HJC, the constitutional court, and the Minister of Justice would be members of the SCJBA. And as head of the SCJBA, Abbas would thus effectively consolidate his grip over every lever of the Palestinian judicial system.
Executive rule over the judiciary ensures Abbas and the political elite’s consolidation of power over many aspects of Palestinian economic, political, and social life. In a system of authoritarian governance, control over the political and judicial systems implies control over the people’s collective and individual rights, including their ability to work, organize, forge a collective identity, and mobilize. This particularly affects unions, syndicates, and various social movements that witness increasing suppression from Abbas’s security forces and the ruling elite.
In the absence of a law regulating the work of unions and syndicates, the judiciary contributes to their repression by invalidating union strikes under the pretext of preserving the public good. To be sure, this serves the interest of the executive authority. Indeed, Al Haq found that “90% of the decisions issued by the Supreme Court of Justice are in favor of the executive authority.”
Fundamentally, that the judiciary works in tandem with the executive authority to pass legal measures suspending strikes, abolishing unions, and oppressing popular movements indicates the entrenched corruption of the Palestinian political and judicial systems. Judges work in the favor of the PA president—a blatant violation of the constitutional principles enshrined in the Basic Law and many international treaties to which the PA is a signatory.
Although Abbas’s authoritarianism continues to be entrenched in many aspects of Palestinian life in the West Bank, this policy brief shows that collective action on the part of unions and Palestinian civil society organizations can be effective in obstructing presidential decrees. To do so in a lasting manner, Palestinians must unify around a shared vision for political and judicial reform, and the means through which to achieve it within the status quo. Without community consensus around the need to dismantle the pillars of authoritarianism and dictatorship that Abbas has established, and around the means of doing so, any replacement to the status quo would not reflect Palestinian popular will and would therefore risk failing.
In the absence of free and fair elections, Palestinians must establish independent reform committees composed of representatives from unions, civil society organizations, and social movements to scrutinize Abbas’s decrees. These reform committees must also investigate cases of judicial repression of unions, syndicates, and social movements in order to challenge them. Part of this would necessitate establishing community-based principles for accountability that would be used to confront Abbas’s domination, including that of his security forces, the Fatah elite, and corrupt judges.
A reformed judiciary must likewise make stipulations forbidding the executive authority from suspending the legislative council and canceling legislative elections. Indeed, without free and democratic elections, the accountability of the judiciary and the executive authority to the law cannot be guaranteed.