Earlier this month, the Palestinians factions agreed that Palestinian Authority, PLO and Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas must issue a decree to order the easing of public freedoms in the occupied territories and stop political detentions and prosecutions. The decree was issued on Saturday.
According to Wafa, the PA's official news agency, Abbas's decree ensures the freedom to take political and national action, while banning the detention and prosecution of individuals for reasons relating to freedom of opinion and political affiliation. It also ordered "the immediate release of any detainees or prisoners held in custody against the backdrop of practicing freedom of opinion, political affiliation or for any other partisan reasons in all of the territories of Palestine."
The head of the Public Freedoms Committee, Khalil Assaf, told me that there had been three political prisoners from Nablus in PA prisons in the occupied West Bank held by Fatah. He also issued a call on Saturday for the Palestinians to report to him the details of any political prisoners inside PA prisons. As of last night, nobody had responded. "This suggests that there are no political prisoners," he said. However, he added that the situation is still not stable and he hopes that the terms mentioned in the decree will be implemented on the ground in full.
Meanwhile, one former political prisoner of the Israeli authorities, Nazeeh Abu Own, asked what Abbas is going to do about himself and other former prisoners regarding their stipends and other rights. "Abbas," he wrote, "would you like to give us our rights as released prisoners because you cut our stipends in 2007 while some of us had spent more than 20 years in prison, defending the right of the Palestinians to freedom and independence? We have heard you saying: 'If I had only one penny, I would pay it for the prisoners.' We are waiting for our rights to come back." Abu Own and dozens of former prisoners like him lost their stipends immediately after the Palestinian division, not due to Israeli pressure on the PA.
While broadly welcoming the decree, Hamas and several other Palestinian factions stressed that it should be implemented on the ground. A senior Hamas official in the West Bank city of Tubas welcomed Abbas's decree as "a factor that reinforces public confidence among the Palestinians regarding the Cairo understandings." Mahdi Al-Hanbali also said that the decree will encourage active participation in the coming parliamentary and presidential elections. "The decree is a step in the right direction, but implementation is still the test."
Former Education Minister Naseriddine Al-Shaer said that the decree is appreciated. "It came in response to a national demand, but it is in any case a right guaranteed by the Constitution. The test is whether the executive authorities will respect its spirit and text."
An Imam from the occupied West Bank, Sheikh Hammam Meri, has been banned from delivering his Friday sermons for 13 years. "When," he wonders, "will this ban end?" There was a similar question from Sheikh Ibraheem Abul Fida, who has been banned from delivering such sermons for three years. "Does the presidential decree include me?" he asked.
The Forum of Palestinian Journalists called on the Palestinian president to translate words into action and allow the media in the West Bank to operate freely, without restrictions, regardless of their political affiliation. It also called for an end to the summonses issued to journalists simply because of their opinions and political views. They need freedom in their work environment, the Forum insisted.
Its organisation's director is Mohammad Yassin. He pointed out to me that no practical measures had been taken on the ground regarding freedom of information. "At least 50 websites have been blocked by a PA judicial decision for more than a year," he explained. "The decree represents Abbas's intentions, but nothing has happened on the ground yet."
Although the presidential decree is a positive step and many Palestinians are happy about it, there are still reservations and question about how it is going to be put into practice. "Does, for example, the presidential decree include the repeal of the law covering alleged online 'crimes'?" asked journalist Nawwaf Al-Amer.
According to Palestinian journalist and opinion writer Lama Khater, the decree was issued too late. "It is ridiculous that freedom of expression and political work in an occupied country needs a decree from the head of the authority to be allowed, and that this freedom is linked only to carrying out the elections."
Observers have pointed out that the same thing happened before the 2006 elections, but Abbas did not respect his pledge after the elections then. The big question is, will he respect his latest pledge once the elections are over?