Palestinian lawmaker Najat Abu Bakr took refuge in the building of the defunct Palestinian Authority parliament on Friday after PA security services attempted to arrest her. Abu Bakr, a member of President Mahmoud Abbas’ own Fatah party, was summoned for interrogation earlier last week after accusing the PA minister of local government, a close Abbas associate, of pocketing nearly a quarter of a million dollars in a deal to invest in West Bank water wells. On Monday, she entered the fourth day of her sit-in in the parliament building.
Abu Bakr has been a thorn in the PA’s side for years. The 52-year-old Fatah official from Jenin has regularly attacked Abbas and then-PA prime minister Salam Fayyad over corruption, so much so that a former PA attorney general noted in 2012 that Abbas would take her to court if only he could remove her diplomatic immunity. Fayyad even filed an official complaint against Abu Bakr in 2012 over accusations that he was using foreign aid for personal benefit.
The lawmaker was also behind a push in December to pressure Abbas to reconvene the PA parliament and hold new elections, a common demand among Abbas’ critics. The parliament has been shut down since bloody clashes erupted between Fatah and Hamas in 2007 over the latter’s surprise victory in the previous year’s parliamentary elections. In the aftermath of the brief civil war, Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip while the PA retained the West Bank. Parliament has not convened since.
Abu Bakr was also accused of fomenting unrest during a teacher strike that has ground the Palestinian education system to a halt in recent weeks. Teachers across the West Bank have refused to open schools in protest over the PA’s failure to live up to a 2013 agreement increasing their salaries. Earlier this month, PA security services arrested over 20 teachers before setting up checkpoints across the West Bank to stop teachers from protesting in Ramallah. Reports estimated nearly 50,000 demonstrators rocked the de facto Palestinian capital last week – the largest Palestinian protest in years.
The PA’s attack on Abu Bakr comes on the heels of a Reuters interview with the PA’s anti-corruption czar, Rafiq al-Natsheh, who insisted his investigation had turned up “very little.” Al-Natsheh said the anti-corruption commission had recovered some $70 million in illicit finance for the PA, including “successes” against three ministers and a senior Finance Ministry official. Yet accusations of corruption remain a flashpoint in Palestinian politics, and the attempted arrest of a parliamentarian from Abbas’s own party underscores that the PA’s war on dissent is heating up.
As Abbas enters the eleventh year of a four-year presidential term, his autocratic tendencies are growing more apparent. In the past two years, Abbas has attacked labor union heads for organizing protests, jailed dissenters for Facebook posts, and punitively fired political rivals. PA assaults on journalists have increased three-fold from 2013 to 2015, according to Palestinian rights groups. The persecution of Najat Abu Bakr is another example of the limits of free speech in the West Bank and the growing authoritarianism of a leader who is years beyond his mandate.
Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley