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Palestinians fear media crackdown could signal return to direct Israeli military rule

Arrest of journalists in the West Bank is latest attack on PA's authority, Palestinians say
Israeli security forces are seen during clashes with Palestinians near the Jewish settlement of Beit El in July (AFP)

RAMALLAH, Palestine – Israel’s closure of Palestinian media companies in the West Bank on Wednesday has stoked fears of a return to the old form of Israeli occupation, not experienced since before the Oslo Accords established Palestinian autonomy.

In 1994, Israel transferred civil and security jurisdiction to the Palestinian Authority in the large cities and towns across the West Bank, accounting for 40 percent of the land.

But it withdrew the security jurisdiction after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.

Over the past year, Israel has been gradually confiscating large parts of the civilian jurisdiction of the PA, in a clear shift of the way it views the PA and its role in any forthcoming negotiations, following the collapse of all attempts to revive the peace process.

Israel has turned the Palestinian Authority into an authority with no authority

- Mohammed Ishtayeh, presidential aide

Palestinian officials say Israel is building a shadow government in the West Bank, based at the Israeli army headquarters of The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) in the Beit El settlement, located no more than a mile away from the Palestinian presidential headquarters in Ramallah.

“Israel has turned the Palestinian Authority into an authority with no authority,” Mohammed Ishtayeh, an aide to president Mahmoud Abbas, told MEE.

The media production companies shut down was carried out by COGAT, which has the power to cancel any permits the PA issues. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of COGAT, accused them of “constant incitement against the state of Israel”.

Before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Israel controlled the Palestinian media and press through a military censorship office in Jerusalem.

The military censor officer examined all media stories before they were published, with the power to simply delete any story they did not approve of.

But after 1994, the Israeli censorship office halted its work in areas under the PA administration, and exercised power only over the media in occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed, and considers its "eternal" capital.

The return of direct Israeli intervention in the Palestinian media sector is widely seen by Palestinians as a return of military censorship in a new form, and at the same time a return of the occupation in its old form.

Ali al-Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Birzeit University, said Israel had reduced the Palestinian Authority’s responsibilities to the extent that it could no longer be called a self-rule government.

“Israel is turning the Palestinian Authority from a self-governing authority to a contractor," Jarbawi said, adding that the PA had a limited role and diminishing jurisdiction.

“Israel withdrew the transfer of powers to PA, and revived the Civil Administration to play its role,” he said.

An employee of Trans Media inspects a satellite in the West Bank city of Hebron following the closure of the media office by Israeli forces on 18 October 2017 (AFP)

The Israeli authorities have recently increased the number of civil administration staff in the West Bank, to meet its growing operations, local media have reported. 

Upon its establishment, the PA exercised wide autonomy, with presence at external crossings and full security in the cities and towns of areas A and B.

It also enacted legislations and laws, had an airport in the Gaza Strip and began building a sea port.  

But Israel has now fully stripped it of security authority, and much civil jurisdiction.  

Many Palestinians view the latest Israeli actions as the final part of Israel’s political plan for the West Bank – limiting the role of the PA to little more than a municipal authority.  

"Israel annexed Jerusalem and cut off and besieged Gaza, and now it is annexing most of the West Bank," said Jarbawi.

The Oslo agreement has collapsed, Israel is tightening its grip on all aspects of life in the West Bank 

- Ali al-Jarbawi, politics professor, Birzeit University

"The Oslo agreement has collapsed, Israel is tightening its grip on all aspects of life in the West Bank and withdrawing the powers of the PA and transferring them to the civil administration," he said.

Mohammed Khader, a professor of law at Birzeit University, said that flaws in the Oslo agreement allowed such actions to happen today.

“Oslo itself was ratified by a military order that set the working rules with the PA in a way that gave the upper hand to the Israeli military,” he said.

“Israel has been ruling the occupied Palestinian territories by military orders, even after the Oslo agreement,” he added.

"Israel gave PA the power to run services and license local activities, but kept the upper hand in closing down PA-licensed projects like media offices or media outlets or sport clubs."

The 'shadow government'

COGAT is a unit that subordinates to Israel’s defence ministry, and has been led by Major General Yoav Mordechai since January 2014.

Founded in 1981, the COGAT is responsible for "implementing the civilian policy within Judea and Samaria and towards the Gaza Strip, in coordination and cooperation with officials from defense and government offices in various fields,” according to its webpage.

It also liaises and coordinates with the Palestinian Authority in security related matters.

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COGAT was responsible for providing infrastructure services to Palestinians, such as water, electricity, issuing permits, and prior to 1993 the Oslo Accords which transferred these civil responsibilities to the PA. COGAT diminished its employee numbers but kept control of security in the West Bank and Gaza.

After the 2000 Intifada, Palestinians approached COGAT mainly to apply for visiting permits to enter Israel through designated aisles in checkpoints on the ground of trade, pilgrimage and health matters.

Last August, COGAT recruited a number of employees after the PA threatened to stop cooperating with Israel in security matters.

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