According to a report from Ma’an News published today, the Palestinian Authority has ordered the blocking of websites belonging to eight news outlets critical of President Mahmoud Abbas.  The report states that technicians at PalTel—the largest ISP in the West Bank—tweaked their proxy server and web cache daemon to block the sites, while other ISPs are using similar setups. The blocking is inconsistent across ISPs, with at least one failing to block certain sites on the list.

The blocked sites—which Ma’an discovered with the help of a new project, the Open Observatory of Network Interference, founded by Jacob Appelbaum and Arturo Filasto—include the following sites:

Prior to these latest developments, Internet under the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been relatively unfettered, with only one site—Dounia Al Watan, a news site that was reporting on corruption within the PA—ever reported as blocked in the West Bank.  Gaza’s Internet is considerably more restricted, with sexually explicit websites blocked.  A diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks showed evidence that Hamas had exerted pressure over telecom company PalTel to implement the censorship, among other things.  Israel also retains significant control over communications infrastructure in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Despite a relatively unfettered Internet, however, both Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank have found ways to crack down on Internet users.  In 2010, security services in the West Bank arrested a 26-year-old self-proclaimed atheist for posts he had made on Facebook that angered both Christians and Muslims.  A year later, the director of Radio Bethlehem, George Canawati, was charged with libel and slander for comments he made on Facebook criticizing Bethlehem’s health directorate.  In February of this year, security forces arrested the editor of official news agency Wafa, Rami Samara, for online criticism of PLO leadership.  A Palestinian social media conference hosted in Ramallah in December was prohibited from being livestreamed in Gaza by Hamas authorities that claimed that a proper license hadn’t been procured. And most recently, two journalists and a lecturer were arrested for comments posted on Facebook deemed to be critical of the PA.

The latest news, then, is merely further evidence of a crackdown by the Palestinian Authority against any speech they deem “threatening.”  Still, as Ma’an claims, sources have blamed the PA’s attorney general, Ahmad Al-Mughni, for the censorship, quoting PA communications minister Mashour Abu Daka as stating that “the attorney general is responsible” and that the bans may even be illegal. 

Abu Daka added: “Blocking websites is against the public interest.  I oppose it without exception.”  We couldn’t agree more, and urge the PA to immediately unblock the affected sites and ensure a free and open Internet in Palestine.