Israel has taken its share of lumps over the past year for entertaining an array of tactics that critics warn will undercut its democracy, from bills penalizing human-rights advocacy groups to measures that would make journalists more vulnerable to intimidation. Across the Green Line, in the Palestinian territories, the danger may be the soft bigotry of low expectations. Why Palestinian leaders have been held to a different standard is a more-than-reasonable question; national liberation movements often are. But about three years ago the Palestinian Authority, which governs the perhaps 2 million residents of the West Bank, declared that it wanted to be judged by a higher standard, that it was preparing itself for statehood. The secular leadership conspicuously announced that it was bending to the task of “institution building,” making actual functioning ministries out of bureaucracies that had existed only as payrolls and, most of all, enforcing the rule of law.
By a couple of measures, it’s not there yet. One verdict arrived Tuesday from the International Criminal Court, the U.N. body that metes out justice on war crimes. It turned down a request from the Palestinian Justice Minister to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in the 2008–09 Gaza offensive, saying that the court can take requests only from states, and Palestine isn’t one yet. Though some 130 countries say they recognize Palestine as a sovereign state, its September application for U.N. membership still hangs in midair before the U.N. Security Council, lacking the votes required even to trigger an inevitable U.S. veto. Being voted in by UNESCO, as Palestine was last year to tumultuous cheers, doesn’t tip the balance, at least not for the ICC prosecutor.
“It looks like they’ll have to go back to the General Assembly sooner or later to ask for some upgraded observer status,” says Yuval Shany, an expert on international law at Hebrew University. There are rumblings of preparations for just such a move.
But if the question is readiness to govern, there are other, less formal yardsticks as well. And the Palestinian leadership hasn’t been measuring up to those either. Last week, it jailed a journalist named Yusuf al-Shayeb after he wrote an article accusing Palestinian Authority officials in France of spying and corruption. The reporter was released on bond Monday, but still faces prosecution for refusing to reveal his sources, despite a shield law embedded in Palestinian law. At about the same time, West Bank intelligence operatives spirited away a university lecturer for something they found on her Facebook page. One offending post insulted Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; another said the Authority was toothless and should be disbanded — something Abbas himself has suggested more than once.
“They just arrested a guy for saying on Facebook that he was against corruption. Just now!” reports Shawan Jabarin, director of Al Haq, on the phone from the offices of his Ramallah-based human-rights advocacy group Tuesday afternoon. He expressed exasperated dismay at the checkered performance of the security forces that the U.S. and E.U. spend hundreds of millions training and supporting each year. “Institution building needs not just structure, it needs culture,” Jabarin says. “And it needs political will.” Common sense comes in handy too. Given the fickleness of the lawmakers who control the American money, you might expect a Palestinian leadership struggling to make ends meet to make a better show of emulating the democratic norms the E.U. and Americans, at least, like to claim their aid encourages.
As it is, Abbas’ West Bank government finds itself lumped in with Hamas, the militant movement that governs — or tries to govern — the 1.6 million Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip. Gaza’s latest trial is fuel, which Hamas used to import through tunnels from neighboring Egypt, paying the cheap subsidized rate charged to Egyptians. But Egypt’s new government has put a halt to that, demanding that Hamas pay international market rates. The result is a fuel crisis deserving of the name: Gaza’s only power plant closed eight days ago for lack of fuel. On Tuesday, the Red Cross was trucking in diesel to keep hospital generators running.
How did Hamas respond? For one thing, it arrested 120 taxi drivers for “spreading rumors” about the fuel situation — then issued a press release boasting about it. Evidently many of the cabbies were also members of the rival Fatah party, which puts the matter in the more routine realm of tit-for-tat squabbles between the two factions. Nominally committed to reconciliation, they continue to use their own jurisprudence to bludgeon one another: Hamas says West Bank authorities, which are controlled by Fatah, detained 97 of its people last month alone, including nine held even though a judge had ordered them freed.
That sounds accurate to Jabarin, the human-rights advocate in Ramallah. The assaults on free expression making headlines just now, he tells TIME, double as markers for the disregard for equal justice that’s grown routine in both Gaza and the West Bank. “If the attorney general is acting like this with journalists, what about arbitrary detention?” he asks. “What about political prisoners that the court orders released — and they’re still in jail? I’m here speaking about 15 that I’m responsible for; they all have court decisions to be released, some around a year ago. I myself wrote five times, and I haven’t received a reply yet.”