Palestinian Authority arrests dissident professor

Abdel Sattar Qassem (via Indymedia)

A Nablus court on Thursday extended the detention of a prominent Palestinian scholar and longtime dissident whose arrest earlier this week has led to accusations that he is being politically persecuted by the Palestinian Authority.

At around 11pm on Tuesday, Abdel Sattar Qassem, a 68-year-old professor of political science at Nablus’ An-Najah National University, and a father of four, was taken from his home, where he had been staying alone. His wife, Amal al-Ahmad, was not informed of the arrest and concerned neighbors broke down a door at her prompting to check whether Qassem had suffered an accident.

“I called him several times but his mobile phone was closed and I got no answer from the landline,” al-Ahmad, a program coordinator at the Women’s Study Center, told The Electronic Intifada.

Her fears were compounded by the fact that Qassem’s car was parked outside as usual. “I was scared that he might have suffered a heart attack or that he might have been kidnapped,” she said.

It was only after checking a camera in the family’s home that it became clear Qassem had been apprehended by Palestinian police. And it took hours still before she received a phone call from the police telling her that her husband was in detention.

Outside the court on Thursday, where Qassem’s detention was extended for another 15 days, a group of civil society activists and friends of the professor held a vigil demanding his release and an end to political detention and persecution.

His lawyer, Ahmad Sharaab, the only person to have visited Qassem in detention so far, is planning an appeal.

Qassem faces numerous charges including slander, vandalism, incitement, insulting the president and “hurting the national feeling.” According to Adnan al-Damiri, spokesperson of the PA’s security forces, the arrest came following complaints that Qassem had been inciting to kill PA leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The charges relate to an interview Qassem gave on Al Quds TV, broadcast from Beirut, in which he called for implementing the Palestinian Basic Law which limits presidential terms to four years.

He also called for the implementation of the Palestine Liberation Organization revolutionary law, not adapted by the PA, which calls for charges of treason to be brought against collaborators with Israel, punishable by death.

His appearance fomented a wave of incitement against him by figures allied with the Palestinian Authority, which remains presided over by Mahmoud Abbas, even though his elected mandate expired in 2009.

Constant harassment

Al-Ahmad says the arrest is only the latest episode of a concerted official persecution of her husband.

“The PA targets my husband because he has repeatedly described security coordination and collaboration with Israel as grand treason,” al-Ahmad said. “There is no democracy under the PA. Security forces arrest anyone who freely expresses his opposition to authority policies.”

Qassem writes regularly for Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language website about Palestinian and Arab affairs. One of his most recently published articles, titled “The Orphan Uprising,” discusses the current Palestinian uprising, its challenges, limitations and the failure of the Palestinian leadership to live up to the sacrifices of the youth.

A staunch opponent of the Oslo accords and negotiations process with Israel, Qassem, who is not affiliated with any political faction but is often associated with left-leaning Arab nationalist views, has been a target of the Palestinian Authority ever since its establishment. He accused former leader Yasser Arafat of corruption and regularly condemns Abbas’ security coordination and contact with the Israeli occupation.

Qassem’s work at An-Najah University also did not stop him from criticizing the school’s administration. He spoke out against what he perceived as corruption at the institution, which until recently was headed by Rami Hamdallah, now the appointed PA prime minister. He also published an article criticizing the university’s refusal to implement a Palestinian court decision halting the expulsion of four students.

That criticism led to his arrest in August 2011 on libel charges brought by the university. That was his second detention by the PA; in April 2009, he was arrested by the PA security forces.

All charges were eventually dropped.

But arrests are only a part of the pattern of repression his wife cites. Qassem survived an assassination attempt by unknown gunmen shortly after being released from his latest stint in Israeli prison, where he spent a week in July 2014; he was shot in his car while driving to give a television interview condemning Israel’s massive military assault on Gaza at the time.

The attempt on his life came after several death messages made against him for his criticism of the PA and Abbas, and following previous assaults by Palestinian security services, including after his appearance on Al Jazeera at the outset of the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt in January 2011. The forces broke into and vandalized the local television station from where Qassem gave the interview.

“He has seen everything: he was shot; his car was burnt; he was beaten. But he still refuses to be silenced,” al-Ahmad told The Electronic Intifada.

“His political views and his insistence to speak truth to power has put him under constant threat from all sides,” she added. “But it hurts more when this threat comes from the Palestinian Authority. They claim to defend us while jailing and persecuting Palestinians who resist the occupation.”

Lonely struggle

Since her husband’s latest arrest by the PA, al-Ahmad says she has not received a single message of support from Qassem’s colleagues at An-Najah.

He had a hearing on 3 February, but only a few family members joined al-Ahmad outside the jail.

“I don’t count on professors and intellectuals to support my husband,” al-Ahmad lamented. “Those people benefit from the PA and they are not prepared to sacrifice their privileges and face the risks of supporting their colleague.”

Two of Qassem’s colleagues contacted for this article refused to comment on his court case until it runs its course.

Al-Ahmad does, however, count on the thousands of Qassem’s former students to support their professor. Some of them turned out for Thursday’s court hearing, during which Qassem was in high spirits, his wife said.

A coalition of civil society organizations and some political factions are protesting Qassem’s arrest, putting out a statement calling for his immediate release as part of the “commitment to preserve civil liberties and defend freedom of expression.”

Both the Change and Reform Bloc of parties in parliament — which includes Hamas — as well as the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine have also condemned the arrest as an attempt to silence independent voices, while Mourid Barghouti, the Palestinian poet based in Cairo, urged scholars and writers to speak up against his arrest.

Lifelong dissident

Born in the Tulkarem-area village of Deir al-Ghusoun in 1948, Qassem graduated from the American University of Cairo with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1972. During that period he sought to become engaged in the Palestinian struggle for liberation. That involvement, however, saw him grow disillusioned with the Palestinian leadership.

He went on to study at the University of Missouri, where he earned a master’s degree in economics and received a PhD in political science in 1977.

Qassem has been a professor of political science at An-Najah in Nablus for more than three decades and despite persecution by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he has written numerous books, academic papers and articles.

These cover a variety of issues ranging from political philosophy to Palestinian history, Islamic studies, women in Islamic thought, contemporary Arab politics, the demise of Arab intellectuals and US imperialism. He also wrote a book, Days in Naqab Prison, about his experience as a political prisoner held by Israel, significantly contributing to prison literature produced by Palestinian authors.

Budour Youssef Hassan is a Palestinian writer and law graduate based in occupied Jerusalem. Blog: Twitter: @Budour48