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Palestinians' rage grows — against their own government

Tania Krämer
July 2, 2021

The death of an activist in custody last week sparked outrage in the West Bank, with some taking to the streets. It's the culmination of long-simmering anger against an authority many Palestinians feel is out of touch.

Woman about to throw a stone at police forces in Ramallah, West Bank
Palestinians in the West Bank are angry at their own governing body, the PAImage: APA/Zuma/picture alliance

The Israeli-occupied West Bank is no stranger to political upheaval. But in the past week, Palestinian protesters have directed rising anger against their own government, the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in parts of the territory.

Hundreds took to the streets in several towns over the past weekend to protest the violent death in Palestinian custody of Nizar Banat, a well-known critic of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

Last weekend in Ramallah, protesters waved Palestinian flags alongside pictures of Banat, with some calling for an end to the long-term rule of the Palestinian president. At one point, they were met with teargas fired by Palestinian security forces in full riot gear, while others were physically attacked by plainclothes officers.

Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq also reported that several journalists covering a demonstration were attacked and had their equipment confiscated. 

Man holding placard with picture of Nizar Banat
Nizar Banat was a critic of the Palestinian Authority in the West BankImage: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

A spokesperson for the Palestinian security forces, Col. Talal Dweikat, said they acted in a "positive way" to avoid friction during the demonstrations. He added that the official committee investigating the circumstances around the death of Nizar Banat had begun its work.

"There will be full transparency regarding the committee. We want to reach the truth about what happened," Dweikat told DW.   

Prominent critic killed

Banat had previously been detained several times over his candidness, on social media, alleging corruption and authoritarianism with regard to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his inner ruling circle.

Banat was a primary candidate on the "Dignity" party list in the runup to parliamentary elections, which were originally scheduled for May but have since been postponed.

According to his family, Banat was severely beaten and pepper-sprayed at his home by Palestinian security forces during his arrest and was taken away in the early morning hours on June 24 in Hebron. His death was announced afterwards.

In a statement by the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), the initial findings of the autopsy showed injuries "represented by bruises and abrasions in many areas of the body, including the head, neck, shoulders, chest, back and upper and lower extremities, with binding marks on the wrist and rib fractures."

The preliminary results indicated that Banat's "death is abnormal" — although further laboratory testing would be necessary to determine the principal cause of death, the statement concluded. 

Palestinian protesters in Ramallah
Police used tear gas on protesters in RamallahImage: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

As he announced the formation of the investigative committee, Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said that those responsible for Banat's death "will be held accountable," according to the official WAFA news agency.

Banat's family, however, has deemed the results of the commission's work to be likely one-sided, and has said it will not accept them.

Public anger and growing backlash 

The Palestinian Authority is facing growing criticism in recent years from Palestinians who view it as corrupt, ineffective and increasingly autocratic. Postponing long-overdue elections for the legislature added fuel to that criticism.

And during the latest military escalation in Gaza between Hamas and Israel, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah was politically sidelined by its own near-complete silence on the events.

"I think the government [regime] is in a deep political crisis. The political leadership can't really talk to the Palestinian public anymore," says Jihad Harb, a political analyst and writer in Ramallah. "They don't really seem to have answers for what people care about. They seem only to protect themselves and their interests." 

The killing of Banat and the violence toward protesters mourning his death have dismayed ordinary Palestinians. "There were demonstrations because people value freedom — it's important to go out and demonstrate; but the authorities didn't accept that," said Jihad Kadami, a young teacher in Ramallah.

"It's normal that after what happened with Nizar Banat, people want to express themselves in a democratic manner."

Frustration and sadness in Gaza

Another Palestinian, Samer Khalil, said of Nizar Banat, "he was just criticizing and saying his opinion." And though Banat had a history of butting heads with the administration, this does not justify the authority's behavior, certainly "not to the extent of beating or brutally killing him."

Violence at the protests added to the frustration, with protests on previous occasions having also been met with heavy-handedness by the security forces. "It's very sad, I don't think it expresses people's values. I see a lot of people, among friends and co-workers, who are upset about it," added Khalil. 

Some observers believe that at this point, another spark could trigger wider anti-government protests. Political analyst Jihad Harb said people are starting to realize "that what happened to Nizar Banat could happen to anybody who is critical or who has problems with the regime."

International support props up Abbas

Palestinian and international human rights groups have long criticized the Palestinian Authority and its security forces for being heavy-handed at demonstrations, and for becoming increasingly suppressive of dissent. They have also criticized President Abbas' rule by decree.

"We are lacking a legislative council where legislation should be made, that has the role to do it. And we need a government that goes in line with the separation of powers," said Catherine Abuamsha, an advocacy lawyer at the Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq.

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas has been in power for 16 yearsImage: Thaer Ganaim/APA Images via ZUMA Wire/picture alliance

Abbas was elected in 2005 for a four-year term, but has now been in office for 16 years.

The Palestinian Authority denies accusations of mistreatment of people for their political views or of the use of excessive force. And after the last war between Israel and Hamas in May, the Palestinian Authority continues to be the key partner to rebuild Gaza, which is ruled by the militant group Hamas.

Over the past two decades, the international community has consistently provided political backing to the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by Abbas' Fatah party.  The United States and the European Union have also provided it with financial support, and have extensively trained its security forces.

And Banat's death did prompt swift international reactions. The US, the EU and the United Nations have called for an investigation, with the EU mission to the Palestinians saying that the death of Banat is "of serious concern and takes place against the backdrop of an increasingly persistent practice by Palestinian security forces of detention."

Whether this can stave off further heavy-handedness — and wider protests — remains to be seen.