Plainclothes police officers chasing journalists with baseball bats, demonstrators being brutally dragged across the street. Palestinian youths send each other shocking images and indignant messages. In recent days, however, they have not been about violence by Israeli soldiers, as usual, but by their own Palestinian security forces.
Since the death of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat last Thursday, thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank have taken to the streets almost daily to protest. “Police violence has never been this bad,” says lawyer Mohannad Karajeh.
Karajeh assisted the activist in previous lawsuits on behalf of the Palestinian organization Lawyers for Justice. Banat, a carpenter by trade, spoke out in no uncertain terms against corruption and other alleged abuses within the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Palestinian self-government in Ramallah, in videos posted on social media. As one of the most outspoken critics of President Mahmoud Abbas and his entourage, he regularly ended up behind bars. Since his house was shot at by strangers in early May, he no longer slept at home but with relatives in Hebron. A large group of police officers arrived there on Thursday and arrested him forcibly. He was pronounced dead a few hours later.
After the initial outcry, the Palestinian Authority announced an investigation into the circumstances of Banat’s death. However, the announcement that the results have been handed over to the military prosecutor only provoked more anger on Wednesday; according to relatives and demonstrators, it is clear that the same authorities killed Banat. They call for an independent, international investigation. On Wednesday, small groups of activists demonstrated again in Ramallah.
The anger that has emerged since the activist’s death is the result of years of pent-up discontent. “Before 2015, there may have been excuses for not holding periodic elections, then no more,” said political analyst Naseef Muallem, associated with the Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy (PCPD).
There was some hope this year as Abbas announced elections and actually took concrete steps in that direction. But those hopes were dashed when he postponed the elections indefinitely a few weeks before the planned date. He cited the reason that Israel would not allow a vote in Jerusalem, but the real reason, according to analysts, was that Abbas would lose to his rivals inside and outside Fatah.
Critics see his government not only as corrupt but also as an extension of the Israeli occupation. The recent air war between Israel and the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip played into Hamas’s hand. Although less than 40 percent originally voted for the militant movement, according to polls, that percentage had risen to almost 60 percent after the Gaza war.
For activists, the death of Banat and the brutal police crackdown on the ensuing demonstrations is a warning. Lawyer Karajeh pulls out a recent report from his organization: in one year, dozens of people have been arrested for political reasons, often without charge.
After the cancellation of the elections, a new wave of political arrests followed. Banat’s death is impressive precisely because he was one of the few who dared to openly criticize Palestinian self-government.
“Nizar was loud,” Palestinian activist Nadia Harash said during an online meeting with journalists. “I always saw it as a positive thing that the PA allowed such an outspoken critical voice. Now it is clear that anyone can be killed.” There is one before Banat and one after Banat, Karajeh also says. “Now that this has happened, Palestinian organizations have lost all confidence in the justice system.”
At his house in Ramallah, Muallem takes one of his political books from the pile. “I edited this book three times: once for the Israeli authorities, then for the Palestinian authorities, and then again because of local and tribal sensitivities.” After this event, he will be even more careful with what he says and writes.
As long as Europe continues to send money, they are complicit
Nadia Harash activist
The Palestinian Authority is throwing its own glass with the crackdown, Muallem thinks. “We used to watch maybe 6,000 people watching Banat’s videos, now it’s 90,000,” he says. “This is on top of all the other factors that have weakened the PA lately.” According to the analyst, current developments can go two ways: “either they have decided that there will be no more elections at all and are heading towards a dictatorship, or there will be change.”
Analysts and activists agree that the latter will only happen if there is international pressure on the Palestinian Authority. “As long as Europe continues to send the PA money without accountability, they are complicit in these kinds of events,” Harash said. “This is not an internal Palestinian matter, this is an international responsibility.”
Only fair elections can break the deadlock, according to Muallem. “We are not fighting an occupier to have an undemocratic regime.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 1, 2021