Demonstrations against the Palestinian Authority (PA) have continued across the West Bank after the death in custody of one of President Mahmoud Abbas’s biggest critics.
Several hundred people took to the streets of Ramallah, Hebron and Bethlehem for the fifth consecutive day on Monday to protest against the treatment of Nizar Banat, a social and political activist, who died during an arrest by the authority’s forces in Hebron on 24 June.
Crowds waving Palestinian flags, pictures of Banat and calling for an end to Abbas’s 16-year rule, have been met with brutal force from both Palestinian security forces and men in plain clothes loyal to Abbas’s Fatah party. Clubs, metal rods, teargas and the sexual assault of female protesters have been used to break up the demonstrations and stop reporters from documenting the events, according to the Palestinian journalists’ union.
There are no official figures on the number of people wounded or arrested.
Monday’s numbers appeared to be smaller than the thousands of people who turned out for the previous days’ gatherings, but there were renewed calls for a general strike across the West Bank on Tuesday.
Banat, 43, was a long-standing critic of the authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank and coordinates on security matters with Israel. He had accused Abbas and his inner circle of rampant corruption and growing authoritarianism and planned to stand as a political candidate in long-delayed Palestinian elections, which were supposed to be held in May.
According to his family, the activist was severely beaten before being dragged away. The authority’s announcement that there would be an investigation into his death was rejected by several Palestinian and international human rights groups, who have called instead for an independent inquiry.
“The late Nizar Banat was threatened by the Palestinian Authority more than once and subjected to an assassination attempt [in May]. He was an icon of free speech, expression of opinion and fighting corruption … After he was martyred, he became a symbol for every Palestinian,” said Muhannad Karajah, the family’s lawyer.
Banat’s killing became the catalyst for a new round of street protests against what many Palestinians see as a corrupt, repressive and ineffectual ruling class – grievances also fuelled by the cancellation of the first elections in 15 years and last month’s war in Gaza.
“The violent repression of Palestinian Authority forces as well as hired Fatah loyalists for beating protesters is not new, just more blatant and sinister in its brute force,” said Mariam Barghouti, a writer and researcher from Ramallah.
“I think this time the protests are different because of the extreme dangers Palestinians are facing … The violent response is a clear message that anyone that dares to defy the injustices of the PA, or exercises their right for demanding more just policies, representatives, and practices will be attacked, even killed, with impunity.”
Despite the fact he is deeply unpopular across Palestinian society, Abbas has strong support from Israel and western donors who see the authority as a better option than Hamas, the militant group in control of the Gaza strip, and fear a power vacuum if the West Bank body collapsed.
“If [Abbas] resigns, Palestinians may have a chance at representative elections. The question now is: who are the alternative? Are they the heads of the security forces giving commands to attack Palestinian civil society, or leaders attempting to co-opt the Palestinian call for justice, freedom, and right to self-determination for their own political agendas?” Barghouti said.