A high-profile trial spells tribulation for the Palestinian Authority

Ramallah - Palestinians rally to denounce the Palestinian Authority following the violent arrest and death in custody of the activist Nizar Banat (Abbas Momani - AFP)

Dalia Hatuqa 

Foreign Policy  /  September 24, 2021

The trial of Nizar Banat’s killers has exposed the rot at the PA’s core.

RAMALLAH, West Bank—After Palestinian security forces killed the activist and dissident Nizar Banat in June, anti-government protests rocked the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has remained mostly silent about the circumstances of Banat’s death, and, three months later, hearings in the trial of his alleged killers are finally underway. But the proceedings are unlikely to put a damper on public outrage against the PA’s increasingly autocratic rule, and they have only emboldened a Palestinian population largely at odds with their leadership.

Though he was a former member of the ruling Fatah party, Banat (42) was known for his scathing criticism of the PA—which he accused of corruption and cronyism—and his unabashed attacks on unpopular Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. His June 24 arrest by PA forces occurred in an area of Hebron under Israeli military control, suggesting that Israeli forces had granted the PA a green light. According to his family, Banat was maced and beaten to death after he was taken from a relative’s house.

On Sept. 14, a PA court in Ramallah finally held its first hearing for the 14 security forces accused of being involved in Banat’s killing—all members of the Preventive Security apparatus. The internal intelligence agency, which is responsible for addressing domestic political dissent and has grown to become one of the most powerful arms of the PA security forces, is known for its detention and human rights abuses of Palestinian dissidents.

The hearing had not been preceded by much optimism, especially from Banat’s family, but it still managed to go south. In fact, charges were not even read against the accused because their lawyer did not show up; later, he said he had COVID-19 and did not know the date of the hearing. It was first postponed until September 21, then September 27.

Ghandi al-Rabi, a lawyer for the Banat family, said the defense’s absence “did not bode well” for their case. “To start off like this is a bad omen,” he said. “Our goal is swift justice, and if this is repeated next week, we will have to take measures. For a lawyer not to show up so the charge sheet against the accused is read aloud is surprising, especially in a case that has aroused public sentiment.”

Banat’s family boycotted the hearing, labeling the proceedings a charade because the military prosecution did not bring forward any charges against senior officers or politicians. To them, the trial is an attempt to lay the blame for Banat’s killing squarely on low-level officers, thereby absolving those in the upper echelons of responsibility.

“The trial is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough and should include the accused’s supervisors,” said Ammar Dweik, director-general of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights. “Moreover, security forces should be reformed to ensure accountability and that violence is not exercised against citizens. Unless this happens, I cannot guarantee that such an event is not repeated.”

A spokesman for the family urged Palestinians to hold a vigil for Banat in October and called for an independent commission, led mainly by human rights groups, to look into his death.

“We primarily hold the political and security echelon responsible for the assassination of Nizar Banat and we consider the trial of low-ranking officers an attempt to circumvent the truth, which is unacceptable,” said Omar Assaf, an opposition figure and leading activist in the National Democratic Rally, an independent West Bank-based political group.

The PA used brutal force to quash the June demonstrations that followed Banat’s killing, detaining dozens of protesters. Many of the same people were once again detained in August in renewed protests. For two days, on August 21 and 22, Palestinians took part in a protest at Al-Manara Square, Ramallah’s main meeting point. The demonstrators had gathered to demand justice for Banat’s family, who said they would not rest until those responsible for his death are held accountable. As is required by law, police were informed of the August 21 vigil ahead of time. But many protesters were detained before the event could even begin.

Among those who came to the square to demand accountability for Banat’s death were the poet Zakaria Mohammed, the architect Khaldun Bshara, and an astrophysicist, Imad Barghouthi. All in all, about 30 people were arrested, including human rights activists, as well as two men who had waged hunger strikes while under administrative detention without charge or trial in Israeli prisons. The Palestinians whom the PA claims it reveres for their ultimate sacrifice against Israel’s occupation have now become its enemies as they shift their efforts to hold accountable those in power closer to home.

In detention, Bshara, known for leading local architectural preservation initiatives, described abysmal prison conditions “unfit for livestock.” He detailed how Sheikh Khader Adnan—who had previously undertaken hunger strikes while in Israeli administrative detention—was physically assaulted and insulted by PA security officials. Fadi Quran, a leading human rights activist who was also picked up by security forces elsewhere in Ramallah, went on hunger strike to protest his incarceration. Most of the men who were taken into custody have now been released and are awaiting trial in November on charges such as “distributing Palestinian flags” and “instigating sectarian divisions.”

Banat’s killing and the subsequent crackdown on protesters have marked an all-time low in Palestinian perceptions of the PA—already marred by the indefinite postponement of legislative and presidential elections that were slated for earlier this year. Many demonstrators are calling for the resignation of the current PA leadership, starting with Abbas, who has been in power for 16 years. A recent poll found that nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, an unprecedented low, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which has been tracking this issue for years.

Another survey, conducted by the Arab World for Research and Development, showed that more than half of Palestinians were pessimistic about the future, and almost 60 percent believed that the possibility of a Palestinian state is more elusive than ever. Seventy percent of those polled said the PA did not handle the investigation of Banat’s killing adequately.

The PA seems oblivious to the depths it has sunk in recent months. If anything, the subsequent violence used to disperse protesters—with tear gas and stun grenades—has proved that it is doing what it knows best: quashing dissent while hunkering down to ride out the popular outrage and attempting to placate Palestinians with false promises and empty gestures.

The most recent of these gestures came on August 29, courtesy of a rare meeting between Abbas and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Ramallah. It was the first such interaction between the Palestinian leader and a senior Israeli official in more than a decade. The result was an announcement of a series of “confidence-building measures” that included a $155 million loan to the PA, the resumption of family reunification for Palestinian families in the West Bank, and allowing more Palestinian day workers into Israel. Reviving the moribund peace process was not even discussed.

The Abbas-Gantz meeting occurred shortly after a summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in which, according to a White House statement, Biden “underscored the importance of steps to improve the lives of Palestinians.” But, as a source close to Bennett told Haaretz, “There is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians, nor will there be one.” The short-sighted PA, however, remains willing to accept whatever bone Israel throws its way.

In another attempt to appease the public, the PA is aiming to hold local council elections in villages and towns sometime between December 10 and 20. Here, the PA is again misreading public sentiment. Palestinians demand the PA hold its postponed presidential and legislative elections in the spring. But these could spell an uncertain future for Fatah and Abbas.

Piecemeal and superficial democratic reform from the PA will do little to placate most Palestinians. They are aware that Israel is doing the bare minimum needed to prop up the PA and keep it functional enough to deal with issues it is responsible for as an occupying power under international law.

Since its inception under the 1993 Oslo Accord, the PA has effectively co-opted the mainstream Palestinian political leadership by creating a patronage network that would see Palestinian life constricted within the West Bank and Gaza to specific areas. Indeed, the PA is responsible for employing one-third of the West Bank and Gaza Strip’s workforce. With little other choices in terms of employment and a flagging economy under blockade—built on the margins of Israel’s economy—many Palestinians have little choice but to participate in a weak facade of state-building while under occupation.

But this is not a reflection of their acceptance of political leadership. Palestinians are aware that the PA serves Israeli interests in this manner, as it effectively holds the status quo—militarily and economically—in the West Bank. In particular, many do not approve of the security cooperation between the PA and Israel, which activists say ultimately led to Banat’s death—one reason why his killing will continue to be a lightning rod for dissent.

Dalia Hatuqa is a multimedia journalist based in the United States and the West Bank