BBC News / September 9, 2021
Two men pray quietly next to the newest grave in the “martyrs'” cemetery in Hebron in the occupied West Bank. Most of those buried here were killed in confrontations with Israel.
But the family of Nizar Banat, a well-known online activist, believe he sacrificed his life for a new struggle against the Palestinians’ own increasingly authoritarian leadership.
“What I saw was an assassination operation,” says Hussein Banat, who was sleeping next to his cousin in the house where he was hiding after receiving death threats on 24 June.
He describes how more than a dozen Palestinian security officers broke in, and one began hitting his cousin with a crowbar.
“If their intent was to arrest him, he was fast asleep – they could have handcuffed him and taken him away without killing him,” he says.
Security camera footage from the night-time raid shows Mr Banat being dragged away and shoved into a car. Within an hour, he was declared dead.
‘Shouldn’t have happened’
The 42-year-old was known for his unusually outspoken social media posts alleging corruption among members of Fatah, the party which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA). Some had tens of thousands of views.
But if the original idea of targeting him was to silence a critic, then it had the opposite effect: it triggered furious protests.
Anger had been building over corruption claims, particularly since April’s cancellation of the first legislative and presidential elections in 15 years by the octogenarian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Voting was ostensibly called off because, according to the PA, Israel was preventing most Palestinians in East Jerusalem from participating. However, many believe it was because of divisions in Mr Abbas’s Fatah faction and his own unpopularity that put him behind in the polls.
On the streets of Ramallah in recent weeks, a popular slogan has been recycled from the Arab Spring revolutions which swept the Middle East in 2011: “The people want the fall of the regime”.
Some demonstrations have been violently suppressed, with journalists among those attacked by Palestinian forces.
The PA Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayyah, promised an investigation into the Banat case that would be carried out “in a professional and transparent manner”. Fourteen officers from Preventative Security, none holding senior rank, have now been charged in relation to the case and are standing trial in a military court.
“[Nizar Banat’s killing] was a mistake and it should not have happened,” says Sabri Saidam, a former PA minister, who is now Deputy Secretary General of Fatah’s Central Committee.
He tells me that the PA’s political rivals – including Hamas, the Islamist militant group which governs Gaza – have sought to capitalize on what happened.
“I understand where the [public] anger is coming from,” he says. “But as things went out of control, we have seen demonstrations, and with them some political interference.”
“It is not just about the right to speak openly. It is politically motivated, and there are some outsiders playing along the lines of sabotaging the work of the Palestinian Authority.”
‘Sliding to dictatorship’
The PA is backed by Israel and Western countries who consider it to be a bulwark against Hamas, which they view as a terrorist organization. It relies heavily on international donors – including the US, European Union and UK. They have given large sums to train and equip its security forces.
In the past few months there has been an increase in arrests of PA detractors, leading to condemnation from human rights groups about a clampdown on freedom of expression.
In August, a number of prominent activists were detained on their way to a demonstration, but were released within days after foreign diplomats expressed their concern.
When I meet one of them, Ubay al-Aboudi, director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, he is relieved to be home with his wife and three sons but does not regret his actions.
“I’m not ashamed that I’m a critic of the PA. They have failed politically, they have failed economically – in any aspect that I can think of,” he says. “We are sliding more and more into a dictatorship.”
He points out the growing resentment among regular Palestinians towards the PA’s political elite – seen as being caught up in an internal power struggle over who will succeed Mr Abbas, and benefitting economically from their positions.
“They have established sort of small kingdoms for themselves, through corruption, through monopolies and on the other hand, the general population is becoming more impoverished,” he says.
Last week, European monitors turned out to watch as Mr Al-Aboudi and others appeared in court charged with organizing an illegal demonstration in July. Their case was adjourned until October. The activists are separately accused of badmouthing the PA.
Meanwhile, back at her home in Dura, near Hebron, the widow of Nizar Banat, Jihan, is alone with her five children watching her late husband’s Facebook videos.
“We miss him, but his voice still resonates with us. We’ll continue to fight his cause,” she tells me. “His blood will not be spilt in vain.”
The Banat family does not believe that the PA’s legal proceedings will deliver justice. It has now asked UK police to investigate the death under the principle of universal jurisdiction and has also turned to UN agencies.
Further demonstrations are planned to remember Nizar Banat. Yet it remains to be seen whether these will gain traction.
Many Palestinians may hope for political change, but the activist’s fate has inevitably frightened others about speaking out too loudly.
Yolande Knell – Jerusalem