One year on, killed Palestinian activist’s family demands justice

Zena al-Tahhan

Al-Jazeera  /  June 24, 2022

Banat’s family say the focus has been on low-ranking officers, and not the Palestinian officials who gave the orders.

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank On June 24, 2021, more than a dozen Palestinian Authority (PA) security personnel severely beat political activist Nizar Banat in an overnight raid on his uncle’s home in Hebron/Al-Khalil, in the southern Israeli-occupied West Bank.

He was dead within less than an hour, an autopsy showed.

Banat, who was 43 when he was killed, was a fierce and outspoken critic of the PA, which governs limited areas of the occupied West Bank.

He had a large local following on social media, where he posted videos of himself criticizing the PA, including over its controversial policy of security coordination with Israel.

He was also in the running for legislative elections, which were scheduled for May 2021 before they were cancelled.

Banat’s killing led to local outrage and global condemnation.

But a year on, the Banat family say they have yet to see real justice.

Most recently, the family have said they will not attend hearings in an ongoing PA military trial for 14 low-ranking officers accused of beating Banat to death, saying the focus on the officers detracted from the guilt of higher-ranking officers who they believe gave the orders.

“Our demands to achieve justice for Nizar [can only occur] by conducting a transparent trial that includes all of those who took part in this,” Banat’s brother, Ghassan, told Al-Jazeera. “The officers were merely tools – where are the heads of the security services?”

“The PA says the killing was a mistake – which I’m willing to accept – [but] please go ahead and hold accountable all those who implemented this, on every level,” he added.

A day after the killing, PA official Hussein al-Sheikh apologized on behalf of President Mahmoud Abbas and said whatever happened was “a mistake”.

“A mistake like this can happen in the United States or France, or any country in the world … We apologize for what happened and wish to learn lessons from it,” al-Sheikh said.

‘Matter of stalling’

Now, a year on, Banat’s family want to ensure that justice is served.

To that end, they are attempting to remind the Palestinian public of Banat’s case by holding a small solidarity event on Friday afternoon at the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Hebron, where Banat is buried.

Another, larger, event, which will include a memorial service and a protest, is scheduled to take place next month in Ramallah, where the PA is based, Banat’s family told Al-Jazeera.

In recent months, reports have emerged that the 14 officers on trial had been released from Jericho prison, where they were being held.

A spokeswoman for the PA’s military prosecution committee in the West Bank told Al Jazeera that she could not confirm whether any of the officers had been released.

The spokeswoman added that the military attorney general could not comment because the trial was ongoing.

The Banat family and their lawyer, Gandhi Ameen, believe that the officers have been released.

“We considered their release a very serious violation of the law. There are no guarantees, so from our end, our participation or lack thereof [in the trial] is one and the same,” Ameen told Al-Jazeera.

Ameen added that he believed that the authorities were deliberately stalling the trial’s progress, noting that while the Banat family had submitted their evidence by December 2021, the defence has not yet done so, and that court hearings had been continuously postponed.

The military courts have postponed the hearing multiple times during the past few weeks due to the absence of the defence lawyer.

Banat’s family and Ameen say they are now resorting to the PA’s civil courts.

“The Palestinian public and the family of the victim do not feel that there is serious interest in achieving justice, unfortunately,” said Ameen. “I will file a claim at the civil courts, and we will see what comes out of it,” he continued, adding that they are also preparing to take the case to an international court or body.

Lacking accountability

Surveillance camera footage from the night Banat, a father of five, was killed shows him being beaten, dragged away and shoved into a car.

Exclusive footage released by Al-Jazeera in February 2022 showed him being carried out of the Preventive Security headquarters in Hebron on a stretcher, and taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

An autopsy showed he suffered 42 injuries on the night of his arrest, including some caused by pepper spray and being hit with metal rods.

Both local and international rights groups have for years documented what they call the PA’s systematic arbitrary arrest and torture of dissidents.

Nizar himself had been arrested multiple times before over his activism.

He had also received multiple death threats, was the target of a coordinated incitement campaign, and his home was shot at by unknown individuals in the months before he was killed.

A March 2022 joint fact-finding report by the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), and the Al-Haq human rights group said the PA should issue an official, full admission of responsibility for the killing of Banat.

They should also “provide redress and reparation for [Banat’s] family” and “bring all those responsible for the incident to a fair and impartial trial”.

Ashraf Abu Hayya, the legal consultant for al-Haq, said more senior officials should be put on trial.

“Accountability went only as far as the officers that carried out the act, without accountability for any of the officials responsible for those officers, or those who gave the orders,” Abu Hayya told Al-Jazeera.

Banat’s killing prompted weeks of protests in Ramallah, with hundreds calling on PA President Abbas to resign.

Abbas’s mandate expired in 2009 and no presidential elections have been held since then.

PA security forces violently suppressed the protests, using tear gas on crowds, while undercover agents were filmed beating protesters, including female journalists and rights workers.

Dozens were rounded up after the protests and charged with crimes such as “defaming higher authorities” and “creating sectarian strife”, which rights groups say criminalize peaceful expression.

The PA was created as an interim governing body in 1993 as part of the Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel.

It was meant to serve for five years before the creation of a Palestinian state in the 1967-occupied territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which never took place.

PA security forces are trained and provided with significant financial support from the United States and the European Union, and must operate in coordination with the Israeli army.

Ghassan said he believes foreign states must bear responsibility for the killing of his brother. “Justice for Nizar must go through international courts,” Ghassan said.

“The PA is essentially an international project, and the international community must bear the responsibility of providing aid to it.”

Zena al-Tahhan is Al-Jazeera English’s digital correspondent in Jerusalem