Palestinians must ensure that Nizar Banat did not die in vain

A group of Palestinians holding banners gathers to protest against the death of Nizar Banat, in Ramallah (Issam Rimawi - Anadolu Agency)

Kamel Hawwash

Middle East Monitor  /  June 25, 2021

The past few weeks have seen us waking up to news of more Palestinian deaths in Gaza or another attack on the peaceful residents of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem. However, yesterday, I woke to the news of another very different Palestinian death; this time it was the result of a violent arrest by the Palestinian Authority security forces.

Nizar Banat, a well-known political activist and critic of the Palestinian Authority, had been sleeping in a family home away from his own house. This was because his home had come under fire in April, presumably for his outspoken statements and videos about the conduct of the PA.

A close relative, Mohammed Atiyyah Banat, was sleeping in the same room next to Nizar and has described the horror of what happened at 3:30 am when twenty or so members of the PA security forces broke down the door, entered the house and headed for their target. Mohammed told reporters that the assailants emptied three pepper spray canisters on Nizar while he was still asleep and then proceeded to beat him mercilessly on his head with blunt instruments, before taking him away. They pointed their guns at the other family members and warned them not to interfere. What happened, said Mohammed Banat, was not an attempt to arrest Nizar, but to execute him.

The next thing the family heard was that Nizar Banat had died, but they could not locate his body. His death was announced on the Facebook page of the Hebron Governorate. The authorities said that an arrest warrant had been issued for him and that his health had deteriorated during the arrest, which necessitated moving him to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Anger spread quickly across the occupied Palestinian areas and abroad. While the Palestinians have faced a couple of months of Israeli brutality and violence, they did not expect the next death of a peaceful Palestinian activist to come at the hands of the PA security forces, even though their main task is to cooperate with Israel’s security apparatus to protect occupation state and the settlers.

It is right to say that Palestinians should be directing their anger at Israeli aggression. Whether this is to evict the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, the attacks on peaceful worshippers in Al-Aqsa Mosque, the barbaric bombing of civilians in Gaza or the attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel, the people of Palestine should continue to oppose such acts and bring them to the attention of the whole world. To their credit, starting in Sheikh Jarrah, they have been doing exactly that, bypassing the generally pro-Israel mainstream media through excellent use of social media.

Nothing should divert the Palestinians from this, except that they face brutality from those governing them both in Gaza and the West Bank. Issam Saafeen is a case in point when it comes to Gaza. He was reportedly abducted by undercover agents in March 2020 and died later. Following an internal investigation, the Interior Ministry in Gaza announced that he had been suffering from chronic illness before his death. That was as wrong as was the killing of Nizar Banat in Hebron.

Nizar was vocal in his opposition to the policies and actions of the PA as well as the corruption which he described as rife in his videos. However, he was also a peaceful opponent, and a democrat. When the Palestinian president announced a date for the Palestinian Legislative Council election, Nizar chose to use the democratic route to enact change. He headed the Freedom and Dignity list of candidates. The election was postponed at the end of April by President Mahmoud Abbas. This was frustrating for the Palestinians in the occupied territories who had registered in large numbers to vote and expended a lot of time and energy to put candidate lists together. Nizar was extremely frustrated at the postponement. His list had written to EU courts, especially the EU Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to order an immediate cessation of financial aid to the PA and launch an investigation into “the squandering of European taxpayers’ money”.

Several of his videos might not have found favour with the PA. In the last one on the Pfizer vaccination debacle, he criticized the PA heavily for its handling of the affair, which would have seen Israel transferring to the PA 1.4 million vaccines about to expire in return for an equivalent number that were due to be delivered in September.

Nizar’s violent death led to protests directed at the PA in several Palestinian cities. The security forces dealt with these violently, leading to several injuries. They also prevented protesters from marching to the Muqata’a, the headquarters of the PA and the office of the president. The protesters called for the downfall of the “regime”, the PA. This brought back memories of the Arab Spring, in which the same chant was heard in many Arab cities.

There is no doubt that the uprising in all areas of historic Palestine in May and the escalation in Israeli oppression from Gaza to Jerusalem to Haifa demonstrated the failure of the PA to rise to the occasion and lead the Palestinians in their resistance to Israel and its occupation. Abbas was isolated and looking for a way to make himself and his regime relevant.

The US Secretary of State’s visit provided him with the opportunity. When Antony Blinken visited the occupied territories to shore up the ceasefire between the Palestinians and Israel, he did not go to Gaza to talk to Hamas, which was the correct address, but to Ramallah and Abbas. Deep down, he would have known that Abbas was powerless to enforce a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel. In fact, the Egyptians had more to offer on this than Abbas.

However, as Abbas and the PA try to resell themselves as the go-to address in future, Banat’s violent death because of his legitimate and peaceful opposition to the PA has once again given vent to popular anger and exasperation at Abbas’s rule and his attempt to maintain the status quo for his regime and security cooperation with Israel. The question for the Palestinians is whether they will take risks and stand up to the PA’s oppression and bullying tactics to drive Abbas out of the Muqata’a, or whether they will let Nizar’s death be in vain.

What should have expired on 24 June was not Nizar Banat’s life, courageous man that he was, but the PA and Abbas’s presidency, as well as the PLO, which he forced into a coma when he signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. The PLO needs to be taken back by the Palestinian people.

The campaign I am involved in to pressure for rebuilding the PLO is one initiative that can trigger a change. In the meantime, Nizar will inspire us to keep challenging those in power until change happens, and the Palestinian people retake the initiative for their liberation. As I read in one of many social media posts since yesterday, “Nizar may be dead, but his words aren’t”.

Kamel Hawwash is a British Palestinian engineering academic based at the University of Birmingham; he is a commentator on Middle East affairs, Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), and a founding member of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC)

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Publicist Motasem A. Daloul gave a further description of the circumstances under which Nizar Banat was killed:

According to Banat’s family, “The PA security services detonated the door of the house, broke into the building and immediately started beating [Banat] with iron bars and batons while he was asleep, along with two of his brothers. They emptied three bottles of pepper powder in his face when he got up; stripped him of his clothes; lynched him; insulted him while he was bleeding; kidnapped him; took him to an unknown location; and murdered him.”

The PA Governor in Hebron, Jibreen Al-Bakri, issued a statement about the killing. He claimed that the security forces aimed to enforce the law as they went to detain Banat on the basis of a detention order issued by the Public Prosecutor. He said that the activist died during the detention process due to health problems. He did not mention the “brutal” and “barbaric” way that Banat was beaten on his head and face. Bakri said that Banat was transferred to hospital, but his friends and family have searched for him everywhere, and insist that wherever he was taken, it was not to hospital.

Middle East Monitor  /  June 24, 2021