Palestinians protest death of activist Nizar Banat in PA police custody

Nizar Banat - protesters take part in a demonstration calling for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to quit in Ramallah (AFP)

Shatha Hammad

Middle East Eye  /  June 24, 2021

Death of prominent critic of the Palestinian Authority has unleashed anger at President Mahmoud Abbas.

Protesters took to the streets in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, facing police repression following the death of prominent critic of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Nizar Banat overnight while in the custody of PA forces.

In Ramallah, the administrative centre of the PA, thousands of demonstrators chanted: “In soul, in blood, we defend you Nizar.”

Many other slogans took direct aim at the PA and President Mahmoud Abbas, with chants including: “The people want the downfall of the regime,” and “Leave, leave Abbas.”

PA forces hit demonstrators with batons and fired tear gas and stun grenades in Ramallah.

Banat was arrested by at least 25 officers, who raided his home in the town of Dura in the southern West Bank governorate of Hebron, at 3.30am on Thursday. He was declared dead shortly afterward.

Preliminary autopsy results showed that Banat was severely beaten with several bruises and fractures showing all over his body, Samir Zaarour, a doctor who oversaw the autopsy, said on Thursday.

The Ramallah-based Independent Commission for Human Rights revealed the autopsy results at a news conference in Ramallah on Thursday.

Zaarour said Banat had injuries in the head, neck, shoulders as well as broken ribs and internal bleeding in the lungs – signs indicative of an unnatural death – stressing that the victim did not suffer from any serious medical condition that would otherwise lead to his death.

Full autopsy and toxicology reports, expected to be available within 10 days, will definitively determine the cause of death.

‘Dangerous precedent’

Ammar al-Dwaik, the general director of the commission, described the death of Banat a “dangerous precedent” against a political dissident, calling for a criminal investigation into the incident that would refer the perpetrators of the killing to trial.

Banat was well known for his criticism of the PA leadership and had been arrested several times in the past by Palestinian security forces. He was also a candidate on the Freedom and Dignity electoral list for the Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections, which had initially been scheduled for 22 May, but were postponed by the PA.

Human rights organizations and Palestinian factions have called for an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Banat’s death – which, according to Mohannad Karajah, a member of the Palestinian Lawyers for Justice group, amounted to an “assassination”.

PA officials announced on Thursday afternoon that Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh had ordered an investigation committee – led by Minister of Justice Mohammad Shalaldeh and including a physician appointed by the Banat family, a human rights official, and a security official – into Banat’s death.

But Omar Assaf, a member of Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) political bureau, dismissed outright the credibility of an investigation led by the PA.

“There needs to be a popular investigation committee established, not an official committee, because a popular committee will uncover the truth,” he told Middle East Eye.

He referred to the case of Majd al-Barghouthi, who died in PA custody in 2008, only for an official investigation to clear security forces of wrongdoing.

“In the case of Majd al-Barghouthi, they concluded that he was a chain smoker, when he had never smoked once in his life,” Assaf said. “These are the official investigation committees.”

‘Palestinian law protects the occupation’

Speaking at the demonstration in Ramallah, Assaf added: “This is a continuation of the Dayton [Mission] creed, which was adopted by the PA and its security apparatus, that the people are the enemy of the state. There must be the dismissal of heads of the security branches, and the criminals responsible for killing Nizar Banat should be brought to court.”

The PA was established in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords, and initially intended to be an interim governing body until the establishment of a fully-fledged Palestinian state.

But with a two-state solution never materializing, the PA – which exerts only limited control over Areas A and B, which make up around 40 percent of the West Bank – has long been accused by many Palestinians of being an extension of the Israeli occupation.

The PA’s security coordination with Israel is a principal target of anger. The policy, through which PA forces are in regular contact with Israeli forces, has meant PA police may withdraw from areas ahead of an Israeli army raid, or arrest Palestinians wanted by Israel.

“Palestinian law protects the occupation, but we want it to protect the Palestinian people,” Maher al-Akhras, a leader of the Islamic Jihad movement in the West Bank, told MEE from the Ramallah protest.

Akhras, who was released from Israeli prison in November following a 103-day hunger strike against his administrative detention, drew a parallel between Banat’s death and the killing of another prominent Palestinian activist, Basel al-Araj, in March 2017.

Araj had been one of six activists imprisoned and tortured by the PA for six months in 2016. Most of them were arrested by Israeli forces shortly after their release by the PA, while Araj went into hiding for months, only to later be killed in a standoff with Israeli forces. The PA had been widely denounced at the time as complicit in Araj’s death due to its security coordination.

The PA has also been criticized for its crackdown on political opposition and social media users in the West Bank through draconian legislation on social media posts. Abbas, meanwhile, has been in power since 2005. Though his term as president officially ended in 2009, the PA has not held presidential elections in 16 years.

In addition to legislative elections, a presidential vote initially scheduled for 31 July was postponed in April, with the voting rights of Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem cited as a reason. Critics of Abbas have accused the president of using Jerusalem’s right to vote as an excuse to avoid the election due to the popularity of Hamas, the main rival party to his own Fatah movement.

The US State Department said on Thursday that Washington was “disturbed” by Banat’s death.

“We urge the Palestinian Authority to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation and to ensure full accountability in this case,” spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement. 

“We have serious concerns about Palestinian Authority restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression by Palestinians and harassment of civil society activists and organizations.”

Shatha Hammad is a Palestinian freelance journalist