Protests in Palestine: Nizar Banat's death unleashes pent-up anger

The vocal critic’s family accuse the Palestinian Authority of complicity in his death

For almost a week, Palestinians in the West Bank have been protesting in the streets, demanding that the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas resign.

Anger erupted after Nizar Banat – a long-time, vocal critic of Mr Abbas – died in the custody of the Palestinian security forces.

His family say that Palestinian Preventive Security officers stormed Banat's uncle's home in Hebron. They say the officers beat him before taking him to another location.

“Some 20 to 25 men barged into his room as he slept with his two cousins in the same room and beat him with metal rods and door breakers,” his brother, Ghassan Banat, told The National.

Ghassan Banat was not present at the time but he has spoken to several family members who witnessed the night's events.

He called the raid a “monstrosity” and claimed the officers emptied three bottles of pepper spray into Nizar’s mouth, nose and eyes.

It is unclear what legal charges against Banat led to his attack, detention and death.

“There was not a single legal decision against Nizar – not even a warrant for interrogation, and I challenge anyone to prove otherwise,” Banat’s father, Khalil, said on Monday.

Khalil Banat called his son’s death a “criminal act” and demanded that all those involved be held accountable after a transparent, independent and legitimate investigation.

The family rejected a postmortem examination by a government doctor.

The results from the family's independently commissioned examination said the death was “unnatural” with injuries to the head, chest, neck, legs and hands. It placed Banat's time of death to within an hour of his arrest.

A video published by Al Quds Network earlier this week, purportedly showed Banat being taken from his uncle’s home. In the grainy, black-and-white footage, several men can be seen carrying a motionless man from a building and placing him into a car.

Ghassan Banat said he believes the video is genuine and shows officers taking his brother from their uncle's home, although The National could not independently confirm the footage.

The Palestinian Authority and its critics

Ghassan Banat said the Palestinian Authority and the security forces working for them came for his brother with an “order to kill” him.

“We don't need a commission of inquiry [from the Palestinian Authority] because those responsible for this crime are well-known officials,” he said earlier this week.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said on Monday that those responsible for Banat's death would be held accountable and that a high-level committee investigating his death would file a report within days.

“On behalf of the Council of Ministers, I extend my deepest condolences on the death of the late Nizar Banat, who died during the process of his arrest, and we share his family’s and his relatives’ grief and sympathy,” he said.

As well as being a vocal critic, Banat had registered to run as a candidate in Palestinian parliamentary elections which were scheduled for May but were later put on hold by Mr Abbas.

The president's reason for postponing the election was Israel's failure to confirm if it would allow Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem to vote. However, analysts say that the decision was made after polling showed that Mr Abbas and his ruling Fatah party would lose.

Anger in the streets

Banat’s death may have been the trigger for this week's explosion of anger but frustration with the Palestinian government has been brewing for much longer, observers and Palestinians said.

“People are tired of the status quo. The rage among them is rampant,” said Hasib Al Nashashibi of the Ensan Centre for Democracy and Human Rights. “The treatment of journalists – including women – has been unacceptable during the protests.”

Reporters Without Borders said 12 Palestinian journalists, including five women, were attacked by Palestinian forces during recent demonstrations.

A US embassy representative told The National they were “deeply disturbed” by reports of violence – including by non-uniformed officers – against protesters and journalists at the weekend. The US has helped fund, equip and train the Palestinian security forces.

“We strongly urge security forces to conduct themselves in a professional manner and authorities to respect freedom of expression, the work of journalists and the rights of Palestinians to protest peacefully,” the representative said.

They also said that it was important that the Palestinian Authority “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation and ensure full accountability in this case”.

Mr Al Nashashibi said he did not know what could have sparked the order to detain or arrest Banat.

“Nizar has been criticising the Palestinian Authority for years but his criticism has always been objective and fair,” he said.

The anti-government protests began predominantly among the Palestinian middle class but have grown in size and scope. They now include Palestinians from refugee camps and areas around Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters.

Although protests have happened before, these demonstrations stand apart for their rare displays of direct dissent – with calls specifically for Mr Abbas to be removed from power and chants accusing him of being a spy.

“This is the first time that he is being called out by name in demonstrations as intense and widespread as this,” Mr Al Nashashibi told The National.

Mr Abbas came to power in 2005 for a four-year term but extended his time in office and delayed elections indefinitely until a reconciliation between his Fatah party and Hamas, which controls Gaza, could be reached.

The Palestinian Legislative Council’s meetings were suspended in 2007. Its MPs have not met since.

“Mahmoud Abbas’ legitimacy declined dramatically after Palestinians saw the authority’s failure to support them during the unrest in Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah, the West Bank and in Gaza,” Mr Al Nashashibi said.

– Additional reporting by Rosie Scammell in Jerusalem

Updated: June 30th 2021, 11:21 AM