An outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority, who was a candidate in parliamentary elections called off this year, died on Thursday after Palestinian security forces arrested him and beat him with an iron rod, his family said.
Nizar Banat, 43, a human rights activist from the flashpoint city of Hebron, was arrested in a dawn raid on Thursday by Palestinian security forces, Hebron governor Jibrin Al Bakri said.
"Following ... a summons from the prosecutors to arrest citizen Nizar Khalil Muhammad Banat, a force from the security services arrested him at dawn," Mr Al Bakri said in a statement carried by the official Wafa news agency.
The governor said Banat's "health deteriorated" after his arrest and that he was taken to a hospital where he was later pronounced dead.
The crackdown on dissent comes as the internationally backed PA faces a growing backlash from Palestinians who view it as corrupt and increasingly autocratic, a manifestation of a three-decade-old peace process that has yet to deliver an independent state.
Hundreds took to the streets in protest after word spread of Banat’s death.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, 85, who was elected to a four-year term in 2005, has little to show after more than a decade of close security co-ordination with Israel.
The leader has been powerless to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements, home demolitions, evictions in Jerusalem and deadly Israeli military raids, and was largely ignored during the recent unrest in Jerusalem and the 11-day Gaza war.
Western nations nevertheless view the PA as a key partner for rebuilding Gaza, which is ruled by the militant Hamas group, and eventually reviving the moribund peace process.
Ammar Banat, a cousin of the deceased man, said about 25 Palestinian security force members stormed the home where Banat was staying, blowing out doors and windows.
He said they beat him with an iron bar and sprayed pepper spray in his eyes before undressing him and dragging him away, citing two other cousins who were present during the arrest.
Representatives of the European Union and the United Nations called for an independent investigation, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh later announced the formation of an investigative committee. He said a doctor chosen by the family would participate in the autopsy and the family would be invited to provide testimony.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in the West Bank city of Ramallah and tried to march to the PA’s headquarters, chanting “The people want the downfall of the regime” and “Abbas, you are not one of us, take your dogs and leave”.
Palestinian security forces fired tear gas at the marchers and beat people with wooden batons.
In early May, gunmen fired bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at Nizar Banat’s home near the West Bank city of Hebron, where his wife was inside with their children. He blamed the attack on Mr Abbas’s Fatah party, which dominates the security forces, saying only they would have access to tear gas and stun grenades.
"The Europeans need to know that they are indirectly funding this organisation," he told The Associated Press in May. "They fire their guns into the air at Fatah celebrations, they fire their guns in the air when Fatah leaders fight each other and they fire their guns at people who oppose Fatah."
He said prominent Fatah supporters were waging an incitement campaign against him on social media in which they accused him of collaborating with Israel, which most Palestinians view as treason. He denied the accusation, and Hamas and another militant group condemned what they referred to as his assassination by PA forces.
More recently, he had criticised the Palestinian leadership over an agreement in which Israel sent the PA a shipment of coronavirus vaccines that were soon to expire in exchange for fresh doses the Palestinians expect to receive later this year. The PA called off the agreement after it faced a wave of criticism on social media. Israel said the doses it sent were safe and effective.
The EU delegation to the Palestinians wrote on Twitter that it was "shocked and saddened" by Banat's death and called for a "full, independent, and transparent investigation". The United Nation's Middle East envoy, Tor Wennesland, also called for an investigation into the incident, saying that the "perpetrators must be brought to justice".
Earlier this week, Palestinian security forces detained a prominent activist and held him overnight after he took to Facebook to criticise the PA's arrest of another person. Issa Amro is an outspoken critic of Israel and the PA, and has been detained by both in the past. He also criticised the PA over the vaccine exchange.
A recent poll showed plummeting support for Mr Abbas, who cancelled the first elections in 15 years in April when it looked like his fractured Fatah party would suffer another humiliating defeat to Hamas. The militant group drove out forces loyal to Mr Abbas when it seized power in Gaza in 2007.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Mr Abbas when he visited the region after the Gaza war last month, and the Biden administration is working to improve US relations with the PA after they fell to an all-time low under president Donald Trump.
The EU has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in direct aid to the PA over the years. This week, the EU signed an agreement to provide $425 million in loans to the PA and Palestinian banks to help them cope with an economic crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.