The mortal danger of a totalitarian Palestine

Palestinian activist Nizar Banat was brutally killed by security forces, and the government has shown no remorse

The details of Nizar Banat’s death are chilling, bearing the hallmarks of an assassination by the state.

A fierce critic of the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, Banat was in his home in the early morning in late June when security officers burst into his home and, according to his family, pepper-sprayed everyone before proceeding to beat him on his head and body with batons.

The officers detained Banat and sped away with him. He appeared to have lost consciousness on the ride, due to the severity of the beatings. He was pronounced dead upon his arrival at a local hospital.

Banat was an activist who criticised the PA for its rampant and well-known corruption and authoritarianism. He planned on running in parliamentary elections that were originally slated for this summer, but postponed indefinitely by Mr Abbas after the latest assault on Gaza by Israel. Mr Abbas, who is 85, likely made the decision out of fear of losing power to Hamas and independent candidates after a decade of mismanagement of the Palestinian issue and strong co-operation with Israel on security matters with nothing to show for it.

Banat had decried the delay of the vote, the security co-operation with Israel and Palestinian corruption, even calling on Western supporters of the PA to halt financial aid to the body because of its mismanagement and human rights violations.

Much like a stereotypical totalitarian regime, Mr Abbas’s security forces are meek against their external adversaries, and lions against their own people – to borrow a phrase once applied to Hafez Al Assad. The brutality of Banat’s killing shows the deep rot in the PA’s body politic.

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The brutality of Banat’s killing shows the deep rot in the PA’s body politic

The accusations of corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism against the PA are nothing new, of course. They are exemplified by the authority’s remorseless response in the aftermath of the killing, which a state-appointed coroner has described as “unnatural”. The prospects of anyone facing justice appear particularly remote, given the response to the protests that have erupted over the past two weeks, with security forces and plainclothes policemen reportedly rounding up demonstrators and attacking them.

The savagery of what happened to Banat appears aimed at sending a message to the PA’s critics. Mr Abbas has spent much of the past few months manoeuvring to ensure he retains his hold on power, surrounded as he is largely by a clique of lackeys, fending off challengers from within and outside of his party. The postponement of the elections was the final act of defiance against any semblance of democratic change and renewal, and now the authority appears to exist solely to perpetuate his continued role at the helm.

For there is no achievement or progress on the Palestinian issue that Mr Abbas can point to in order to justify his continued presence. Israeli settlement activities continue, and there is little progress to show for the continued security co-operation with the occupation. Younger cadres and political rivals chafe at the incompetent one-man rule that has yielded nothing but the continuation of a miserable status quo, with no prospect of a Palestinian state. The lethargy, though not all of it is Mr Abbas’s fault, has strengthened the normalisation movement in the Arab world.

Yet all the politics are secondary to the singular fact that a human being was robbed of his life and dignity in front of his family. All of his hopes, dreams, fears and plans for the future were erased in an instant with the utmost brutality, because Nizar Banat had the temerity to demand better from those in charge, because he spoke truth to power and because he asked that Palestinians be spared at least one form of the oppression they endured – that carried out by their own people, those who claim to represent them in their plight.

The Palestinian cause has attracted its fair share of opportunists and tyrants who have used it to further and cement their hold over their people. It is a tale as old as Israel’s founding, and has been used to justify decades of emergency rule and totalitarianism not only in Palestine but in other Arab countries, too. In more recent times, the cause has been used as a cudgel by militant groups like Hezbollah, who have used it to justify crushing the Syrian uprising and starving Syrian civilians, with the justification that the road to Jerusalem goes through Aleppo.

Mr Abbas and his forces are little different. He has been in charge for so long that he believes he is Palestine, and his acolytes will murder an innocent civilian who simply asked for an end to corruption because as far as they are concerned any defiance of the leadership is a betrayal of the cause. Instead of liberators, they have become tormenters.

Rest in peace, Nizar Banat. You deserved better.

Published: July 8th 2021, 4:00 AM
Kareem Shaheen

Kareem Shaheen

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada