Rival Palestinian groups clash at protest over activist’s death

Fights break out in Ramallah on fourth day of protests over death of Nizar Banat in Palestinian Authority custody.

Palestinians take part in a march in Ramallah to protest the death of Banat, who was known for denouncing alleged corruption within the PA [Abbas Momani/AFP]

Rival groups of Palestinians clashed in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on Sunday during a fourth day of protests over the death of Nizar Banat, an outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority (PA) who died in PA custody.

Nizar Banat, a 43-year-old activist from Hebron known for social media videos denouncing alleged corruption within the PA, died on Thursday after security forces stormed his house and violently arrested him.

Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Ramallah, said fights broke out on Sunday between protesters calling for PA President Mahmoud Abbas to step down and a rival group demonstrating in support of the PA and Fatah, Abbas’s party that dominates the Palestinian Authority.

“There was a small crowd of around 100 or so people chanting against the Palestinian Authority,” Dekker said.

“You had another crowd who were just up the street … which are pro-Fatah, the party of the ruling elite, coming to join them and then confrontations ensued,” Dekker said.

Al Jazeera’s Dekker said that there was “a concerted campaign” against the media covering the protests on Sunday.

“We were surrounded by six [people], I can only really call them thugs, demanding to see our camera. We weren’t filming at the time. They actually forced us to take the spotlight down on our SMG truck,” she said.

“Another colleague friend had his cameras smashed. This has been happening for the last couple of days.”

Palestinian supporters of President Mahmoud Abbas march in a counterdemonstration as others protest the death of human rights activist Nizar Banat [Abbas Momani/AFP]

New protests against Banat’s death also took place on Sunday in his hometown of Hebron and in Bethlehem, both in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian security forces in riot gear fired tear gas and stun grenades at the protesters in Bethlehem, sending many running for cover.

According to the initial autopsy, injuries indicated Banat had been beaten on the head, chest, neck, legs and hands, with less than an hour elapsing between his arrest and his death, pathologist Samir Abu Zarzour said.

Banat’s family said the security forces used pepper spray on him, beat him badly and dragged him away in a vehicle.

The PA has announced the opening of an investigation into Banat’s death, but it has done little to appease anger on the streets.

Following news of his death on Thursday, protesters set fires, blocked the streets of the city centre and clashed with riot police in Ramallah. Palestinians also chanted against the PA on Friday at Banat’s funeral in Hebron and after Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Protesters clashed with Palestinian security forces and rival pro-PA demonstrators in Ramallah on Saturday as hundreds attempted to march to Abbas’ office compound.

Banat had registered as a candidate in Palestinian parliamentary elections, which had been set for May until Abbas postponed them indefinitely.

Mkhaimar Abusada, associate professor in political science at Al Azhar University in Gaza, told Al Jazeera that Abbas and the internationally-backed PA face a growing backlash from Palestinians over perceived corruption and authoritarianism.

“To see these masses of Palestinian protesters protesting against the Palestinian Authority, chanting directly against President Abbas asking for his removal and for his ouster, is unprecedented,” he said.

‘A shame’

Shawan Jabareen, director of rights group Al Haq, said the confrontations between rival Palestinians on the streets on Sunday were a “shame” – especially after many Palestinians had put aside differences to unite in protest against Israel’s 11-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip in May and forced expulsions of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem.

“At this moment you see Palestinians divided again,” he told Al Jazeera.

“To be honest with you, I’m concerned for people here.”

Palestinians hold posters depicting human rights activist Nizar Banat during a protest in his hometown of Hebron in the occupied West Bank [Mosab Shawer/AFP]

Jabareen said many plainclothes men attacking journalists on Sunday were members of security forces.

“They are not civilians. They are security members,” Jabareen said.

Fadi Quran, a senior campaigner with activist group Avaaz, was at Sunday’s protest and also said PA “thugs” attacked protesters and journalists and sexually harassed women at the rally.

“It’s extremely dangerous and painful what happened, all because they fear public mobilisation against Mahmoud Abbas and the PA, who are continually collaborating with the occupation and oppressing the Palestinian people,” he said.

The PA coordinates with Israel on security and civilian matters.

“People should not see Israel and the PA as separate entities, the PA as a body is a subcontractor for the occupation,” Quran said.

Meanwhile, Nasri Abu Jaish, PA labour minister and People’s Party representative in the government, resigned on Sunday, a member of his party said.

The left-wing Palestinian People’s Party withdrew from the Fatah-led PA government due to “its lack of respect for laws and public freedoms”, party member Issam Abu Bakr said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies