‘Bullets and batons’: Palestinian Authority beats back dissent
Palestinian activists are regularly arrested and beaten by the PA in the West Bank, Human Rights Watch says.
Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – The West Bank is on the verge of a serious rebellion against the Palestinian Authority (PA) as it desperately fights for political survival and is determined to cling to power at any cost, a leading Palestinian human rights defender warned.
For four days, Palestinians have been taking to the streets of main cities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank protesting against the death of Nizar Banat, a political activist and big critic of the PA, who was beaten by PA security officers – presumed to be members of the Preventive Security Service – who raided his home in the Hebron area of the southern West Bank.
“We’ve reached the last chapter of the transitional period with the PA and they know that the only way they can stay in power is with bullets and batons,” said Shawan Jabarin, the director of the Al-Haq human rights organisation in Ramallah.
“The PA understands it can’t win in democratic elections and the elite in the organisation, who fear losing their privileged lifestyle, believe that the only way they can remain in control is by using force, fear and intimidation,” Jabarin told Al Jazeera.
According to a preliminary autopsy, Banat suffered fractured ribs, bruising all over his body, and injuries on his head, with his family alleging he was beaten with iron bars and batons on his head during his initial arrest.
But despite the PA’s brutal crackdown on the protesters in the West Bank – including arrests, attacks on journalists, and the confiscation of media equipment by plain-clothes security men and Fatah supporters – more demonstrations are planned.
Protests have also taken place in international cities including Boston, Beirut, London and Amman in support.
Jabarin said this time he thought the situation in the West Bank was different as people increasingly grow tired of the Palestinian leadership.
“The situation has been building up for several years with each additional layer of suffering and humiliation adding to a pressure cooker where Palestinians have had enough.
“They are sick of the PA’s corruption, their inability to stand up to Israeli settlers, while simultaneously their continued security coordination with the Israelis has led to the imprisonment and torture of hundreds of Palestinian activists. The ‘peace process’ has led nowhere and the democratic space has closed,” said Jabarin.
Al Jazeera requested comment from Palestinian officials but did not receive any response.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh expressed his condolences to Banat’s family during a weekly cabinet meeting on Monday. A team of investigators “will do its work with all professionalism and transparency in order to clarify the truth and set things right within the framework of Palestinian law”, he said.
“Whoever is involved in this matter will be referred to the competent judicial authorities, which gives everyone their rights, and we ask the investigation committee to complete its report within the next two days,” said Shtayyeh.
‘Not our lords and masters’
During one of the protests, Majdi – a middle-aged, married Palestinian man who is apolitical and has never had problems with the PA’s security services – told Al Jazeera he did not want to give his full name because he did not want to be arrested in the middle of the night from his house and taken to jail.
“Anybody who opposes the PA, especially those who are members of opposition parties, will be arrested, tortured and possibly killed,” said Majdi who runs a restaurant near Ramallah’s Manara, or city centre.
“But the protests are about more than Nizar, people have been angry with the PA for a long time over their corruption and their arrogance. The security forces forget that they are meant to serve the people, they are not our lords and masters.”
‘No longer obedient’
Jabarin said, however, the Palestinian fear factor had decreased over the last few months with Palestinians asserting themselves and challenging Israel over raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque and the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem.
“The new generation is tech-savvy, they use rapid communication methods and no longer follow cultural traditions of being obedient to authority,” he said.
Two other protesters, Muhammad Ali and Ahmed Mohammed, told Al Jazeera they had come to the demonstration on Sunday to condemn the way Banat had been treated.
The men, colleagues in an aluminium construction company, agreed to give their names and have their photos taken despite fears of retribution and initial reservations.
“Why did they have to kill him?” Ali said. “If he had done something wrong they could have taken him to jail and charged him and allowed him and a lawyer to challenge the charges.”
Rami Arrar, a Palestinian who lives in Norway and was visiting family in Ramallah on a holiday, was less critical of the PA and said maybe security officers made a genuine mistake during Banat’s arrest.
“I won’t condemn the PA completely as I think they have done some good things for our society and maybe not all the facts are available,” he told Al Jazeera. “Nevertheless, this situation has been handled badly and there needs to be an investigation.”
The PA is under internal and international pressure to carry out a credible investigation into Banat’s death. But Jabarin said the authority’s probe would neither be credible nor hold those behind Banat’s death accountable.
“No Palestinian organisation is prepared to be involved in a whitewash where the PA is the defendant, the judge and the jury,” said Jabarin.
“Al Haq together with the Independent Commission for Human Rights [ICHR] have both refused to take part in the investigation, as has the Lawyers Bar Association,” said Jabarin.
“Instead we will carry out the Nizar Procedure to establish all the facts and also support people in the future who are accused of political activities that oppose the PA and face prosecution.”
If the PA refuses to cooperate, the two organisations will take up the relevant matter with the United Nations, the ICHR said.
Deterioration in human rights
Prior to his death, Binat warned his family that if he died in Palestinian custody they should not trust any subsequent investigation carried out by the PA.
Palestinian political activists are regularly arrested and tortured by the PA in the West Bank and by Hamas in Gaza, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Binat is not the first Palestinian to die at the hands of the PA’s security services.
Previous deaths in PA custody include that of Majid al-Barghouti, the 42-year-old imam of a mosque in the village of Kobar, outside Ramallah. He was arrested by the PA General Intelligence Service (GIS) on February 14, 2008, and pronounced dead a week later.
Photos of the body taken that day, viewed by HRW, showed deep and extensive bruising on the legs, feet and back, consistent with marks caused by beatings.
In a recent report, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza said there had been a deterioration in the human rights situation under the PA since a state of emergency was declared in 2020 to fight COVID-19 and the situation was exacerbated by internal divisions in the PA’s executive, legislative, and judicial institutions because of infighting between Hamas and Fatah.
HRW reported that Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh pledged in July 2019 to end arbitrary arrests, but this had not happened.
Since PA President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled elections in May – following warnings his party’s loss was imminent – dozens of political opponents and critics have been arrested by PA security services.
In addition to growing anger on the Palestinian street, the PA is also facing pressure from the international community with the UN, the Europeans, and the Americans saying they were shocked by Binat’s death.
While Washington has long supported the PA’s security apparatus economically and with military training, the European Union released a statement recently saying it only provided technical support to the civilian police, while economic support went towards helping small businesses and NGOs.
Jabarin concluded unless the PA implemented urgent democratic reforms, he feared a bloody future on the horizon in the occupied territories.
Armed members of Binat’s family further warned if the killers were not brought to justice, they would take matters into their own hands.