The UN and the EU have expressed concern over a spate of arrests of activists by Palestinian security forces, as the death of a leading campaigner in custody sparked persistent protests.
Demonstrators in the Israeli-occupied West Bank have demanded justice since the June death of Nizar Banat – a leading critic of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its 86-year-old president Mahmoud Abbas – who died in custody after security forces stormed his home in the flashpoint city of Hebron and dragged him away.
The UN human rights office said on Tuesday it was “deeply concerned at continuing pressure on those seeking to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly in Palestine”.
It said the security forces had arrested 23 people in Ramallah on Saturday on the grounds that “they were holding a public protest”, but noted 21 “were detained before any protest had even started”.
“More arrests appear to be taking place” targeting “well-known human rights defenders and political activists”, the UN said, calling for “the immediate release without charge of these individuals”.
The PA was not immediately available to respond to the criticism.
A statement from the EU representative in Jerusalem also condemned the arrests, which it said came “against the backdrop of reports of an increase in apparently politically motivated arrests by the Palestinian Authority over the past few months”.
“Violence against peaceful human rights defenders, activists and protesters is unacceptable,” the EU said.
Nearly two dozen Palestinian civil society groups issued a statement on Monday warning of “a dangerous decline in rights and public freedoms”, and holding Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh responsible for “his failure to protect the rights of citizens”.
Opinion polls suggest support for the PA and Abbas remain low.
Anger ticked up following Abbas’s decision to indefinitely postpone elections scheduled for May and July, which would have been the first Palestinian polls in 15 years.
Abbas said the elections could not go ahead until Israel agreed to allow voting in occupied East Jerusalem, which is considered the capital of a future Palestinian state under the two-state solution.
But Palestinian analysts said the president baulked when it looked like his secular Fatah movement was heading for defeat.
Banat’s death appears to have intensified frustration. A post-mortem found he had been beaten on the head, chest, neck, legs and hands, with less than an hour elapsing between his arrest and his death.
His family has described his death as an “assassination” and said it would reject the conclusions of an official inquiry. It has called instead for an international investigation.