Nizar Banat: Palestinians turn on leaders after activist’s death

image copyrightReutersimage captionPalestinian security forces have broken up the rare daily protests against the authorities

The death in custody of an activist after his arrest by Palestinian security forces in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has exposed deep discontent among Palestinian civilians towards their leaders.

Amid mounting evidence that Nizar Banat had been severely beaten when security personnel raided his home before hauling him away, hundreds have taken to the streets calling for the resignation of the Palestinian president.

Denouncing the authorities, protesters have chanted for the "overthrow of the regime", a phrase taken from uprisings across Arab states a decade ago.

Assaults on demonstrators in Ramallah, the seat of the governing Palestinian Authority (PA) by plainclothes men – some armed with sticks and rocks – provoked further outrage and deepened concerns about the repression of dissent. More demonstrations are planned for this weekend.

Banat's death prompted calls for an investigation by the UN, EU, and the US state department, which said it had "serious concerns about Palestinian Authority restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression… and harassment of civil society activists and organisations".

The PA has not directly commented on how Banat died.

Election anger

Banat, who was 43, had levelled fierce criticism at the PA in Facebook videos in which he accused its leaders of corruption and abuse of power for personal gain. He also denounced security co-operation with Israel and, most recently, a deal with Israel for the supply of nearly-expired Covid-19 vaccines.

The backlash caused by his violent death on 24 June was fuelled by growing disillusionment among many Palestinians since President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled planned parliamentary elections in May. Mr Abbas blamed Israel over voting rights for Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, though critics said Mr Abbas was fearful that his Fatah party would perform poorly against the rival Hamas faction.

image copyrightEPAimage captionThe protester Nizar Banat – seen on this poster – was a well-known critic of the Palestinian leadership

Banat condemned the indefinite postponement of the vote, urging a halt to European financial aid to the PA.

The calling off of the elections, which were to be the first in 15 years, deepened a sense among Palestinians that Mr Abbas, 85, was clinging to power.

'Schemes and conspiracies'

The protests after Banat's death appeared to be a spontaneous eruption of this frustration, rather than rallies orchestrated by political parties. Factional flags were absent from the marches in Ramallah, with protesters holding up homemade signs and pictures of Banat.

image copyrightReutersimage captionProtesters have called for the president, Mahmoud Abbas, to step down

The PA "linked the protests to foreign agendas and refused to admit that there were any shortfalls, corruption [and] negligence", wrote Abdel Majid Swailem, a commentator in pro-Fatah newspaper Al-Ayyam.

"It blames all the protests on schemes and conspiracies. The real crisis is that there is no-one to take responsibility."

Findings of a PA committee of inquiry into Banat's death have not been publicly released, with the justice minister saying only that the panel recommended that its report be referred to the judicial authorities for the required legal measures. No arrests have yet been reported. Banat's family has called for an international investigation.

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