Just over two months ago, a Palestinian political activist called Nizar Banat was arrested at the house where he was staying in Hebron in the occupied West Bank. Banat was later beaten to death. His killers were not Israeli soldiers but security personnel of the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah. Mahmoud Abbas
Since he died, at the age of 43, Banat has come to symbolize the authoritarian nature of the PA under Mahmoud Abbas, the leader who replaced Yasser Arafat. Abbas, now 85, was elected for a four-year term in 2005 but 16 years later he is still in charge and widely seen as corrupt and unaccountable, especially by younger people.
Banat was a veteran of Abbas’s own Fatah movement and an outspoken critic of the PA. Back in May his home in the village of Dura was attacked by masked gunmen on motorbikes. He then went to stay with his cousins in Hebron. Banat had repeatedly been arrested for his sharp questioning of the PA leadership on Facebook and videos. He accused them of abandoning Palestinian national interests in return for personal benefit and wealth.
On June 24 his wife Jihan received the news of his death. Nizar had been severely beaten but was still alive when he was dragged from the house by 14 members of the PA security forces, who were given permission to enter the H2 area of the city, which is under Israel military control – a key detail in this bleak story.
An independent autopsy demanded by the family found that Banat had died in custody after being beaten and tortured. The UK Metropolitan police were asked to investigate his killing under the principle of universal jurisdiction, as was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
On Palestinian social media, he is now declared a “shahid,” or martyr. In the wake of his death, protesters in Hebron and Ramallah accused the PA of carrying out a “political assassination” and called for Abbas and his administration to be “overthrown.”
The killing of this strident critic, who had been arrested several times previously – in particular over Abbas’s decision to announce parliamentary elections in late May and then delaying them – has underlined the PA’s complicity with Israel and the status quo of its 54-year occupation. The official reason given by Abbas for postponing the elections was Israel not allowing East Jerusalem residents to participate. But many, including Banat, believed that they were not held for fear that Fatah would not win a majority of seats.
The PA has a long and well-documented track record of suppressing opposition activists. But the crisis of legitimacy it is currently facing is not just a result of Abbas’s authoritarianism. It also related to May’s protests in East Jerusalem and the subsequent deaths of 248 Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The interests of that Islamist movement have benefitted from those 11 days of violence.
Abbas is getting weaker almost by the day. And PA security forces have acquired the habit of not responding to popular protests – and what the Israel military defines as terrorist activities. That poses a challenge for the new and unwieldy coalition government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett because it undermines security cooperation with the PA.
Benny Gantz, Bennett’s defence minister and the leader of the centrist Blue and White party, went last week to Ramallah to see Abbas for the first high-level encounter since 2014. An official described as “close to the prime minister” then issued a statement clarifying that Bennett was not himself seeking a renewal of a formal diplomatic process, “and neither will there be one.”
PA officials have given the US a list of demands that could be advanced even without public negotiations with Israel. The list includes some 30 suggestions for restoring the PA’s authority, improving the Palestinian economy and addressing Palestinians’ quality of life.
Israeli military operations deep in the West Bank, particularly in the refugee camps in the north, have recently encountered growing resistance from armed Palestinians. And when Palestinians are killed, as has happened twice in Jenin, the PA is subjected to more internal criticism for not protecting its citizens’ security.
“In the end,” in the perceptive words of one analyst, “Abbas and the PA have been able to sustain their ‘brand’ of governance because international donors, who continue to fund public sector salaries, institution-building efforts, and security sector reform in the occupied Palestinian territories, consider state-building to be a means of peacebuilding.”
It is clearly time for the international community to revisit their commitment to the 1993 Oslo Accords, in which Arafat recognised Israel but Israel only recognised the PLO and did not commit in any way to agree to a Palestinian state. In the big picture – current reality in Israel and the wider Middle East and President Joe Biden’s hands-off approach – it is difficult to be optimistic about the future of the region’s most intractable conflict.
As Ghassan Khalil, Banat’s brother, said: “The murder of my brother is not just a tragedy for our family, but also a tragedy for the Palestinian people.” levant
by: IAN BLACK levant