Nizar Banat was no stranger to the rough and tumble of West Bank politics during his life, which he lost in a savage beating last summer at the age of 42.
In his final months, the civil rights activist and frequent critic of the Palestinian Authority sensed that things had taken a perilous turn. Less than a month before his death, masked assailants barraged his home with bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades.
Nizar happened to be breaking his Ramadan fast at his uncle’s house that night, but his wife, Jihan, and their four terrified children, all under 10 years old, were besieged inside.
That ordeal convinced Banat to move from the town of Dura, on the outskirts of Hebron, into the West Bank city itself. He took up residence in a building adjacent to his cousins’ apartment. The danger of being killed for his politics hung over him still. Threatening messages from anonymous callers made that clear.
Jihan says that her husband knew his days were numbered and he confided in her that moving out was meant to spare his children the sight of their father’s murder. As if persecution had only strengthened his resolve, Banat continued to speak his mind about the PA to his more than 100,000 Facebook followers.
In his final video, a visibly incensed Banat denounced the PA as “mercenaries” who “have always trafficked in everything.” He named names, from sitting Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh to Mohammed Dahlan, a former PA security minister who remains a powerful force in Palestinian politics despite a bloody falling out with PA President Mahmoud Abbas that sent him into exile from the West Bank in 2011. Both are contenders to take over the presidency from the octogenarian Abbas upon his resignation or, more likely, his passing.
On dozens of other occasions, Banat had demanded Abbas’s resignation, a wish shared by two-thirds of Palestinians in the West Bank, according to polling in 2020. Nonetheless, public criticism of the PA leader was often muted. Figures like Banat, who broke the silence, gained both devoted admirers and powerful enemies.
On the night of June 23, 2021, just three days after he posted his final video online, 14 armed PA security agents allegedly burst into Banat’s apartment, beat him with rods and repeatedly bashed his head against the wall. He died in PA custody the next morning
By inveighing against PA leaders, Banat sought to unmask what he and others regarded as a deeply corrupt system that lined the pockets of elites with tax proceeds and international aid, while funneling much of what was left to a massive security apparatus trained to crack down on dissent at the behest of its patrons.
On the night of June 23, 2021, just three days after he posted his final video online, 14 armed PA security agents allegedly burst into his apartment.
They proceeded to beat him with rods and repeatedly bash his head against the wall, all before the eyes of his two horrified cousins, who were sleeping over that night and reported that he was hit dozens of times.
Surveillance footage from the lobby shows Banat being hauled out of the apartment building, unconscious. He died in custody the next morning.
Watch | A video footage from a surveillance camera documents the first moments of the kidnapping and assassination of #Palestinian opposition activist Nizar Banat by the Palestinian Authority (PA) security agents on Wednesday-Thursday night. pic.twitter.com/1K75ys0Wos
— Quds News Network (@QudsNen) June 28, 2021
The PA at first claimed Banat died of “acute cardiovascular failure,” but an independent autopsy demanded by his incredulous family appeared to confirm the cousins’ account. That analysis of the bruises and abrasions across his body, including his head, determined that his death was “unnatural.”
Banat’s death and ensuing mass protests — as well as trials staged by the PA against the 14 security agents, though not against whoever issued the order — have served to lay bare the PA security forces’ intrusion into daily life in the West Bank amid an atmosphere of rampant corruption. Along the way, it has also raised uncomfortable questions about Israel’s role in maintaining a system regarded by many as deeply unjust.
Father of the struggle
A brazen streak had run through Banat from his earliest years, according to his brother, Ghassan Banat. In childhood he earned the Arabic nickname Abu al-Kifah (“father of the struggle”), a nod to his precocious daringness.
After graduating from university in Jordan, Banat returned to his native Hebron in 2000, just in time to experience the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising marked by an onslaught of suicide bombings against Israelis that followed the failure of negotiations to create a Palestinian state at Camp David that same year.
Banat spoke about his time abroad in his final televised interview, in November 2020. “My children and I are staying in [Palestine]… that’s why I want space for freedom, so that my children don’t end up hating the country and thinking about emigration,” he told al-Ghad TV. “I experienced living abroad and there’s no dignity for Palestinians except in their own country. Palestinians [abroad] will remain second-class citizens, no matter how much money or knowledge they amass.”
In 2005, he dedicated himself to almost full-time activism but didn’t join a party and rejected ideological labels. He was disgusted with corruption in Fatah, the West Bank’s ruling party, but also detested the Islamism of Hamas, the main opposition party, designated a terror group by Israel, the United States and the European Union. And like most other Palestinians, he opposed Israel’s military rule over land the Palestinians claim for their own state.
Banat gained prominence as an activist by tapping into widespread anger and frustration toward the Fatah-dominated PA for its funneling of international aid into private bank accounts, nepotistic doling-out of sinecures, and security coordination with Israel
Before the advent of social media — Banat’s first political Facebook post went online in 2011 — he was a fixture at street protests and a widely respected figure in activist circles, often taking a leading role in getting the message out.
“At protests he would take photographs. He loved to be part of the team formulating statements and press releases,” said Issa Amro, a fellow activist and friend of 17 years, who remembered Banat for their spirited Friday breakfast-table conversations and his boundless energy. “He brought out the best in activists.”
Banat gained prominence as an activist by tapping into widespread anger and frustration toward the Fatah-dominated PA for its funneling of international aid into private bank accounts, nepotistic doling-out of sinecures, and security coordination with Israel.
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, which created the PA and carved the West Bank into areas under Palestinian and Israeli control, members of the Palestinian leadership have enriched themselves on domestic taxes and foreign funding in the absence of effective oversight mechanisms, critics say.
According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) statistics, former PA president Yasser Arafat and his associates, under whose leadership Banat came of age, embezzled nearly $900 million between 1995 and 2000. Over that same period, most Palestinians suffered deprivations, and poverty steadily increased year on year. By the end of 2002, 60% of Palestinians in the West Bank languished below the global poverty line of about two dollars a day.
One poll, taken shortly after Banat’s death, found that 83% of respondents believe “there is corruption in PA institutions.” Another survey from 2018 showed that Palestinians in the West Bank considered corruption the second most pressing issue they faced — behind the failing economy but before Israeli military rule.
Banat’s decision to criticize PA corruption and Israeli misconduct as intertwined phenomena drew accusations from Ramallah that he was a foreign agent, and opened him up to dangers that other activists avoided, Amro said.
“If both sides are in agreement about you, they can work together to destroy you, to dispatch you,” said Amro, who has been arrested by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
Despite having excelled in his university studies of Arabic language and literature, Banat was left out of the loyalty-rewarding patronage system and often struggled to feed his children. He worked various odd jobs in house-painting and carpentry; in his final months, he tried to make some extra money by selling arabesque designs he carved into stones that a nearby masonry had discarded.
Meanwhile, Banat’s social media posts resonated with a large audience, unnerving leaders whose corruption he raged against.
They had seen social media play an important role in toppling regimes throughout the region in the early 2010s. Banat was arrested by the PA eight times on charges such as treason and incitement. Toward the end of his life, the arrests became more and more frequent.
Undeterred, Banat put himself forward last year as a candidate for Palestinian parliamentary elections — last held in 2006 — with the reformist Freedom and Dignity party.
The elections were scheduled for May 22, 2021, but eventually called off by Abbas. The purported rationale was Israel’s refusal to allow voting in East Jerusalem, but most believe that to have been a convenient out for Abbas, whose desire to play up his democratic bona fides for the new administration in the White House ultimately proved less persuasive than his fear of a drubbing at the polls from Hamas.
In a gesture that is widely suspected to have triggered the initial attack on his home, Banat signed his party’s statement calling on the PA’s largest donor, the European Union, to back up its condemnation of Abbas’s maneuver by swiftly turning off the financial tap.
‘Alienated’ security forces
Abbas’s cancelation of the elections denied Banat the chance to upload a campaign ad in which he directly addressed the PA’s security forces.
Palestinian residents of the West Bank are among the most heavily policed populations in the world, with one PA security agent for every 86 civilians. In contrast, the ratio of physicians to patients is approximately 1 to 500.
In the posthumously released video, Banat spoke with sympathy for PA security personnel about the “social alienation” they suffered as a consequence of serving in an outfit that intimidated, rather than protected, civilians.
“Dayton has unfortunately planted in you the doctrine that the people are your enemy,” he stressed, in reference to Gen. Keith Dayton, the former United States Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority who took the lead in “professionalizing” PA forces.
He promised to rebuild them into “a police force that has no relation with politics but rather with the security of society.”
Last year, the 22% of the PA budget lavished on the various branches of the security apparatus outstripped spending on education (19%) and healthcare (14%).
The long payroll helps the PA keep a large swath of the population happy and fed despite poverty elsewhere, essentially putting members of the security forces and their families in hock to the government. With unemployment in the West Bank at 16% and relatively well-paying jobs in Israel harder to come by than in the past, many have no alternative.
Thousands of mourners attended a funeral-demonstration for Banat the day after his death. Over the following weeks, marches broke out across the West Bank. In videos of the rallies, protesters are heard chanting “The people want the overthrow of the regime
Control of a large police force also gives the PA the capacity to crack down on Hamas opponents and other dissenters. Mohannad Karajah, director of the Palestinian organization Lawyers for Justice, has noted an increase in the number of political prisoners since Hamas made gains in local council elections.
The threat of Hamas is used to justify this dragnet on opponents of all stripes, including vocal anti-Islamists like Banat. Many Palestinians, seeing Fatah’s corruption as a lesser evil than Hamas’s ideology, wring their hands over the situation. Others join the ranks of security forces, with or without reluctance. Most fear to speak out.
Many, though, did speak out in the wake of Banat’s killing. The activist’s death added just enough heat under the slow simmer of discontent to make protests boil over into the streets. Thousands of mourners attended a funeral-demonstration for Banat the day after his death. Over the following weeks, marches broke out across the West Bank. In videos of the rallies, protesters are heard chanting “The people want the overthrow of the regime,” echoing the rallying cry of the Arab Spring.
In 2011-12, as protests were catching on throughout the Middle East, security forces in the West Bank stamped out the first flickers of open dissent. A decade on, Palestinians filled with anger over Banat’s killing and other abuses by security forces flocked to al-Manara square in Ramallah. When the protesters made moves to spread their rally beyond Ramallah’s main square, though, the security forces jumped into action.
In an interview with Nawa, a feminist Palestinian news network, reporter Najla’ Zaytoun detailed her experience: “I was pushed by someone and they began hitting my left arm with a wooden stick. I retreated to the back, then another person grabbed my phone and ran away… My phone was then handed to the police forces. I demanded that I get it back, as I am a journalist… I was met with the words ‘Get out of here’ from the police force.”
Dozens were arrested at the protests and later. On July 4, 2021, Karajah, the lawyer who raised the alarm about the growing number of political prisoners, arrived at a Ramallah courthouse to defend clients charged for attending protests over Banat’s death. There, he was himself detained for “cyber crimes,” a charge previously leveled at Banat.
By Ghassan Banat’s count, dozens have been targeted for speaking out over his brother, being arrested, blackballed, or both.
Talal Dweikat, the PA spokesperson tasked with damage control following Banat’s death, appeared on the Fatah-friendly news station al-Awda to argue that “the public arena in the West Bank is open in comparison to all other countries in the region.”
In the same breath, he criticized the protesters’ behavior: “The issue of Nizar Banat is being used to attack the fabric of our society… the primary beneficiary of this is the Israeli occupation.”
Coordination or collusion?
Mutual interests in keeping a lid on unrest in the West Bank motivate the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet to maintain a coordination mechanism with the PA’s security forces. The coordination often revolves around intelligence-sharing and community engagement, as the PA is generally better placed to carry out surveillance and make contacts on the ground.
Perhaps most controversially, the PA frequently gives Israel the permission and the intelligence needed for conducting raids to weed out Hamas in places that are under full Palestinian control and thus supposed to be off-limits for Israeli security forces.
Both Israel and the PA portray their security coordination apparatus as a key element in keeping the West Bank from falling to terror groups or exploding into uncontrollable violence.
But the mechanism is profoundly unpopular in the West Bank — 61% of Palestinians there disapprove of it — and is one reason for Abbas’s meager popularity numbers. A common view among many Palestinians is that the PA and its security forces serve as subcontractors for Israel, performing the dirty work of daily security in the West Bank for money, power, and privileges.
“Everyone working for the PA is vetted and placed in position by Israel,” said Tahani Mustafa, an expert on Palestinian politics at the International Crisis Group think tank. “These PA elites control a lot of the aid flows and local economy because of their positive relationship with Israel, who in exchange provides permits and freedom of movement for them, as well as their friends and families.”
Palestinians in the West Bank need authorization to travel into Israel and Gaza. The level of authorization with the fewest strings attached is reserved for a select group of PA “VIPs” capped at 120 individuals and their families, according to the human rights group Gisha. These lucky few are permitted to move freely around and between the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel, with none of the routine security checks except at Ben Gurion Airport.
A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Affairs in the Territories (COGAT), the branch of the Israeli Defense Ministry that interfaces with Palestinian authorities, did not respond to a request for comment.
In his final video, Banat portrayed PA-Israel cooperation as a threat to Palestinian lives. In that video, he pilloried an agreement under which Israel was to deliver 1 million nearly expired doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the PA in return for an equal number of fresh vaccines three months down the line. The deal, which came at the height of the pandemic when the PA urgently needed vaccines, was eventually canceled by Ramallah.
“The PA paves the way for every project that the occupation desires,” he told independent Palestinian news network Watan months before his passing, channeling a pervasive sentiment.
Those close to Banat have been haunted by the idea that the collusion he so opposed between PA forces and the IDF might have facilitated his murder.
Banat was abducted from within H2, the section of Hebron directly administered by Israel. That’s why Banat made the place near his cousins into his safehouse, dimly hoping he could slip out of the PA’s grasp.
Ghassan Banat and Ghandi Rubi, the Banat family’s lawyer, said that legal proceedings since Banat’s death have disproven previous reports of Israel giving the PA forces prior permission to penetrate into its jurisdiction, perhaps as a quid pro quo. The spokesperson for COGAT also dismissed the allegations.
Rubi noted that H2 is a “wide area,” and said the PA security forces entered in plainclothes while traveling in a stolen vehicle with Israeli plates.
Still, he denounced Israel’s failure to protect Banat and its callousness in the face of intra-Palestinian violence.
“Israeli officials say ‘a Palestinian kills a Palestinian, Israel has nothing to do with it’… but Israel has a legal responsibility to protect [Palestinian] citizens in H2 under international law,” he said. “Israel occupies the land and deals with the [Palestinian] people. What is the classification of these people? Are they human beings? Do they have dignity? Or do they have no dignity and are not human beings, simply animals?”
At the same time, Rubi didn’t spare the PA criticism, accusing it of playing a double game: “Any citizen who speaks with Israel is a ‘traitor,’ but there is a class of people for whom everything is permitted,” he said. “For the average citizen, nothing is permitted.”
A ‘farce’ trial
In September last year, in response to mounting pressure at home and from donor countries, the PA opened military court proceedings against the 14 cops who had raided Banat’s home and allegedly beat him to death.
From the outset, the trial was riddled with irregularities
From the outset, the trial was riddled with irregularities. The prosecution, which was presented by Rubi along with a PA-appointed prosecutor, saw its star witness, Nizar’s cousin Hussein Banat, arrested on trumped-up charges that same month.
In February, all 14 defendants, despite being imprisoned, were able to skip out on a court session. According to Ghassan Banat, they were simply allowed “to come and go.” He pointed to the defendants’ continued use of social media throughout the trial as further evidence of that point.
Faris Shara’b, the lawyer for the defense, denied that such privileges were accorded his clients and instead said IDF restrictions on Palestinians’ movement had impeded their transfer from the prison in Jericho to the courthouse in Ramallah.
A COGAT spokesperson stated that this was not the case. The defendants’ absence in February, as well as absences by a coroner and a digital-footage expert, both witnesses for the defense, led to repeated multiple-week-long delays.
During the hearings the defendants did attend, they remained silent, as is their right under PA law.
In the absence of defendant testimony and the in-depth investigation promised by the PA, it has proven difficult through the trial to determine who gave the order that culminated in Banat’s death. Among the charges leveled against the 14, “violating military instructions” stands out as exculpating the security agents’ superiors.
Rubi told The Times of Israel that he has no doubt that the order came from very high up. He believes, however, that the untrained troops, in their youthful ignorance of human physical fragility, got carried away when only a beating (and perhaps torture) had been prescribed. A thrashing can scare an opponent into silence; assassination makes him into a martyr — an honorific the PA itself has used when referring to Banat in official statements.
Six forensic doctors asserted in prosecution testimony that beating combined with asphyxiation by tear gas sprayed directly into the mouth caused Banat’s death.
With almost all the implicated parties refusing to take the stand, the defense built its case atop a shallow roster of three witnesses. In contrast, the prosecution presented 25 witnesses. Disdain tinged with disbelief flashed across Rubi’s face when he brought up the conclusions of a coroner who, with no prior access to Banat’s corpse, testified for the defense that Banat “would have died even if he had been in a hotel drinking a coffee.”
Six forensic doctors asserted in prosecution testimony that beating combined with asphyxiation by tear gas sprayed directly into the mouth caused Banat’s death.
Outside the courtroom, the Banat family continued to raise awareness about the case and its various failings. According to Ghassan Banat, the PA attempted to offer the family hush money. He alleged that a PA middleman showed up to his office with an offer from Abbas: $10 million as well as jobs for him, for Jihan, and for 30 of Nizar’s cousins, at diplomatic missions, if they so desired. The PA could not be reached for comment.
On June 22, almost one year to the date of Banat’s death, the defendants were released on bail. The PA cited the prisoners’ risk of COVID-19 infection in the cramped quarters of their cells. The Independent Commission for Human Rights, however, has stated categorically that “preventing the spread of coronavirus does not justify departing from the rule of law.”
By then, the Banat family had already withdrawn from the trial, saying it had devolved into a “farce.” In Rubi’s words, “the trial will go on as it wishes,” but without the blessing of the Banat family.
As of this writing, not a single person has been held accountable for Banat’s death
The family is now seeking redress through international forums. Stoke White — a British firm specializing in international law — took on the case pro bono last year. The firm implicated seven PA officials on the strength of some 2,000 pages of investigation. Most prominent among these is Hussein al-Sheikh, the minister of civil affairs, who coordinates dealings with Israel, including the abortive vaccine swap, and is reported to be Abbas’s pick for successor.
Hakan Camuz, the director of international law at Stoke White, told The Times of Israel that specific pieces of evidence pointing to al-Sheikh’s involvement could not be divulged at this time because the investigation was ongoing, but he stated that the evidence is solid. Camuz and his firm are at present preparing documents to file applications with several international legal forums.
As of this writing, not a single person has been held accountable for Banat’s death.
In his office overlooking Ramallah, decorated with pieces of art from “every civilization” — a Japanese wood panel, a black-and-white photo of bodhisattva statues in a Thai temple, a portrait by a Jewish woman that bears a striking resemblance to Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi — Rubi explained that the case is not just about winning justice for Nizar Banat and his family. It is also about shining a light on the PA’s methods for managing dissent.
The PA, he charged, is blind to the benefits of political give-and-take, preferring the blunter tools of patronage, unadorned bribery, or outright violence if the first two fail. The PA would be wise to give adversaries a seat at the table, he argued, because “someone who lacks peaceful means to obtain rights resorts to violence.”
“The future of Palestinian society,” he added with a grimace, “is violence.”
Ghassan Banat, on the other hand, is holding out hope that Palestinian political life can change, inspired by the legacy of his activist brother and the ripples of protests in the wake of his death.
“After Nizar is not like before him,” he said. “The proof of this is that dozens of activists have plucked up the nerve to speak like Nizar once spoke.”