Hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators called for an end to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s 16-year reign on Saturday in the latest demonstration sparked by the death of PA critic Nizar Banat.
“Abbas, dissolve the PA, and get out of our way!” protesters called as they wound their way through Ramallah’s downtown.
As the protest heated up, hundreds of demonstrators began calling “the people want the fall of the regime” and “leave,” slogans associated with the 2011 Arab revolutions.
“We’re caught between the Palestinian Authority and the [Israeli] army,” demonstrators said.
The rally was part of a series of protests ignited by the death of Banat, a prominent opponent of the PA, while in the custody of Palestinian security forces last month. The demonstrations had paused following a harsh crackdown by PA security forces early last week.
The United Nations and Palestinian rights groups have charged that Palestinian Authority forces attacked demonstrators at previous rallies. Saturday’s protest, however, dispersed peacefully, with no reports of violence.
While the protests were sparked by Banat’s death, frustration with the PA has been growing for months. In April, Abbas canceled the first planned Palestinian national vote in over 15 years. Then, during the 11-day conflict between Israel and the Hamas terror group in May, the PA largely refrained from getting involved, a position many Palestinians perceived as weakness.
The PA, including Abbas, is widely seen by Palestinians as autocratic and corrupt. Surveys regularly find a majority of Palestinians demand Abbas’s resignation.
During Saturday’s protest, demonstrators looped throughout Ramallah’s small downtown before heading in the direction of Abbas’s presidential offices. Rows of armored riot police stood behind a barricade, preventing them from advancing further.
Protesters sat on the street, singing and calling for Abbas’s resignation, before peacefully dispersing.
Banat’s mother attended the protest, hoisting a photo of her dead son as she marched through the streets of Ramallah. When she arrived, flanked by other family members, protesters burst into a round of applause.
“Nizar’s blood is not up for negotiation,” she told reporters.
Mohammad, a 37-year-old who works in Ramallah, said that hearing the demonstrators call for the fall of the PA “makes me happy, there’s no other way to say it.”
“I’m a Fatah member, and I voted for Abbas in 2006, but at this point Abbas should either hold elections or just go,” said Mohammad on the sidelines of the protest. He asked that his last name be withheld due to concern over PA police retribution.
Asked why the protest was relatively small, Mohammad cited fear following last week’s crackdown by security forces: “People are very scared to come out into the street.”
Banat, a social media activist from Hebron well-known for his scathing videos criticizing the Palestinian leadership, died in late June following a raid on his house by PA officers. According to his family, security forces viciously beat him and dragged him off. Two hours later, they were informed he had died.
In response, scattered demonstrations broke out in Hebron and Ramallah calling for an end to Abbas’s rule. In Ramallah, security forces dispersed the initial rallies with tear gas. During a rally last Sunday, officers in civilian clothes beat demonstrators and targeted journalists, Palestinian rights groups said.
The United Nations condemned the crackdown and urged the PA to allow peaceful protesters to freely demonstrate.
“Last weekend, we witnessed Palestinian Security Forces using force against initially entirely peaceful protesters, including beating them with batons and firing teargas and stun grenades,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Thursday.
An investigation into Banat’s death, led by the PA justice ministry and its military intelligence, concluded on Wednesday night. Its findings have yet to be made public, although 14 individuals were referred to the Justice Ministry last week, a spokesperson for the PA security services said.
The Banat family has already said that it will not accept the results of the PA’s official investigation, calling it illegitimate and slanted. A representative from the family and a prominent Palestinian human rights group both withdrew from the process.
Banat’s death prompted strong reactions from the international community. UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland said the “perpetrators must be brought to justice,” while the United States said it was “deeply disturbed” by his death.
“Violence in all its forms against peaceful political opponents, activists, journalists, and human rights defenders is unacceptable,” said European Union envoy Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff in a statement following a visit to the Banat family to pay his condolences.
Officials in Ramallah have bristled at the international condemnations.
“The Palestinian people need protection from the occupation, not anyone’s tutelage,” tweeted senior Palestinian Authority official Hussein al-Sheikh, a close Abbas advisor, referring to Israel.
Fatah, the ruling party led by Abbas, held a counter-rally in Hebron expressing support for the president. Thousands gathered in the West Bank metropole, waving the movement’s distinctive yellow flags.
Official PA television covered the Hebron rally and ignored the gathering in downtown Ramallah.
“Fatah is having its say in Hebron, in defense of our national project, the unity of our people, and its national strength,” said al-Sheikh.