PA arrests 30 demonstrators protesting death of dissident in its custody

Palestinian rights groups, Hamas condemn detentions; detainees range from anti-corruption activists to prominent members of Islamic Jihad

Maryam Banat, 67, mother of Palestinian Authority critic Nizar Banat, holds a poster with his picture at a rally protesting his death, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on July 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Maryam Banat, 67, mother of Palestinian Authority critic Nizar Banat, holds a poster with his picture at a rally protesting his death, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on July 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

The Palestinian Authority arrested around 30 demonstrators Saturday and Sunday who had gathered to hold protests memorializing a well-known PA critic who died in the custody of Ramallah’s security forces.

Nizar Banat, a fierce opponent of the Palestinian Authority with a prodigious social media presence, died after officers stormed his hideout in late June, allegedly beating him to death.

Demonstrators trickled into al-Manara Square in downtown Ramallah to begin the rally, but PA security forces immediately materialized to arrest them, according to videos from the scene.

“There was no official permit from authorities to hold the gathering, and a group of the attendees refused to agree to the conditions for the gathering,” Palestinian Authority police spokesperson Louay Irzeiqat said in a statement.

Irzeiqat could not be reached for further comment on the conditions for protesting in Ramallah. Some 24 people were detained on Saturday night, according to police. Some of the detainees were later released, while others remained in custody as of Monday afternoon.

Some of those detained over the weekend were well-known anti-corruption activists, such as community organizer Fadi Quran. Academics — such as pro-Hamas physicist Imad Barghouti — and prominent poet Zekaria Mohammad were also arrested.

“This scene shows what we’ve come to,” Mohammad’s wife told reporters following his arrest, gesturing to the masses of riot police behind her.

Palestinian security forces block a road during a demonstration in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, on June 26, 2021, protesting the death of human rights activist Nizar Banat while in the custody of Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Other detainees were affiliated with anti-PA factions such as Islamic Jihad. Khadr Adnan, a senior figure in the terror group’s West Bank division, was arrested on Sunday while protesting the arrests outside a Ramallah court where the suspects had been brought for a hearing.

According to the legal aid group Lawyers for Justice, which often defends Palestinians arrested by the PA, some of the detainees have been charged with “disparaging government institutions” and “insulting civil servants.” Others were suspected of “inciting sectarian hatred,” the rights group said.

At least five other Palestinians were arrested later that evening at a demonstration protesting both the detentions and Banat’s death, Lawyers for Justice said on Sunday.

Palestinian human rights groups called for the detainees’ immediate release, saying they had been arrested purely for holding “a peaceful gathering to call for accountability in the case of Nizar Banat.”

“The organizers had submitted the required notifications for the gathering to the responsible authorities,” the Independent Commission for Human Rights said in a statement.

The Hamas terror group also condemned the arrests. “The Palestinian Authority continues to practice intimidation and political arrests against the elite and our people’s leaders in the occupied West Bank,” tweeted senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk.

Banat’s death sparked rare demonstrations calling for the downfall of the widely unpopular PA government. Thousands gathered in downtown Hebron to mark Banat’s funeral, and hundreds rallied in Ramallah to call for PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s resignation.

In response, PA security forces began a large-scale crackdown on dissent.  Protesters were attacked by riot police and plains-clothes officers, who beat them and sought to prevent them from documenting the violence, according to Palestinian rights groups.

The demonstrations largely sputtered out following the crackdown. But the crisis of legitimacy plaguing the unpopular Palestinian Authority remains. Palestinians increasingly see the PA as corrupt, authoritarian, and ineffectual, unable to realize their dream of an independent state and an end to Israeli rule.

“The Palestinian political leadership & security forces are losing even more credibility & standing among the Palestinian people who refuse to surrender to oppression…Shrinking space for protest & dissent is unacceptable & will backfire,” tweeted former senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi, who has emerged as a critic of the leadership.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wears a mask upon his arriving to head the Palestinian leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on May 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, Pool)

Earlier this year, Palestinians were supposed to hold their first parliamentary elections since 2006. But Abbas — who has been in office 11 years longer than his four-year presidential term — canceled the vote, blaming Israel. Most observers, however, charged that he was more concerned about a loss to rivals within his own Fatah movement.

Meanwhile, Hamas has surged in popularity following its May battle with Israel. A June poll conducted by Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki found that 53 percent of Palestinians say Hamas, not Fatah under Abbas, deserves to represent and lead the Palestinian people, compared to 14% who supported Abbas.

Ramallah’s leadership has pledged to conduct reforms, and has hinted in recent weeks that it may switch out some ministers for fresh faces. Critics, however, say that the proposed reforms indicate a change in names — not in policy.

“These changes won’t restore the trust of the Palestinian public in the government. This changes faces, but not the approach. It strengthens the impression that the government will not change its relationship with its public,” Jihad Harb, a Palestinian political analyst, said in a phone interview last week.

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