The Palestinian Authority intelligence services initially refused to release a self-styled activist reportedly arrested for criticizing a senior PA official despite a court order issued on Monday requiring he be cut loose, according to the activist’s legal team.
After a day of legal pressure — including an appeal to a higher court, which upheld the lower court’s decision — the security services released him without further explanation.
A spokesperson for the PA security services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Nizar Banat, a resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, has reportedly been detained several times for his criticism of the Palestinian Authority on Facebook. He has a moderate social media audience — around 80,000 followers — and regularly uploads videos attacking PA politicians and the Palestinian security services.
AMAN, a Palestinian civil society organization that advocates for transparency in governance, condemned the delay in releasing Banat.
“We believe that the security services’ refusal to implement the decisions of the Palestinian judiciary is a blatant expression of the executive branch’s power over the other branches of government,” AMAN said in a statement.
Banat was arrested last week over a video he posted slamming Ramallah’s decision to resume security ties with Israel. After he began a hunger strike, a Jericho court ordered his immediate release on Monday, but the security services delayed releasing him despite civil society condemnation.
Ramallah severed its security coordination with Israel in protest of an Israeli plan to annex parts of the West Bank in keeping with US President Donald Trump’s controversial peace plan. It also refused to accept monthly transfers of over $100 million in taxes which Israel collects on its behalf.
The annexation plan was officially suspended when Israel established open ties with the United Arab Emirates in mid-August. But the PA did not immediately return to coordinating with Israel, not wanting to be seen as rewarding a normalization deal that it condemned as a “betrayal” and “a stab in the back.” Israeli officials have said that security coordination is critical to preventing terror attacks against Israeli civilians.
Last Tuesday night, in the wake of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election — he is widely seen as far more amenable to Ramallah than was Trump — senior PA official Hussein al-Sheikh announced that ties with Israel would be restored. The PA minister and Abbas confidant sought to spin the return to coordination with Israel as “a victory for our great nation.”
“Our stance was clear: As long as there was an intention to annex, the Palestinian leadership considered itself absolved of its agreements with Israel,” al-Sheikh said in an interview with official Palestine TV.
Al-Sheikh asserted that Ramallah had extracted a written promise from Israel that it would adhere to its prior agreements with the Palestinians, which al-Sheikh said meant the end of the threat of annexation.
“We turned to the Israeli government — in writing — in recent days, asking whether or not they would still adhere to their agreements with us… we received a letter today from the Israeli government saying that they were committed to the agreements signed with the Palestinian leadership,” al-Sheikh continued.
Banat, however, called al-Sheikh’s statements “truly strange.” Security coordination with Israel is deeply unpopular among many Palestinians.
“What is this disdain, this vulgarity, this twisting of notions — what is this ‘victory’ exactly?” Banat said, accusing the PA of debasing the values of “martyrdom” and “resistance.”
“Annexation is still here, the settlements are still here, the embassy is still in Jerusalem. They don’t even take you into consideration,” he said.
Banat was arrested under the PA’s controversial cybercrimes law, which allows individuals to be arrested for “slandering” government institutions online. Human rights groups allege that the PA has abused the practice to arbitrarily arrest opponents for political purposes.
PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh pledged that his government would protect freedom of speech during a 2019 meeting with a delegation from Human Rights Watch.
“Today I met with a senior delegation from HRW, headed by @kenroth and confirmed my government’s commitment to guarantee the right of Palestinian citizens to free speech through constructive criticism. In this regard I emphasized that no arrests or persecution will happen,” Shtayyeh wrote on Twitter.
Shtayyeh also currently serves as the PA’s interior minister, AMAN noted in its statement appealing to him to order the implementation of the court order to end Banat’s detention.
Palestinian comedian and popular social commentator Alaa Abu Diab called Banat’s arrest “political persecution.”
“He’s someone expressing his opinion, God help him,” Abu Diab said.