It was a rare sight: hundreds of Palestinians calling for the end of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s 16-year rule, just a few hundred meters from his office in Ramallah.
״Get out, get out, leave us,” the protesters chanted to the president as they marched through the downtown area of the West Bank city on Saturday.
Lines of riot police, wielding long clubs and plastic shields, beat some demonstrators who sought to approach the PA president’s office. Ranks of plainclothes officers followed, darting into the crowd to arrest demonstrators, sometimes violently.
The Palestinian Authority’s seat of power rarely sees large demonstrations against its leadership. The last major gatherings were in 2019, when thousands of Palestinians gathered to protest the PA’s controversial social security law.
But frustration has been mounting for months. And the death of well-known critic Nizar Banat — allegedly after being viciously beaten while in PA custody — was enough to spark a wave of demonstrations in Ramallah and Hebron.
In a marked change, demonstrators have directly called for Abbas’s ouster, not reform. “The people want the fall of the regime,” they chanted, a slogan that harks back to the 2011 Arab revolutions.
“These are unprecedented chants. We’ve seen protests in the past against political detentions, for human rights, against corruption — but not like what we’ve seen in the last demonstrations. This is dangerous,” Fatah Revolutionary Council member Hatem Abd al-Qader told The Times of Israel.
The movement has yet to spread from Hebron and Ramallah to the rest of the West Bank’s cities. The former is commonly seen as a stronghold of Abbas’s Hamas rivals, while the latter has seen much weaker protests, with hundreds rather than thousands in attendance.
The protesters have reflected a big but fractious tent of PA opponents: ultraconservative Islamists who seek to restore the Islamic Caliphate, activists in the Hamas terror group, civil society liberals who hope to reform the PA, and left-wing activists who oppose the PA on principle.
Banat, a 44-year-old social media activist from Dura, near Hebron, had developed a loyal following on his Facebook page. He uploaded simple videos, often just himself sitting in front of a white wall, railing against the Palestinian Authority.
Banat excoriated the entire Palestinian political spectrum, from Abbas’s Fatah movement to Hamas. His style was caustic and angry, often outright provocative. He was a steadfast opponent of Israel, as well, comparing Zionism to the short-lived Crusader kingdoms; one day, he vowed, the Israeli state would also fall.
His concerns resonated with ordinary Palestinians. Many see the PA as corrupt, autocratic and ineffectual at realizing their dream of an independent state.
“The prevailing feeling today among vast swaths of the Palestinian people is that they did not struggle and sacrifice on the path to liberation for the sake of creating an authoritarian regime that curtails freedom of expression and the freedoms of its citizens,” wrote Palestinian political analyst Jihad Harb in the aftermath of Banat’s killing.
‘The straw that broke the camel’s back’
These frustrations have seethed under the surface for years. But Banat’s death comes as the Palestinian Authority faces a crisis of legitimacy that seems to grow deeper by the day.
“Banat’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Ashraf al-Ajrami, a Fatah official and former PA minister, said in a phone call.
In April, Abbas indefinitely delayed scheduled Palestinian elections that would have been the first in 15 years, effectively canceling them. Abbas blamed Israel for not officially granting the Palestinians free rein to conduct the vote in East Jerusalem.
Most observers — including Banat — believed the true reason was Abbas’s fear that he would lose ground to his own rivals within Fatah and to Hamas. Abbas’s rivals in Fatah gathered strong support, while Hamas at the time was polling around 8 percent.
“They figured that the street would punish them. So they scampered to this idea of Jerusalem” so as to avoid holding the vote, Banat told official Hamas Al-Aqsa TV in the aftermath of the cancellation of the election.
Allegations of corruption against the PA have taken on a sharper tone during the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the West Bank was rocked by scandal when allegations emerged that PA officials had appropriated vaccines for use by senior officials and relatives.
Hamas has also made enormous strides in popularity. The terror group’s status has risen sharply since the 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel last month. Palestinians celebrating in Ramallah’s downtown after the ceasefire hoisted green flags associated with Hamas — in the heart of the PA’s seat of power.
Many Palestinians saw Hamas’s actions during the war as effective resistance to Israel, even as the PA remained silent. According to a recent survey by pollster Khalil Shakiki, around 75 percent of Palestinians approved of Hamas’s performance during the recent war; only 8% said Abbas had done well.
Harb, the political analyst, called the May events “an earthquake” that led to “significant backsliding in citizens’ views of the ruling [Palestinian] Authority.”
“Ignoring the matter, or considering it to be a mere tempest in a teacup that will dissipate like previous incidents — I think this is a limited and naïve approach,” said Harb.
Hamas has seen the demonstrations over Banat’s death as an opportunity to create further chaos in the West Bank, al-Ajrami said.
The protests have met with resounding silence from the leadership in Ramallah. Neither Abbas nor any senior PA officials have discussed the matter publicly, even as thousands of protesters have hit the streets and outrage swirled on social media.
Senior Abbas advisor Hussein al-Sheikh, who serves as the PA’s official envoy to Israel, was the only one to implicitly refer to the events, without mentioning Banat by name.
“Law and order and transparency are obligatory, and they guarantee the protection of all Palestinians and the preservation of the political, social and national fabric. Nobody is above the law,” al-Sheikh tweeted on Saturday.
Al-Ajrami, the former PA minister, said that the demonstrations would likely soon blow over.
“The situation is still under control, and the matter could end in a few days, assuming there aren’t any surprises,” Al-Ajrami said.
But Abd al-Qadir argued that the leadership’s response — which has included violently dispersing the Ramallah rallies — was inflaming an already tense situation.
“This is political idiocy. From the first moment, there should have been statements by [PA Prime Minister] Mohammad Shtayyeh, by Mahmoud Abbas, to absorb Palestinian anger. Instead, they’re increasing it by repressing the demonstrations,” said Abd al-Qadir.
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