Palestinians clashed with security forces in Ramallah on Saturday in the third day of protests following the death of a prominent critic of the Palestinian Authority, who died earlier this week in PA custody.
Nizar Banat, known for his biting videos on social media, died on Thursday after being arrested by officers in the Palestinian security services.
According to Banat’s family members, they witnessed him being viciously beaten for eight minutes straight before officers dragged him off.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in downtown Ramallah’s al-Manara Circle to demonstrate against Banat’s death and call for the end of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s 16-year reign.
“The people want the fall of the regime,” protesters chanted, a hallmark of the revolutionary 2011 protests that swept the Arab world. “Get out, leave us be.”
“Abbas, you [Israeli] spy, we want to stomp on your head,” others shouted.
In videos from the scene, PA security forces fired tear gas into the crowd in an apparent attempt to keep demonstrators away from the presidential offices. Others, reportedly officers in civilian clothes, can be seen dragging away a demonstrator.
Hundreds of Palestinians took the street in Ramallah and demanded president Abbas to leave pic.twitter.com/DNyZDslyYo
— Alaa Daraghme (@AlaaDaraghme) June 26, 2021
“Collaborators! Collaborators!” some protesters yelled at PA forces as they sought to disperse the gathering.
شبيحة السلطة يتعاملون بعنف مفرط مع المسيرات السلمية التي خرجت للتنديد بمقتل #نزار_بنات على يد الأجهزة الأمنية.
يسقط عباس وتسقط السلطة ويسقط كلاب التنسيق الأمني pic.twitter.com/6v38JfWjB8
— ibrahim sahouri (@ibrahim_sahouri) June 26, 2021
An earlier Ramallah protest led by Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), a pan-Islamist political organization that seeks to re-establish an Islamic Caliphate and rule by Islamic religious law, had apparently ended without incident.
Thousands also gathered earlier on Saturday in Hebron, where Banat’s funeral was held a day earlier.
Banat, 44, had a Facebook page in which he uploaded videos critical of the Palestinian Authority. He frequently assailed senior officials in Ramallah for alleged corruption and their commitment to security cooperation with Israel.
His political activity brought reprisals. In December, Banat was held for several days under the PA’s controversial 2018 Cybercrimes Law, which allows Palestinians to be charged for “slandering” officials online.
After Abbas canceled planned Palestinian elections in April, Banat, himself a legislative candidate on an independent list, gave an interview harshly critical of the PA president to a Hamas-linked television channel. A few days later, unidentified gunmen fired at his home in Dura, near Hebron.
Banat fled to a hideout in an Israeli-controlled part of Hebron. The West Bank city has been divided since the 1997 Hebron Protocol, which split the city into Palestinian and Israeli-administered areas.
On Thursday morning, members of the PA security services raided the house where he was staying. According to his family, the officers stripped Banat, sprayed pepper gas in his eyes, before “viciously beating him” and dragging him away. Two hours later, his family learned that Banat was dead.
The PA has said it will conduct a full investigation with representatives from the family and human rights groups.
His death sparked widespread outrage among Palestinians, leading protests to break out in Ramallah on Thursday. Hundreds of demonstrators marched through the streets, calling for the end of Abbas’s 16-year rule. They were met by police wielding batons and firing tear gas canisters.
On Friday, during the funeral procession for Banat in Hebron, protesters chanted “get out, get out, Abbas. This is the vote of all the people.”
“Out, out, out, get the dogs of the PA out,” others said.
A crowd of Palestinians — appearing to number in the dozens — also gathered following Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem to chant anti-Abbas and pro-Hamas slogans. The site is the third holiest in Islam and it lies on the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.
“The Palestinian Authority are [Israeli] spies, from the lowest soldier to the president,” the crowd called.
— د. ابراهيم حمامي (@DrHamami) June 26, 2021
A spokesperson for the United States State Department has said the administration is “deeply disturbed” by Banat’s death and urged the PA to conduct a transparent investigation.
“We have serious concerns about Palestinian Authority restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression by Palestinians and harassment of civil society activists and organizations,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
The European Union, the Palestinian Authority’s largest financial backer, said it was “shocked and saddened” by Banat’s death. On Tuesday, the EU backed a $425 million aid package to the Palestinian private sector, at least $200 million of which would be channeled through PA institutions.
“Our thoughts go to his family and loved ones. [A] full, independent, and transparent investigation should be conducted immediately,” the EU said in a statement.
The West Bank has seen an uptick in the arrests of activists opposed to the Palestinian Authority since the recent 11-day battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The fighting saw the widely-disliked PA leadership in Ramallah lose more support, as its Hamas rivals rose in popularity.
On Tuesday, PA security forces arrested Issa Amro, another prominent activist from Hebron, for statements accusing the West Bank leadership of corruption. Amro was released, pending a hearing on his case with the PA public prosecutor.
The Hamas terror group, which rules the Gaza Strip, condemned Banat’s death as an “assassination.”
“This premeditated crime reflects the intentions and behavior of the Abbas Authority and his security services toward our people, opposition activists and his political opponents,” said Hamas, which has been at odds with Abbas’s Fatah movement since a 2007 civil war between the two sides for control of Gaza.
Exiled Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan called for “a wide popular and legal response to hold the killers accountable.”
“There are no words to describe the killing of the prominent national activist, the martyr, Nizar Banat,” tweeted Dahlan, who leads a Fatah breakaway faction known as the Democratic Reform Current.
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.