Thousands marched through the streets of Hebron on Friday at the funeral of a Palestinian Authority critic who died in PA custody, with many calling for the end of President Mahmoud Abbas’s 16-year rule.
Nizar Banat, a prominent critic of the PA 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.
“Get out, get out, Abbas. This is the vote of all the people,” protesters chanted. Green flags emblazoned with white Arabic calligraphy, often associated with the Hamas terror group, dotted the procession.
Invoking one of the best-known slogans of the 2011 Arab revolutions, demonstrators called out: “The people want to topple the regime!”
“Out, out, out, get the dogs of the PA out,” others said.
“People want to overthrow the regime,”chants in Hebron… as thousands take part in the funeral of #NizarBanat, the 44-year-old father of five. Banat was an outspoken PA critic and a candidate in the canceled elections. https://t.co/ZLu752wIXg
— Rania Zabaneh (@RZabaneh) June 25, 2021
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.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) June 25, 2021
Another few dozen Palestinians gathered at al-Manara Square in downtown Ramallah to condemn the PA for Banat’s death.
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 Israel-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 rare 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.
Banat’s funeral was held in southern Hebron. Thousands packed into the mosque, with many others gathered outside. Little social distancing was in evidence, even though many Palestinians in the West Bank have yet to be vaccinated.
The funeral was led by the Hamas-linked journalist Alaa al-Rimawi, who has himself been detained by both Israel and the PA security services on several occasions.
“Peace be upon you, Nizar. Peace be upon you. You are the teacher, the instructor,” al-Rimawi said, gesturing at Banat’s body.
While many Palestinian television channels and news sites live-streamed the funeral from the mosque in southern Hebron, the official PA-run Palestine TV instead showed clips from clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators near Beita in the northern West Bank.
After the funeral, participants marched north towards the cemetery where Banat was set to be buried, continuing to chant slogans against Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
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 still 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.