Palestine: Protests on the West Bank

Mohamed Abu Shaara, Thursday 1 Jul 2021

The death of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat in Palestinian government custody last week has set off demonstrations across the West Bank

Protests on the West Bank
Palestinians hold posters depicting Banat during a protest triggered by his violent arrest and death in custody (photos: AFP)

The death of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat from Hebron in the West Bank last week has sparked widespread anger and political and security repercussions, setting off protests that have quickly escalated due to the brutal response of the Palestinian security agencies and the sharp polarisation of the Palestinian streets.

Banat was a leading critic of the Palestinian Authority (PA), most recently condemning what he described as “corruption” in a Covid-19 vaccine deal between the PA and Israel, whereby Israel would supply the PA with the Pfizer vaccine in return for Israel receiving vaccines from a batch allotted to the Palestinians.

The deal was cancelled when it emerged that the expiration date of the vaccines was fast approaching.

Hebron mayor Jibreen Al-Bakri said on 24 June that a warrant had been issued by the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Banat’s arrest, and after his arrest his health had deteriorated and he had been transferred to the state-run Hebron Hospital where he had died in custody.

This version of events did not convince the Palestinian public, especially since Banat had said there was a plot to silence him. His family said that some two dozen armed men had raided his house and beaten him up, spraying him with pepper spray and then arresting him.

While the PA at first remained silent about the incident, it eventually announced that it had formed a committee to investigate it with the participation of a representative from Banat’s family and human-rights groups.

However, Ammar Al-Dwaik, director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), then withdrew from the investigation. He was followed by the Palestinian Bar Association also declining to participate, and finally Banat’s family also withdrew its representative from the committee.

Banat’s family preempted the outcome of the investigations into Banat’s death by saying it would reject its findings. The family has blamed Palestinian prime minister and Minister of the Interior Mohamed Shtayyeh, as well as the director of the security agencies in Hebron.

The family said that the PA must admit what had occurred was a crime and its perpetrators must be identified through an impartial committee. It would not accept what it described as an “incompetent and flawed” investigative committee whose members represented the authorities, the family said.

It called for the arrest of those responsible for Banat’s death and for them to be put on trial. 

Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in several areas of the West Bank, especially Ramallah and Hebron, to protest against Banat’s death. In Ramallah, the Palestinian security forces put down the protests with tear gas, preventing journalists from covering the events.

In response to the brutality, the demonstrators demanded the resignation of the Palestinian government, saying it had failed to prevent Banat’s death and had permitted the suppression of the protesters.

The government said it was confronting attempts to destabilise security on the West Bank by parties aiming to take advantage of Banat’s death to pursue their own agendas.

Banat’s death and the subsequent clashes in several West Bank cities were criticised by the UN, EU and the US State Department, which expressed serious concerns over the events and called for an independent investigation and the prosecution of the perpetrators. 

Meanwhile, the Palestinian People’s Party, affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), announced the resignation of its minister from the Palestinian cabinet and called on the government to resign due to what it called “violations of public freedoms.”

Palestinian journalists protested at being prevented from covering the events, demanding that pressure be put on the PA to protect journalists. They urged the Palestinian Press Syndicate not to cover news of the Palestinian presidency and cabinet, the sacking of the Ramallah police chief, and that the government issue an apology for its actions.

Banat’s death has raised tensions between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, with the former accusing the latter of taking advantage of the incident to achieve political gains. Hamas is spearheading moves to condemn the death of Banat.

There have been calls for the government’s resignation and new elections to be held to end the political impasse. Fatah resorted to civilian elements to confront the demonstrators, and in Ramallah clashes erupted between Fatah supporters and the group’s opponents.

In an attempt to calm the situation, Shtayyeh said that anyone found to be connected to Banat’s death would be prosecuted, adding that anyone who broke the law or endangered people’s lives would also be held accountable. He rejected accusations against the Palestinian security agencies that had dispersed the marches in Ramallah.

“The security institution with its patriotic creed is the protective shield of our national aspirations,” he said.

Some observers believe that the angry reactions to Banat’s death have been augmented by the perceived political impotence of the PA, especially after the elections that were to be held on 22 May followed two months later by presidential elections were cancelled by a presidential decree on the pretext that Israel had blocked the elections in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian factions have also failed to end divisions and achieve reconciliation after the military confrontation between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israel. Both factions, Fatah and Hamas, have returned to blaming each other for the continued divisions.

Alaa Abu Amer, a former Palestinian diplomat, said that “this is not only about Banat’s death. It is about much more than that. His death has been a catalyst for rebellion and for everyone who wants change. One phase has politically ended, and if the regime does not change its behaviour, change will come from the outside.”

“Those who have lit the fire are the only ones who can put it out. It will not be put out except with icy water that cools the hearts of people in a patriotic rage. They are the majority who care about the nation and have nothing to do with foreign agendas,” he added.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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