The unrest was spurred by the apparent killing of Nizar Banat, a prominent activist and critic of Abbas. According to witnesses, he was violently seized and beaten by Palestinian security forces in a predawn raid June 24. Just hours later, his family learned that he had died in custody. The circumstances of his death fueled popular outrage, leading thousands to take to the streets across the West Bank. Their anger has been largely met with repression and harassment from the Palestinian Authority, with myriad reports of journalists and demonstrators being targeted by the security forces, roughed up and arbitrarily detained.
Banat’s death has tapped into widespread anger at the Palestinian Authority and Abbas, who has been at its helm for 16 years. “The protests, along with growing calls for a general strike, reflect rising frustration with widely perceived corruption and incompetence within Palestinian leadership ranks,” my colleagues wrote last week. “They follow the abrupt cancellation of Palestinian elections — the first in 15 years — scheduled for this spring and summer at a time when polls showed Abbas and his Fatah party losing support.”
The Palestinian Authority is an entity that emerged in 1994 in the wake of the Oslo I Accord. It was only intended to be a transitional, technocratic apparatus that would help usher in a future independent Palestinian state. But the peace process with Israel has collapsed. Abbas’s Fatah party is at odds with the Islamist group Hamas, which holds sway in the Gaza Strip. Their lack of unity has coincided with the steady lurch to the right of Israeli politics, where numerous elected lawmakers openly reject the idea of Israel even permitting a “two-state” solution and instead push for further annexation of Palestinian lands.
Now, Abbas faces an Israel that is uninterested in the political project that defines his position, while presiding over a Palestinian public chafing under his increasingly autocratic rule. Abbas’s decision to scrap the already-delayed elections raised the ire of activists such as Banat and underscored the long-ruling leader’s dwindling political legitimacy, which critics say amounts to serving as an accomplice to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The Palestinian Authority “has turned into a private company saturated with administrative and financial corruption,” wrote Nidal Betare and Hazem Youness in a Washington Post op-ed. “It has coped with the occupation, working closely with the Israeli security authorities and playing a functional role for them.”
The United States, the European Union and U.N. officials all condemned Banat’s death and urged the Palestinian Authority to conduct a thorough investigation. But analysts doubt Abbas’s long-standing international benefactors will pursue any major shift in policy. “Even though the Oslo Accords have broken down and no longer serve the higher purpose of facilitating a peace agreement, PA security coordination with the Israeli military has survived as a condition of the West’s ongoing support,” wrote Omar H. Rahman of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “This has created a climate of impunity for the PA in dealing with its own public.”
The latest wave of protests has drawn comparisons to uprisings against other Arab regimes. “The bad economic conditions, the high unemployment, the lack of horizon for youth, and the authoritative regime are all the ingredients for a possible explosion,” Jehad Harb, a Ramallah-based political analyst, told the Christian Science Monitor. “This moment is very similar to the boiling point that erupted into the Arab Spring in 2011.”
Those political passions are compounded by the overarching reality of the Israeli occupation, which places Palestinians at the whim of Israel’s security imperatives while denying them the same civil and political rights as their neighbors. In areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinian activists find themselves constantly at odds with an Israeli state and Jewish settler movement seemingly bent on appropriating their homes and lands.
The protests now carry not only that fight for political survival, but a profound impatience at the aging leadership that purports to represent the Palestinian cause. A younger generation of Palestinians seeks new answers. Their impatience was on show in the weeks of violence in May, when Palestinians engaged in a rare general strike in both the occupied territories and cities within Israel’s 1967 borders.
“Palestinians, especially young Palestinians, were already craving representation and democracy,” Salem Barahmeh, a member of Generation for Democratic Renewal, a youth engagement group, told my colleagues. “We want to build a system where every Palestinian has a voice and the agency and the ability to shape their future.”
In response to the protests, Abbas and his allies may attempt some cursory political reforms, including a cabinet reshuffle and the appointment of a new Palestinian prime minister. But analysts point to the need for new elections after more than a 15-year gap to help shape a new Palestinian political dispensation. That may require a breaking of the status quo that neither Israel nor Abbas seems willing to countenance.
“Like Israel, the Palestinian Authority is frightened by unity,” wrote Mariam Barghouti, a Ramallah-based writer and activist, in a Washington Post op-ed. “Like Israel, it is terrified by the fact that most Palestinians protesting in the streets are not under a factional banner.”
Barghouti continued: “It claims that its fear is Hamas, echoing the speech of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli colonial discourse. Hamas has its own track record of abusing Palestinians and attempting to consolidate its own grip on Palestinian politics,” she wrote. “Experiencing repression from all sides, it feels as though Palestinians have become pawns in a game of chess.”