Banat was beaten by security officers when they pulled him from bed in a predawn raid on June 24, witnesses said. Officials announced two hours later that he had died, blaming an unspecified health problem.
The protests, along with growing calls for a general strike, reflect rising frustration with widely perceived corruption and incompetence within Palestinian leadership ranks. 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 official pushback against the demonstrations has been violent, with riot police deploying tear gas and reportedly assaulting female protesters. Video showed plainclothes security officers and Fatah supporters attacking protesters with rocks and clubs at a weekend rally of several hundred in Ramallah. Officers confiscated cellphones from marchers shooting video and reporters have had cameras broken, according to the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate.
The U.S. Embassy released a statement Tuesday expressing concern. “We are deeply disturbed by reports that non-uniformed members of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) harassed and used force against protesters and journalists over the weekend during public demonstrations calling for accountability for the death of activist Nizar Banat. We strongly urge security forces to conduct themselves in a professional manner and authorities to respect freedom of expression, the work of journalists, and the rights of Palestinians to protest peacefully,” an embassy spokesperson said.
A group of human rights and legal organizations said Monday that it would ask the U.N. Human Rights Commission to address the attacks on journalists, which have particularly targeted women, the group said.
A statement by a Fatah organization published in official media warned protesters against taking to the streets and said it would not tolerate criticism of the government and police that it blamed on outside agitators.
Fatah “would strike with an iron fist those who seek to offend the sons of our security establishment,” the statement said.
The crackdown has caused some rifts within the government, with one minister from the leftist Palestinian People’s Party pulling out of the government over the weekend. One reporter on state-affiliated radio resigned on the air Monday, after being instructed by managers not to express her personal feelings about the protests and Banat’s killing.
Banat was a well-known anti-corruption activist and opposition candidate who frequently called for Palestinian leaders, including Abbas, to be held accountable for government failures and malfeasance.
In May, after Banat called on European countries to suspend financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, security forces attacked his house in the city of Dura, forcing him to move in with relatives in Hebron.
It was there, a few days after Banat released a video critical of the authority’s handling of a potential vaccine deal with Israel, that security officers burst into his bedroom, saying they had a warrant for his arrest. Witnesses said he was brutally beaten with a crowbar while still in bed.
The U.S. State Department and the European Union called for an independent investigation of the death, which Banat’s attorney called “an assassination in every sense of the word.”
The government quickly established a commission of inquiry, and Abbas said he wanted a preliminary finding delivered to him within days.
But critics said the panel is unlikely to produce an unbiased report. The Ramallah-based Independent Commission for Human Rights declined to join the official inquiry, saying it will contribute instead to independent efforts. And on Monday, Banat’s relatives asked his family doctor not to join the panel.
The upheaval comes as the political dynamic in the West Bank had already been roiled by the cancellation of elections and the recent air war between Israel and the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which portrays its actions as a defense of Jerusalem at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, has experienced a surge in popularity in the West Bank. Hamas, which is regularly accused of suppressing dissent, has condemned Banat’s killing and the crackdown on demonstrations.
Many of the protesters are young people who say they have been galvanized by recent events to become politically active. The government’s behavior “showed the need for accountability through democracy,” said Salem Barahmeh, a member of Generation for Democratic Renewal, a youth engagement group.
“Palestinians, especially young Palestinians, were already craving representation and democracy,” Barahmeh said. “We want to build a system where every Palestinian has a voice and the agency and the ability to shape their future.”
Analysts say the protests are being driven by a sense of alienation from a government that has grown more insulated from public opinion as it has become entrenched over the decades. If the government fails to address the anger ignited by Banat’s killing and rein in supporters who attack protesters, the situation could easily spin out of control, they say.
“If things continue like this, it’s going to lead to additional killings,” said Nader Said, president of Arab World for Research and Development, a Ramallah-based social research firm. “You killed a man. Own up to it, say that you’ve done wrong and are going to fix [it], and let the people speak out.”