Continued Palestinian protests following death of PA critic

What happened: Protests have continued for a fourth day in Palestinian cities following the death of Nizar Banat, a well-known critic of the Palestinian Authority (PA) who was beaten to death by security forces in custody last week.

  • There were angry demonstrations yesterday in Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem against PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
  • During the demonstrations on Saturday in Ramallah protesters tried to approach the Muqata (the presidential compound), threw rocks at security forces and were repelled by police using riot-control measures. Palestinian security forces in riot gear also fired tear gas and stun grenades at the protesters in Bethlehem.
  • Yesterday, Nasri Abu Jaish, the Palestinian Labour Minister, and his Palestinian People’s Party quit the PA government in protest to the killing.
  • UK Minister for the Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly tweeted that he was “shocked and appalled by news of the death of activist and human rights defender Nizar Banat while in Palestinian police custody. My thoughts are with his family. The Palestinian Authority investigation must be swift and transparent.”
  • Similarly, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US was “deeply disturbed by the death of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat and the information reported regarding the circumstances of his death. We have serious concerns about the restrictions imposed by the Palestinian Authority on Palestinians’ exercise of freedom of expression and the harassment of activists and civil society organisations.”

Context: Nizar Banat was a 43-year-old political activist, well known for social media videos criticising corruption within the PA.

  • He was the leader of the Freedom and Dignity Party, registered as a candidate in Palestinian parliamentary elections, which had been set for May until Abbas postponed them indefinitely.
  • A month ago unidentified gunmen attacked his home after he urged the European Union to halt financial aid to the PA following the cancellation of the elections. Banat’s wife and three children were inside, but Banat himself was not home.
  • According to the autopsy, injuries indicated Banat had been beaten on the head, chest, neck, legs and hands, with less than an hour elapsing between his arrest and his death.
  • Banat’s family said the security forces used pepper spray on him, beat him badly and dragged him away in a vehicle.
  • The protesters shouted, “Go home Mahmoud Abbas” and other anti-PA chants, including “The nation wants to topple the authorities,” slogans reminiscent of the 2011 Arab Spring.
  • Palestinian political activists expressed fear that the attack on Banat could be part of an attempt by the PA leadership to silence critics in the aftermath of the postponed election.
  • The protestors include a broad range of opposition groups that are opposed to one-another ideologically but unite in their opposition to Abbas and to corruption.
  • The PA security service have been accused of routinely arresting and torturing opponents to crush dissent. Reports over the weekend suggested that many security forces were dressed in civilian clothing and attacked protestors. However, deaths in custody are rare.
  • The PA were already under considerable pressure having cancelled the first elections since 2005. The mandate expired in 2009, and since then Abbas has governed by decree. Read BICOM’s analysis on the cancellation of the Palestinian elections here.

Looking forward: PA Chairman Abbas has now called to expedite the investigation into the killing in an effort to quell the protests.

  • Continued protests could increase the pressure on Abbas to step down.

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