On 24 June, Nizar Banat, a longtime activist and outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority (PA), was reportedly arrested and beaten outside his cousin’s home in Hebron by the authority’s security forces – he died in custody shortly after. In regular videos recorded and posted to his social media accounts, Banat often took the Palestinian Authority to task for its corruption, lack of democratic practice and collaboration with Israel. A few days prior to his death, he had uploaded a video in which he accused the authority of selling out the Palestinian struggle.
Unsurprisingly, many believe the killing was a political assassination, and protests erupted across the West Bank shortly after the announcement of Banat’s death. The message from the protesters was clear – they demanded accountability for Banat’s death and justice for his family. As Palestinian Authority officials failed to provide answers, and with no official resignations forthcoming, the protests shifted to a wider call for the fall of the regime – echoing the demands of the Arab revolutions that began over a decade ago.
In Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s unofficial capital, protests continued through July, and were met with violent repression. The authority security forces used teargas and stun grenades to violently disperse crowds. Plain-clothed security agents harassed and assaulted protesters, in particular women. They also carried out mass arrests of activists – many of whom are well-known civil society figures.
The protests died down for a few weeks – the repression had a chilling effect – but in late August they emerged again and so did the crackdown. Dozens were detained and held in unsanitary and crowded cells with no consideration for Covid-19 precautions. They were reportedly mistreated and interrogated for hours at a time without legal representation. PA detention centres and prisons are also notorious for torture and have been the subject of multiple critical human rights reports.
The charges brought against the detainees, many of which have since been dropped, demonstrate the absurdity of the arrests. One detainee is accused simply of distributing the Palestinian flag. Others are being accused of vague offences such as “inciting sectarian strife” and “insulting the authorities”. Such charges are not uncommon. In 2013, a Palestinian journalist was sentenced to more than a year in prison for insulting the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. As a result of these latest arrests, dozens of Palestinian civil society groups, including al-Haq (the major Palestinian human rights organisation) issued a statement warning against the “serious decline in rights and freedoms”.