North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

The killing of Nizar Banat and authoritarianism in Palestine

For many in Palestine, the death of an activist in police custody highights that the dream of a Palestinian state has failed

Abdalhadi Alijla
7 July 2021, 10.10am
Palestinian Authority security forces fire tea gas at protesters during a rally after the death of Nizar Banat
Newscom / Alamy Stock Photo

At dawn on 23 June, more than 15 security officers and soldiers affiliated with the Palestinian Authority stormed the house of Nizar Banat, an activist and an outspoken and stern critic of Palestine’s President Abbas, in the West Bank. He was beaten with iron sticks, tortured, and taken naked into custody. A few hours later, he was pronounced dead.

Banat’s death came as a surprise to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Talking to Amnesty International, Banat’s lawyer claimed Banat had received “death threats related to his activism”.

His death ignited a storm on social media, as much as on the streets of Ramallah. Protests called for the ousting of Abbas and for accountability for his murder. The demonstrations were reportedly faced with the iron fist of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security apparatus and plain clothes intelligence officers, who dragged protesters in the streets, arrested and violated the rights of people to protest. Security forces also allegedly harassed women, stealing their phones and threatening to publish intimate pictures on them.

The events were not an isolated incident but the result of a very long process of taming the Palestinian Authority security personnel, which has gone from serving Palestinians to being their oppressors and collaborators with the occupying power, Israel.

A few days later, on 2 July, Abbas fired Ihab Bseiso, a former minister of culture and the head of the Palestinian National Library, after he reportedly condemned the killing of Banat. Days after, Shahd Wadi, a Palestinian diplomat in Lisbon, was fired for the same reason by the Palestinian embassy in Lisbon, also for condemning the violent crackdown on the protestors. Journalists covering the protests also faced harassment and a violent crackdown that involved being subjected to a series of personal attacks, defamation and in some cases, violent attacks.

Meanwhile, on social media, many Fatah activists and members of the Palestinian security defended Abbas’s decisions.

No peace, no process

In July 1994, shortly after the Oslo Accords that created the Palestinian Authority, my mother woke me up, telling me that the Palestinian Army arrived in Gaza. I was a child at the time. Everyone in the family was talking about it, and I was waiting for that day to come.

I heard my late father saying that a Palestinian state will be announced, and that the Palestinian Army will take over. I washed my face and walked downtown, to welcome the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) soldiers. The guns, the Palestinian flags, and military uniforms gave us pride and hope.

But small events that went unnoticed signalled that the newly formed Palestinian authority could as easily turn authoritarian. On 18 November 1994, less than four months after the return to Palestine of exiled former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Palestinian security forces opened fire on Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters protesting the PA’s decision to prevent the funeral of an Islamic Jihad’s activist. Arrests and torture of Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists by the PA, and the exclusion of opposition voices from public jobs and other measures, were all indicators of the authoritarianism to come.

Nonetheless, Arafat tried hard to keep a margin of manoeuvring by following what he called “The democracy of the jungle full of guns”. He was proud of the way he was managing the relationship and consensus among the different Palestinian factions.

The Palestinian Authority has turned into nothing but a security agency that oppresses its people

Arafat’s death in 2004 meant the passing of a charismatic leader who influenced most Palestinians. His security apparatus was used against the Israeli occupation several times but also against internal opposition when he needed it.

Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, did not enjoy the popularity of his predecessor. The new president had one plan: ‘professionalize and institutionalize’. This referred to the Palestinian institutions, including the security agencies.

All went wrong, however. Hamas won the legislative elections in 2006 and Abbas’s strategy to professionalize the Palestinian institutions and stick to the “peace process” led nowhere. There was no peace, no process, and no strategy.

More than two and a half decades after the creation of the Palestinian Authority, and 15 years since Abbas came to power, the Palestinian Authority has turned into nothing but a security agency that oppresses its people.

A turning point

In December 2018, I wrote for openDemocracy that the Palestinian struggle is not only a struggle against the Israeli occupation, but a battle against the corrupt de-facto governments and authorities in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And the recent killing of Banat just shows that this struggle is more urgent than ever.

A turning point has been reached, however, for the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Palestinians are not able to change anything amid political division and authoritarianism. They are forced to live under the Palestinian Authority's and Hamas’s oppression, as well as under Israeli occupation.

A recent opinion poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research conducted on 15 June, shortly before the death of Banat shows that political division, occupation, and poverty are less important than ending the siege and the occupation in the PA.

Respondents identified the main problems confronting them as being ending the blockade of Gaza (24%), the spread of corruption (21%), unemployment, and poverty (20%), the continuation of the occupation (17%), the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (14%), and only 3% said it is the weakness of the judiciary and the absence of liberties, accountability, and democracy.

The data shows that the priorities of the Palestinians have been changing, and national liberation has become less critical. The same poll shows a majority of 61% believe that the two-state solution is not practical or feasible, while 33% believe that the solution remains possible. This is a blow to Abbas’s program of a two-state solution and peace process.

If the elections were held in June, only 27% would have voted for Abbas compared to 59% for Hamas's leader Ismail Haniyeh

The poll reveals data that puts in question the legitimacy of the de facto president. Some 65% oppose Abbas’s decision to postpone legislative and presidential elections, while two-thirds believe that Abbas postponed the elections because he was worried about the results. Meanwhile, 43% think that there is no point in protesting the decision.

If the elections were held in June, only 27% would have voted for Abbas compared to 59% for Hamas's leader Ismail Haniyeh. If Haniyeh was to run against imprisoned Fatah senior member Marwan Barghouti, he would get 42% of the vote while the latter would get 51%.

Abbas knew that holding a legitimized elections amid Fatah's division will give Hamas the upper hand. Cancelling the elections (or postponing it) is a way to avoid a catastrophic result that would end Fatah’s era and Abbas himself. According to the poll, 41% of people who would participate will vote for Hamas, and 30% will vote for Fatah while 12% would vote for other parties, and 17% are undecided.

These results have severe implications for Abbas's legitimacy and his doctrine of adopting the peace process as the only strategy. Abbas’s response to the opposition is violence against anyone who opposes him and his security apparatus or condemns their unlawful actions.

It is clear to everyone on the ground that the dream of a Palestinian state has failed, and Israel has transformed the Palestinian Authority, once thought to be the seed for an independent Palestinian state, into a caretaker of the Israeli occupation and an oppressor of its own people.

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