West Bank unrest after dissident killed
Jul 3, 2021 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
This Update deals with the unrest that has erupted across the West Bank following the June 24 death of prominent Palestinian dissident Nasir Banat after he was arrested and reportedly beaten by Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces. It particularly focuses on the implications of this unrest for the status of ageing, and increasingly unpopular, PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
We lead with a discussion of why the unrest is seen as a crisis of legitimacy for the PA, written by Aaron Boxerman of the Times of Israel. Boxerman speaks to several Palestinian officials and analysts about what is happening and why. He also notes that Hamas is clearly benefitting from the unrest, after gaining popularity on the Palestinian street in the wake of the war it fought with Israel in May. For this solid analysis of the PA crisis, CLICK HERE.
Next up is veteran Palestinian Affairs writer Khaled Abu Toameh, who writes that recent events show that the PA has turned the West Bank into a police state not all that different from other totalitarian regimes in the Arab world. He focusses especially on the recently cancelled Palestinian elections as a turning point, after which promises of increased political freedom in fact turned into increased repression. Quoting numerous other Palestinian voices, Abu Toameh calls on the US Biden Administration to stop cozying up to Abbas and his Fatah cohort, and also denounces the international media and human rights groups for ignoring the recent brutality in Ramallah and other West Bank towns. For his heartfelt and moving analysis, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Israeli security analyst Maurice Hirsch argues that it appears the long tenure of 86-year-old Mahmoud Abbas as PA President may be reaching its end. He says that, on top of Abbas’ age, the cancelled election, the Hamas-led war against Israel, and recent unrest suggest Abbas’ popularity has reached a nadir, even in his own Fatah movement. Hirsch notes there is little certainty, only questions, about what will happen when Abbas departs the scene. For Hirsch’s complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- There has been international criticism of the PA’s action, both toward Banat and towards the protests – see here, here, here and here.
- The PA says Hamas and deposed Fatah operative Mohammed Dahlan are behind the unrest.
- A story on the role of Palestinian journalists – many of whom have been arrested or beaten while trying to cover the unrest – in trying to call attention to PA human rights abuses.
- More analysis of Abbas’ situation from Abu Toameh and other experts, in a piece by David Isaacs of the Jewish News Syndicate.
- Another description of the situation for dissidents against the PA from a friend of Nasir Banat, Issa Amro.
- A story on the very limited coverage the death of Banat and subsequent unrest has recieved in international media – especially in Britain. (The same can be said about Australia, where the ABC in particular has barely covered these events.)
- A joint article by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed about the future they hope to build together. Lapid just became the first Israeli Minister to officially visit the Gulf state and opened Israel’s new Embassy and Consulate there.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Allon Lee in the Jewish News writing about the urgent need for a new genuinely independent complaints procedure at the ABC. Plus, an AIJAC media release describing as “laughable” a response it received from the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs (A&CA) unit to a complaint AIJAC lodged about the “Q&A” program.
- Naomi Levin on how the German experience after banning Hezbollah could help prepare Australia to do the same.
- Two short videos about Hezbollah from recent AIJAC webinar guest Emanuele Ottolenghi – one discussing why listing it as a transnational criminal organisation would be helpful, and another urging more effective cooperation between police and intelligence agencies to deal with the danger from Hezbollah.
- A summary of the full Ottolenghi webinar published on J-Wire.
- AIJAC short video explainers on the Israel-UAE agreements reached during Israeli FM Lapid’s visit to the Gulf, on the controversial Israeli demolitions in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan, and on the fiction that Israel is practising “Apartheid”.
״Get out, get out, leave us,” the protesters chanted to the president as they marched through the downtown area of the West Bank city on Saturday.
Lines of riot police, wielding long clubs and plastic shields, beat some demonstrators who sought to approach the PA president’s office. Ranks of plainclothes officers followed, darting into the crowd to arrest demonstrators, sometimes violently.
The Palestinian Authority’s seat of power rarely sees large demonstrations against its leadership. The last major gatherings were in 2019, when thousands of Palestinians gathered to protest the PA’s controversial social security law.
But frustration has been mounting for months. And the death of well-known critic Nizar Banat — allegedly after being viciously beaten while in PA custody — was enough to spark a wave of demonstrations in Ramallah and Hebron.
In a marked change, demonstrators have directly called for Abbas’s ouster, not reform. “The people want the fall of the regime,” they chanted, a slogan that harks back to the 2011 Arab revolutions.
“These are unprecedented chants. We’ve seen protests in the past against political detentions, for human rights, against corruption — but not like what we’ve seen in the last demonstrations. This is dangerous,” Fatah Revolutionary Council member Hatem Abd al-Qader told The Times of Israel.
The movement has yet to spread from Hebron and Ramallah to the rest of the West Bank’s cities. The former is commonly seen as a stronghold of Abbas’s Hamas rivals, while the latter has seen much weaker protests, with hundreds rather than thousands in attendance.
The protesters have reflected a big but fractious tent of PA opponents: ultraconservative Islamists who seek to restore the Islamic Caliphate, activists in the Hamas terror group, civil society liberals who hope to reform the PA, and left-wing activists who oppose the PA on principle.
Banat, a 44-year-old social media activist from Dura, near Hebron, had developed a loyal following on his Facebook page. He uploaded simple videos, often just himself sitting in front of a white wall, railing against the Palestinian Authority.
Banat excoriated the entire Palestinian political spectrum, from Abbas’s Fatah movement to Hamas. His style was caustic and angry, often outright provocative. He was a steadfast opponent of Israel, as well, comparing Zionism to the short-lived Crusader kingdoms; one day, he vowed, the Israeli state would also fall.
His concerns resonated with ordinary Palestinians. Many see the PA as corrupt, autocratic and ineffectual at realizing their dream of an independent state.
“The prevailing feeling today among vast swaths of the Palestinian people is that they did not struggle and sacrifice on the path to liberation for the sake of creating an authoritarian regime that curtails freedom of expression and the freedoms of its citizens,” wrote Palestinian political analyst Jihad Harb in the aftermath of Banat’s killing.
‘The straw that broke the camel’s back’
These frustrations have seethed under the surface for years. But Banat’s death comes as the Palestinian Authority faces a crisis of legitimacy that seems to grow deeper by the day.
“Banat’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Ashraf al-Ajrami, a Fatah official and former PA minister, said in a phone call.
In April, Abbas indefinitely delayed scheduled Palestinian elections that would have been the first in 15 years, effectively canceling them. Abbas blamed Israel for not officially granting the Palestinians free rein to conduct the vote in East Jerusalem.
Former PA Minister and Fatah official Ashraf al-Ajrami: “Banat’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back” (Photo: Youtube)
Most observers — including Banat — believed the true reason was Abbas’s fear that he would lose ground to his own rivals within Fatah and to Hamas. Abbas’s rivals in Fatah gathered strong support, while Hamas at the time was polling around 8 percent.
“They figured that the street would punish them. So they scampered to this idea of Jerusalem” so as to avoid holding the vote, Banat told official Hamas Al-Aqsa TV in the aftermath of the cancellation of the election.
Allegations of corruption against the PA have taken on a sharper tone during the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the West Bank was rocked by scandal when allegations emerged that PA officials had appropriated vaccines for use by senior officials and relatives.
Hamas has also made enormous strides in popularity. The terror group’s status has risen sharply since the 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel last month. Palestinians celebrating in Ramallah’s downtown after the ceasefire hoisted green flags associated with Hamas — in the heart of the PA’s seat of power.
Many Palestinians saw Hamas’s actions during the war as effective resistance to Israel, even as the PA remained silent. According to a recent survey by pollster Khalil Shakiki, around 75 percent of Palestinians approved of Hamas’s performance during the recent war; only 8% said Abbas had done well.
Harb, the political analyst, called the May events “an earthquake” that led to “significant backsliding in citizens’ views of the ruling [Palestinian] Authority.”
“Ignoring the matter, or considering it to be a mere tempest in a teacup that will dissipate like previous incidents — I think this is a limited and naïve approach,” said Harb.
Hamas has seen the demonstrations over Banat’s death as an opportunity to create further chaos in the West Bank, al-Ajrami said.
The protests have met with resounding silence from the leadership in Ramallah. Neither Abbas nor any senior PA officials have discussed the matter publicly, even as thousands of protesters have hit the streets and outrage swirled on social media.
Senior Abbas advisor Hussein al-Sheikh, who serves as the PA’s official envoy to Israel, was the only one to implicitly refer to the events, without mentioning Banat by name.
“Law and order and transparency are obligatory, and they guarantee the protection of all Palestinians and the preservation of the political, social and national fabric. Nobody is above the law,” al-Sheikh tweeted on Saturday.
Al-Ajrami, the former PA minister, said that the demonstrations would likely soon blow over.
“The situation is still under control, and the matter could end in a few days, assuming there aren’t any surprises,” Al-Ajrami said.
But Abd al-Qadir argued that the leadership’s response — which has included violently dispersing the Ramallah rallies — was inflaming an already tense situation.
“This is political idiocy. From the first moment, there should have been statements by [PA Prime Minister] Mohammad Shtayyeh, by Mahmoud Abbas, to absorb Palestinian anger. Instead, they’re increasing it by repressing the demonstrations,” said Abd al-Qadir.
The Palestinian Police State
by Khaled Abu Toameh
Gatestone Institute, June 30, 2021
- These [Palestinian] leaders have turned the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas of the West Bank into a police state where political opponents are beaten to death, arrested, tortured and intimidated.
- The crackdown was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media in the West — until the death of Banat. It was ignored because the perpetrators were not Israeli policemen or soldiers. It was ignored because the media could not find a way to blame Israel for the fact that the Palestinian government was harassing, intimidating and torturing Palestinians.
- The silence of the international community and media towards the human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority has prompted Palestinian journalists to make a direct appeal to the European Union to provide them with protection.
- The protests… are mainly directed at the Biden administration, whose representatives have recently been courting and searching for ways to cozy up to Abbas and his Fatah cohorts. The message Palestinians are sending to the Biden administration: Stop empowering our brutal, corrupt leaders.
- Will the Biden administration and the Western world actually legitimize — and reward with millions of dollars and possibly even a state – political leaders who brutalize, torture and murder their own journalists and citizens? To gain what? A legacy of America championing a regime like that?
PA President Mahmoud Abbas: After breaking his promise to hold the first Palestinian elections since 2006, he has also broken his promise to “reinforce“ public freedoms and ban detention of Palestinians for expressing their views. (Photo: a katz / Shutterstock.com).
Earlier this year, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas enacted a decree-law on boosting public freedoms ahead of the Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections, which were supposed to take place on May 22 and July 31.
Article I of the law provides for “establishing an atmosphere of public freedoms in all the territories of Palestine, including the freedom to practice political and national action.”
Article II provides for “banning the detention, arrest, prosecution of, or holding to account, individuals for reasons relating to the freedom of opinion and political affiliation.”
Since the new law was issued on February 20, however, Abbas, who recently entered the 16th year of his four-year term in office, has called off the elections on the pretext that Israel did not reply to his request to allow the vote to take place in Jerusalem.
Israel, it should be noted, never said that it would ban the Palestinian elections from being held in areas under its sovereignty in Jerusalem.
By calling off the elections in late April, Abbas was evidently trying to create the impression that Israel had banned the Palestinians in east Jerusalem from participating in the vote.
Abbas’s Palestinian Central Elections Commission, however, evidently disagreed with him.
In a statement, the commission said that 150,000 voters in east Jerusalem would be able to cast ballots at polling stations in areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a process that does not require a green light from Israel. Separately, a symbolic total of 6,300 voters would be allowed to cast their ballots in Israeli post offices in east Jerusalem, in accordance with previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians.
The real reason why Abbas called off the elections was his fear that his fragmented Fatah faction would lose to Hamas and other political rivals. Abbas was afraid that Hamas would again win the parliamentary election, as it did in 2006.
Moreover, Abbas was afraid because senior officials from his own faction, including Marwan Barghouti, Nasser al-Qidwa and Mohammed Dahlan, were openly challenging him by forming their own electoral lists.
Abbas broke his promise to hold the first election for the Palestinian parliament since 2006 and the first presidential election since 2005. In the past few weeks, he has also broken his promise to “reinforce” public freedoms and ban detentions of Palestinians for expressing their views or because of their political affiliation.
During the same time, Abbas and his Fatah faction have shown that they are basically not all that different from other totalitarian regimes, especially those in the Arab world.
These leaders have turned the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas of the West Bank into a police state where political opponents are beaten to death, arrested, tortured and intimidated.
Nizar Banat, the political activist and outspoken critic of the Palestinian leadership who was allegedly beaten to death on June 24 by Palestinian security officers, was not the only Palestinian victim of Abbas’s unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression. Since Abbas’s decision to call off the elections, dozens of Palestinians have been rounded up by the Palestinian Authority security forces.
The crackdown was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media in the West — until the death of Banat. It was ignored because the perpetrators were not Israeli policemen or soldiers. It was ignored because the media could not find a way to blame Israel for the fact that the Palestinian government was harassing, intimidating and torturing Palestinians.
International organisations seem uninterested in the brutal way protests again Banat’s death have been repressed (Photo: Democracynow.org, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.)
Had the foreign media and international human rights organizations paid attention to the practices of the Palestinian government against its people, Banat might still be alive. Had they paid attention to the daily arrests of political activists, Palestinian journalists and political activists protesting the death of Banat on the streets of Ramallah might not have been beaten.
The silence of the international community and media towards the human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority has prompted Palestinian journalists to make a direct appeal to the European Union to provide them with protection.
Several Palestinian journalists who were severely beaten or intimidated by the Palestinian security forces over the past few days issued the following statement:
“I am a Palestinian journalist. I call on the European Union and international human rights institutions to provide necessary action to protect me during my journalistic work. Unfortunately, my colleagues and I have been subjected to attacks, restrictions, and bans on journalistic work for days by the Palestinian security forces.”
Palestinian activist Jihan Awad commented on Twitter:
“The Palestinian press is in danger – the danger of repression, prevention of coverage, and concealment and falsification of the truth.”
Another Palestinian woman, Hala Marshood, wrote in response to the violent attacks by Palestinian security officers and Fatah thugs on Palestinian protesters:
“The situation today was terrifying. Beatings and assaults, some of which amounted to [sexual] harassment, and theft of phones. Attacks on people who were filming; sticks, stones and cans are thrown [at the protesters]. This is what happens when a corrupt authority creates gangs and thugs.”
Samer Nazzal was one of several Palestinian journalists who ripped up their press cards in protest of the Palestinian Authority violence and brutality against him and his colleagues. “There is no need for it anymore,” Nazzal wrote in a caption accompanying his Palestinian Authority-issued press card.
The current uprising against Abbas and the Palestinian Authority is not out of love for the activist who was reportedly dragged out of his bed by 27 Palestinian security officers and bludgeoned to death with iron bars and clubs.
Palestinian journalist Samer Nazzal – one of a number of journalists who ripped up their PA press card in protest over their treatment (Photo: Twitter)
Instead, the spontaneous protests reflect the Palestinians’ growing frustration and disillusionment with their corrupt and repressive leaders. The protests, in addition, are mainly directed to the Biden administration, whose representatives have recently been courting and searching for ways to cozy up to Abbas and his Fatah cohorts. The message they are sending to the Biden administration: Stop empowering our corrupt leaders.
Referring to the Biden administration’s moves to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and resume unconditional financial aid, Palestinian writer Nadia Harhash said:
“Since the last American decision to ‘strengthen’ the PA in the West Bank, the reality on the ground reflected escalating suppression of freedoms; on top of them is the freedom of expression, and floating next to it corruption that reaches the doorsteps of our homes. The international community, with its governments, institutions, and people, are also responsible for this murder because they know very well that they have been supporting a systemic corruption in the last years that only increases, and the situation of Palestinians are deteriorating. And yet, they support such a corrupt criminal system. It is the international community’s support for such a regime that allows such crimes to continue. Nizar [Banat] and dozens like him, including myself, were victims of this corrupt criminal system that continues to threaten our lives.”
What will the western world, beginning with the Biden Administration, do with the testimony of the Palestinian journalists and political activists, who are being targeted and silenced by their own leaders? Will the Biden administration and the Western world actually legitimize — and reward with millions of dollars and possibly even a state — political leaders who brutalize, torture and murder their own journalists and citizens? To gain what? A legacy of America championing a regime like that?
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.
When will Mahmoud Abbas step down?
At 85 years of age, reportedly in ill health and with the Palestinian street demanding his resignation, all signs are that the Abbas era is over.
By Maurice Hirsch
The cancelled Palestinian elections may well be the swan song to Mahmoud Abbas’ long career (Photo: Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock.com)
The sun has set on the dictatorship of Mahmoud Abbas, and it is now just a matter of time until he leaves the scene.
Initially elected as Palestinian Authority president in 2005, Abbas is now in his sixteenth year of what, according to PA law, was meant to be a four-year term. Since his election, Abbas has rejected or quashed any attempt to hold new elections. In January this year, under pressure from the United States and European Union, Abbas announced that the PA would hold its first general elections since 2006. The general elections were to be followed by presidential elections.
Abbas did not want to hold elections, because he knew that his Fatah faction would lose to rival Hamas – an internationally designated terror organization. After four months of maintaining the pretense that the elections would actually happen, Abbas expectedly cancelled them, much to the despair of Palestinian voters.
A recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) found that “two-thirds of the [Palestinian] public believe that Abbas postponed the elections because he was worried about the results.” Only 25% of those surveyed believed Abbas’s excuse that he canceled the elections due to the alleged Israeli refusal to allow the elections to take place in Jerusalem.
Responding to Abbas’s decision, and in an attempt to bolster its popularity, Hamas attacked Israel, firing over 4,300 missiles indiscriminately targeting Israel’s civilian population. Hamas’s violent response led to a sharp decline in popular support for the already beleaguered Abbas.
Following the Hamas aggression, the PCPSR poll found that if elections for the position of PA chairman were held now, between Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, Abbas would receive 27% and Haniyeh 59% of the votes, this compared to 46% for Haniyeh and 47% for Abbas three months ago.
For Abbas, the PA elections exposed not only the external danger from Hamas, but also the internal fragmentation of his own Fatah party.
Until the recent elections, the prevailing conception among those unfamiliar with internal Palestinian affairs had been to view Palestinian politics as a two-horse race – Fatah versus Hamas. The preparations for the PA elections, however, showed this conception to be fundamentally flawed.
While Hamas maintained the uniformity of its ranks, Fatah split into separate units, each claiming to represent the “real Fatah.” Aside from Abbas, the leading claimants to the title included the nephew of Yasser Arafat, Nasser al-Qidwa, who formed an independent list and was therefore kicked out of Fatah by Abbas. The once-popular leader Muhammad Dahlan, who fell out of grace with Abbas years ago, was subsequently indicted and convicted of corruption (in absentia) and has been living abroad since. And convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for the five people he was responsible for murdering.
Israeli Analyst Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch: Even within Fatah, Abbas’ support appears limited.
Each of these contenders enjoy substantial followings that would have resulted in a split of the “Fatah” vote had the elections been held.
While Abbas technically still holds the title of the leader of Fatah, it is clear that his support, even from within his own party, is very limited.
Abbas responded to the mounting criticism and dissatisfaction with his performance in the manner any other true despot would respond – with violence.
In the last few weeks, the Abbas-loyal PA Security Forces have been carrying out a concerted campaign against Abbas’s rivals and critics. The violent crackdown reached its peak (at least for now) with the arrest, beating and June 24 death of outspoken Abbas critic Nizar Banat.
While the PA has announced it will conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances of Banat’s death, the Palestinian street is not waiting for the predictable results of the investigation. Instead, Palestinians are demonstrating, demanding that Abbas resign.
Alongside his political woes, one final point must be mentioned. At 85 (born November 1935), Abbas is the fourth oldest serving state leader (after the Queen of England and the presidents of Cameroon and Lebanon).
In normal circumstances, Abbas’s age, and his reported ill health, would most likely have been the most dominant factor when discussing the subject of his departure from the Palestinian political scene. However, having enjoyed the luxuries of being the PA leader for so long, and having amassed a huge fortune, both personally and for his children, for Abbas, age will never be a factor or impediment.
Abbas holds three central roles in Palestinian politics – head of Fatah, head of the PLO and chairman of the PA The questions now are how and when will Abbas leave, who will replace him, and will any replacement continue to hold all three of the central positions.
Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch is the Head of Legal Strategies for Palestinian Media Watch. He served for 19 years in the IDF Military Advocate General Corps.