Palestinian activist and government critic Nizar Banat died on Thursday after Palestinian security forces arrested and violently beat him, his family said.
The officers raided Banat’s uncle’s residence in the city of Dura, southwest of Hebron, where the father of five had been taking shelter for the past two months, after receiving threats from leaders in the ruling Fatah party over his scathing criticism of the Palestinian Authority and its officials.
Before PA President Mahmoud Abbas called off parliamentary elections in April, Banat ran as a candidate of the Freedom and Dignity list. Banat was a harsh critic of Abbas and other senior officials and Fatah figures, whom he would sometimes call out by name. He expressed opposition to the leadership’s security coordination with Israel and accused the PA of corruption. He posted weekly videos on his social media channels, the most recent of which was a 6-minute clip from earlier this week in which he vehemently attacked the PA over its now-cancelled COVID-19 vaccine deal with Israel.
Hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets near Al-Manara Square in Ramallah on Thursday to protest Banat’s death, and were met with police repression. They chanted for the departure of President Abbas and demanded an end to his rule. Thousands more marched in Banat’s funeral in Hebron on Friday, calling for a change of government.
Since Abbas’ tenure began in 2005, the 85-year-old leader’s popularity has been in constant decline. His decision to postpone what would have been the first elections in 15 years, due to take place last month, has only exacerbated this crisis of legitimacy, as has the PA’s relative silence over the imminent forced expulsion of Palestinian families in Jerusalem and Israel’s latest assault on Gaza.
Earlier this week, PA security forces arrested Palestinian activist Issa Amro and held him overnight for publishing posts critical of the government’s policies on Facebook. Amro, who has been an outspoken critic of both Israel and the PA, said he was summoned for questioning by the PA’s cybercrimes unit.
Banat was targeted as part of the PA’s ongoing crackdown on dissent, said Firas Doudin, a Palestinian activist from Dura and a close friend of Banat. He described Banat as a self-made, industrious man who was striving for a better tomorrow for his children and his people.
Banat had been arrested several times in the past for his criticism. He used to receive constant threats and has had to deal with other forms of harassment, explained Doudin. “That was not something new to Nizar, neither did it stop him from practicing his right of freedom to speech.”
Over the past few months, Palestinians have been fighting social media companies for censoring content that is critical of Israel’s oppressive policies. “It is crazy now that their own government is not able to give them freedom of speech, which is demanded from companies abroad,” said Dina Azouni, a leading Palestinian activist and social media influencer.
Regardless of Banat’s opinions and style of expression, she added, he still had the right to speak his mind freely. “No one should ever be targeted for speaking their opinions and beliefs,” Azouni said. “We cannot accept a government that is trying to silence us, just like those [social media] companies. They are both doing the exact same thing.”
According to Dalal Erikat, a leading Palestinian academic and a columnist for Al-Quds newspaper, Banat did not pose a serious threat to the PA, nor did he have any political weight. She said that while human rights organizations have recently focused on Israel’s violations and its apartheid system against the Palestinian people, the attention is now turning to human rights violations in Palestine by Palestinians. This is “unfortunate,” she said, as it hinders the “momentum around the violations of the Israeli occupation against our people.”
Banat’s death is ‘no anomaly’
At around 3:30 a.m. on Thursday, about 25 security officers raided the house looking for Banat, said Ammar Banat, a cousin who witnessed his arrest. The officers blew up the main door and stormed into the house, some by climbing in through the windows, he recalled.
“Some of them were masked, and they were heavily armed,” he said. “They headed to the room that Nizar was sleeping in with two of his cousins, where they began to brutally beat him with an iron baton on his head.”
The PA forces sprayed Banat’s face with tear gas while he was unconscious, then stripped off his clothes, said Ammar. While he was covered in blood, they dragged him into a vehicle, he added.
“We did not know where they took Nizar, but a few hours later, we were informed that he was taken to a morgue in Abu Dis [in East Jerusalem], without being transferred to any hospitals,” said Ammar. The family was “horrified” and is still in a state of shock, he added.
Ammar affirmed that his cousin was recently threatened by Iyad Rayan, the head of the Fatah movement in the southern district of Hebron. “Nizar decided to take shelter at my uncle’s house because it is located in Area C that is under full Israeli control, but still, the PA forces managed to reach him.”
In a statement released on Thursday, Hebron Governor Jibreen al-Bakri said that “Banat’s health condition deteriorated during the arrest,” after which he was immediately transferred to Princess Alia Governmental Hospital in Hebron, where doctors who examined his body pronounced him dead. The Palestinian Public Prosecution conducted an autopsy as soon as it was informed of the incident, in accordance with the law, the statement said. Al-Bakri is refusing to comment on the case until the results of the full autopsy are released.
Ammar said the family has no trust in the government or the Public Prosecution’s findings. They are demanding the formation of an investigative committee including a doctor appointed by the family and a doctor selected by the Ramallah-based Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), “to avoid any manipulation attempts by the PA and its bodies,” he explained. To that end, and given the public pressure since Banat’s death was announced, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh ordered an investigation led by Justice Minister Mohammad Shalaldeh.
The results of a preliminary autopsy indicated bruises all across Banat’s body and rib fractures, according to the ICHR and Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, who held a joint press conference in Ramallah Thursday evening and are working together to collect information about the incident. The ICHR considered Banat’s death a very serious matter, “as he was announced dead shortly after his arrest by a large security force,” the commission’s director general, Ammar Dwaik, told +972 Magazine.
Both organizations concluded that Banat’s death was unnatural. According to Al-Haq Director Shawan Jabarin, Banat had arrived at the hospital dead. “The whole security and political system must be reconsidered, and it is time to draw lessons because the [Palestinian] society is suffocated,” Jabarin added.
Banat’s death shortly after his arrest by the PA “is no anomaly,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “PA security forces have for years systematically arbitrarily arrested, mistreated, and tortured critics and dissidents,” he added. In 2018, HRW released a report criticizing the Palestinian leadership’s use of torture to crush dissent.
Governments that want to help the Palestinian people develop the rule of law should cut all ties to Palestinian security forces that actively undermine it, continued Shakir. “Palestinian liberation will remain incomplete so long as the PA’s machinery of repression remains intact.”