On the morning they killed Nizar Banat, Palestinian security agents raided the home of his relative, where he was staying in the city of Hebron in the West Bank. Before arresting him, they doused Banat in pepper spray and severely beat him with clubs in front of his wife and children. Within a few hours of being in their custody, he was pronounced dead.
Banat, a carpenter and prominent political activist from a village on the outskirts of Hebron, had posted scathing online criticisms of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its top officials, including its increasingly autocratic 85-year-old president, Mahmoud Abbas. Politically, though, Banat was not only an activist; he had been a candidate for parliament in an election that was supposed to take place on May 22—what would have been the first Palestinian election in 15 years—before Abbas unilaterally canceled the vote in April. His Fatah party had begun to splinter in the run-up, dimming its electoral prospects. The move was widely unpopular, with over 70 percent of Palestinians in one poll later demanding that elections be held.
The brutal attack on Banat, whether intended to kill him or not, was likely meant to have a chilling effect on dissent among the Palestinian public at a time of widespread public frustration with the ruling elite. Despite a campaign of repression of political opponents going back to late April, after the elections were canceled, the vocalization of discontent had not quieted. The killing of Banat, however, had the opposite effect. It unleashed a popular backlash, with weeks of demonstrations in cities across the West Bank. The PA responded with an even heavier hand to quell the unrest, including the beating and arrests of high-profile activists, lawyers and journalists.
On the one hand, the PA's growing crackdown looks like a response to the eroding support for Abbas in the aftermath of everything that unfolded in Palestine this spring, from the canceled elections to looming evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. But it should also be viewed in connection with long-term trends of deepening authoritarianism and the crumbling foundations of the PA's very legitimacy.
Abbas could not have decided to cancel elections at a worse time. In the weeks before and after his move, Palestinians living in Jerusalem had taken to the streets. They were protesting arbitrary measures by the Israeli authorities to close down spaces for Palestinian social gatherings during the holy month of Ramadan, and the looming expulsions of Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah by an Israeli court. As Israeli forces suppressed the protests violently—even raiding the Al-Aqsa compound, dispersing worshipers inside the mosque with tear gas and stun grenades—Abbas and the PA stood conspicuously on the sidelines. Their passivity contrasted starkly with Hamas, the Islamist movement that governs the Gaza Strip, which fired rockets into Israel in stated "defense" of Jerusalem. Although not every Palestinian supported Hamas' latest firing of rockets, many respected that Hamas was at least ready to fight back against Israelis as they attacked Palestinians in Jerusalem and beyond, unlike the PA.
Public support for Abbas and the PA, already in decline for years, suddenly plummeted. In a June poll, only 14 percent of Palestinians said that Fatah deserved to represent and lead them. It was a remarkable downfall for the party cofounded by Yasser Arafat, which has spearheaded the Palestinian liberation movement since the late 1960s. It was also another damning indictment of Abbas's stewardship.
The PA was established back in 1994 under the Oslo Accords with only a five-year mandate. Yet as it has continued to operate indefinitely despite the collapse of the Oslo framework, it has been completely unmoored from the diplomatic process that brought it into existence. While it carries on in political limbo, its authority mostly confined to small enclaves in the West Bank, Israel continues to expand its settlements and consolidate permanent control over occupied Palestinian territory, closing the door on the PA ever fulfilling its mission of becoming a Palestinian state. What remains are its de-nationalized obligations of policing Palestinian population centers and administering basic services—in essence, the legal obligations of the occupying power that Israel, after the First Intifada, was desperate to relinquish.
The Palestinian people, however, do not want to live as permanently disenfranchised non-citizens under Israeli rule. And they do not want their government acting as a subcontractor of Israeli occupation. Yet the public also has no means of challenging their own leadership, which has refused to cede power over their institutions despite having no strategy for liberating Palestinians from Israeli occupation except through a peace process that no longer exists, in the case of Fatah, and through ineffective armed resistance, in the case of Hamas.
In part, that is because the Palestine Liberation Organization, despite being recognized as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," went into gradual decline as a result of Oslo—and is, in any case, also led by Abbas. It is also because of the breakdown of democracy in the PA that followed the last elections, which were held back in 2006. At the time, the United States, the European Union and Israel responded to the unexpected victory of Hamas at the ballot box by cutting off relations with the PA. Given the dependence of Palestinian institutions on these external parties, Abbas came under tremendous pressure to overturn the election's results. Eventually, that produced an internal struggle between Fatah and Hamas that fractured the Palestinian polity in two, with the PA governing the West Bank and Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip. While the PA's backers have generally opposed reconciliation between the factions, Fatah and Hamas have also found the situation advantageous, allowing them to consolidate their monopolies of power over their respective fiefdoms without interference from the other.
As public dissatisfaction has grown in response to the deepening authoritarianism within the PA and Hamas, both have had to increasingly depend on their security forces to prevent any challenges to their institutional control. In other words, rule by repression has replaced rule by consent.
While Palestinians have been chafing under this oppression in both the West Bank and Gaza for years, confronting the PA and Hamas is incredibly difficult because they are only sub-layers of authority operating under Israel's ultimate hegemony. If Palestinians rise up against the PA, for example, what replaces it? The lack of clarity around that question has posed a dilemma for years to Palestinian activists and civil society. Similarly, who would administer services, like health, education and utilities in the West Bank if not for the PA? Before Oslo, it was Israel that did so through the civilian branch of its military. Without the PA, it is uncertain if Israel would readily take up this role again in the occupation—let alone that Palestinians would even accept a return to direct Israeli military rule.
Moreover, Israel's security establishment values the PA's role in policing the population under its control, making it a stakeholder in the PA's existence. This is especially true because Abbas and his cronies have been willing to continue security coordination with Israel even without any progress for years at the political level regarding Palestinian statehood. They are, effectively, the ideal partners for the Israelis. It has not been surprising to see Israeli security forces act in apparent coordination with the PA to target dissidents during the current crackdown; Israel has no interest in seeing this PA leadership fall.
The home in which Banat was staying at the time of his arrest was in an area of Hebron under complete Israeli jurisdiction. The PA would have had to receive special permission from Israel to enter the residence, which it granted even though Israel would have known the only threat this Palestinian critic posed was a political one to the PA, and not a security threat to itself or anyone else.
Since Banat's death, Israel has arrested other critics of the PA, including a prominent lawyer and senior member of the Ramallah-based Independent Commission on Human Rights, Farid al-Atrash, who was detained at an Israeli checkpoint near Bethlehem on July 4 while returning from an anti-PA protest in Ramallah. The well-known journalist Alaa al-Rimawi, who was detained in Ramallah by Israel back in April, was also arrested by the PA on July 4, apparently after giving a eulogy for his friend Banat in a mosque, in which he criticized PA officials.
Behind the abusive actions of Israel and the PA are the international backers of the status quo, namely the U.S. and Europe. In their calculus, the PA remains essential because it helps provide security to Israel, maintains stability in the West Bank, and is considered a critical component of the so-called peace process, should it ever be revived. Although they may rhetorically support Palestinian democracy and human rights, the U.S. and Europe clearly consider those values to be much less consequential in whether the PA still receives their aid and support. Which helps explain why the PA operates with relative impunity toward the people it is supposed to represent.
Indeed, after Abbas canceled elections in late April, Banat posted a letter addressed to EU representatives in Palestine on his popular Facebook page, saying that he intended on petitioning EU courts to halt funding to the PA. That same night, gunmen attacked his village home with live ammunition and stun grenades, while Banat and his family were inside. It was that assault that prompted him to seek safety in the home of a relative in the center of Hebron, outside the PA's jurisdiction.
After Banat was killed, the EU condemned the incident and called on the PA to investigate. But it also absolved itself from any blame by stating that it did not provide funds directly to the Palestinian security forces. That excuse, though, ignores that money is fungible and that Palestinian security forces do not operate independently from the leadership in Ramallah that makes the decisions. In fact, without a functioning Palestinian parliament or independent judiciary, the security forces operate at the behest of Abbas, without any other institutional oversight, and account for roughly a third of the entire government's budget. As long as the PA receives this kind of Western funding without conditions on upholding democracy, including having elections and protecting human rights, Palestinian security forces will continue to be used as an instrument of authoritarian repression, and more activists like Nizar Banat will be its victims.