In the small hours of June 24, 2021 fourteen Palestinian Authority (PA) security officers burst into a house in Hebron, made for a room where 42-year-old Nizar Banat was sleeping and, according to his family, began beating him with metal bars. Security camera footage from the night-time raid shows Banat being dragged away and pushed into a car. Within an hour, he was declared dead.
Nizar Banat was a Palestinian activist, who had attracted a following on social media with unusually outspoken posts alleging corruption among members of Fatah, the party which controls the PA. Some of his video messages had attracted tens of thousands of hits.
Banat’s death sparked widespread anger among the Palestinian public. Weeks of protests followed, calling for a fully transparent investigation and the prosecution of those responsible. Breaking up the demonstrations, Palestinian security forces used tear gas and stun grenades and arrested dozens of participants.
More than two months after Banat’s death, on September 6, Palestinian security forces spokesman Talal Dweikat announced that military prosecutors had completed their investigation and had decided to charge a Preventive Security Service commander and 13 other officers involved in Banat’s arrest. He said they were accused of “taking part in the beating that caused the death of Banat”, as well as “abuse of power and violating military instructions”.
The outburst of anger and resentment triggered by Banat’s death had been building for some time among Palestinians in the West Bank. Polls of Palestinian opinion, which are taken regularly by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, had for a long time been revealing disenchantment with both the ruling Fatah party and PA president, Mahmoud Abbas. For example, two-thirds of those polled in December 2020 favored Abbas’s resignation, partly as a result of his decision to resume security collaboration with Israel on the West Bank.
The latest upsurge in public discontent began when Abbas cancelled the legislative and presidential elections scheduled for May 2021. The polls revealed that few believed the reason advanced by Abbas – that Israel was blocking Arab inhabitants of East Jerusalem from voting. Many felt that the vote was called off because of Abbas’s poor showing in the polls and the growth in popularity of Hamas. The most recent poll of Palestinian opinion showed a two-thirds majority condemning Abbas’s decision. The PA announcement on September 16 of municipal elections to be held in the West Bank and Gaza this December is more of a hope than an expectation, since they have to be confirmed by Hamas which boycotted such polls in 2017 and 2012.
One BBC reporter has noted a return on Ramallah’s streets of a slogan recycled from the Arab Spring: “The people want the fall of the regime”. Journalists have been high among those targeted by Palestinian forces as they suppress popular demonstrations.
The Bisan Center for Research and Development, registered officially by the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior, is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization. In the first days of September its director, Ubay al-Aboudi, appeared in court together with others, charged with defaming the PA and organizing an illegal demonstration in July. The case was adjourned and judicial proceedings will be resumed in October.
“I’m not ashamed that I’m a critic of the PA,” al-Aboudi is reported as saying. “They have failed politically, they have failed economically…We are sliding more and more into a dictatorship.” He said there was growing resentment among ordinary Palestinians towards the PA’s political elite, generally perceived as benefitting financially from their positions and obsessed by an internal power struggle over who will succeed Abbas.
Underlying the current unrest among ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank is widespread disillusion with the PA in general and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, in particular. Most of the public thinks that the Palestinian regime is riddled with corruption and nepotism, and continuously and blatantly violates human rights and democratic principles. Moreover the efforts by Hamas, in its confrontation with Israel in May 2021, to portray itself, rather than the PA, as the true champion of the Palestinian people and defender of Muslim rights in Jerusalem, proved very successful. The latest poll of Palestinian public opinion shows that the majority of those questioned believe that Hamas, not Fatah under Abbas, deserve to represent and lead the Palestinian people.
At the start of the latest popular protests against the PA following the death of Banat, there was an attempt by Hamas to inflame and even lead the demonstrators. For a time it almost seemed as if Hamas was spearheading a revolt against the PA. This maneuver by Hamas sparked concern among Fatah, whose activists mobilized demonstrations of support for Abbas, and issued public warnings of a strong response to any attempt to destabilize the regime in Ramallah.
Yet the episode may indeed illustrate a shift within Palestinian public opinion away from the PA and towards Hamas – a shift already apparent in the recent polls. When eventually the long-delayed Palestinian legislative and presidential elections do occur – and they cannot be deferred indefinitely –it seems unlikely they will result in any sort of success for old-guard PA stalwarts or policies. If Hamas scores any sort of electoral success, renewal of a peace process with Israel is unlikely, though an indefinitely extended truce is an option that has received serious consideration in the current Egypt-led discussions.
Meanwhile the PA-Hamas feud rumbles on. Its latest manifestation is the PA’s withdrawal from its agreement to transfer Qatari aid money to pay the salaries of public servants in the Gaza strip. Many, if not most, of those public servants are Hamas supporters, and the PA claims that to distribute funds to them would lay the PA open to accusations of financing terrorism. The result of their decision, however, is to produce resentment against the PA among yet another segment of the Palestinian public.
Given the current state of the PA and the growing appeal of Hamas, is the PA capable of ever regaining the trust and support of the Palestinian people?