The Palestinian Authority: Policy of Repression and Crisis of Legitimacy

On June 24, Nizar Banat, a Palestinian political activist from the city of Dura in the occupied West Bank, was killed while in custody of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security personnel after being arrested in a pre-dawn raid of his relatives’ home in Hebron. His family reported that he was beaten while being arrested and taken into custody. Banat had been a candidate in the now-canceled Palestinian legislative elections and was a frequent critic of the PA and President Mahmoud Abbas. The government has set up a commission of inquiry into his death, and President Abbas has demanded that it finish its inquiry quickly—although few believe that the findings will be conclusive because they would have to indict the PA’s own personnel.

Banat’s killing—activists called it an assassination—galvanized protests against the PA and its security services, which responded with attacks on and arrests of demonstrators in a number of West Bank cities such as Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron. Palestinian police and men in plain clothes from Fatah used metal rods and tear gas to disperse thousands of demonstrators over the last few days. Women and female journalists accused the attackers of sexual assaults and of confiscating their phones. The assaults on demonstrators were condemned by Palestinian and international human rights organizations.

Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) asked a group of its fellows and guest analysts to comment on these events and the PA’s response to the protests. Their analyses are offered below.

The Case of Nizar Banat
Khalil E. Jahshan, ACW Executive Director

The killing last week of Palestinian political activist Nizar Banat while in custody of the PA national security personnel is tantamount to the universally condemned extrajudicial killings practiced by Israeli occupation forces in the 1967 occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. Except for the identity of the perpetrators, there is absolutely no legal, moral, or political differentiation between this despicable act of assassination to suppress dissent and the abhorrent crimes committed by the Israeli occupation against innocent Palestinian critics. Banat was killed by fellow Palestinians who were supposedly recruited, armed, and trained to protect him as a citizen and not to abuse his fundamental rights to free speech and association by torturing him and taking his life.

The most shocking aspect of this heinous crime is the unwillingness of Palestinian leaders to assume full responsibility for their actions and for the decisions of those under their command. The excuses that they and their supporters have raised to avoid culpability are totally unconvincing and, frankly, almost worse than the crime itself. The arrogance of power displayed thus far by the PA in Ramallah—in claiming that the victim espoused radical ideas critical of the leadership and sympathetic to its enemies—has led to a vicious campaign of character assassination against Banat. The absurd politicized attempt to smear the victim, including spreading information about his alleged sympathy with Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran, does not justify the crime but callously and unfairly deprives the deceased of his civil and human rights.

Furthermore, the PA’s mishandling of the Banat case illustrates its deeply held disregard for Palestinian public opinion. Indeed, Palestinians express strong support and broad demand for national elections, meaningful political participation, and general adherence to the rule of law and freedom of expression. Instead of moving quickly to initiate an independent investigation of the case and prosecution of those guilty of violating existing laws by appropriate civilian courts, the PA has been engaged in irresponsible and unconvincing acts of evasion and subterfuge, raising widespread doubts about its credibility and seriousness. Its awkward belated decision to refer the case to “military court” is a case in point.

PA Repression Reflects Its Profound Legitimacy Crisis
Yousef Munayyer, ACW Non-resident Analyst

The recent repression of protests by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is but the latest manifestation of an already profound legitimacy crisis in Palestinian leadership. These protests were sparked by the killing of Nizar Banat, a Palestinian critic of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority regime in the West Bank. Banat had garnered a significant social media following and posted regular, critical commentary on the corruption of the leadership and its use of force against Palestinians. He was summarily arrested and died the same day in the custody of regime officers who were holding him. His body showed signs of beating and torture.

Banat was not the first opponent of the PA to be dealt with violently. The PA’s Preventive Security forces have long been criticized for their willingness to wield repressive tactics against Palestinians of various political stripes and serve the interests of the Israeli occupation. In addition to the particularly gruesome nature of Banat’s death, what makes this moment more volatile is the political context in which it unfolds. On April 30, Mahmoud Abbas canceled Palestinian Legislative Council elections, the first to be held since 2006, and this was widely seen as an effort to keep him and his party in power. Further, as Jerusalem and Gaza took center stage in a major confrontation with Israel during Ramadan just weeks ago, Abbas and the PA leadership faded from view in a moment of crisis. As Israel’s acts of violence and colonialism against the Palestinian people continue and intensify, Palestinians have seen the failures of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership, vision, and strategy; indeed, they seem to hear from the PA only when it lashes out at Palestinian critics. All of this puts the Palestinian Authority in a very precarious position, and it has no one else to blame but itself.

A Continuing Multifold Repression of Palestinians Enabled by Failed International Frameworks 
Tamara Kharroub, ACW Assistant Executive Director and Senior Fellow

The violent arrest and killing of Palestinian Authority critic and parliamentary elections candidate Nizar Banat is only the latest episode of repression by the PA and its security forces in the West Bank. Decades of arbitrary arrests and torture and abuse in custody by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, with complete lack of accountability, have been well-documented. This authoritarian rule, which has crushed dissent, silenced critics, and intimidated opposition, has been intensified by the crackdown on expression afforded by social media platforms. Nizar Banat had a prominent presence on social media with hundreds of thousands of views. He regularly published videos critical of the Palestinian Authority and had accused President Mahmoud Abbas and his inner circle of corruption and authoritarianism. These abuses are seen by Palestinians as an extension of Israeli colonial oppression and daily violations of Palestinian rights, of which the PA and its security forces are a product as well as the means by which they are legitimized.

Banat’s killing became the catalyst for widespread protests against the corrupt, repressive, and feeble Palestinian Authority, calling on President Abbas to resign and demanding accountability. The protesters have been met with violence and repression by Palestinian security forces and civilian Fatah loyalists, who used clubs and tear gas to suppress protests and prevent recording and media reporting in addition to sexually assaulting female protesters, confiscating their cell phones, and disseminating private photos of them as part of smear and intimidation tactics. This additional layer of patriarchal repression against Palestinian women is intertwined with and indivisible from the context of authoritarian rule and colonial hegemony. Add to that a layer of international hypocrisy and indifference, in which denial and disregard for Palestinian humanity and rights are the norm unless the perpetrators are Palestinian.

The extreme level of brutality this time around might be a result of the desperate and ineffectual state of affairs that characterize the Palestinian Authority’s situation at present. At the same time, the PA is being emboldened by unquestioning international actors that continue to support and fund its failed two-state framework and putative legitimacy.

The West is Just as Guilty in PA Repression
Dana El Kurd, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond

The killing of Nizar Banat, as an instance of political repression and violence, does not represent a new development for the Palestinian Authority. Rather, the PA has increasingly used such naked policies of repression to subdue and control dissidents and the Palestinian people overall. These became part of its modus operandi after the 2006 legislative elections.

Under former President Yasser Arafat, the PA faced a number of challenges. He functioned in an authoritarian manner and repressed his political opponents. It is important to note that the PA under Arafat was understood to be a means to an end, a temporary endeavor. Under Mahmoud Abbas, however, the PA seeks only to perpetuate itself. Palestinian leaders have provided security to their Israeli partners at any expense in order to validate their own continued involvement and to be taken seriously by the West.

Western governments, particularly the United States, cannot wash their hands of the events that led to the current political conditions. They pressured and empowered the Fatah Party leadership to overturn the 2006 elections, which Hamas won, and eroded democratic accountability repeatedly by prioritizing security considerations—Israel’s—above anything else, making sure the PA adhered to its role without any deviation. The United States is specifically implicated in the training, funding, and internal decision-making of the PA’s coercive apparatus, especially in providing arms that are involved in political repression more directly, such as for use of the PA’s Preventive Security forces. Thus, western expressions of dismay at the obvious political repression and calls for restraint are ultimately empty gestures. The PA is in fact functioning precisely how western powers envisioned.

Nizar Banat joins a list of Palestinians who have been arrested or killed as a result of PA and Israeli coordination, and because of disagreement with the status quo. Another infamous example was Bassel al-Araj, which the PA assisted in capturing and assassinating. What these cases demonstrate is how authoritarianism and Israeli colonization are fundamentally intertwined. They also prove that Palestinians, ultimately, cannot fight one without fighting the other.

The PA Is Part and Parcel of the Repressive Arab Political Order
Imad K. Harb, ACW Director of Research and Analysis

PA suppression of protests in the West Bank constitutes another chapter in the sordid history and reality of the Arab world’s political status quo. The authority’s practices against peaceful protesters are no different from routine treatments that other security forces in the Arab world, in uniform or in plain clothes, mete out daily on the streets of Cairo, Amman, Baghdad, Algiers, Khartoum, and other cities. Such practices are rooted in hubris and a false perception that leaders must be obeyed and respected—no matter their transgressions—in the service of some assumed national interest. Criticism and opposition, the discourse goes, hurt national unity and, ultimately, the national interest. Such a discourse anoints leaders—and, by default, their security services and coterie of assistants—as infallible human beings; in fact, these powerful individuals and groups become gods over their domains.

It was not surprising that the response by Palestinian security personnel to Banat’s criticism of the PA and its president was to physically harm and eventually kill him. Neither was it unpredictable that the attackers used batons, sticks, sharp objects, and tear gas on protesters and confiscated communications devices that demonstrators were using to record official thuggery. Physical intimidation and bodily injury have always been the go-to tactics for scaring people off Arab streets, while disallowing coverage of violence is regarded as a way to limit the general public’s knowledge of what is happening to their fellow citizens. In these practices, Palestinian security services and loyalist thugs performed admirably, thus shaming their leaders and supposed representatives of the rightful cause of Palestine.

Finally, the suppression of protests by none other than Palestinian security personnel is dispiriting to Palestinians living under at least two layers of oppression—the PA’s rule and the Israeli occupation. But it is also demoralizing to hundreds of millions of Arabs who believe in the rightfulness of the question of Palestine and the sacred mission of its representatives, whether they are Fatah, Hamas, or the Palestinian Authority. To Arabs living in the larger Arab world, the Palestinian cause has been and remains a symbol of resistance to oppression and colonization and a rallying cry for Arab national revival. What the Palestinian Authority has done by killing a peaceful activist and suppressing protesters—in essence, becoming another pillar of Arab oppression—is the ultimate betrayal of an ideal in which the Palestinians and the entire Arab world believe.