The Palestinian Authority Is Quashing Legal Protests – Again

The arrests of nearly 30 people protesting the killing of anti-PA activist show that the PA is hewing to its tactics of suppression and refusing to take steps to address crimes committed by its security apparatus

Palestinian Authority security forces arrested on Saturday and Sunday nearly 30 political activists who demanded the prosecution of those responsible for the killing of outspoken PA critic Nizar Banat two months ago.

The PA prosecution released on Sunday most of the protesters detained the day before, but eight of them were kept in custody for another 48 hours.

The Saturday arrests occurred in Ramallah as activists were about to launch the vigil in Manara Square. As required, they had informed the Ramallah district police about the event in advance, on Wednesday.

At the scheduled time police officers diverted vehicular traffic in the square to other streets – and arrested the activists before the demonstrations began. According to Lawyers for Justice, a Palestinian group, 23 activists were arrested on Saturday, including two women, and most of them older adults, including some over the age of 60.

On Sunday, about a dozen activists returned there to protest, only to find the square filled with PA officers, who detained at least five of them.

According to reports from the families, three of those taken into custody, including one woman, were beaten during the arrest, and one – Maher al-Akhras, who had staged a 100-day hunger strike over his administrative detention (i.e., detention without trial) last year in Israel – had to be hospitalized for treatment. Al-Akhras and the two women are among the detainees who were released.

Most of the other detainees had also been imprisoned in Israeli jails for varying periods, among them Omar Assaf, Ubai Aboudi, Hamza Zbeidat, Ibrahim Abu Hijleh and Imad Barghouti. All except for Abu Hijleh remain in custody.

Some of the detainees announced immediately after their arrest they were launching a hunger strike until they are released. According to what they told their families, they still continue it.

During a vigil protesting their arrest at the courts compound in El-Bireh, the PA arrested one of the protesters, Khader Adnan, himself a former administrative detainee in Israel and a hunger striker.

At a hastily organized press conference on Saturday night, just hours after the arrests, Ziyad Amru, an activist in a new protest group called We’ve Had Enough – which was supposed to have run in the Palestinian elections that have been cancelled for now – claimed that responsibility for the arrests rested squarely with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

For his part, Issam Aruri, the newly elected commissioner of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, said that the arrests were not a local decision by the Palestinian Police, but rather a political one. Aruri and other representatives of human rights group said at the press conference that prohibiting protests and conducting such arrests are against international law and international treaties to which the PA is a signatory.

The wife of former hunger-striker Akhras – to whom Israel attributes membership in the Islamic Jihad – said that the Palestinian security agencies have threatened her husband’s life and she fears that he will end up like Banat.

According to Dr. Mamdouh al-Aker, who also spoke at the media event, which was held in the offices of the independent media channel Al-Wattan, the PA accused those who were arrested of operating under “foreign agendas.” Aker, a surgeon and one of the most highly respected, independent Palestinian political activists, said such an accusation was disgraceful, and of the sort levelled by repressive regimes.

Banat, from the Hebron Hills town of Dura, was arrested by the Palestinian Preventive Security apparatus on June 24 at the home of relatives in Hebron, in an area where the Palestinian Police are required to coordinate their entry with the Israeli army. Banat had accused the PA of corruption and collaboration with Israel, and made his opinions known via numerous video clips and Facebook posts.

After shots were fired at his home in Dura and threats had openly been made on his life, he had gone to live with his relatives because he believed the PA would not look for him there. Last year he had been arrested after he openly criticized Hussein al-Sheikh, the PA minister for civil affairs and senior Fatah official. During his arrest in June he was assaulted and severely beaten, and he died even before arriving at the Preventive Security police station in Hebron, where he was apparently going to be interrogated.

After the killing there were a number of protests with participants demanding that those responsible for Banat’s death be prosecuted. The PA used violence and force to suppress the demonstrations and vigils, particularly in Ramallah, and arrested the activists; indeed, some of those arrested Saturday night had previously been arrested by the PA.

The Fatah movement has regarded these protests as a threat against it and the legitimacy of the PA, and it has organized counter-protests in support of Abbas and the Palestinian security services.

An investigation committee headed by the PA justice minister announced that Banat did not die of natural causes, and the case has been handed to the Palestinian military prosecution, but nothing has been done since. The impression is that the PA hopes the whole matter will be forgotten and the Banat family will be placated by an arrangement that is outside the official justice system and according to the traditional mediation between families.

Banat’s killing and the suppression of the subsequent demonstrations have led to a nadir in the status of the PA and Fatah in the eyes of the Palestinian public – a continuation of a trend that has persisted since the indefinite postponement of the June and August elections, respectively, to the Palestinian Legislative Council and the presidency. In recent weeks opponents of Abbas’ autocratic regime, along with human rights groups, have hoped that awareness of the low point to which the PA and Fatah have descended would spur the two to take steps against those responsible for the death of Banat. But Saturday night’s arrests show that the PA has remained true to its tactics of suppression and intimidation, on the one hand, and to evasion of any serious attention to the crime committed by its agents in the security apparatus, on the other.