Palestinians tell Abbas to ‘leave.’ Did he ignite a new ‘Spring’?

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Demonstrators take part in a protest following the death of Nizar Banat, a Palestinian parliamentary candidate who criticized the Palestinian Authority and died after being arrested by PA security forces, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, June 24, 2021.

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Palestinian security forces’ beating death of Nizar Banat, a critic of President Mahmoud Abbas and a candidate for parliament, has led to an explosion of pent-up frustration with a leadership that Palestinians see as both illegitimate and failing.

Demonstrations erupted immediately across the West Bank after the killing last week and have continued daily against Mr. Abbas, who protesters say bears responsibility for the killing and for government corruption and ineffectiveness. Tensions were already high after Mr. Abbas canceled elections in the wake of clashes with Israel over Jerusalem and Gaza.

Why We Wrote This

Mobilized by the killing of a political activist that Palestinians see as violating a code of solidarity, protesters are directing their energy at their increasingly autocratic president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. Banat’s killing is being seen by most Palestinians as violating an unwritten code of solidarity even among political rivals, particularly in the West Bank. And the popular reaction, including demands that the aging Mr. Abbas must go, is drawing parallels to the 2011 Arab Spring.

“Dissidents and critics, including outspoken journalists and human right activists, have been arrested and tortured before. We as human rights organizations have documented numerous cases,” says Salwa Hammad, a Palestinian human rights defender.

“But this is unprecedented not only in its brutality, but in the way [the security forces] felt entitled to carry out such an execution,” she says. “It is like they fear nothing.”

In an explosion of pent-up frustration against a leadership they see as both illegitimate and failing, Palestinian protesters are braving a violent crackdown by Palestinian Authority security forces to demand the departure of President Mahmoud Abbas.

The pressure on the aging Mr. Abbas, which has been building for years amid high unemployment, curbed freedoms, and failures on the world stage, rose dramatically in the wake of canceled parliamentary elections and clashes with Israel over Jerusalem and Gaza.

But a turning point for the increasingly confident and emboldened protesters came with the death of Nizar Banat. The Abbas critic and candidate for parliament, who was in his 40s, was attacked and beaten in his home by Palestinian Authority (PA) security services last Thursday and died in custody one hour later.

Why We Wrote This

Mobilized by the killing of a political activist that Palestinians see as violating a code of solidarity, protesters are directing their energy at their increasingly autocratic president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Demonstrations erupted immediately across the West Bank and have continued daily against the rule of Mr. Abbas, who protesters say bears responsibility for the killing and for increasing PA corruption and ineffectiveness. Mr. Abbas’ four-year term as president officially expired in January 2009.

“They killed Nizar Banat because he spoke out,” says a 27-year-old protester who identifies himself as AE at a Ramallah protest Sunday. “I didn’t always agree with what he said, but when they killed him in this brutal way, it was a message that they wanted us all to shut up.

“The Palestinian Authority, predominantly Fatah, has put itself in the situation as an enemy of the people,” AE said shortly before being accosted by plainclothes agents in front of a Monitor correspondent.

The Monitor could not locate AE or confirm his status after the incident.

“Like they fear nothing”

Mr. Banat’s killing is being seen by most Palestinians as violating an unwritten code of solidarity, particularly in the West Bank, whereby disagreements among political rivals have been settled primarily through dialogue, and political killings and assassinations that mar other regional liberation movements are considered forbidden.

“Dissidents and critics, including outspoken journalists and human right activists, have been arrested and tortured before. We as human rights organizations have documented numerous cases,” says Salwa Hammad, a human rights defender at the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center.

“But this is unprecedented not only in its brutality, but in the way [the security forces] felt entitled to carry out such an execution,” she says. “It is like they fear nothing.”

Nasser Nasser/AP
Palestinian riot police and security officers in plainclothes clash with demonstrators following a rally protesting the death of outspoken Palestinian Authority critic Nizar Banat, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 26, 2021.

Fearing a new phase of autocratic Palestinian leadership contrary to their values, West Bank residents are pushing back.

“There is a question whether this is an aberration, a one-time event, or the reflection of an increasing direction towards a fascist, violent way to settle internal disputes and opposition,” says Daoud Kuttab, an Amman-based Palestinian analyst and writer. “This is why the killing is a big issue for many people.”

Observers say they see parallels to the Arab Spring in Egypt.

“The bad economic conditions, the high unemployment, the lack of horizon for youth, and the authoritative regime are all the ingredients for a possible explosion,” says Jehad Harb, a Ramallah-based political analyst.

“This moment is very similar to the boiling point that erupted into the Arab Spring in 2011.”

Journalists targeted

Like Arab dictators in 2011, Mr. Abbas has responded with unprecedented repression. Peaceful protesters have been tear-gassed and clubbed, and plainclothes security personnel unleashed to tackle and bludgeon protesters with rocks and pipes.

The PA has accused protesters of being supporters of the Islamist Hamas, Gaza’s rulers and Fatah’s rival; or “collaborators with U.S. and European powers” bent on “harming the Palestinian cause.” Mr. Abbas has not reached out to Mr. Banat’s family or promised an independent investigation.

In recent days the security services have specifically targeted journalists, beating them, destroying their camera equipment, and forcibly removing their camera and phone SIM cards to delete any records of their violence.

Local journalists have been forced to hide from roaming armed gangs of Abbas supporters, finding refuge in bathroom stalls in office buildings.

Yet the protests have only intensified and spread from the administrative capital of Ramallah outside Jerusalem to Bethlehem and Hebron in the southern West Bank, in what some Palestinians are calling an “open rebellion” against PA rule. Protesters hold signs reading “Leave” in Arabic, echoing the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt 10 years ago.

Many Palestinians are contrasting Mr. Abbas’ relative silence and inaction on the unrest in Jerusalem in May with his quick crackdowns on criticism in the West Bank now. On Friday, prayer-goers demonstrated at Al-Aqsa Mosque, denouncing Mr. Abbas as “the traitor.”

The pressure prompted the leftist Palestinian People’s Party to withdraw Saturday from the PA government, headed by Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement, in protest against the violence and “its lack of respect for laws and public freedoms.”

“The polarization is scary,” says Majd Abdel Hamid, a Palestinian activist in Beirut. “I’m not surprised they would kill [Mr. Banat],” Mr. Abdel Hamid says of the security forces, but adds that he is surprised they are doubling down and beating protesters, refusing to apologize or investigate Mr. Banat’s death.

Built-up pressures

Mr. Banat, who frequently accused Mr. Abbas of corruption on social media, was a candidate for parliamentary elections that were slated for May but were suspended indefinitely by Mr. Abbas over claims Israel would restrict voting in Jerusalem.

Observers say that by denying Palestinians the ability to voice their grievances and views through the ballot box, Mr. Abbas, whose nom de guerre is Abu Mazen, only increased the pressures that erupted with Mr. Banat’s killing.

“Elections would have released domestic pressure, but also would have provided a road map for succession,” says Mr. Kuttab.

“Abu Mazen is 85; there is no real process for succession after the cancellation of the elections, and the leadership no longer has the mandate to act or negotiate in Palestinians’ names,” he says.

Palestinians, although increasingly unhappy with the PA and Mr. Abbas’ rule, had long been reluctant to criticize the leadership or challenge it for fear of exposing internal divisions and hurting their national cause of ending the Israeli occupation.

Alex Brandon/AP
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, May 25, 2021, in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

In recent years, only young Palestinians have openly defied Mr. Abbas and the PA, calling for greater democracy and freedoms in Arab Spring-inspired movements in the 2010s. Such calls failed to gain traction among society at large and faced repression by the PA.

Yet Mr. Banat’s killing has pushed the older generations and middle-class Palestinians, traditional supporters of Fatah and Mr. Abbas, to join protests against his rule.

They are emboldened, some say, by the resurgence of Palestinian activism this summer to counter planned Israeli evictions of Palestinians from homes in East Jerusalem and the Israeli police incursion into Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

Only now their activism and energy are being focused at an increasingly autocratic Palestinian president who they now identify as part of their problems, an obstacle on their path to rights, statehood, and liberation.

In a sign of the changing tide in public opinion, prominent Palestinian figures joined 100 civil society organizations in issuing a joint statement on Saturday calling on Mr. Abbas to step down, for replacing the heads of the PA security forces, and for the formation of a national unity government to pave the way for elections.

Hamas vs. Fatah

The crisis comes as Mr. Abbas is in a bitter fight for relevance with Hamas, whose 11-day war with Israel in response to the strife in Jerusalem boosted its support among the Palestinian public.

In a June 15 poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, rating the performance of 10 local and regional actors during the Jerusalem crisis, 89% of Palestinians said the response of Jerusalemites was “excellent,” while 75% said the same of Hamas.

Yet a mere 11% rated the PA government’s response as “excellent,” and only 8% said that of Mr. Abbas.

Hamas also overtook Fatah as the party of choice of potential voters; 40% of Palestinians polled said they would vote for Hamas in legislative elections, compared with 30% for Mr. Abbas’ Fatah.

Such pressure may be one reason, Palestinian observers say, that Mr. Abbas and the PA are resorting to blatant and very public acts of repression.

It remains unclear how effective popular protests will be in pressuring Mr. Abbas to reform or resign.

Fatah retains a stranglehold on the West Bank, and the president can summon multiple security services – all trained and armed by the international community – and his party’s armed wing.

Mr. Abbas also has built a patronage network of thousands of families that rely on PA salaries and Palestinian government-awarded contracts who would be hesitant to see him leave.

“It all depends on whether the international community will put pressure on Abbas to reform and put his house in order,” says Mr. Kuttab.

“If they give Abbas a pass for this killing, it becomes a slippery slope.”

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