Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – The death of critic Nizar Banat has ignited a wave of protests, but anger against the Palestinian Authority (PA) and President Mahmoud Abbas has been building for years.
The PA security forces are cracking down, but the dissent is widening. Anti-PA rallies are a daily occurrence since the death in custody of Banat in June. The organisers intend to make the political leadership bear responsibility.
Their slogans echoed during the protests – such as “Shame Shame the Authority killed Nizar,” and “Leave, Abbas” – and have provoked a strong response by the PA security services.
The security services’ harsh handling of dissent reinforced a belief among many Palestinians that the Authority acts as an “agent of the Israeli occupation”.
Abbas, 85, succeeded Yasser Arafat as Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chief in 2004 and was elected Palestinian Authority president in 2005.
The dissenters’ chief demands are a thorough and transparent investigation into the death of Banat, setting a date for general elections, and recalibrating the PA and the PLO to serve “popular agendas”.
Abbas decreed elections last January to be held on May 22, but he withdrew that at the end of April, citing Israel’s refusal to allow polling stations to open in occupied East Jerusalem. The election postponement is indefinite.
Opponents of Abbas, and they are many, say Fatah’s fear of not faring well in the vote prompted the calling off of the elections.
“Popular action” against Abbas’s decision to cancel the elections would have started sooner, according to activists, but the latest round of fighting between Hamas and Israel last May delayed it.
‘Pulled by the hair’
Fatah, the party that dominates the PA and the PLO, is trying to frame the protests as a threat to “the national project” and have accused Hamas of stirring up trouble. But only a few Hamas supporters have been seen on the streets.
The conduct of the PA security forces has been described as “frightening” and should cause alarm for Palestinians, rights groups say. Neither protesters nor journalists were spared the violence of the Palestinian police.
At least 70 Palestinians have been arrested since protests broke out over Banat’s death. According to Lawyers for Justice, a local rights watch group, charges of sedition were brought against 29 of them.
Akil Awawde, 31, a radio producer, suffered a fractured rib after Palestinian riot police arrested him.
He and a colleague were live broadcasting a small sit-in outside a Ramallah police station. An officer came and ordered them to leave and they immediately adhered. Several minutes later, however, police charged against the 20 or so people peacefully protesting the detention of their relatives and friends.
“Little children were pushed to the ground. They even pepper-sprayed a 70-year-old man who was there for his son. Women were pulled by the hair to the police station,” Akil told Al Jazeera.
“It was a very bad sight,” he added.
Realising it was best to leave, Awawde and his colleague started walking away. As he slowly recounted the events, it was evident he was in great pain with breathing difficulties, and his voice just a whisper.
“Someone pulled me from behind. Then beatings, beatings,” he said.
Awawde told them he was a journalist, but it was in vain. Next, a policeman thrust the edge of his shield into his chest and he then dragged him to the police station and into a small room.
“I was getting beatings from all directions. Ten people were on me in that room.”
Dima Amin, 50, a medical doctor, was among the people protesting the detention of friends and relatives. She saw her friend Nadia Habash being pulled by the police. She rushed in her direction to release her but she, too, found herself quickly being pushed to the ground and dragged to the police station.
Police brought Dima to the same room where the detainees were being kept. She saw masked men in black uniforms pounding Haitham Siag, one of the protesters. “They kept beating him until he fell on the floor,” she said.
Awawde was already lying on the ground. She tried to examine him, but a policeman pushed her against the wall.
“‘I’m a doctor let me take a look at him’. I kept telling them this.”
It took the police some time to realise that some of the detainees needed medical attention. “Akil was barely able to breathe and his pulse was weak. I was really worried.”
An ambulance was called and Awawde was taken to a hospital and the police followed. There, armed officers in civilian uniform entered the emergency ward. One of them accused Awawde of assaulting a policewoman while he was in the station.
At 3am, Awawde was about to be released from the hospital when a man in civilian clothes approached him.
“We have a case against you, ready, if you press a complaint against us,” the man told Awawde.
“I just want to go home,” Awawde answered.
He said he met with rights organisations and plans to press charges against the police.
Dima was released about 1am. Conveying the events, she said: “I did not feel that we are living under a system or a government of laws. It felt we are under a militia or gangs.”
‘Now being interrogated’
Talal Dweikat, the spokesman of the Palestinian security services, told Al Jazeera the Palestinian military judicial system is investigating the death of Banat in “great seriousness and interest”.
“Fifteen people have been apprehended and are now being interrogated in a military prison,” he said, without giving a timeframe when the investigation would conclude or the rank of the suspects.
“The interrogation will continue until indictments against the suspects are ready.”
Dweikat denied the presidential guard had taken part in dispersing the protests over Banat’s death. “Only Palestinian police,” he said.
The PA is said to be contemplating a cabinet reshuffle instead of elections. But such changes would likely be seen as superficial as they do not address the root concerns of the public.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Fatah official told Al Jazeera, “There can’t be a change of government without the agreement of Hamas.
“Hamas is demanding two things: to play a part in the reconstruction of Gaza and the execution of the prisoner exchange deal,” he added.
Al Jazeera met with a few of the resolute protesters and heard their views about the way forward.
Omar Assaf, a front opposition figure, said the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh needs to resign and President Abbas must go. This would be followed by “the formation of a national unity government that would announce general elections within six months”.
“The movement continues and is rising,” said Assaf.
The plan is to build a national unity government with the various factions of the PLO and the emerging leaders of the protest movement.
Assaf, 71, said he expects support from the various factions of the PLO but stressed the “battle is not against Fatah”. He called the movement the “national coalition for democracy”.
Another demand is the resignation of the heads of the various security agencies within the Palestinian Authority.
“The chiefs of the various security agencies, like President Abbas, have all passed their four-year term. They are expanding in their oppressive behaviour,” said Assaf.
Assaf alleged the presidential guard, numbering about 7,000, is leading the crackdown against the protesters.
“There are 7,000 people called the president’s guard. What service do they do to the people? How much do they take from the budget?” he asked. “What good are they if they retreat to their barracks when an Israeli army jeep comes in?”
Jihad Abdo, 50, is now facing sedition charges by the PA, but he does not seem deterred. Abdo comes from a small town called Qire near Qalqilya. He said he is one of the “popular movement” organisers against the “corruption” of the PA. He helped put together the Enough ticket that was going to run for seats in the recently cancelled elections.
“We believe that there is no way to make reforms and resist the occupation as long as Abu Mazen [Abbas] and his party of thieves are ransacking the country and fulfilling the Zionist imperialist scheme,” Abdo told Al Jazeera.
“Hence we decided on ‘leave, Abbas,’” he added.
Raneen Sarhan, 29, was hit with a stone by a pro-Abbas man dressed in civilian clothing during a recent protest in Ramallah. She almost lost her left eye. She told Al Jazeera the “struggle” would continue until the PA is brought down.
“Nizar was a free man speaking the truth, and the Authority silenced him, unfortunately. When we decided to rebel, they tried to do the same,” she said.
Sarhan lives in occupied East Jerusalem and has been active in the struggle for the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.