In the early hours of 24 June, in the West Bank town of Dura, 25 Palestinian Authority (PA) security force personnel raided the home of Nizar Banat, a fierce critic of the PA, and violently arrested him in front of his family. Soon after, Hebron Governor Jibreen al-Bakri told media that Banat's “health deteriorated during the arrest” and that he had been declared dead on arrival at Alia Government Hospital.
However, Banat's family claimed officers had beaten him during his detention. Banat’s cousin Ammar told Middle East Eye that security personnel had sprayed 43-year-old Banat’s face with pepper spray in the bed in which he slept and beat him with iron bars before dragging him from his room, stripping his clothes off and taking him away in a military vehicle. The family learnt of his death via a WhatsApp group, but were unable to locate his body at the hospital.
The same day, the Ramallah-based Independent Commission for Human Rights revealed autopsy results that confirmed the family’s version of events. Samir Zaarour, a doctor who oversaw the autopsy, told a media conference that Banat was beaten severely; bruises and fractures reportedly were visible all over his body.
Muhannad Karajah, a member of the Palestinian Lawyers for Justice group, told Middle East Eye that a day before his death, Banat had told him that he was being subjected to threats by the PA's intelligence service, who had demanded that he stop criticising the PA.
“What happened with Nizar Banat is an assassination”, Karajah told Middle East Eye. “Today, what Palestinian activists and human rights defenders can expect are assassinations. By killing Nizar Banat, the [Palestinian] Authority confirms today that it is a repressive authority that threatens any human rights defender, and every person is subjected to a process of political arrest.”
Karajah said that critics of the PA had been tortured following recent waves of arrests, which he said had resulted in up to 50 Palestinians being detained in PA-run prisons. The PA’s arrests of West Bank activists mirror those of the Israeli police in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
As news of Banat’s killing spread, protesters took to the streets of Ramallah, the PA’s administrative capital, chanting, “In soul, in blood, we defend you Nizar”. In echoes of the Arab Spring, they chanted, “The people want the downfall of the regime!” and “Leave, leave Abbas!” (the PA’s de facto president Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t faced election since 2005). PA security forces charged at protesters with batons, firing tear gas and stun grenades.
Banat, a former member of the Fatah movement, the once dominant party within the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and today the de facto ruling party within the PA, had long denounced the PA for its corruption and its security coordination with the Israeli military via social media. He had been arrested at least eight times by PA security forces over the past decade and survived several assassination attempts.
Just minutes before his arrest, Banat posted on his Facebook account: “Now the Dayton authority is arresting political activist Nizar Banat and confiscating all his possessions, including computers and phones, and brutally assaulting him”.
“Dayton authority” is a reference to former US Security Coordinator Keith Dayton, a lieutenant general who oversaw the training of the Palestinian National Security Service in Jordan in the late 2000s.
Two months ago, unidentified gunmen attacked Banat’s home with live ammunition and stun grenades. “After that, we received threats from officers in the security services saying that Nizar would be assassinated”, Ammar told Middle East Eye.
Banat was at the time a candidate for the Freedom and Dignity List for Palestinian parliamentary elections that were due to take place on 22 May. Abbas cancelled the elections ostensibly because Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem had been disenfranchised by Israel. However, Abbas’s critics pointed out that the decision had more to do with a three-way split in the ruling Fatah faction, and dismal polls for Abbas, meaning that the 85-year-old had no prospect of securing a mandate to govern.
In 1993, following the Oslo Accords, the PA was set up as an interim governing body until such time as a Palestinian state was established. It exercises only limited control over 40 percent of the West Bank, while Israel controls all aquifers, airspace and all movement of goods and people in and out of the area.
Under the accords, Palestinian security forces are required to “coordinate” with Israel in the occupied territories, a relationship Abbas has described as “sacred”. In practice, this meant standing aside while Israel conducted military operations and police raids targeting Palestinian resistance and, on occasion, detaining activists on Israel’s behalf.
Since Oslo, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have quadrupled, from 116,300 in September 1993, to 441,600 as of 2019, according to Peace Now. Over the same period, an additional 225,178 settlers arrived in East Jerusalem, bringing the total settler population to 666,778.
Last year, Israel announced its largest settlement expansion, with 12,159 more housing units to be added to West Bank settlements. As of October 2020, Israeli authorities had demolished 568 Palestinian homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, evicting 759 people. According to advocacy group Ir Amim, some 200 East Jerusalem Palestinian families today face the threat of eviction from their homes.
Israel’s colonialist expansion has been underwritten by the United States. Between 1995 and 2019, the US has vetoed six out of seven UN resolutions condemning settlements as illegal (the Obama administration abstained from voting on a 2016 resolution). US annual military aid to Israel—the largest military aid package in the world—has increased from $2.55 billion in 2009 to $3.8 billion in 2017, when Obama left office. Biden has maintained this level of aid, refusing to countenance calls for aid to be conditional on Israel recognising Palestinian rights.
During the post-Oslo phase of Israel’s colonial expansion, the PA security forces have functioned as Israel’s loyal gendarmes, especially since the end of the second intifada (2000-05), a popular uprising that fiercely resisted Israeli occupation in both the West Bank and Gaza, which ended only when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Gaza.
In 2005, Abbas succeeded Palestinian president and long-time PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and set about reforming the PA security apparatus with US assistance. But the US and Abbas faced a major hurdle when Fatah lost to Hamas in Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006. In response, the US and EU froze aid funding to the PA in a direct attempt to unseat Hamas.
Abbas was now in a bind. The elections had been forced upon the PA by US President George W. Bush, who underestimated the anger of Palestinians towards the failure of Oslo to end to the brutality of Israeli occupation. Consequently, there was pressure from the Palestinian street for a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. On the other hand, the US refused to countenance Hamas in government.
During the years 2002 to 2004, Arafat had faced the indignity of being besieged in his compound by Israeli occupations forces as punishment for his refusal to accede to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and US President Bill Clinton’s terms of surrender at Camp David in 2000. Now, the US backed Arafat’s anointed successor, Abbas, to forestall a less compliant government, led by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, from taking office.
According to a 2008 Vanity Fair report, after Fatah’s 2006 election defeat, the US began to cultivate relations with Mohammed Dahlan, appointed by Abbas to lead the Palestinian National Security Council against the wishes of Hamas. The CIA provided money and arms to Dahlan, trained his men and ordered him to carry out a military coup against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. However, Hamas successfully repelled the attack.
The outcome was two rival Palestinian Authorities: one in Gaza, led by Hamas, and one in Ramallah, led by Fatah. In Gaza, the entire population of two million have since been punished by Israel with a brutal siege and a succession of air attacks that have killed thousands and left tens of thousands homeless. In the West Bank, the unpopular Abbas and his appointed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, became the darlings of the West.
As prime minister, Fayyad articulated more clearly than his predecessors, Fatah’s capitulation to the status quo of Israeli occupation. In 2011, he told Al Jazeera that “the West Bank is already a [Palestinian] state in all but name”. The focus was no longer on resisting the occupation, but finding a way to live with it.
In collaboration with the World Bank, Fayyad engineered the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan. Like post-apartheid South Africa’s Reconstruction and Development Plan, it was a recipe for neoliberalism.
Under the plan, shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, luxury car showrooms and gated communities proliferated, creating the illusion of prosperity. Lands were seized from Palestinian farmers to make way for industrial zones, in which joint ventures with Israeli companies allowed the Palestinian bourgeoisie to exploit poorly paid Palestinian labour. The West Bank’s development bubble was funded with loans to American and Gulf banks.
With the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis, the bubble burst. By 2012, a quarter of the workforce in the Palestinian Territories was unemployed and real wages had declined significantly. The hardship now faced by Palestinians living under occupation only added to the resentment that had built up during decades of negotiations that had delivered nothing.
Alongside this neoliberal experiment, Abbas set about rebuilding the Ramallah-based PA’s security apparatus. This apparatus is organised in several branches, all led by Abbas loyalists. The General Intelligence Service (GIS) and the Preventive Security Service (PSS) are the PA’s external and internal spy agencies. The GIS works closely with the CIA and is the equivalent of Israel’s Mossad. The PSS collaborates with Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police. Both gather information on perceived security threats, their prime focus being rival Palestinian factions.
The (paramilitary) Palestinian National Security Forces (NSF) is a direct extension of the Israeli occupation, tasked primarily with military policing of West Bank refugee camps. The EU supervises training of NSF personnel at a military academy in Jericho, while US military supervises training in Jordan. An elite Presidential Guard is based in the PA headquarters in Ramallah, tasked with the protection of PA officials and visiting foreign delegations, while the Palestinian Civil Police are used to violently disperse street demonstrations.
In total, there are more than 83,000 security personnel in the West bank and Gaza, making Palestinians one of the most policed people in the world. Together, the PA security forces account for approximately one-third of the PA budget.
In 2018, Human Rights Watch documented “systematic arbitrary arrests and torture” by PA security agencies, accusing both Fatah and Hamas of developing “parallel police states” to the Israeli occupation. Mirroring the practice of apartheid Israel, the PA held 221 Palestinians in administrative detention, for various periods between January 2017 and August 2018, without charge or trial, according to the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.
The PA has been accused of culpability in several deaths in custody of Palestinian activists and PA critics. In 2017, 31-year-old activist Basil al-Araj, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers while in hiding after having been detained by the PA for nearly six months without charge or trial. In 2008, 44-year-old Majd al-Barghouthi died in GIS custody after being subject to torture, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
Omar Assaf, a member of Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine political bureau, told Middle East Eye that al-Barghouthi’s case demonstrated the lack of credibility of any investigation into such deaths by the PA. “In the case of Majd al-Barghouthi, they concluded that he was a chain smoker, when he had never smoked once in his life”, Assaf said.
Coming just weeks after an outpouring of protest across historic Palestine, in response to Israel’s eviction of Shaikh Jarrah residents, the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque and yet another bombing of Gaza, the PA has demonstrated very clearly which side it’s on.
Like the Sisi dictatorship in Egypt, and the Gulf State monarchies on which it depends for funds, the PA is a repressive instrument of an Arab elite determined to maintain friendly relations with Washington. During the Trump years, Abbas was discarded as irrelevant, as Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, encouraged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex large swathes of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Now Biden is trying to restore ties with Abbas and resurrect the myth that the PA is a step in the direction of an independent Palestinian state.
Confronting renewed international criticism of Israel’s apartheid policies, Biden is hoping Abbas’ hollowed out regime can offer a fig leaf of diplomatic cover for Washington’s ongoing support for Zionism’s colonial-settler project.
Yet the tired rhetoric of a two-state solution is well past its use by date. The emergence of a new Palestinian resistance, with its beating heart in Jerusalem and a presence in every part of historic Palestine, offers a way forward. The youth who lead it refuse to subordinate their aims to any of the discredited Palestinian factions.
On 25 June, thousands of Palestinians from across the West Bank converged on Hebron for Banat’s funeral. Determined and steadfast, they chanted once again: “Leave, leave Abbas!” and “The people want the overthrow of the regime!”
Nick Everett is the chairperson of Friends of Palestine WA.