The US added its voice to calls for an investigation into the death of a prominent critic of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas who died in Palestinian Authority custody Thursday, as an autopsy showed that his death was not from natural causes.
Nizar Banat, 44, died after what his family said was a violent arrest by PA security forces early Thursday, including being beaten with batons.
The resident of Dura, near Hebron, was well-known for his caustically sarcastic videos tearing into the PA leadership, including Abbas, for alleged corruption and fraud. He had also called on Western nations to cut off aid to it because of its authoritarianism and human rights violations. His Facebook page had over 100,000 followers.
Dr. Samir Abu Zaarour, a forensic pathologist for the Independent Commission for Human Rights who attended an autopsy on Banat, said the death was “unnatural” and ruled out a heart attack or stroke.
He told reporters that injuries on Banat’s body indicated he had been beaten on the head, chest, neck, legs and hands.
Less than an hour elapsed between his arrest and his death, Abu Zarzour said.
He said final results will only be available after further testing.
Pictures of the body released by the family appear to show bruising on his head and legs.
The EU delegation to the Palestinians tweeted that it was “shocked and saddened” by Banat’s death and called for a “full, independent, and transparent investigation.” The UN’s Mideast envoy, Tor Wennesland, said the “perpetrators must be brought to justice.”
The US State Department echoed those calls. In a statement, it expressed “serious concerns about Palestinian Authority restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression by Palestinians and harassment of civil society activists and organizations.”
In a statement confirming Banat’s death earlier, Hebron Governor Jibrin al-Bakri said that a unit of PA security forces had entered a house where Banat was hiding in the morning with a warrant for his arrest.
“During [his arrest], his medical condition deteriorated, and he was immediately referred to the Hebron public hospital for treatment. Doctors at the scene who examined him found he was dead,” al-Bakri said.
But Banat’s family, who say they were with him during the arrest, accused over twenty PA officers of violently beating him.
Mohammed Banat, a cousin who witnessed the arrest, said a group of men, some wearing masks, burst into the house where Nizar was staying and sprayed everyone with pepper spray.
“They beat Nizar with batons on his head and body,” he told The Associated Press. “They did not identify themselves and we did not recognize them. They arrested Nizar and disappeared.”
He told Palestinian reporters outside the Banat home in Dura, that the “vicious beating” lasted eight minutes.
— Mo Mahfouz (@MoMahfouz5) June 24, 2021
Speaking to the Al-Quds news website, other members of Banat’s family accused security forces of “hitting him on the head with wooden sticks and bits of iron” and “deliberately murdering” him.
According to al-Bakri, the PA public prosecutor’s office had already opened an investigation into Banat’s death. PA security services spokesperson Talal Dweikat said that Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh had ordered the formation of a committee to investigate Banat’s death.
The death ignited fury on the Palestinian street. In Ramallah, thousands of protesters tried to march to the PA’s headquarters, chanting “The people want the downfall of the regime,” a line made famous by the 2011 Arab Spring, and “Abbas, you are not one of us, take your dogs and leave.”
Palestinian security forces fired tear gas at the marchers and beat people with wooden batons.
As night fell, angry protesters set fires, blocked streets and faced off against riot police.
“Enough is enough,” protester Sameh Abu Awwad said in Ramallah, describing Banat as a man who had “not hesitated to speak the truth whatever the cost.”
Farid al-Atrash, from the Palestinian rights group the Independent Commission for Human Rights, said Banat’s death marked “a dark day in the history of the Palestinian people.”
Tahani Mustafa, an analyst at the Crisis Group, an international think thank, said there’s been “increasing repression” since the PA was sidelined and widely derided during the Gaza war last month. “At this point the PA can’t really afford any level of criticism,” she said.
She added that the international community, which has trained and equipped Palestinian security forces, “needs to take some responsibility” and push for accountability and change.
In early May, gunmen fired bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at Nizar Banat’s home, where his wife was inside with their children. He blamed the attack on Abbas’ Fatah party, which dominates the security forces.
“The Europeans need to know that they are indirectly funding this organization,” he told The Associated Press in May in an interview at a house where he was hiding out. “They fire their guns into the air at Fatah celebrations, they fire their guns in the air when Fatah leaders fight each other and they fire their guns at people who oppose Fatah.”
The social media activist had already been detained multiple times by Palestinian security forces under the PA’s controversial cybercrimes law, which allows individuals to be arrested for “slandering” government institutions online. Human rights groups allege that the PA has abused the practice to arbitrarily arrest opponents for political purposes.
In December, Banat was arrested by PA security forces, who held him in defiance of a court order for more than a day before releasing him without explanation.
Banat was also a member of an independent parliamentary slate in the recently canceled Palestinian elections. In January, Abbas announced the first Palestinian elections in 15 years, prompting a flurry of long-awaited political organizing among Palestinians.
But in late April, Abbas canceled the elections just a month before they were scheduled to be held, saying that Israel was refusing to allow the vote to take place in East Jerusalem. Critics, including Banat, accused Abbas of fearing a loss to his rivals both in Fatah and in the Hamas terror group.
In one of his last videos before his death, Banat had criticized a recent deal between the PA and Israel to transfer 1.4 million soon-to-expire Pfizer vaccines in Israeli hands to the PA. In exchange, Ramallah would send its later shipment of new vaccines to Israel.
But last Friday, the PA canceled the deal after backlash on social media, saying that the vaccines were set to expire by the end of June. Israel has said the vaccines were sound and that most had expiration dates well past the end of the month.
Banat’s death sparked widespread outrage on Palestinian social media.
“The Palestinian Authority kills Nizar Banat, a human rights activist, a critic of Mahmoud Abbas, and a parliament candidate in the recently canceled elections. The only reason they killed him is his outspoken criticism of the PA’s corruption,” tweeted anti-corruption activist and Abbas critic Fadi Elsalameen.
The West Bank has seen an uptick in the arrests of activists opposed to the Palestinian Authority since the recent 11-day battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The fighting saw the widely disliked PA leadership in Ramallah lose still more support, as its Hamas rivals rose in popularity.
On Tuesday, PA security forces arrested Issa Amro, another prominent activist from Hebron, for statements accusing the West Bank leadership of corruption. Amro was released pending a hearing on his case with the PA public prosecutor.
“I feel that my life is in danger like Nizar Banat. I don’t feel there is anyone who can protect me from attacks by outlaws affiliated with some security authorities,” Amro said. “Unfortunately, there’s a state of security chaos since the cancellation of the elections.”
According to the Palestinian legal advocacy group Lawyers for Justice, at least 23 West Bank Palestinians were arrested by the PA for “political reasons” between May 2020 and May 2021. Another 20 were arrested for “exercising their right to freedom of speech,” the rights group said.
The Hamas terror group, which rules the Gaza Strip, condemned Banat’s death as an “assassination.”
“This premeditated crime reflects the intentions and behavior of the Abbas Authority and his security services toward our people, opposition activists and his political opponents,” said Hamas, which has been at odds with Abbas’s Fatah movement since a 2007 civil war between the two sides for control of Gaza.
Exiled Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan called for “a wide popular and legal response to hold the killers accountable.”
“There are no words to describe the killing of the prominent national activist, the martyr, Nizar Banat,” tweeted Dahlan, who leads a Fatah breakaway faction known as the Democratic Reform Current.