Nizar Banat Lives On, But Democracy Dies Yet Again

As the security service personnel in plainclothes muffled protesters with tear gas and threats, a menagerie of feelings played out on the streets of Ramallah, the seat of governance of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) that rules parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. There were raucous chants against an increasingly megalomaniac President Mahmoud Abbas, anger over the systemic rot that allowed neither peace nor better living standards, and tears of a sudden loss of a man on whom many had pinned their hopes.

Nizar Banat, an outspoken critic of the PA, died following his violent arrest at dawn on June 24. The PA Preventive Security members stormed the house where he stayed with his wife and five children in the city of Hebron, southern West Bank, dragged him out of his bed, beat him up with metal pieces, and used pepper spray on everyone before bundling him off to their office. “They hit him on his head with iron bars, which they had used to open the windows… They beat him continuously for eight minutes,” Nizar’s cousin Hussein was quoted as saying by DW.

Given the short shrift in his arrest and death, one would wonder whether it was a premeditated murder. Hebron Governor Jibrin al-Bakri, however, stated that there was a summons from the public prosecutor and that Nizar’s health deteriorated soon after his arrest. His family, on the other hand, claimed that he was bleeding profusely from head wounds as the security personnel dragged him out of the house.

Why such brutality if it was to record an arrest? Why did the PA see Nizar as a threat? A braveheart, Nizar was instrumental in calling out the PA top brass on corruption and abuse of power. Days before his death, Nizar posted a video on Facebook criticizing the almost finalized vaccine deal with Israel that would have seen Israel provide Palestine with at least one million soon-to-expire Covid-19 shots in exchange for a fresh shipment of a similar number of Pfizer shots later this year. The PA had canceled the deal on June 18, after the first batch showed doses nearing their expiry dates.

Nizar also denounced the security cooperation with Israel and called on Western powers to cut off aid to it citing human rights violations and autocratic behavior. While in hiding after his house was targeted with bullets, stun grenades, and tear gas in early May, he told The Associated Press: “The Europeans need to know that they are indirectly funding this organization [Fatah party led by Abbas]. 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.”

Power play to the fore

This is not the first time a critic has been targeted by “the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. Soon after Nizar’s death, social media was flooded with posts remembering many of them. “Naji Al-Ali, Basil Al-Araj, Ahmed Jarrar, Abu Al-Ezz Halawa, Fares Halawa, Al-Zabour, Nizar Banat. Remember the names of the martyrs of our country… Remember them well, and hold grudges, for this is the least we can do,” said one post. On the streets, plainclothes men loyal to Fatah party used pepper spray, tear gas, metal rods and clubs on crowds, besides punching, throwing stones and snatching phones to prevent documentation of events. Some even threatened rape against women protesters. Such high-handedness has come at a cost of ever-diminishing popularity for Abbas.

Palestinians are fed up with the PA apparatus for not standing up for them. While Israel steals their property – Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and Al-Bustan being a few examples – the PA simply deserts the places that Israeli forces raid. They do not mind handing over its people to Israel on trumped-up charges. The authority failed miserably when Israel went overboard with the expansion of Jewish settlements. It is like a savior turning into an oppressor over time, making Palestinians deal with two occupations on a daily basis.

More than anyone else, President Abbas knows he is severely unpopular. But he will cling on to power as long as possible and test the patience of Palestinians. He postponed the first elections in 15 years in April citing a dispute over voting rights in East Jerusalem. Not only the May 22 parliamentary polls but also the July 31 presidential ones went for a toss. But the real reason for the postponement was an opinion poll suggesting another humiliating defeat at the hands of Hamas, which wrested Gaza from his fractured Fatah party in 2007. Incidentally, Nizar, who had a huge fan following on Facebook, was a candidate on the Freedom and Dignity list.

The PA was never meant to be a permanent government in the first place. It was formed in 1994 for a period of five years, by which time Palestine and Israel were supposed to have reached an agreement on a final peace accord. Though the peace talks stalled, the PA continued to thrive with the support of the US and European funding. Over the years, the liberation agenda of the Palestine Liberation Organization was absorbed into the PA’s governance responsibilities. Though aged 85, Abbas is now in the 17th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term. He continues to rule by presidential decree and does not have a clear successor.

The Fatah party held its second conference under Abbas in 2016, seven years after he was elected as its chairman in 2009. Dissidents were not invited and opponents were disqualified, conveniently bringing down the number of delegates who would vote against Abbas. Despite such undemocratic practices, the West considers Abbas as the face of Palestinian aspirations, a global leader sans the blemish of dictatorship. He rules with the support of a prime minister, who does not have the approval of the Parliament, known as the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The fact that the PLC has been redundant since 2007 sums up the state of affairs in Palestine.

What Palestine wants

Palestine is a relatively young society where people in the 18-29 age group constitute 22% (1.14 million) of the total population of 5.10 million. The PA, which many Palestinians once envisioned as their state-in-waiting, has now transformed into a proxy of Israel. It is high time the Palestinian leaders discarded their failed past and devised a new approach to liberate their people, a plan where peace and better living conditions get the most attention. For such a thing to happen, fair and free elections should be prioritized. The PLC, which has been dysfunctional for the past 14 years, should be reactivated to debate on ways to deliver its people the country they cherish.

Millions of Palestinians do not consider the present male-dominated leadership past its retirement age as their true representation. Of the 18 central committee members elected in the last Fatah congress in 2016, 17 were men with an average age of over 65. The only consolation was a youth representative in his 40s! Like the stagnant Fatah leadership, the daily woes of Palestinians have remained unchanged with no resolution in sight. They had no access to adequate and safe drinking water in 2009. They still reel under severe water shortages in 2021. The same is the case with housing, food supplies, and health facilities, among others.

Nizar Banat often lashed out against this stymied democracy. He repeatedly invoked his children’s right to live a life of dignity. The 43-year-old who worked as a carpenter to support his family was one among the many ordinary Palestinians. That is exactly why his death triggered massive protests, which continue till date. The best tribute to Nizar would be to march in peace breaking the shackles of silence and being equipped to question the ill-conceived actions of the government on a daily basis. Still in mourning, Nizar’s widow was seen in a video saying: “I want everybody to be like Nizar Banat.” Nizar himself had said in one of the Facebook posts where he sensed impending death: “Let today be the beginning of Nizar Banat, not the end.”

As crowds swell on the streets of Ramallah, Nizar’s voice of truth lives on, while democracy dies yet again.

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