The killing of political activist Nizar Banat two weeks ago, while he was being arrested by Palestinian security forces, continues to cause tension between the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, on one side, and other political activists – mostly those from the Palestinian left, and Palestinian human rights organizations.
The Palestinian police arrested seven protesters on Monday evening – even before they began their planned vigil in the center of Ramallah over Banat’s death. Two to three hours later, the police arrested another 12 – all relatives of those already arrested, their friends and lawyers – who came to the police station where the seven were detained to demand their release. The police ordered the protesters to disperse within 10 minutes. When they didn’t do so, the police attacked them and arrested a few of them. The police used pepper spray, beat protesters and pulled women’s hair as they dragged them inside the police station.
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After midnight, some of those arrested were released unconditionally. PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh ordered the police to release them, his spokesman said. Late at night, a reporter for the al-Arabi television station, who interviewed a few of those released, was also detained. The police officers chased after him after he had already left the police station, and arrested him on grounds that were unrelated to the demonstration, but he was released with the intervention of the prime minister’s spokesman. Seven other detainees were released on bail Tuesday, after they were brought before the Ramallah magistrate’s court. They are charged with organizing and participating in an illegal demonstration.
Another detainee, who according to the testimonies – including that of a woman doctor who was also arrested – was harshly beaten in the police station and transferred to hospital suffering from fractures. As a result, he was brought to court only on Wednesday, where the prosecution asked to extend his remand by 24 days for allegedly attacking an employee. Women who were released told independent news agency al-Wattan that at least two other young detainees were beaten severely inside the police station on Monday, and were moved to hospital. Two of the agency’s employees were beaten severely next to the police station, and one was also detained.
Back on Monday evening, the police spokesman announced that the first seven protesters were arrested because they did not request a license for the demonstration. But the protesters and human rights organizations say Palestinian law does not require requesting such a permit, just informing the police in advance of the intention to demonstrate – so the police can direct traffic nearby. Like the demonstrations last week, the police knew from social media reports that a protest vigil was planned, one of the activists told Haaretz, and if it had wanted to, it could have directed traffic accordingly, without needing to make arrests.
The arrest of the seven and the violence used against their relatives was surprising for two reasons. First, senior PA officials have made over the past few days conciliatory comments, expressing regret over the attack on the woman journalists immediately after Banat’s killing. Shtayyeh himself said as much in a cabinet meeting on Monday, stressing the PA’s commitment to freedom of expression. Senior Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub said similar things, even though he tried to deflect criticism away from the security forces, and said the political leadership is the one that decides and is responsible. A committee of released prisoners from a number of political affiliations discussed over the past few days ways of relieving the tension between the PA and the public and various organizations – and the possible conditions for achieving a “sulha” between the PA and the Banat family. In addition, 14 members of the security forces who participated in Banat’s brutal arrest were arrested, after the Palestinian military prosecutor took over the investigation of his killing.
It seems that different bodies in the PA and Fatah saw in these developments reason to stop the protests. But to their chagrin, the protest vigil planners, such as the human rights organizations, demand that responsible senior officials and not just lower-level personnel be brought to justice. They say the murder must be examined in the general context of silencing people and violating their fundamental democratic rights, starting with the right to run for the legislative assembly. Human rights NGO representatives who rushed to speak with police and government representatives, at the time of the arrests on Monday, realized that Shtayyeh did not know of them and was surprised. From their conversations, they concluded that this was not a mistaken decision by a local police station, and the order to crush the protest came from a higher political level. It was not said who.
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The second reason for the shock and amazement that the arrests caused is that many of those arrested are senior activists in left-wing organizations, or close to them, and some of them, including a few of the younger arrestees were previously imprisoned in Israel for opposing the occupation.
In other words, there was an expectation that the political credit of these protesters and the admiration they have earned in society would protect them from arrest and the violence of the Palestinian police. Over the last two weeks, spokesmen for Fatah and the PA have said repeatedly that demonstrators who protested Banat’s killing were motivated by a “foreign agenda,” and complained that they were slandering the Fatah and Palestinian security forces – which rely on Fatah – which are carrying the banner of the national struggle, they say. As a result, the demonstrators on Monday expected they would be treated with the same amount of respect for their part in the national struggle, as they are required to demonstrate toward Fatah members. Imposing double standards is not a new invention, but is always outrageous.
The arrests on Monday came in addition to arrests on Saturday and Sunday of other activists, who were released in the meantime. At least one of those arrested was also beaten badly while being arrested. The arrests of those not willing to overlook the murder of Banat and the violence used against them demonstrate that senior political officials in the PA are still convinced that the fitting and proper path for them is silencing, repressing and intimidating their critics.