The West Bank protests since last month’s death of political activist Nizar Banat while in Palestinian Authority custody continue to occupy political circles in the PA, primarily the Fatah movement. The security apparatuses in the PA seem to feel the protest is weakening, but Fatah sources told Haaretz that they believe the slowdown is only temporary. Senior officials in the movement, like the field activists, say the effort to subdue the protests with arrests and verbal attacks on the organizers won’t calm things down, and may even lead to a flare-up.
Several incidents have occurred recently that the PA considers harbingers of a loss of control that could degenerate into chaos that even protest leaders do not want. Sources in the PA believe that the presence of armed Fatah members at several focal points in Ramallah and Bethlehem violates understandings. There have also been numerous violent incidents in several cities, including the torching of homes and shootings at homes and property. Although the cause of that violence is personal feuds, the PA fears the message the public is getting is that the security services are losing control on the streets.
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Against this background, Ramallah has begun to deal with needed reforms in the PA leadership and is preparing to make personnel changes among the decision makers. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and other ministers in his government have emerged as targets for replacement. This would lead to changes at the lower levels, including among the district governors, in the ranks of the security services and among the PA’s ambassadors in different countries. Fatah activists say the need for change arose even before Banat’s death, but the incident provides them with an opportunity. However, they emphasize that no agreements have been reached, and it still isn’t clear when any of this will be implemented.
One sign of the effort to promote change is the return of former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to the public arena. Sources in Ramallah report that Fayyad met recently with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the Muqata, and also had informal talks with PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj and Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh, who are members of Abbas’ inner circle. Fayyad abandoned Palestinian politics several years ago, and since then had been watched by the PA’s security service. A slate headed by Fayyad had planned to contend in the Palestinian elections in May that were canceled.
Fayyad also entered Gaza 10 days ago through the Erez crossing, which indicates that his visit had been coordinated with both the PA and Israel. In Gaza, Fayyad met with representatives of the Palestinian factions, including Hamas. Speculation is rampant that this means he seeks to lead the establishment of a broad government that will have the approval of both Fatah and Hamas, and to lead a program to rebuild the Strip. The Fatah spokesman issued a statement saying there was no connection between Fayyad’s trip to Gaza and the talk of revamping the cabinet, and said the visit was for “humanitarian purposes and purposes of peace.”
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Various sources in the PA are also calling to return to the path of elections after a new government is formed. They say elections will help deal with the public’s frustration. These sources also insist it will be easier to come to an agreement with Israel about allowing voting in East Jerusalem, because of the composition of the new Israeli government and because the Biden administration will mediate.
However, other Fatah sources and opponents of the PA are skeptical about the feasibility of holding elections, given the strong fear within the movement that Fatah will lose control. They say the situation in the PA is too unstable to consider it, and without a plan to emerge from the crisis, things could deteriorate further.
Anger and frustration among West Bank residents have risen sharply since Abbas in April postponed the elections to an unknown date on grounds that Israel would not permit voting in East Jerusalem. The desire for elections was strong. More than 80 percent of the PA’s residents had registered to vote. Dozens of slates, both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, had submitted their candidates to the Election Commission.
Criticism of the government intensified further when the PA canceled an agreement to take 1.4 million coronavirus vaccines off Israel’s hands, when it became clear that the vaccines were due to expire within a few weeks. Nazar Banat had been one of the government’s sharpest critics over the vaccine issue. A few days before his death, Banat was sharply critical of both Shtayyeh and PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila.