WASHINGTON – A number of progressive Democrats at the forefront of advocating for Palestinian causes on Capitol Hill, accused the Palestinian Authority of human rights abuses and authoritarianism following arrests of demonstrators on Saturday and Sunday.
Their criticism, however, does not necessarily mean the PA is squandering accumulated goodwill. Rather, it captures progressives’ growing disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority itself, and the role it plays with regard to the Israeli occupation.
The outcry developed after Palestinian security forces arrested Saturday 23 protesters who were demanding the prosecution of the killers of PA critic Nizar Banat. There were at least five more arrests on Sunday, Amira Hass reported. The PA released most of the protesters on Sunday, but kept eight of them in custody for another 48 hours.
Missouri Rep. Cori Bush on Monday linked the PA crackdown to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. “Shame on the Palestinian Authority. Suppressing dissent and criminalizing protest only deepens the violence of Israel’s apartheid system,” she tweeted. “We stand with Palestinians against the violence of the Palestinian Authority’s authoritarianism. Freedom for political prisoners now.”
Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib echoed those sentiments, tweeting: “Palestinians face enough danger and oppression without their own government imprisoning them simply for peacefully protesting police brutality.”
Tlaib also called for the immediate release of Fadi Quran, campaign director with Avaaz, a U.S.-based nonprofit activism organization, and his colleagues.
Other lawmakers did not mention or implicate Israel in the matter, instead focusing on the PA itself.
“Members of the Palestinian security forces responsible for Nizar Banat’s death must be held accountable. But recent reports that nearly 30 human rights defenders were arrested for protesting his killing seriously calls the Palestinian Authority’s commitment to accountability into question,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, in a statement on Monday. The PA “must do more to tackle corruption and end the campaign of harassment against civil society,” he added.
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“Locking up peaceful protesters is a textbook human rights abuse and the hallmark of authoritarian regimes,” tweeted Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. She called on the PA to release the detained protesters and to also “conduct a thorough transparent investigation into Nizar Banat’s killing.”
Also Monday, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin called on the PA to “stop committing human rights abuses and respect the freedom of speech of all Palestinians. Arresting peaceful human rights defenders is never OK. Full stop.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky and the Congressional Progressive Caucus echoed Pocan’s comments, calling on the PA to immediately release the activists and respect freedom of assembly. “No one should face arrest for peaceful protest, including human rights defenders in the West Bank,” the caucus tweeted.
Quran and his colleagues were released Tuesday, soon after Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office reached out to multiple PA contacts to raise the issue, Haaretz has learned.
While the PA’s actions could risk alienating their supporters in Congress, the outcry may mark a growing acceptance among policymakers of the argument that the Palestinian Authority does not necessarily represent the interests of the Palestinian people.
Yousef Munayyer, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, says this distinction is clear when it comes to engaging Congress on Palestinian-related matters.
“Those in the solidarity, organizing and engagement communities are primarily focused on advancing human rights-based legislation that would hold Israel accountable for violations of Palestinian rights,” Munayyer said. One such example is Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill, announced in April, relating to the detention of Palestinian children in Israeli military prisons.
For its part, the PA itself never really sought to develop or maintain good relations with members of Congress who look at Palestinians through a prism of human rights, Munayyer added. “They instead have looked to sell themselves on security credentials and ability to coordinate with the Israeli military,” inextricably linking the PA’s existence to Israel’s presence in the West Bank, he said.
The State Department, which has endeavored to restore ties with the PA since President Joe Biden took office while simultaneously empowering Palestinian civil society, issued a rare criticism of the PA over Banat’s death.
A State Department official said Tuesday the U.S. was “deeply disturbed” by reports of the protesters’ arrests over the weekend and welcomed the news of their release.
“We strongly urge security forces to conduct themselves in a professional manner and authorities to strictly respect freedom of expression, the vital work of journalists, as well as the full rights of Palestinians to protest peacefully,” the official said. “The United States is extremely concerned by increasing reports of Palestinian Authority restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association in the West Bank. The Palestinian people deserve more freedom of expression – not less,” the official added.