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The People v Mahmoud Abbas: are the Palestinian Authority’s days numbered?

July 6, 2021 at 11:51 am

Palestinians lift placards in Arabic which read “What a situation: Occupation… deceit… arrest… assassination” as a banner addressing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reads “Leave” in Ramallah city in the occupied West Bank on July 3, 2021 [ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images]

Claims that the Palestinian Authority’s days are numbered are now heard frequently. This is especially so following the torture to death on 24 June of a popular Palestinian activist, Nizar Banat, 42, at the hands of PA security goons in Hebron (Al-Khalil).

The killing of Banat — or “assassination” as some Palestinian rights groups describe it — however, was nothing unusual. Torture in PA prisons is the modus operandi, through which Palestinian interrogators extract “confessions”. Palestinian political prisoners in PA custody are usually divided into two main groups: those who are suspected by Israel of being involved in anti-Israeli occupation activities; and others who have been detained for voicing criticism of PA corruption or subservience to Israel.

Why did the PA kill Nizar Banat? - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Why did the PA kill Nizar Banat? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

In a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, the group spoke of “dozens of arrests” carried out by the PA “for critical posts on social media platforms”. Banat slotted into this category perfectly, as he was one of the most persistent and outspoken of critics, whose many videos and social media posts exposed and embarrassed the PA leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and his ruling Fatah party. Unlike others, Banat named names and called for severe measures against those who squander Palestinian public funds and betray the causes of the Palestinian people.

Banat had been arrested by PA police several times in the past. In May, gunmen attacked his home, using live bullets, stun grenades and tear gas. He blamed the attack on Fatah.

His last social media campaign covered the scandal of the almost-expired Covid-19 vaccine doses which the PA received from Israel on 18 June. Because of public pressure by activists like Banat, the PA was forced to return the Israeli vaccines which, before then, were touted as a positive gesture by Israel’s new Prime Minister, the far-right, ultra-nationalist Naftali Bennett.

READ: PA’s Abbas dismisses senior official for criticising extrajudicial killing of Banat

When the PA men descended on Banat’s house on 24 June, the ferocity of their violence was unprecedented. His cousin, Ammar, spoke of how nearly 25 PA security personnel raided the house, pepper-sprayed him while he was still in bed, and “began beating him with iron bars and wooden batons”. After stripping him naked, they dragged him into a vehicle. An hour and a half later, the family learned of his fate through a WhatsApp group.

Despite initial denials, under pressure from thousands of protesters across the West Bank, the PA was forced to admit that Banat’s death was “unnatural”. The Justice Minister, Mohammed Al-Shalaldeh, told local television that an initial medical report indicated that Banat was subjected to physical violence.

This supposed explosive revelation was meant to demonstrate that the PA was willing to examine and take responsibility for its action. However, this is simply untrue. The PA has never taken responsibility for its violence, which is the cornerstone of its very existence. Arbitrary arrests, torture, and suppression of peaceful protests are synonymous with PA security agencies as numerous reports by rights groups, whether Palestinian or international, have indicated.

Could it be, then, that “the Palestinian Authority’s days are numbered”? To consider this question, it is important to examine the rationale behind the PA’s creation and compare that initial purpose with what has transpired in the following years.

The PA was founded in 1994 as a transitional national authority with the objective of guiding the Palestinian people through the process of, ultimately, national liberation, following the “final status negotiations”, which were supposed to conclude by the end of 1999. Almost three decades have elapsed without a single political achievement to the PA’s name. This does not mean that the PA, from the viewpoint of its leadership and Israel, has been a total failure because it has continued to fulfil the most important role entrusted to it: security coordination with the Israeli occupation. In other words, protecting illegal Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, and doing Israel’s dirty work in PA-run autonomous Palestinian areas. In exchange, the PA received billions of dollars from US-led “donor countries” and Palestinian taxes collected on its behalf by Israel.

That same paradigm is still at work, but for how much longer? Following the Palestinian revolt in May, the people have exhibited unprecedented national unity and resolve across factional lines, and have daringly called for the removal of Abbas from power. They have linked — rightly so — the Israeli occupation with Palestinian Authority corruption.

Since the mass protests in May, the PA’s official discourse has been marred by confusion, desperation and panic. PA leaders, including Abbas, tried to position themselves as revolutionary leaders. They spoke of “resistance”, “martyrs” and even “revolution”, while simultaneously renewing their commitment to the “peace process” and the American agenda in Palestine.

As Washington resumed its financial support for Abbas’s authority after it was disrupted by former US President Donald Trump, the PA hoped to return to the status quo of relative stability, financial abundance, and political relevance. The Palestinian people, however, seem to have moved on, as demonstrated by the mass protests, which were always met — sickeningly and entirely predictably — with violence by PA security officials across the West Bank, including Ramallah, the seat of the PA’s power.

Even the slogans have changed. Following Banat’s murder, thousands of protesters in Ramallah, representing all strands of Palestinian society, called on Abbas, 85, to step down. The chants referred to his security goons as “baltajieh” and “shabeha” — “thugs” — which are terms borrowed from Arab protesters during the early years of various Middle Eastern revolts.

OPINION: As Palestinians demand answers, the PA has nothing left but tyranny

This change in discourse points to a critical shift in the relationship between ordinary Palestinians — the people emboldened and ready to stage a mass revolt against Israeli occupation and colonialism — and their quisling, corrupt and self-serving “leadership”. It is important to note that no aspect of this Palestinian Authority enjoys an iota of democratic credentials. Indeed, on 30 April, Abbas “delayed” the general election that was scheduled to be held in Palestine in May. His excuses were flimsy, and “delayed” was a euphemism for “cancelled”. His personal mandate as president expired in 2009.

The PA has proven to be an obstacle to Palestinian freedom, with no credibility among the people of occupied Palestine. It clings to power only because of US and Israeli support. Whether this particular authority’s days are numbered or not, depends on whether the Palestinian people prove that their collective will is stronger than the PA and its benefactors. Experience suggests that when it really comes down to The People v Mahmoud Abbas, it is the Palestinian people who will eventually prevail.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.