Calls for the departure of the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, are increasing in the West Bank. They come as a wave of demonstrations shakes several towns in the Occupied Territories after the death of a human rights activist, criticizing the excesses of power.
The demonstrations, punctuated by clashes between protesters and the police, continue in the occupied West Bank to demand justice after the death, on June 24 in Ramallah, of a famous human rights activist, Nizar Banat. The death at 43 of this critic of the Palestinian Authority (PA), hours after his arrest by the security forces – and after being beaten to death according to his family – has sparked anger from Hebron to Ramallah , passing through Bethlehem.
Anger accompanied by calls for resignation targeting PA President Mahmoud Abbas and slogans denouncing corruption at the top of power.
“Abbas clears”, “Down with the military regime”, “No to political assassinations” … Saturday July 3, hundreds of demonstrators gathered a few hundred meters from the Muqata, the presidential palace, protected by an important police presence. Some roads had been closed upstream to prevent the arrival of demonstrators from other towns.
Violence against demonstrators, arrest of activists, including Hebron-based human rights activist Issa Amro, and intimidation of journalists … the authorities reacted with nervousness from the first rallies organized after the death of Nizar Banat, harshly repressed by the law enforcement.
“The Palestinian Authority is no different from Arab regimes that suppress opposition voices and try to gag journalists. Yet it is supposed to be a national liberation power in the face of Israeli occupation,” Palestinian journalist Moez confides. Hamed to France 24. This Authority is in reality a power which fears the opposition, any voice which rises against it, and the journalists who try to do their job, in spite of daily threats “.
“At least 12 Palestinian journalists, including five women, were assaulted by Palestinian police over the weekend in the West Bank,” the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) organization tweeted on June 28.
Political illegitimacy and authoritarian drift
The current demonstrations are part of the continuity of a phenomenon of delegitimization of the Palestinian Authority in general and of its leader Mahmoud Abbas in particular, explains Béligh Nabli, associate researcher at the Center for International Research (Ceri) of Sciences-Po and author of “Geopolitics of the Mediterranean” (ed. Armand Colin). “This is, with what we are witnessing in Ramallah, the ultimate manifestation of the delegitimization of Mahmoud Abbas”.
According to him, the Palestinian president, 86, embodies an entity which has been unable to translate politically into action the hopes and demands of the Palestinian people which arose as a result of the Oslo accords in 1993.
“He is also struck by an illegitimacy linked to the fact that his mandate as president of the PA has already expired for several years.  and that instead of returning to the democratic path, that is to say of organizing free and pluralist presidential and legislative elections in the Palestinian Territories, through various sequences he has shown the same desire to neutralize this prospect, continues Béligh Nabli. This is the very manifestation of an authoritarian drift, even though his election and the Palestinian Authority itself illustrated a very interesting experience in the Arab world in terms of democratization “.
At the end of April, Mahmoud Abbas, in power since 2005 and weakened by a sling in his own camp, had postponed indefinitely the first elections in fifteen years in the Palestinian Territories. They were announced in early January as part of a “reconciliation” project between his secular party, Fatah, and the Islamists Hamas, in power in Gaza since 2007.
Nizar Banat, who rose to prominence thanks to videos posted on social networks denouncing the corruption that plagues the Palestinian Authority, was a candidate on a list of independents. This postponement of the legislative elections has fueled the frustration of a large part of the Palestinian youth, who feel deprived of leadership, and who were preparing with enthusiasm to vote for the first time in their life.
“The Palestinian population has clearly taken note of this illegitimacy of President Abbas to be able to represent them, and it seems that we are witnessing his exclusion by a people who call on him to leave power”, decrypts Béligh Nabli.
A gulf now seems to separate the Palestinians from their leaders who are playing for their political survival. A series of counter-protests in support of President Abbas involving hundreds of people were staged in the West Bank last week.
“The PA itself perceives the population of the West Bank for which it is responsible as a threat, not security, but political. This perception seems to justify in the eyes of some Palestinian leaders and Fatah apparatchiks the use of force to continue to stay in power, ”says Béligh Nabli.
A power discredited “in the eyes of the international powers”
While the family of Nizar Banat, like the European Union, demands an international investigation, the Palestinian authorities have announced the establishment of a Palestinian commission of inquiry, including members of civil society.
“We want to know what happened and who bears the responsibility for what happened, because Nizar Banat is a Palestinian citizen and we want to get to the truth,” General Talal told France 24. Dweikat, spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority security services The commission of inquiry, which has neutral figures, will have to look into all these issues, and I promise on behalf of the Palestinian Authority that we will be transparent and that we will communicate the results of the survey as is to the population “.
“We are not accusing anyone and we are not protecting anyone, we want the truth to come out,” he said, while the forensic doctor in charge of the activist’s autopsy reported signs of blows to the head, chest, neck, legs and hands.
Enjoying a relatively well-preserved image internationally, apart from the nagging criticisms of the endemic corruption that have plagued it since its creation, the PA had so far managed not to associate its name with the abusive exercise power and authoritarianism, recalls Béligh Nabli.
Some 84% of Palestinians believe the PA is corrupt, according to a survey released in mid-June by a polling institute in Ramallah.
From an international perspective, images of repressed protesters and journalists may upset the Biden administration. In Washington, the State Department said the United States was “deeply disturbed” by the death of Nizar Banat and said it had “serious concerns about the Palestinian Authority’s restrictions on Palestinian freedom of expression and the harassment of civil society activists and associations “.
A very clear message sent to Mahmoud Abbas, snubbed by the White House under Donald Trump, and who seeks to return to the front of the diplomatic scene. The official having been eclipsed by Hamas which set itself up as the defender of Jerusalem during its recent confrontation with the Israeli army.
“If there is no surprise on the Palestinian side as to the capacity of the power to show arbitrariness and repression, today, seen from the outside, the mask that has fallen discredits a little more the PA and Mahmoud Abbas in the eyes of the international powers, ”Beligh Nabli said.
And to conclude: “while he finds himself in a situation of inextricable internal politics, only an outstretched American hand could save the Palestinian president. But is it in the interest of the Biden administration to make him an exclusive interlocutor? ? Not sure, as Mahmoud Abbas is undoubtedly weakened and without political resilience to assume, despite an honorable diplomatic record, particularly in terms of international justice, of the steps on behalf of the Palestinians “.