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JERUSALEM (AP) — An outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority who was a candidate in parliamentary elections called off earlier this year died after Palestinian security forces arrested him and beat him with batons on Thursday, his family said.
Nizar Banat was a harsh critic of the PA, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and had called on Western nations to cut off aid to it because of its authoritarianism and human rights violations. Earlier this week, another prominent activist was detained by the PA and held overnight after criticizing it on Facebook.
The crackdown on dissent comes as the internationally-backed PA faces a growing backlash from Palestinians who view it as corrupt and increasingly autocratic, a manifestation of a three-decade peace process that is nowhere close to delivering Palestinian independence. Hundreds took to the streets in protest after word spread of Banat's death.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected to a four-year term in 2005, has little to show after more than a decade of close security coordination with Israel. The 85-year-old leader has been powerless to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements, home demolitions, evictions in Jerusalem and deadly Israeli military raids, and was largely ignored during the recent unrest in Jerusalem and the 11-day Gaza war.
Western nations nevertheless view the PA as a key partner for rebuilding Gaza, which is ruled by the militant Hamas group, and eventually reviving the moribund peace process.
Mohammed Banat, a cousin who witnessed the arrest, said a group of men, some wearing masks, burst into the house where Nizar was staying and sprayed everyone with pepper spray.
“They beat Nizar with batons on his head and body,” he told The Associated Press. "They did not identify themselves and we did not recognize them. They arrested Nizar and disappeared.”
In a brief statement, the Hebron governorate said Nizar's “health deteriorated” when Palestinian forces went to arrest him early Thursday. It said he was taken to a hospital where he was later pronounced dead.
The United States, the European Union and the United Nations called for an investigation, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced the formation of an investigative committee.
Dr. Samir Abu Zaarour, a forensic pathologist for the Independent Commission for Human Rights who attended the autopsy, said the death was “unnatural” and ruled out a heart attack or stroke. He said final results will only be available after further testing. Pictures of the body released by the family appear to show bruising on his head and legs.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in the West Bank city of Ramallah and tried to march to the PA's headquarters, chanting “The people want the downfall of the regime" and "Abbas, you are not one of us, take your dogs and leave.”
Palestinian security forces fired tear gas at the marchers and beat people with wooden batons.
Tahani Mustafa, an analyst at the Crisis Group, an international think thank, said there's been “increasing repression" since the PA was sidelined and widely derided during the Gaza war. “At this point the PA can’t really afford any level of criticism," she said.
She added that the international community, which has trained and equipped Palestinian security forces, “needs to take some responsibility” and push for accountability and change.
In early May, gunmen fired bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at Nizar Banat's home near the West Bank city of Hebron, where his wife was inside with their children. He blamed the attack on Abbas' Fatah party, which dominates the security forces.
“The Europeans need to know that they are indirectly funding this organization,” he told The Associated Press in May in an interview at a house where he was hiding out. "They fire their guns into the air at Fatah celebrations, they fire their guns in the air when Fatah leaders fight each other and they fire their guns at people who oppose Fatah.”
The EU delegation to the Palestinians tweeted that it was “shocked and saddened" by Banat's death and called for a “full, independent, and transparent investigation." The U.N.'s Mideast envoy, Tor Wennesland, said the “perpetrators must be brought to justice.”
The U.S. State Department echoed those calls. In a statement, it expressed “serious concerns about Palestinian Authority restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression by Palestinians and harassment of civil society activists and organizations.”
Earlier this week, Palestinian security forces detained a prominent activist and held him overnight after he took to Facebook to criticize the PA's arrest of another individual. Issa Amro is an outspoken critic of both Israel and the PA, and has been detained by both in the past.
“I feel that my life is in danger like Nizar Banat. I don't feel there is anyone who can protect me from attacks by outlaws affiliated with some security authorities," Amro said. “Unfortunately, there's a state of security chaos since the cancellation of the elections.”
A recent poll showed plummeting support for Abbas, who cancelled the first elections in 15 years in April when it looked like his fractured Fatah party would suffer another humiliating defeat to Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas' forces in 2007.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Abbas when he visited the region after the Gaza war last month, and the Biden administration is working to bolster the PA after relations fell to an all-time low under President Donald Trump.
The European Union has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in direct aid to the PA over the years. Earlier this week, it signed an agreement to provide $425 million in loans to the PA and Palestinian banks.
Mustafa, of the Crisis Group, said such initiatives will be “incredibly ineffective” unless the U.S. presses for political renewal that allows the Palestinians to choose their own leaders.
“Any pursuit toward the peace process will not be accepted by the majority of Palestinians if it’s being done on behalf of a small cluster of people that they do not see as being representative or acting in their own interest, which is what we are seeing now," she said.