Op-Ed: How the autocratic rule of Mahmoud Abbas fails Palestinians

Demonstrators in Ramallah carry pictures of Nizar Banat at a rally protesting his death while in police custody.
Angry demonstrators in Ramallah on Thursday carry pictures of Nizar Banat, an outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority, at a rally protesting his death while in Palestinian police custody.

(Associated Press )

Twenty-four years ago, while in charge of a small television operation at Al Quds University, my team and I decided to broadcast live sessions of the Palestinian Legislative Council dealing with corruption in the newly established Palestinian Authority. The broadcast angered people in Yasser Arafat’s entourage and I was arrested and jailed for seven days without any explanation.

I recall that event after Nizar Banat, a popular and vocal critic of President Mahmoud Abbas’ leadership, was arrested on Thursday by Palestinian security forces and died after a few hours in custody. Banat’s relatives say he was brutally beaten. The police had stormed into a home in Hebron to find Banat, who had been in hiding there, hoping it would be safe from the security forces when his own home was sprayed with warning shots after he criticized Abbas’ April 29 decision to postpone the legislative elections. Those elections would have been the first since 2006.

In 1997 and now, the ruling Palestinian powers have shown little tolerance for criticism, especially when it comes to issues of corruption. The Legislative Council we were broadcasting at the time has not been in session for over a decade.

The official reason given by Abbas for postponing the elections that were to take place May 22 was Israel not allowing Jerusalem residents to participate. But many, including Banat, believed that they were not held for fear that Abbas’ own Fatah movement would not win a majority of seats.

Some argued in 1997, and are arguing now, that since the Palestinian people are in an existential battle for liberation from Israel, internal issues such as the fight against corruption and the demand for the rule of law and regular elections must be delayed. A senior Fatah official, Azzam al Ahmad, has even said that he opposes “holding elections under Israeli occupation.”


This might make some sense if we were talking about a short-term military occupation. But Israeli military rule has lasted for more than half a century and the struggle for liberty and freedom is not only from Israeli occupation but also from dictatorial local policies that refuse to accept criticism and offer no chance for political reform or holding those in power accountable.

This is not to exonerate the Israelis or the international community. Both were apathetic two months ago when Abbas arbitrarily canceled the long-awaited elections. Banat, who was killed while in Palestinian police custody, had been one of the candidates in that election and had he won he would have been able to make his statements in an elected legislative body.

The recent 11-day period of Gaza-Israel violence has forced Washington and others to pay attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and has shown clearly that the Palestinian people are not willing to live under military occupation forever. The United Nations Security Council met Thursday to remind Israel and the international community of the need to suspend settlement activities, as per Resolution 2334, in areas occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem. The recent cycle of violence was triggered by attempts by an Israeli settler group to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

The absence of political will in recent years has delayed any movement toward a peaceful solution to the conflict. Israel and the international community have felt that the status quo is the best solution, especially with a powerful security force being run by the Palestinian presidency in Ramallah.

What we are seeing now is the Palestinian people rejecting both the Israeli occupation and the autocratic rule of the Palestinian presidency and government. Palestinians are desperate for freedom from the brutal colonial Israeli occupation, but they are equally angry with Palestinian leaders. Banat died for criticizing those leaders.

The international community must not turn a blind eye to both aspirations. Both the end of the occupation through negotiations and a legitimate and freely elected Palestinian body are needed to break the current cycle of violence and single-power rule. The demand for change is coming from the bottom now that the Palestinian leadership has failed to win over its own people or convince the world to put enough pressure on Israel to end its occupation and colonial enterprise.

The world was sickened by the assassination of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. There is similar outrage in Palestine over the killing of Banat at the hands of Palestinian police. The Saudi leadership appears to have gotten away with murder; will the Palestinian leadership be held accountable?


Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and a former professor of journalism at Princeton University. @daoudkuttab