As the Palestinian Authority tightens its iron grip on dissent in the West Bank—and a dissident is brutally murdered while in P.A. custody—Western media virtually ignore the story. One Palestinian activist accuses the United States government itself of supporting the increased repression.
Ironically, just last February, P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas seemed to have found a new love for the freedom of speech. Reversing more than a decade of strangling speech critical of his regime, he decreed a ban on “the detention, arrest, prosecution of, or holding to account, individuals for reasons relating to the freedom of opinion and political affiliation.”
The decree was interpreted as a gesture by Abbas toward democracy as West Bank Palestinians were heading into elections. However, Abbas abruptly canceled the elections indefinitely last month. He also appears to have canceled his tolerance of free speech.
In recent weeks, P.A. security forces have rounded up more than 20 dissenters for their statements on social media or for taking part in demonstrations relating to conflicts in Jerusalem and the Hamas-Israel war, according to The Jerusalem Post.
A Palestinian watchdog group, Lawyers for Justice, reported that the detainees were arrested arbitrarily, many were beaten by Palestinian investigators and some were warned not to hire attorneys from the lawyers’ group.
Even more outrageous is the murder of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat, 42, just a few days ago. Banat, a Palestinian activist and well-known critic of the P.A. leadership, died after being arrested by the government’s notorious security forces.
Banat’s family members claim he was badly beaten during the raid and arrest. Many human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have accused the Palestinian security forces of routinely arresting and torturing peaceful critics and opponents to crush dissent.
Indeed, the P.A. justice minister and head of the investigation committee into Banat’s death admitted that the dissident was subjected to physical violence and that his death was “unnatural.” In other words, he was beaten to death.
Another prominent critic of the P.A., Issa Amro, told CNN that he and other dissidents “are afraid of being killed by the lawless Palestinian security forces. It is clear there is a decision to get rid of the opposition and activists at any price.”
Outspoken Palestinian writer Nadia Harhash noted, “It’s interesting and disturbing that the Palestinian Authority’s unprecedented crackdown began immediately after U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to Ramallah last month.” If this is what Blinken means by “empowering” the P.A., she continued, “then the U.S. is definitely complicit in the crimes of the Palestinian security forces.”
Banat’s death set off protests by Palestinians across P.A.-controlled areas. In Ramallah, protesters shouted slogans calling for the removal of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas from office. P.A. policemen used high levels of violence to disperse the protesters. Clubs, metal rods, tear gas and the sexual assault of female protesters have been used to break up the demonstrations and stop reporters from documenting the events, according to the Palestinian journalists’ union.
In response to violations of journalists’ freedom to cover the rallies, the Palestinian journalists’ union submitted a letter of protest to the United Nations, which called on the U.N. to take “necessary and immediate measures” to protect local journalists.
“The violent response is a clear message that anyone that dares to defy the injustices of the P.A., or exercises their right for demanding more just policies, representatives, and practices will be attacked, even killed, with impunity,” said Mariam Barghouti, a writer and researcher from Ramallah.
Very little of this made the front pages of international news publications. No urgent meetings were held at the United Nations, no demonstrations in Western cities expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people were held, and no calls to boycott or sanction the P.A. were made on university campuses or in trade unions.
The P.A. has received billions of dollars in welfare from the United States, as well as from Western European and Arab nations. While the Trump administration cut off most U.S. funding to the P.A.—protesting corruption and anti-American actions—the Biden administration has begun to restore such payments.
The question is why people who claim that Palestinian lives matter are not screaming from the rooftops about these outrages. Prominent Middle East commentator Melanie Phillips wrote that “Palestinian Authority repression doesn’t fit the Western liberal narrative.”
Veteran Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh explains that “the crackdown was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media in the West—until the death of Banat.” He writes, “It was ignored because the perpetrators were not Israeli policemen or soldiers. It was ignored because the media could not find a way to blame Israel for the fact that the Palestinian government was harassing, intimidating and torturing Palestinians.”
This is largely a result of Western leaders and media ignoring a lack of democracy and illiberal behavior by Palestinians while focusing instead on events in Israel that can be used to discredit the Jewish state. Likewise, there were no cries of outrage when Abbas—now in the 16th year of his four-year term in office—once again canceled elections.
Similarly, we read little to no coverage of incitement and anti-Semitism in the Palestinian educational, religious and media systems. European and American politicians cast a blind eye on the fact that taxpayer dollars fund the Palestinians’ “Pay For Slay” program, which rewards terrorists and murderers of Israelis and Americans.
These, too, do not fit the Western narrative of Palestinians as victims of Israeli power and aggression. This narrative infantilizes them, characterizing Palestinians as being unable to make moral choices or act in their own self-interest. As such, they are accorded no agency—an insulting example of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
This lack of concern on the part of those who claim to be pro-Palestinian is evident when no protests arise for these same victims when they are killed and oppressed in Lebanon, Syria and in the P.A.
Rather, this disregard for genuine repression betrays the fact that to these activists, Palestinians are mere props for critics’ anti-Israel and anti-Semitic obsessions. If the events can’t be blamed on Israel, they are of no interest. Indeed, seemingly for many, Palestinian lives do not in fact matter.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.