Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – Months before Ghassan’s sixth birthday, he already had his party all planned out; he wanted a policeman costume and a cake shaped like a police cap. That is until a month ago, when his idolisation of the police was shattered.
On July 5, Ghassan’s mother, Hind Shraydeh, went to the police station in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah to demand the release of her husband, who had been detained along with several other activists by Palestinian security forces before a planned demonstration against the Palestinian Authority (PA) earlier that day. The police said the activists had been arrested because the protest did not have a permit.
Shraydeh’s impromptu protest grew to a dozen family members and activists after she posted a Facebook video chanting “state of freedoms, no to political arrests”. But it did not last long.
The riot police violently cracked down on the protesters, observers and journalists. Shraydeh was dragged by her hair, beaten and detained in front of her children, who also saw their uncle and 77-year-old grandfather getting pepper-sprayed.
When she was reunited with her children after midnight, following an intervention by the PA prime minister, Ghassan told her that he did not want to be a policeman any more.
“A policeman is no longer a dream job for a five-year-old,” Shraydeh said. “The PA can no longer sustain its image – no security, no protection, no respect for the other, no pluralism … This is not the state we’re struggling for.”
The death of 46-year-old Nizar Banat while in PA custody on June 24 has sparked protests in the West Bank. Banat was a political activist and outspoken PA critic who posted videos on social media accusing the PA of corruption.
Fatah – the movement that controls the PA – has been staging counterprotests pledging allegiance to President Mahmoud Abbas and asserting he remains the legitimate leader, 16 years after he was last elected.
“We don’t want to label our people as traitors under any circumstances, but the protests could be used by those who want to harm the Palestinian national interest,” Hasan Hamayel, a Fatah spokesman told Al Jazeera.
He criticised activists in the West Bank for not protesting against the death of a Palestinian in Hamas custody in Gaza several days ago, but said he was not drawing exact parallels.
“I’m not comparing, we’ve got a state here – there’s law and order … We are the legitimate institution that the world deals with,” Hamayel said.
But law and order is one of the protesters’ demands.
While the PA said it detained 14 members of the security patrol that detained Banat and referred them to the military judiciary, pending the completion of the investigation into their alleged involvement in his death, trust in the PA justice system has been declining with more than two-thirds believing that there is corruption in the judiciary.
On July 25, senior Fatah official Hussein al-Sheikh apologised for Banat’s death on behalf of President Abbas.
“It was a sad and unfortunate accident. Maybe a mistake occurred during the action of law enforcement … It is important that there are procedures in place accordingly concerning matters of law and order and to judge who did wrong in this matter,” the Media Line quoted him as saying.
Omar Assaf, a leading activist, told Al Jazeera that the apology was a good start but said accountability and justice are really needed.
“It was the Palestinian people he should have addressed first through local channels, not international media,” Assaf added.
While Banat’s death has been the catalyst for recent protests demanding justice, security reform and elections, dissatisfaction with the PA has been mounting well before his death.
In April, Abbas postponed what would have been the first parliamentary elections in 15 years over what he said was a dispute over voting in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
Critics accused the PA’s 85-year-old leader of using the issue as an excuse to avoid polls that could see a divided Fatah lose, and pollsters say the postponement was a turning point in the public perception of the PA.
Discontent with the PA has been compounded by its passive stance during the protests and confrontations with Israeli forces over forced expulsions of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah and over the 11-day war in May between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza, as well as by an investigation into a nixed vaccine swap deal between the PA and Israel.
Khalil Shikaki, a political science professor and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, who has been conducting polls since 1993, told Al Jazeera he has never seen such a high level of frustration with the PA among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
He said Palestinians are dissatisfied with perceptions of PA cooperation with the Israeli occupation, its administration of areas under its control in the West Bank, and its growing corruption and authoritarianism.
“There’s a perception that is the PA is essentially accepting the status quo, is lacking the initiative and the resolve to confront Israel, essentially protecting its own interests in keeping the PA alive,” Shikaki said.
According to the most recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, published on July 4, if presidential elections were to be held and only two were nominated: Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, the former would receive 27 percent and the latter 59 percent of the votes – compared with 47 percent for Abbas three months ago.
Yet while Palestinians appear hungry for change, elections are nowhere in sight.
Fatah has suggested a government reshuffle to placate critics, which officials told Al Jazeera Abbas has approved – along with planned changes in the security apparatus and in the diplomatic corps.
But Assaf said the PA’s legitimacy crisis will not be resolved through reshuffles.
“The crisis will remain as long as there are no elections,” he said.
‘We broke the fear barrier’
Meanwhile, despite being relatively small and centred in Ramallah and Hebron, anti-PA protests are ongoing with another one called for August 2.
Hamas, according to analysts, is refraining from using its base in the West Bank for fear of bloody confrontations with Fatah at a time it is trying to rehabilitate its global image. Fatah, by and large, is defending the PA and refraining from public criticism of the president.
Third parties and independents are leading the demonstrations, but they make up less than a quarter of the population and lack the base and organised machinery to sustain the protests, according to Shikaki.
Unfolding post-Arab Spring events and the desire for stability, as well as fears over safety, also weigh on many of those who desire change.
“They don’t want to risk being beaten by the security services, they don’t want to risk having to go to jail. They see what happens, even with journalists when they come out … Some fear that they’d lose their jobs and there’s concern about daily living conditions,” Shikaki said.
Assaf, though, is not dragging his feet. The 71-year-old who can be found at every protest, often with the loudspeaker, said he believed the movement will snowball.
“We broke the fear barrier,” Assaf said, although he remains wary.
“The PA repression is beyond a manifestation of weakness and confusion. This is, in one way or another, the beginning of a succession war for who fills in when Abbas is gone,” he added.