RAMALLAH, West Bank — Hundreds of Palestinians gathered in Ramallah, the occupied West Bank city, on Saturday to oppose President Mahmoud Abbas, aiming to provide a new impetus to a protest movement launched by the murder of an outspoken critic in security forces’ custody.
A similar demonstration was forcefully crushed by Palestinian security personnel and gangs of men in plainclothes a week earlier, raising concern from the US and the UN’s human rights head. On Saturday, there were no early reports of violence.
The Palestinian Authority, which controls sections of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was created as part of the peace process in the 1990s. It has become increasingly authoritarian and unpopular, prompting Abbas to call off the first elections in 15 years in April, when his fragmented Fatah party appeared to be losing poorly. During the Gaza conflict in May, he was virtually ignored as an outpouring of sympathy for his opponents, the territory’s Islamist Hamas authorities.
A few hundred protestors gathered in al-Manara Square in central Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is located, to begin Saturday’s rally. The mother of activist Nizar Banat, whose murder prompted the protests last month, and other family members were greeted with cheers and delivered brief comments.
The throng then marched in a loop across downtown, building strength as it went until hundreds could be heard screaming chants like “The people want the dictatorship to collapse” and “Abbas, leave,” which were popular during the Arab Spring protests in 2011.
There was little obvious security presence at first, but when the protestors marched along a key thoroughfare heading to the PA offices, they came upon a line of riot police stationed at barriers. The demonstrators came to a halt and sat on the roadway a few meters (yards) away.
Meanwhile, members of Fatah organized a protest in Hebron, in the southern West Bank, waving the party’s signature yellow flags. The Palestinian Authority’s official Palestinian television station, Palestine TV, reported the gathering in Hebron but omitted the one in Ramallah.
The United States was “very concerned” by allegations that non-uniformed members of the Palestinian Authority security forces harassed and used force against demonstrators and journalists during last weekend’s rallies, according to State Department spokesman Ned Price.
Palestinian security personnel had assaulted demonstrators with batons and attacked them with tear gas and stun grenades, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. They appeared to pick out female protestors, reporters, and onlookers, she claimed, with several of them alleging sexual harassment.
She urged the PA to “protect freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and opinion.”