The Killing of Nizar Banat: “There is no Freedom of Expression in Palestine” An Interview with Naela Khalil
Tensions between demonstrators and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are at a peak after Nizar Banat, a well-known political activist, died after his arrest by the PA’s security forces in Hebron two weeks ago. As a former Fatah-member and independent election candidate, Banat had criticized the PA of corruption and questioned the cancellation of the Palestinian elections in May 2021. Since his killing, peaceful demonstrations have taken place all over the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The PA’s apparatus has been brutally cracking down on these demonstrations. Plain clothed security forces have assaulted and arrested protesters arbitrarily. Palestinian and international press have also been attacked during their work, and their equipment has been confiscated. Therefore, Palestinian journalists issued a call for protection by the United Nations.
Sari Harb, programme manager at the RLS Regional Office for Palestine and Jordan in Ramallah, spoke with Naela Khalil, chief journalist from Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed [The New Arab] daily newspaper, about the recent events and the political climate in which Palestinian journalists work.
Please describe the atmosphere in which journalists work under the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Occupation.
Palestinian journalists live in the utmost levels of constant stress. The Israeli occupation targets journalists while covering news. It does so either directly by assault, gunfire, tear gas or arrest, or by preventing them from arriving to the location.
In the territories under the governance of the Palestinian Authority, the situation is similar. Direct assaults against journalists take place, and physical violence especially occurs if the event being covered is an anti-PA event. Journalists are also constantly summoned by the authorities for interrogation or are directly arrested.
The new thing that was perceived in the demonstrations against the killing of Nizar Banat is the much higher degree of violence. This included assaults of journalists within the premises of the security forces, away from cameras. Nevertheless, these practices are still considered among the systematic aggression against journalists and their work.
All of this comes simultaneous with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh’s promises to put an end to assaults against journalists; he’s either being purposefully misleading or has no power whatsoever over the security apparatus.
You were covering the recent protests after the killing of Nizar Banat. What were the obstacles in doing your work?
Before the most recent events, we had concluded that the greatest challenge facing Palestinian journalists is the right to access information. For example, when news of the Pfizer vaccine deal* was leaked, we could not find out who issued that decision, or who were the persons relevant to this decision.
Instead of issuing a law to guarantee our right to access information (for which we have been struggling for 20 years), the PA issued the Cybercrime law in 2018; specifically designed to restrict the activity of Palestinian journalists and activists. Under this law’s pretext of combatting cybercrime, any journalist or activist can be persecuted against the background of any post they publish on social media. This law thus aims at defaming journalists and restricting their work under the jurisdiction of the law. In other words, any official who doesn’t like anything published about him can use this law to bring a journalist to court.
After the killing of Nizar Banat, access to any relevant information related to this event became impossible. This included crucial questions that needed to be asked by a journalist, such as who issued the decision to have Banat killed, or who were the persons who went to his house that night. What is more dangerous is that we cannot even cover the protests.
Recently, Fatah published on their Facebook pages something they referred to as “the list of shame.” It listed the names of seven journalists, including me, who covered the events of Nizar’s killing. This type of targeting aims to mentally incite against journalists and to ruin their reputation. It also paves the way to physically assault them. Needless to say, no governmental body made any effort in response to these threats or to protect journalists.
The Palestinian Journalist Syndicate (PJS) is supposed to protect the rights of journalists. What is its actual role?
The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate made a statement calling for the removal of the Chief of Police and to boycott the Palestinian Authority, among other things. However, this statement was not posted on the Syndicate’s official website. I also know that their requests will not be taken into consideration. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate would not dare to boycott the PA, because the Syndicate is actually a subordinate of the PLO organizational structure dominated by Fatah. The person in charge of protecting freedoms at the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate is a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, which is the second highest body in the Fatah movement. Also, the Head of the Journalists’ Syndicate [who was not elected but rather appointed following the resignation of the former Head of Syndicate] previously nominated himself for the Fatah Revolutionary Council (although he did not succeed). Therefore, how can you expect Fatah to stand against Fatah?!
It was clear from the Journalists Syndicate statement that it cannot really do anything.
The Syndicate did issue some statements, but we know for many years that it is unable to solve crises in a radical manner. Knowing this has paved the way for all-out attacks against journalists. You never see such attacks against other syndicates or associations (such as the Bar Association or the Doctors’ Association). From time to time, the security services may attack doctors and lawyers, but these professionals have such strong and solid associations backing them up that they could paralyze the country if they wanted to do so. For example, the Doctors’ Association may cripple the medical field and the Bar Association may freeze the justice system, hence the Palestinian Authority takes them seriously. But unfortunately, they do not give much importance to the Journalists Syndicate.
Is investigative journalism possible? Will you be able to carry out a journalistic investigation into the murder of Nizar Banat?
Absolutely. It is inevitable to have some kind of investigative journalism to cover things about Nizar that people did not know before, as well as exposing the different threats against him before his death. After criticizing President Abbas for cancelling the legal council election in May, he contacted the EU Parliament and asked to push for elections. From that point onwards, the PA was threatened by Nizar Banat, who from his end expressed his views about the leadership openly through his videos. The security forces, namely the Israel-Palestinian security coordination (which stipulate ‘security terms’ as per the Oslo Accords), arrested and kidnapped Nizar Banat in the “H2” area of Hebron, which is under Israeli control. According to his family’s statements, Banat was sure that he was placed in the “red circle,” meaning that he sensed the PA might assassinate him. It is very rare that a Palestinian would say such a thing, yet clearly Nizar’s instincts were true. It is assumed that he may have had preliminary information from high-ranking persons, which were leaked to him, and which indicated that he was going to get killed. Evidently, the decision was made to assassinate him. There was no court case, arrest, or imprisonment. This is what I understood from my conversation with Nizar Banat’s wife and family when I visited them.
Indeed, it is crucial to conduct more than one journalistic investigation regarding this matter and to dig into the details of how Banat was assassinated, and whether there was a decision to do so. Such questions cannot not be answered except through investigative journalism, with the use of pictures and written material. These investigations should cover all the relevant parties and probe into all the details, including the security services, Fatah, the PA, the families, etc.
Why is the media asking for international support?
In the four days of unrest following Banat’s death, we witnessed major violations and attacks against journalists. There had been attacks prior to this period, such as the beating and dragging of Palestinian journalists on the day of Bassel al-Araj’s trial,** as well as the beatings and assaults by anonymous security elements – dressed in civilian clothes – who also broke cameras and destroyed the phones of those documenting the protests calling for the PA to lift sanctions on Gaza. However, the intense four days of ongoing brutal attacks after Nizar Banat’s death were unprecedented. Nizar was assassinated simply because he was a political dissident who expressed his views on video. He was not armed and was not part of any political organization. For this reason, all journalists felt a great threat, because Nizar was killed merely for expressing his opinions.
All journalists empathize with Nizar Banat and have great security concerns. The attacks were carried out on Thursday, and then got most brutal on Saturday and Sunday. On the following Monday, the Prime Minister spoke as if he came from a completely different place. He stated that “the freedom of opinion and expression is respected and safeguarded.” We felt as if he was talking about another country! The perpetrated violations and attacks against journalists and the harassment of women were captured on mobile phone cameras and were shared in private chats. Nevertheless, the authorities tried to discredit the media.
The public opinion in general – and journalists in particular – understand that the first step to assassinate a person is to first kill his/her morale. Indeed, the PA began to assassinate journalists morally. Therefore, we must call for international attention and receive protection because we are now in danger. We have been attacked in several ways; we were subjected to insults and offensive language, and were dragged and pushed around – not to mention the broken cameras, confiscation of mobile phones, harassment of young women, etc. We witnessed these attacks during the noted four days without hearing a single statement from a Palestinian official to stop these attacks or deny the PA’s responsibility regarding them.
What will you do if you do not receive support from the international bodies whom you asked for support?
We did not receive any official response until now. However, I think that yesterday’s statement of the Human Rights Rapporteur responded in part to the calls for help. This was after we sent a letter to Mahmoud Abbas, asking him to prevent the targeting of journalists and demonstrators.
I agree that it is insufficient to solely mention journalists – since they are not the only targeted group. However, I see that the letter from the UN Human Rights Council [urging to stop these attacks] was crucial, because it tells the Palestinian Authority, in other words, that we can see what you are doing, so please stop these crazy acts against those who speak up.
We want the PA and security services to honor the journalists who work diligently in service of the people, and whose efforts are crucial towards achieving a society that respects the freedoms of expression and opinion.
* Al Jazeera. “Palestinian Authority Calls Off Vaccine Exchange with Israel.” June 18, 2021. https://bit.ly/3xGwNyT
** Jaclynn Ashly. “Bassel al-Araj: An Icon for a Lost Generation.” The Electronic Intifada. October 12, 2020. https://electronicintifada.net/content/bassel-al-araj-icon-lost-generation/31051