By Ali Sawafta, Nidal al-Mughrabi
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – The Palestinian Authority (PA) on Saturday deployed security forces to confront protesters who took to the streets of Ramallah in the West Bank after one of President Mahmoud Abbas‘s biggest critics died in custody.
Nizar Banat had been arrested by PA forces who broke into a relative's house where he was staying in the early hours of Thursday and hit him repeatedly with a metal rod before arresting him, according to Banat's family.
Banat's death has sparked three days of protests in the occupied West Bank and calls from the international community for an inquiry.
On Saturday, Palestinian security officers lined the streets and blocked protestors by hitting them with their fists and with clubs, Reuters video showed.
The officers, some wearing riot gear, others in plain clothes, also fired tear gas and attacked journalists, according to witnesses. There were no official figures on how many people were arrested or injured.
The spokesman for the PA security services, Talal Dweikat, said the committee investigating Banat’s death had begun its work and urged people to wait for the results. He did not comment on Saturday's violence.
The Palestinian journalists' union condemned attacks by security forces against journalists covering the protest.
"The targeting of journalists by security men is a new, grave development in the onslaught on freedom of expression and the media," the union said in a statement.
Banat, 43, was a social activist who had accused Abbas‘s PA of corruption, including over a short-lived COVID-19 vaccine exchange with Israel this month and Abbas‘s postponement of a long-delayed election in May.
Banat had registered as a parliamentary candidate for that contest.
The crowd marched through streets waving Palestinian flags and pictures of Banat and calling for an end to Abbas‘s 16-year rule.
"We want a total political reform that will truly reflect the interests of the people," said protester Esmat Mansour.
Human rights groups say Abbas regularly arrests critics. A Human Rights Watch official said Banat's arrest was "no anomaly".
Abbas and the PA, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, reject accusations they are corrupt and that they arrest people for their political views.