JERUSALEM — An outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority who was a candidate in parliamentary elections called off earlier this year died after Palestinian security forces arrested him and beat him with batons on Thursday, his family said.
Nizar Banat was a harsh critic of the PA, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and had called on Western nations to cut off aid to it because of its authoritarianism and human rights violations. Earlier this week, another prominent activist was detained by the PA and held overnight after criticizing it on Facebook.
The crackdown on dissent comes as the internationally-backed PA faces a growing backlash from Palestinians who view it as corrupt and increasingly autocratic, a manifestation of a three-decade peace process that is nowhere close to delivering Palestinian independence. Hundreds took to the streets in protest after word spread of Banat's death.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected to a four-year term in 2005, has little to show after more than a decade of close security coordination with Israel. The 85-year-old leader has been powerless to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements, home demolitions, evictions in Jerusalem and deadly Israeli military raids, and was largely ignored during the recent unrest in Jerusalem and the 11-day Gaza war.
Western nations nevertheless view the PA as a key partner for rebuilding Gaza, which is ruled by the militant Hamas group, and eventually reviving the moribund peace process.
Mohammed Banat, a cousin who witnessed the arrest, said a group of men, some wearing masks, burst into the house where Nizar was staying and sprayed everyone with pepper spray.
"They beat Nizar with batons on his head and body," he told The Associated Press. "They did not identify themselves and we did not recognize them. They arrested Nizar and disappeared."
In a brief statement, the Hebron governorate said Nizar's "health deteriorated" when Palestinian forces went to arrest him early Thursday. It said he was taken to a hospital where he was later pronounced dead.
Representatives of the European Union and the United Nations called for an independent investigation, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced the formation of an investigative committee. He said a doctor chosen by the family would participate in the autopsy and the family would be invited to provide testimony.
In early May, gunmen fired bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at Nizar Banat's home near the West Bank city of Hebron, where his wife was inside with their children. He blamed the attack on Abbas' Fatah party, which dominates the security forces.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
"The Europeans need to know that they are indirectly funding this organization," he told The Associated Press in May in an interview at a house where he was hiding out. "They fire their guns into the air at Fatah celebrations, they fire their guns in the air when Fatah leaders fight each other and they fire their guns at people who oppose Fatah."
A recent poll showed plummeting support for Abbas, who cancelled the first elections in 15 years in April when it looked like his fractured Fatah party would suffer another humiliating defeat to Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas' forces in 2007.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Abbas when he visited the region after the Gaza war last month, and the Biden administration is working to bolster the PA after relations fell to an all-time low under President Donald Trump.