RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Hundreds of Palestinians gathered in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, on Saturday to demonstrate against President Mahmoud Abbas, in the hope of giving new impetus to a protest movement sparked by the death of a virulent critic detained by security forces.
Palestinian security forces and groups of men in plain clothes violently dispersed a similar protest a week ago, prompting expressions of concern from the United States and the UN human rights chief. No cases of violence were reported immediately on Saturday.
The Palestinian Authority was established as part of the peace process in the 1990s and governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He grew up increasingly autocratic and unpopular, and Abbas annulled the first election in 15 years in April when it looked like his fractured Fatah party would lose hard. He was largely sidelined during the Gaza war in May amid a surge of support for its rivals, the militant Hamas leadership in the territory.
Saturday’s protest began with a few hundred demonstrators gathering in al-Manara Square in central Ramallah, where the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority is located. The mother of Nizar Banat, the activist whose died last month sparked the protests, and other family members were greeted with applause and brief speeches.
The crowd then looped through the city center, gathering forces as they marched until thousands could be heard chanting “The people want the regime down” and “Abbas, go”, slogans used during the so-called Arab Spring protests that swept across the Middle East in 2011.
There was initially no visible security presence, but when protesters marched down a main street leading to the PA headquarters, they approached a line of riot police manning barricades. The protesters stopped and sat in the street several meters away.
Meanwhile, Fatah staged a rally in Hebron, in the southern West Bank, in which supporters waved the party’s iconic yellow flags. Official Palestinian Authority television covered the Hebron rally and ignored the protest in Ramallah.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week that the United States was “deeply troubled by reports that non-uniformed members of the Palestinian Authority security forces harassed and used the force against protesters and journalists ”during the demonstrations last weekend.
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Thursday that Palestinian security forces had demonstrators beaten with batons and attacked them with tear gas and stun grenades. She said they appeared to have chosen protesters, journalists and passers-by, many of whom said they had been sexually harassed.
She called on the PA “to guarantee freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly.
Associated Press reporters Imad Isseid and Nasser Nasser contributed.