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Palestinian dissidents rally against corruption in the Palestinian Authority

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We often hear about Palestinians standing up to Israel. This story is about them standing up to their own leaders. Activists have long accused the Palestinian Authority of corruption. Those calls got louder during the pandemic. And in June, one critic paid with his life, helping fuel calls for change. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from the West Bank city of Ramallah.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Nizar Banat posted Facebook videos every few days.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK VIDEO)

NIZAR BANAT: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: This is the video that may have crossed a line. Banat criticized the Palestinian Authority for sending a batch of COVID-19 vaccines to Jordan while average Palestinians still weren't vaccinated. And he criticized a Palestinian vaccine exchange with Israel that seemed to favor Israel. The deal was canceled amid an uproar.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK VIDEO)

BANAT: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Banat ends by calling Palestinian leaders a group of people living on an island by themselves, distant from the others. Three days later, Palestinian officers arrested him. His family says they beat him. He did not survive. This was in June.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: Protesters started filling West Bank streets, calling for the downfall of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his government.

UBAI ABOUDI: He's a dictator, and you can directly quote me on this.

ESTRIN: That's activist Ubai Aboudi, a friend of Banat. Palestinian security forces arrested Aboudi and other street protesters, drawing international criticism.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

ESTRIN: He introduced me to some of them.

ABOUDI: This is Omar Assaf, Jihad Abdo and Dr. Izzadin Zoul.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome.

ESTRIN: Nice to meet you.

ABOUDI: Those are activists - all were arrested.

ESTRIN: Wow. All of you guys?

ABOUDI: Yeah, yeah.

ESTRIN: Aboudi faces opposition not just from the Palestinian Authority, but also from Israel. He and other activists are fighting recent Israeli claims they support a Palestinian opposition group considered to be terrorists by the U.S. and EU. Another activist, Omar Assaf, says they want to end Israeli military control of the West Bank and have new Palestinian leadership.

What is the biggest problem the Palestinians face today?

OMAR ASSAF: The first problem, the biggest, the occupation. The second, Mahmoud Abbas as a dictatorship, as an illegal president.

ESTRIN: Abbas was elected 16 years ago. It was supposed to be a four-year term. But after losing control of Gaza to Hamas militants, Abbas disbanded the Palestinian legislature. This spring, Abbas called off elections when it appeared his party might lose. His Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said in a press conference that Abbas isn't popular among Palestinians because he's still committed to diplomacy and cooperation with Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER MOHAMMAD SHTAYYEH: If you continue to call for peace, advocate peace, then things are difficult because the fruits on the ground are not there. People want to see results.

ESTRIN: Israel and the Biden administration are now trying to strengthen President Abbas, fearful that the alternative is Hamas' militant approach. Palestinian activists are calling for elections so the people can choose their own leadership.

BASSAM AL-QAWASMEH: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Opposition politician Bassam al-Qawasmeh (ph) told me, "who represents us? We have no legitimate leadership. We need elections. After elections, we can decide what we want - an independent Palestinian state or equal rights as one state with Israel."

(APPLAUSE)

ESTRIN: Despite all the arrests and intimidation, a couple hundred Palestinians joined Aboudi for Nizar Banat's vigil in October.

ABOUDI: It's amazing. I think this is just another step forward. The fear barrier has been broken.

ESTRIN: The fear barrier?

ABOUDI: Yeah, the fear from PA and their suppression.

ESTRIN: In fact, the security officers accused of killing Banat are on trial in a Palestinian court. And Banat's family, witness to his beating, have testified.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Ramallah, the West Bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.