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The Palestinian Authority security forces: Whose security?

May 17, 2017 5:25 P.M. (Updated: May 20, 2017 11:48 A.M.)
Masked Palestinian security forces during a raid in Balata refugee camp (File)
By: Al-Shabaka

Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law.

This is an edited version of a policy brief authored by al-Shabaka’s program director Alaa Tartir.

From the outset, the Palestinian Authority (PA) security establishment has failed to protect Palestinians from the main source of their insecurity: the Israeli military occupation. Nor has it empowered Palestinians to resist that occupation. Instead, the PA has contributed to a situation in which the Palestinian struggle for freedom has itself been criminalized.

Rather than recognize resistance as a natural response to institutionalized oppression, the PA, in tandem with Israel and the international community, characterizes resistance as “insurgency” or “instability.” Such rhetoric, which favors Israeli security at the expense of Palestinians, echoes discourse surrounding the “war on terror” and criminalizes all forms of resistance.

This dynamic can be traced back to the 1993 Oslo Accords, but it has been galvanized over the last decade through the PA’s evolution as a donor-driven state that espouses neoliberal policies. The donor-driven reform of the security sector has been the linchpin of the PA’s post-2007 state building project. The enhanced effectiveness of the PA’s security forces as a result of massive donor investment has in turn created additional ways of protecting the Israeli occupier, thus creating spaces that are “securitized” within which the occupier can move freely in the execution of its colonial project.

Such a development could only have two outcomes: “Better” collaboration with the occupying power in a way that shored up the destructive status quo; and greater violation of Palestinians’ security and national rights by their own government and national security forces.

The rise of Palestinian Authority security forces

The evolution of the PA security forces can be categorized in three phases: The Oslo Accords (1993-1999), the Second Intifada (2000-2006), and the post-2007 PA state-building project.

The Oslo Accords were characterized by two parallel, yet conflicting, projects: State building and national liberation. The former implied constructing state-like institutions and a bureaucracy (soon inflated) under occupation, while the latter meant pursuing the revolutionary program for self-determination that had been adopted by the PLO. The tension between these ventures already manifested themselves under the late president Yasser Arafat’s rule.

Arafat’s personalized style of governance and its resultant complex network of corruption and patronage meant that the evolution of the PA security forces was from its advent neither inclusive nor transparent. Rather, it was fraught with nepotism and was used as a tool to address the threats posed by Oslo’s opponents and to stabilize the population. In turn, it also solidified the nascent “peace” agreements. The 9,000 recruits in the “strong police force” envisaged in the 1994 Cairo Agreement became nearly 50,000 security personnel by 1999.

This proliferation of the security forces -- all spying on each other, as Edward Said once said -- has had severe consequences for Palestinians. Arafat’s establishment of security-driven political structures nourished authoritarianism and blocked accountability mechanisms in the Palestinian political system. This resulted in a dearth of legitimacy and further insecurity for Palestinians.

As the security establishment grew in numbers and institutions, Palestinians remained ill-protected, and corruption and patronage within the forces became endemic. The divide-to-rule approach paved the way for future Palestinian fragmentation.

During the Second Intifada, Israel destroyed the PA’s security infrastructure because PA security forces participated in the uprising. This created a security vacuum into which non-PA actors inserted themselves, with mixed results for Palestinians. This exacerbated intra-Palestinian competition and led external donors, the PA, and Israel to be even more concerned with building a strong and dominant security sector.

In June 2002, the PA announced its 100-Day Reform Plan. In 2003 the Road Map demanded that a “rebuilt and refocused Palestinian Authority security apparatus” confront “all those engaged in terror” and dismantle “terrorist capabilities and infrastructure.” The forces were forced to combat terrorism, apprehend suspects; outlaw incitement; collect all illegal weapons; provide Israel with a list of Palestinian police recruits; and report progress to the United States.

Accordingly, Palestinian security reform “remained… an externally controlled process, driven by the national security interests of Israel and the United States, and characterized by very limited ownership on the part of Palestinian society.”

The international donor community led this reform in 2005 through the establishment of the European Union Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support (EUPOL COPPS) and the United States Security Coordinator (USSC). This situation continues to this day, in the form of a “one gun, one law, one authority” strategy through which the PA’s monopoly on force and violence is ensured.

The post-2007 state-building project under the PA has aimed, mainly through EUPOL COPPS and USSC, to reinvent the PA security forces through technical means including training and weapons procurement. It has also aimed to reinvent the forces politically by constraining Hamas and its armed wing, curbing Fatah-allied militants through cooptation and amnesty, cracking down on criminals, and conducting security campaigns, particularly in Nablus and Jenin.

The forces became known as Dayton’s forces in reference to Keith Dayton, the US Lieutenant General who led the PA military establishment’s “professionalization and modernization” process. Local and international human rights organizations have accused these reformed forces of human rights violations and suppressing freedoms.

The most current phase has further entrenched the predominance of Israeli security interests at the expense of the Palestinians. Disarmament and criminalization have impaired popular resistance against the occupation, including peaceful demonstrations and marches, advocacy against Israel’s violations of human rights, and student activism.

Today, the PA security forces largely protect the security of the occupier and not that of the occupied. In short, the security of Palestinians has been jeopardized because their own leadership has been subcontracted to repress them. The post-2007 security reform agenda has thwarted Palestinians’ national struggle, their resistance movement and their everyday security, and has subverted the very functioning of Palestinian politics.

Security coordination as domination

To understand the magnitude of the security coordination enterprise, it is useful to note that the Palestinian security sector employs around half of all civil servants, accounts for nearly $1 billion of the PA budget, and receives around 30 percent of total international aid disbursed to the Palestinians.

The security sector consumes more of the PA’s budget than the education, health, and agriculture sectors combined. The sector is currently comprised of 83,276 individuals in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including 312 brigadier generals, of whom 232 report to the PA and 80 to Hamas. In comparison, the entire US Army has 410 brigadier generals. The ratio of security personnel to the population is as high as 1 to 48 -- one of the highest in the world.

Security collaboration between Israel and the PA has fulfilled the Oslo Accords’ objectives of institutionalizing security arrangements and launching a peace process that is tightly controlled by the security sector in order to enable Israel to fulfill its colonial ambitions while claiming to be pursuing peace.

This process of “securitized peace” is manifested in a number of ways, including the PA security forces’ arrest of Palestinian suspects wanted by Israel (as in the recent case of Basel Al-Araj who was arrested and released by the PA only to be chased and eventually assassinated by the Israelis); the suppression of Palestinian protests against Israeli soldiers and/or settlers; intelligence sharing between the Israeli army and the PA security forces; a revolving door between Israeli and PA jails through which Palestinian activists cycle for the same offenses; and regular joint Israeli-Palestinian meetings, workshops, and trainings.

Though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to suspend security coordination, he has at the same time declared it a “Palestinian national interest” and a “sacred” doctrine. The PA security forces’ activities and Abbas’s political maneuverings have naturally created a deep gap in trust between the Palestinian people and the PA.

Indeed, multiple surveys over the years have shown that the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (between 60 percent and 80 percent) oppose security coordination with Israel. And in a March 2017 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey poll, two-thirds of respondents demanded Abbas’s resignation, with 73 percent expressing the belief that Abbas is not serious in his threat to suspend security coordination with Israel.

In a 2010 Ma’an News Agency poll, 78 percent of respondents said they believe that the PA security forces are engaging in surveillance, monitoring activities, and intervening in people’s privacy. Finally, according to Visualizing Palestine, 67 percent of West Bank Palestinians said they feel that they are living in an undemocratic system that cracks down on freedoms in large part as a result of the security realm.

Negative public perceptions about security coordination are fueled by lived experiences -- from which elites are often spared -- as well as by official rhetoric and the contents of the leaked Palestine Papers. For instance, US General Keith Dayton remarked in 2009 that senior Israeli army commanders asked him, in regard to the Palestinian security forces he was training, “How many more of these new Palestinians can you generate, and how quickly?”

He also said that a senior Palestinian official addressed a graduating class of these “new Palestinian men” in Jordan, saying: “You were not sent here to learn how to fight Israel… you were rather sent here to learn how to keep law and order, respect the right of all of our citizens, and implement the rule of law so that we can live in peace and security with Israel.” And in 2013, in a speech before the European Parliament, Israeli president Shimon Peres stated: “A Palestinian security force was formed. You and the Americans trained it. And now we work together to prevent terror and crime.”

While security coordination between Israel and the PA has been cemented since the Oslo Accords, the status quo is not a foregone conclusion. However, change will be difficult to achieve, as the system has created a segment of Palestinian society that will seek to maintain it. This segment is composed not only of security personnel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also of those Palestinians benefiting from institutional arrangements and a network of collaboration and domination.

The status quo is beneficial for them, and “stability” is their mantra. They are committed to an approach that privileges the political, economic, and security elite, and they have no incentive to reverse the rules of the game.

Any attempt to halt security coordination would thus have real consequences for the PA and its leadership. Yet the perpetuation of the status quo is destructive for the majority of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and for the Palestinian people at large. With the crushing of the ability to correct political wrongdoing and hold elites accountable, business as usual will likely continue. Security coordination will remain a defining feature of the skewed reality that favors the occupier if action is not taken -- and soon.

To read an unabridged version of this policy brief, in which al-Shabaka program director Alaa Tartir proposes recommendations for the overhaul of the PA security forces’ operations and structures, click here.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.

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