Squaring the Circle: Palestinian Security Reform under Occupation
Squaring the Circle: Palestinian Security Reform under Occupation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Protests and Far-Right Politics in Israel and Europe
Protests and Far-Right Politics in Israel and Europe
Report 98 / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Squaring the Circle: Palestinian Security Reform under Occupation

Security reform is one of the Palestinian Authority's most notable successes, but recent attacks on West Bank settlers, coinciding with resumed Israeli-Palestinian talks, illustrate the difficulties in sustaining such progress as long as the occupation and internal Palestinian divisions persist.

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Executive Summary

Who could be against Palestinian security reform? In the past few years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) largely has restored order and a sense of personal safety in the West Bank, something unthinkable during the second intifada. Militias no longer roam streets, uniformed security forces are back, Palestinians mostly seem pleased; even Israel – with reason to be sceptical and despite recent attacks on West Bank settlers – is encouraged. Initial steps, long overdue, have been taken to reorganise an unwieldy security sector, where overlapping, unaccountable branches had become fiefdoms of powerful chiefs. West Bankers applaud the changes but are far less comfortable with their accompaniment: unparalleled security cooperation with Israel and crackdown on opposition groups – notably but not exclusively Hamas – affecting civil society broadly. Without serious progress toward ending the occupation and intra-Palestinian divisions, support for the security measures risks diminishing, PA legitimacy could further shrivel, and ordinary Palestinians’ patience – without which none of this can be sustained – will wear thin.

Security reform was high on President Abbas’s agenda from the moment he assumed office in January 2005. Israeli uncooperativeness, resistance from Palestinian security chiefs and, a year later, Hamas’s triumph in legislative elections got in the way. But conditions changed after the Islamists’ June 2007 takeover of Gaza. Ramallah, Israel and the donor community alike all saw great urgency in bolstering Palestinian security forces (PSF). Their reasons overlapped: the PA sought to achieve a monopoly on the use of force and, importantly, pre-empt any potential Hamas challenge to its West Bank rule; Israel was intent on dismantling militant groups; and the West saw an opportunity to shore up its Palestinian allies and strike a blow against their Islamist foes. Unsurprisingly, the first phase of reform focused mainly on checking Hamas, but also on restraining Fatah militants and restoring order.

In this, the PA was largely successful. Most West Bankers – including many sympathetic to Hamas – plainly liked what they saw, satisfied at a restoration of normal life that, only a few years earlier, had seemed out of reach. Structural reforms aimed at establishing clearer lines of authority and reducing redundancy were less visible but important.

At the same time, the achievements cannot conceal more controversial dynamics underneath. First is deepened Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. Working with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) has been a requirement for the PA since its inception; indeed, it was a prerequisite for its creation and is inherent in its hybrid status as a semi-autonomous entity under occupation. But that has not made it any less contentious. Palestinians are ill at ease at the sight of their security force teaming up with their occupiers. The answer, offered most articulately by Prime Minister Fayyad, is that by working in tandem with Israel to bring back security, Palestinians can gain the international community’s and Israel’s confidence, neutralise a key Israeli argument against statehood and thus pave the way for independence. The argument is logical, though it would be far more compelling were a promising peace process at hand. The 2 September 2010 resumption of direct talks is a step in that direction, albeit highly fragile and with virtually no resonance or credibility among the Palestinian public.

The situation is further complicated by the manner of cooperation, which the PA sees as overly one-sided, an asymmetric exercise in complying with Israeli orders. Repeated, oftentimes unjustified and almost always humiliating IDF incursions into Palestinian cities, as well as strict limitations imposed on PSF areas of operation, undermine the symbols and reality of indigenous empowerment. Israel offers a different perspective. With memories of the second intifada – when Palestinian security personnel turned their guns on the IDF – and of Gaza – when Hamas effortlessly routed PA forces – still fresh, many security officials continue to harbour doubts even as they commend Palestinian progress. They question the reliability of Palestinian forces in the event of renewed West Bank disturbances as well as their ability to withstand a Hamas assault should the IDF withdraw. The result is a cautious, tight-fisted Israeli approach save in one area: the PA’s anti-Hamas efforts, where convergence of interests is greatest.

A second contentious dynamic relates to intra-Palestinian relations. Restoring order and advancing a state building agenda inevitably meant going after organisations that, taking matters into their own hands, claim to be actively pursuing armed resistance against Israel; challenge the PA’s attempts to monopolise the means and use of force; invite Israeli attacks; and arguably hinder diplomatic endeavours. To that extent, pursuing militant groups’ armed wings was a natural extension of the effort to secure order. But the line between the militant groups’ political and military expressions never has been clear and, in the context of Hamas’s Gaza takeover, became more muddled still. In PA eyes, any Hamas activity in the West Bank became a potential threat to its rule. The crackdown against the Islamists’ military branch seamlessly broadened into a far more controversial crackdown against its social and political manifestations and other forms of dissent.

This is not to say that security cooperation is about to end or that Palestinians are on the verge of resorting to armed struggle. Far from it. Many inhibiting factors are at play. West Bankers are worn out, exhausted of conflict and happy to recover a sense of normalcy. Not all acts of violence can be prevented, and Hamas just has shown it remains capable of armed attacks. But on the whole, would-be challengers, notably the armed wings of both Hamas and Fatah, have been weakened. The PA leadership remains convinced that any eruption of violence would hurt Palestinians far more than it would Israel. Besides, as long it shares an interest with Israel in confronting Hamas, the Authority will have scant incentive to challenge the status quo.

But just because the current process appears sustainable for now does not mean that it should be sustained. The undeniable success of the reform agenda has been built in part on popular fatigue and despair – the sense that the situation had so deteriorated that Palestinians are prepared to swallow quite a bit for the sake of stability, including deepened security cooperation with their foe. Yet, as the situation normalises over time, they could show less indulgence. Should Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapse – and, with them, any remaining hope for an agreement – Palestinian security forces might find it difficult to keep up their existing posture.

The reform agenda also was built on the intra-Palestinian split which, in the short term, has helped foster greater PA-IDF cooperation. Still, the intensity and scope of the anti-Hamas campaign carry many important consequences. They have undercut the PA’s claim to be the true national authority, weakened President Abbas’s mandate to speak in the name of all Palestinians and diminished prospects for reconciliation, thereby both complicating Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and enhancing Hamas’s incentive to disrupt them. In the longer run, the split with Hamas and disregard for democratic norms are thus deeply at odds with the emergence of a strong, representative, legitimate national movement upon which Palestinians, but also Israelis, depend to achieve and sustain a historic peace agreement.

Crisis Group presents below a series of recommendations for minimising friction between the PSF and IDF, expanding the Palestinian forces’ ability to operate in the West Bank, curbing human rights violations and allowing a more vigorous democratic debate. Many Palestinians almost certainly would welcome expanded authority for their security services, lesser interference by Israel and greater respect for human rights. But there should be no illusion: under present circumstances, many if not most would see these measures as beautifying the occupation – not ending it – and of obfuscating the reality of cooperation with those they believe Palestinian security forces ought to resist. Nor are the proposed steps to enhance respect for human and civil rights likely to succeed so long as the national movement remains split between its two dominant actors.

Without a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process or their own genuine reconciliation process, Palestinians will be stuck in their long and tenuous attempt to square the circle: to build a state while still under occupation; to deepen cooperation with the occupier in the security realm even as they seek to confront it elsewhere; and to reach an understanding with their historic foe even as they prove unable to reach an understanding among themselves.

Ramallah/Jerusalem/Brussels, 7 September 2010

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