One of the only success stories of the relationship between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Israeli government has been the American-backed Palestinian National Security Services, a uniformed security force of the Palestinian Authority. Since 2005 at a base in Jordan, the US government has spent hundreds of million of dollars training thousands of officers who were then stationed throughout Area A, the parts of the West Bank under exclusive Palestinian control. (Click here and scroll down a bit for descriptions of Areas A, B, and C.)
In partnership with the Palestinian Civil Police, the Israeli army and the Shin Bet, the security service has thwarted terrorist attacks, uncovered weapons labs and arrested suspects, disbanded armed gangs, and contained demonstrations against both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli policies. Despite criticism of some of its tactics and goals, it has restored a sense of law and order to the major Palestinian cities, where not too long ago anarchy reigned, and close coordination with Israeli authorities have helped create a sense of safety and calm in Israel.
But recent policies by the Israeli government threaten this security cooperation. In a post on the Daily Beast titled “The Future Of Palestinian-Israeli Security Cooperation,” columnist Dan Fleshler alleges that Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation is on the verge of falling apart.
Palestinian Authority security forces, trained in Jordan with American assistance, have been protecting Israeli lives and ignoring derisive claims that they are collaborators not because they want to collect salaries; instead, they want to build an institution necessary for statehood and to allay Israeli fears about relinquishing the West Bank. Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian Authority advisor, told me that the work of the security services “was predicated on a path leading to liberation and a new state. Soon, very soon, if it is clear that is not happening, they will feel like suckers enforcing the occupation, and this security regime—like the Palestinian Authority itself—could dissolve.”
In the Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary, Gatekeepers, – a must-see film slated for a February 1st release in the USA – a former director of the Shin Bet states that he was given the same warning by a senior level Palestinian official.
Ynetnews.com reported in December that “The IDF and the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have been enjoying a relatively good operational relationship over the past few years, but military sources told Ynet Tuesday that cracks have been appearing in the security relations’ proverbial veneer.”
Although cooperation mostly continues for now, the article went on to report what is happening in the face of rising demonstrations in the West bank.
Sources on both sides agreed that the Palestinian security forces are stepping up their vigilance vis-à-vis rioters in the need to restore order to the Palestinian street – and not necessarily their desire to cooperate with Israel.
The Palestinian leadership is livid with Israel over the government’s decision to suspend the transfer of levies to Ramallah, as a significant part of the taxes Israel collects on behalf of the PA fund its security forces. The suspension, prompted by the UN’s status upgrade, has resulted in delayed wages.
“If the troops think that they’re not going to get paid, we’ll have a serious problem on our hand. It will affect everything, including the security collaboration,” a Palestinian source told Ynet.”
An Israeli official expressed the same concern, adding that the PA is in dire financial straits.
It is not only Israel that is withholding funds. The US Congress has prevented the transfer of $450 million in budgeted US aid. That would close the $400 million fiscal gap that the Palestinian Authority faces as it runs out of money to pay for salaries and basic services. In a rational world withholding these funds would seem absurd given that only Hamas would gain from the demise of the Palestinian Authority. But it seems that Congress has its own political logic.
In my first blog column last week since returning to Israel, I posted comments by a senior level IDF commander on the West Bank and a former director of the Shin Bet who both stated that a third intifada was about to start, or already had. So far these are mostly demonstrations protesting arrests, theft of Palestinian lands, or settler attacks. The Israeli army often reacts violently – last week 53 Palestinians were injured in these clashes. How much worse will that be if the Palestinian security services are no longer willing or able to cooperate with Israel? What will happen if the situation on the West Bank continues to deteriorate to the point where the populace reaches the point of desperation, where it feels it has nothing to lose?
The Israel Policy Forum (IPF) held a conference call in December with Colonel P.J. Dermer and Steven White, former advisers to the American-backed training program of the Palestinian National Security Services. They recently returned from a trip to the region where they met with senior level Palestinian and Israeli officials. I have pasted in below some of their comments but first I offer a few caveats. These are American officials so their perspective is American centric. Also, the situation is changing daily on the West Bank and recent developments – Palestinian statehood recognition by the UN, the massive Israeli response of constructing 9,000 additional housing units over the Green Line, the deteriorating economic situation, and the continuing settler and IDF violence against Palestinians and their property – may have consequences that are hard to foresee. Let’s keep in mind that the first intifada in the 1980’s was a spontaneous uprising, catching leaders and observers on all sides by surprise.
Colonel P.J. Dermer: Good security cooperation cannot carry the day, cannot make peace, cannot be the deciding factor, and we’re starting to see the results of where you have great security cooperation over the last few years now run head-on into a moribund diplomatic and political peace process.
Steven White: But let me just say I think setting the stage, and I think P.J. [Colonel Dermer] would agree with me that the overarching theme, if you will, that we took away from our trip was the absolute hunger for American leadership on this issue. We heard from officials on the ground from both Israelis, including senior IDF, senior Ministry of Defense, Shin Bet, and senior political officers within the Palestinian security services, and then some old friends from the Quartet and the U.N., [that American leadership] is lacking.
There is no American influence on the ground as we speak. And that’s not myself or P.J. just talking. That’s directly what we heard from our interlocutors…. I came away with a distinct feeling that they enjoyed talking with us because they felt it was the first time that they were talking to Americans in a long time who actually understood the breadth of the problem and thus, you know, the realities of what they were having to deal with day in, day out, on the ground.
You know, with respect to the third intifada question, I personally do not think that we are right now on the verge of the outbreak of a third intifada.
But I have a to caveat that. The caveat is that, quite literally, when you look at the economic situation in the West Bank, the lack of a political horizon, the lack of U.S. diplomatic engagement, you know, the state of affairs within the Israeli body politic, upcoming elections, the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud– Pillar of Defense, whatever you would like to call it, you know, and the slight uptick now on the dignity factor vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza — all of the embers for the eruption of a third intifada are there. Everything is in place for one to erupt.
But it hasn’t yet. So, the question, I think, before us, but even more so, before our administration, is, you know, do we act now while these embers are embering, you know, to try and stop it before it happens, do we try and stop it after it erupts, or are we just going to sit back and let it burn?
…. we need to stem the bleeding on the economic situation in the West Bank. It’s probably the most dire now that I’ve ever seen it.
…my personal opinion is that basically the Obama Administration decided to pull chocks on this problem set after the reaction it got from both Congress and the Senate, and also Bibi Netanyahu in the White House in May of 2011. Then we heard from a senior official in a closed forum that that was exactly the case, that the president had basically said, he gave it a good shot but people weren’t interested. So, he was basically walking away, punting the ball to the Quartet and that he would focus on his reelection.
Obviously, you’ve seen what’s happened with Congress. Up to now they’ve continued supporting security financially, but they shut off a good bit of money that was related to basically the Palestinian people on the West Bank.
So, I think we’ve all got to ask ourselves a question: Are we better off with a functioning Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that says it believes in the two-state solution or are we willing to let it die? And that’s a question that I’ve not seen Congress legitimately ask itself. And it’s not one that I’ve seen the administration vocally ask.
IPF Interviewer: Well, P.J., do you agree with this? Do you think the economic is front and center?
Colonel P.J. Dermer: To a degree, yes. I mean, let me add it to your question and tie it in to the question about intifada. I mean, it’s worse, in a way, because the PA is, again, not functioning. Fayyad [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad] intended with this great, grand gesture announcement about three years ago now, and for myriad reasons — you know most of them — it is affecting the status of play in the Palestinian security services, because they are feeling the pinch for salaries, budgets, logistics, operating capabilities, i.e., they can’t put all their vehicles on the road, they can’t refuel all their vehicles in a timely manner right now, according to some of the commanders we talked to.
So, in a sense of the Palestinian Authority not being able to operate economically, that is now delving down into the issue of how the Palestinian security services operate.
Well, in their eyes, it’s to keep law and order but not necessarily for the state of Israel. They have their own issues to worry about. If they can’t perform their functions as they’re supposed to, as a burgeoning nation state, then what is the exact role of the Palestinian security service?
They do have a good reputation in the West Bank. That’s a positive development in U.S. history, but at the end of the day, they’re not there to fight Palestinians. They’re there to keep basic law and order. And this is a burgeoning dilemma, with or without the economic situation, but with the economic situation pressing on them, it adds to the dilemma in the West Bank.
The general populace, though, I will argue, still remains pretty apathetic because they don’t see where it’s getting them. You know, two intifadas (inaudible) for them. There’s nowhere else to go.
Steven White: I met with a former– well, still current IDF, but now he’s in the Ministry of Defense, who had always played his cards very close to the bone when it came to discussing the actions of his government vis-a-vis the actions of the IDF or the Defense Ministry or the Shin Bet.
This time, it was wholly different, and he began the conversation with, well, it appears my government’s doing everything it can to put a bullet through the head of [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority without any thought whatsoever as to what follows.
The security officials, along with past guys like myself and others, are arguing that, you know– I’m sorry, let me put it another way: We asked a senior IDF general, you know, just what was it that we accomplished, really, from 2007 to probably 2010?
And his answer was, “My job was to tactically set the ground where my government, the government of Israel, could negotiate with the Palestinians without a knife against its neck. He continued that I consider that I successfully delivered that. With American help, with Palestinian help, we delivered that. But unfortunately, my government has not chosen to take the strategic, long-term view or to build upon that,” end of quote.
…. if you look back to 2008, and the operation in Gaza then, the West Bank was relatively a yawn. The IDF pulled out two brigades from the West Bank to send to Gaza.
The economic situation on the ground was beginning to thrive. There was a political horizon. People were at the negotiations table, you know? And the response in the West Bank to what was happening in Gaza was virtually nothing.
You look at what happened now– the economics are in the toilet. There is no political process. There is no political horizon. And is it any wonder that people would roll themselves back to the dignity thing with regard to the supposed great victories that Hamas won for the dignity of the Palestinian people, when everything else is missing to counteract that argument?
For the full interview transcript, go to http://www.israelpolicyforum.org/interview/pj-dermer-and-steven-white-west-bank-security-situation