While Mahmoud Abbas’s infamous speech at the conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has sparked widespread condemnation and outrage among Palestinians, it has also provoked renewed questioning of the increasingly suspicious role of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security sector. In his speech, Abbas defended security coordination with Israel under any and all circumstances, claiming that such coordination is a “Palestinian national interest.” Meanwhile, he had previously characterized it as “sacred.”
Criticism of the PA’s security coordination with Israel is not new. But recent events demonstrate the egregiousness of the double standard: warm ties with Israeli security set against an iron hand with its people. As a result, a range of voices—men and women, political dissidents and reformers, former prisoners and militants, activists and journalists—have put forward unprecedented criticisms and condemnations of the PA and its security forces. Indeed, for a large segment of the Palestinians, the PA security sector is now viewed as an extension of the occupation. In reaction to PA actions, critics now regularly level charges of treason and betrayal.
The recent Israeli military operation—the largest since the second intifada—is part of a search for three settlers who went missing near Hebron. And an intensified PA crackdown on Palestinian protesters has occurred alongside it. There was a shocking episode in Hebron, where a march organized in solidarity with hunger striking prisoners amid the Israeli military incursion ended with Palestinian security forces violently dispersing protesters and arresting journalists. There were also outrageous scenes in Ramallah where angry stone throwers were first attacked by Israeli soldiers and subsequently confronted by the Palestinian police, who shot at them. Such events are not coincidences. Amid numerous similar instances, they show a highly sophisticated security coordination between the two sides.
As a result, social media has been filled with angry comments. One in particular captured my attention: “Palestinian and Israeli securities are changing the working shift.” Such irony is painful, but also telling. It also makes clear that there is now a need to put the Palestinian security sector under systematic scrutiny, and reveal its actual function and role.
The Roots of Palestinian Security Reform
In 2003, former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon delivered a speech before the Herzliya Conference—the most important strategic annual gathering in Israel—in which he demanded that the PA adopt a set of reforms to be implemented in three main phases as a precondition for any future negotiations. Most observers considered the speech’s contents Sharon’s electoral program. While the demands included financial, institutional, media, and even educational reforms, the priority was a fundamental restructuring of the Palestinian security sector. According to Sharon’s perspective, that reform would have three main planks: (1) Dismantling all existing security bodies loyal to Arafat, ones which Sharon described as “terrorists” due to their engagement in armed struggle against Israel during the second intifada; (2) appointing a new Minister of Interior to oversee the dissolution and outlawing of Palestinian military wings; (3) immediate renewal of Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation. Sharon asserted that “the security reform must accompany a sincere and real effort to stop terrorism, while applying the ‘chain of preventive measures’ outlined by the Americans: intelligence gathering, arrest, interrogation, prosecution and punishment.”
By the end of the second intifada in 2005, Sharon’s vision for Palestinian reform began to emerge, but his illness, long coma, and, later, his death, prevented him from celebrating the materialization of his vision.
The PA and Security Reform
Security reform was a top priority in Abbas’s electoral agenda, and since he assumed office in 2005, security has been a pillar of his presidency. He wished to transform the Arafatist mode of security—which would sometimes forcefully resist the Israeli military—into strictly inward-oriented security capable of enforcing stability and providing protection to the PA elite. These two objectives were only attainable through effective coordination with Israeli forces.
The reform of the security sector was deep-seated and complex. It covered areas ranging from security doctrine, discipline, training, and equipment to enhanced cooperation with Israel and other regional and international security and intelligence services. For Abbas, the first step was to exclude security personnel deemed to be problematic and unreliable to his project. Thus he offered them a lucrative retirement deal with a variety of financial advantages and other privileges. Under the banner of “security and order” he moved to disarm the fragmented resistance movement, and also some local gangs that had appeared in the last phase of the intifada. These gangs were mostly composed of former militants who exploited the idea of resistance to run their criminal activity. They were eventually invited to formally join the new PA security force. The PA’s overall objective was to maintain a total monopoly over violence and to prevent any potential threat to the newly orchestrated post-Arafat order.
With advice from American and European security consultants, Abbas introduced new regulations to better organize the internal structure of security and to reduce levels of rivalry among the various security branches. In order to ensure loyalty and improve security performance, he initiated a performance-based promotion scheme. Furthermore, in contrast to Arafat’s policies, which had deliberately fostered a substantial level of ambiguity in the roles and functions of the multiple security branches that often caused tension among them, Abbas sought to merge security forces into three major categories in accordance with the Roadmap. First, internal, under interior ministry control (Civil Police, Preventive Security and Civil Defense); second, national (National Security Forces, Military Intelligence, Naval Police, Military Liaison and Presidential Security); and third, General Intelligence.
When Abbas initiated his security reform agenda in 2005, the Americans and Europeans quickly backed his efforts. The Bush administration initially appointed Lieutenant General William Ward, whose major task, besides overseeing security reform, was to train and prepare security forces to deal with the vacuum left by the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The EU focused on supervising and training the Palestinian police and justice sector. For this purpose, the EU established a coordination office in the West Bank, initially called EUCOPPS, and later renamed EUPOL COPPS.
The striking victory of Hamas in the legislative elections in 2006 led to the halt of international aid to the PA and its security sector. But the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007 sent alarm bells ringing in Tel Aviv, Washington, and other Western capitals, which quickly moved to support the Ramallah-based PA. Security was the most significant destination for Western financial and technical support. This time, however, security reform underwent massive restructuring, especially aimed at reworking the doctrinal foundation of Palestinian security.
Two major factors have played key roles in advancing this shift. The first is linked to the advent of “Fayyadism”—referring to the former PM Salam Fayyad in 2007—whose state-building and neoliberal agenda implied dynamic authoritarianism, and so had a crucial security dimension. Fayyad’s security concern was evident in every report published by the subsequent governments, which repeatedly asserted a strong role for security as well as the enforcement of the “rule of law” to create a suitable level of stability to allow private business and investment to flourish. Fayyad’s contribution to the security reform has produced a highly privileged sector, consuming over thirty-one percent of the PA annual budget, exceeding other vital sectors such as health, education and agriculture combined.
In the years 2007 and 2008, Fayyad was behind two campaigns that targeted armed groups and Hamas members in Nablus and Jenin in the northern West Bank. Similar campaigns targeting Jenin were carried out in 2011 and 2012. They were jointly coordinated between the Jenin Governorate and other foreign security in order to “make Jenin a model city for the West Bank.”
Such campaigns would have been impossible without the Israeli security establishment’s consent and coordination, both of which have quantitatively and qualitatively surpassed the levels of the 1990s. According to an Israeli report, there are now multiple mechanisms for enhanced coordination between the two sides, including a sharp increase in the number of meetings, and also regular meetings with senior-level participants. In 2009, coordinated operations numbered 1297, a seventy-two percent increase over 2008, while 2011 witnessed an additional five percent increase compared to 2010.
The second factor is linked with US investment in the PA security establishment, particularly through the engineering of “Dayton’s Doctrine.” Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the PA, who replaced Ward in late 2005, has played a defining role in reshaping the structure and mindset of the PA security forces. His efforts have resulted in the formation of a “new Palestinian man,” a professionally trained and disciplined security officer whose function is to blindly follow security orders regardless of the consequences on Palestinians, and to be fully in service to the new US and Israeli security paradigm.
For this purpose, according to the US Government Accountability Office, between 2007 and 2010 the US State Department allocated ninety-nine million dollars to invest in the reconstruction of the PA security infrastructure and capacity-building in the West Bank, and a further 392 million dollars to train and equip security forces. Dayton’s mission included recruiting, training, financing and equipping the PA security forces, including forming the so-called “special battalions” of the National Security Forces (NSF). According to the US State Department, by 2012, US security mission had trained and equipped nine NSF Special Battalions and two Presidential Guard battalions, totaling over 5500 personnel. These forces have been trained locally and abroad, particularly in Jordan’s International Police Training Center. Such trainings are meant to prepare the new forces to carry out internal policing and “counter-terrorism” operations. They offer no defensive skills against external threats and invasions. Security equipment is solely designed for internal suppression and the protection of VIPs, and strategic planning is intended to be in harmony with Israeli military and security objectives.
For Israel and the US, the PA security reform program is regarded as a success. Israeli president Shimon Peres, in a speech before the European Parliament in 2013, expressed Israel’s satisfaction with the state of Palestinian security: “a Palestinian security force was formed. You and the Americans trained it. And now we work together to prevent terror and crime.”
PA Elite Protection
When Abbas defended security coordination by calling it a “Palestinian national interest,” he was not mistaken—if properly understood from perspective of the PA elite. In this context, the Palestinian national interest should not be understood as the collective interest of the Palestinian people. Indeed, the PA has become a lucrative industry and a comfortable hub for the political-economic elite and the capitalist class and their cronies, increasingly detached from the circumstances of the population which is living under a brutal military-settler regime. The rising class division within Palestinian society has meant that security has had to become a means for the protection of the wealthy and their possessions. Abbas’s insistence on preventing any kind of uprising suggests his readiness to use force to suppress protesters, something which has been occurring regularly. Perhaps his major fear stems from the likelihood that any political unrest would ultimately imperil his position. And indeed, on every occasion during which popular demonstrations attempted to approach Al-Muqata—his compound in Ramallah—his security forces violently suppressed the demonstrators.
That compound exemplifies the sophistication of PA protection arrangements. Al-Muqata is protected by a professional “Presidential Guard,” an elite force of over 6000 men—expanded by the Americans in 2005, before which it had comprised only 2500 men. Recently women fighters have joined the force. The Presidential Guard is structured according to a military-style model, and tasked with safeguarding Abbas and other VIPs, responding to crises, and protecting PA facilities. The Presidential Guard was particularly favored by the US security assistance to strengthen and protect Abbas. It is noteworthy that when the US halted all forms of aid to Palestinian security after Hamas’s victory in the 2006 elections, the Presidential Guard remained the only apparatus to receive direct financial support from the US. According to Dayton, the US continued to support this force “because the Presidential Guard reported directly to President Abbas and was not influenced by Hamas, they were considered to be in the game.” In fact, in 2006, the Presidential Guard received substantial American aid in the form of equipment, training, and infrastructure, worth approximately twenty-six million dollars.
The Palestinian security sector in its current form is far from being part of a national project that would serve the Palestinian cause. Palestinian security forces do not represent the people they are supposed to protect, and their operations and blatant coordination with the Israeli occupation have proven to be destructive to Palestinian national interests. This sector is structured according to predefined Israeli and American plans and conditions. Its functionality and continuity depend on meeting Israeli security concerns and Israeli expectations. Security coordination, in particular, aims to crush any form of resistance, armed or peaceful. The PA elite is highly dependent on security apparatuses to ensure their safety, protect their wealth, and suppress political opposition, even if such opposition were not to pose any direct threat to their rule and privileges.
If there is to be an authentic national security sector, then its forces must be fully restructured in a manner that relates to the real needs and expectations of the people. Above all, the Dayton’s Doctrine must be completely replaced with values of dignity, self-determination and anti-colonial struggle. This, however, could never happen under the umbrella of Oslo.