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Palestinian security forces are caught between a rock and a hard place

Palestinian security force dilemma

Muhammad Manassara walked in late February into a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli. Armed with an automatic weapon, Mr. Manassara killed two people before he was shot dead by the owner of a restaurant at the station, the site of the killing last summer of four Israelis.

Three weeks later, Mujahid Barakat Mansour, a father of two small children, opened fire near the Israeli West Bank settlement of Dolev. Mr Mansour killed an Israeli soldier and wounded six others in an hours-long gun battle before an Israeli military helicopter took him out.

Days afterward, Abu Rida al-Saadi opened fire on two school busses and a car in the Jordan Valley, wounding three Israelis, including a 13-year-old boy. Mr. Al-Saadi escaped the scene but turned himself in two days later amid a tightening manhunt.

Messrs Manassara, Mansour, and Al-Saadi had more in common than just having attacked Israelis. The three men were active or former members of the Palestine Authority’s security forces.

The three incidents are among an increasing number of seemingly lone-wolf attacks on Israelis since the Gaza war erupted in early October and come amid daily clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants on the West Bank.

What sets the three incidents apart is that they shine a spotlight on the 35,000-member Palestinian security forces that the United States, Gulf countries, and much of the international community want to see in charge of on-the-ground security in post-war Gaza.

Reporting to Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the security forces comprise the police, the National Security Forces, the Presidential Guard, Preventive Security, and the General Intelligence Services.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has insisted that Israel will retain security control across Gaza and the West Bank but refuses to take day-to-day charge of the devastated Strip. Mr. Netanyahu has further rejected US-backed efforts to pave the way for the return to Gaza of Mr. Abbas’s Authority.

At the same, Mr. Netanyahu’s envisioned alternatives – Gazan clans, Arab states, and private security and military firms – have all refused to help him fill the vacuum, starting with securing the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Violence perpetrated by Palestine security force associates, including some like Messrs. Manassara and Mansour who have served sentences in Israeli prison, stiffened Mr. Netanyahu’s resolve.

The three incidents serve the prime minister’s insistence on having compliant Palestinians run Gaza’s day-to-day affairs, including ensuring law and order, even if Mr. Netanyahu’s rejection of the Authority has as much, if not more, to do with his refusal to acknowledge Palestinian national rights than security concerns.

The incidents and Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal lay bare not only the yawning gap between Israeli and Palestinian perceptions of what Gaza should look like the day after the guns fall silent but also what the security forces’ role should be.

Israel conceives the forces’ main task as preventing anti-Israeli violence, whereas Palestinians believe they should be protecting Palestinians against Israeli military and vigilante settler attacks.

“People come in (to the security forces) with this assumption that they’re going to be part of the liberation struggle, but then the liberation struggle is translated to them as this kind of maintaining peace and order of their own people,” said Fadi Quran, a Palestinian activist and political analyst.

This week, issues associated with the Palestinian security forces took on added significance with US President Joe Biden pressuring Israel to substantially enhance the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, ensure the protection of innocent civilians, and agree to an immediate ceasefire.

CIA director Bill Burns was expected to travel to Cairo this weekend for a meeting with the Prime Minister of Qatar, the director of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, and the head of Egyptian intelligence, to try and reach a breakthrough in stalled talks on a ceasefire and Israeli-Hamas prisoner exchange.

The United States, Qatar, and Egypt see a ceasefire as a steppingstone for an end to the six-month-old war that would put post-war governance and security arrangements at the top of the agenda.

The Palestinian security forces’ inability to protect their own and their frequent crackdown on Mr. Abbas’s critics is a primary reason why the Authority has lost credibility, and Palestinians see the forces as doing Israel and the president’s bidding.

“The problem is with the politicization of the security forces’ leadership. Seeing how bad the PA’s (Palestine Authority’s) standing is right now, it’s very hard to see how they can perform security work,” said Middle East analyst and former adviser to the Palestinian peace negotiating team Ghaith al-Omari.

Middle East scholar Alaa Tartir said Palestinian security sector reform was designed “to deliver stability, security coordination, and Israeli security first.”

This week, Mr. Abbas’s Al Fatah movement accused Iran, which backs Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, of trying to sow chaos amid a surge in intra-Palestinian violence in the West Bank.

“We stand on the lookout for foreign interference, specifically Iranian interference, in Palestinian internal affairs. We will not allow the exploitation of our sacred cause and the blood of our people,” Al Fatah said in a statement.

The Al Fatah warning followed clashes in the last week between Palestinian security forces and armed Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank city of Tulkarm and a similar incident in Jenin, frequent targets of Israeli raids.

Palestinian security forces have sought to prevent pro-Hamas demonstrations in West Bank cities and restricted the display of Hamas flags.

“This isn’t in support of Israeli policy. It’s driven by concern about Hamas’ rising popularity,” a Palestinian security source said.

Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency said last month it had foiled attempts by Iran to smuggle large amounts of advanced weapons into the West Bank.

Shin Bet said the smuggling was organized by Unit 4000, the intelligence unit of the Special Operations Division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the Special Operations Unit 18840 of the Guards’ Quds Force in Syria.

The agency said a senior Lebanon-based Al Fatah official, Munir Makdah, was involved in the foiled smuggle.

It said the weapons cachet included fragmentation bombs, anti-tank landmines with fuses, grenade launchers, shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles, RPG launchers and rockets, and C4 and Semtex explosives.

Al Fatah issued its statement as Israel braced for possible Iranian retaliation for an Israeli bombing of Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus that killed two senior Revolutionary Guards commanders and five others.

Regavim, a pro-Israeli settler NGO that seeks to paint the Palestine Authority as a terrorist threat, asserted in a 68-page report issued in February that 80 associates of its security forces were arrested or killed while attacking Israeli nationals and soldiers in the past three years.

If anything, the involvement of Palestinian security forces in anti-Israeli violence shines a spotlight on the fallout of Israel’s systematic undermining of the Authority and its security forces, and an occupation policy that generates resistance, even if nothing justifies violence against innocent civilians.

As part of its rejection of any expression of Palestinian national aspirations, Israel projects the forces as dedicated to killing Israelis and threatening security instead of as a force that despite its nationalist sentiment has worked closely with its Israeli counterparts.

To be sure, security personnel chant nationalist songs and slogans during training and practice. Their facilities feature portraits of Mr. Abbas and Yasser Arafat, the late Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader, and pay tribute to West Bank militants.

Even so, Israel, rather than working with the security forces, has reinforced nationalist and militant sentiment with the carnage of the Gaza war and the killing of more than 400 Palestinians in six months of multiple daily raids on West Bank towns, villages, and refugee camps.

Israel’s military increasingly limits areas in which the security forces can operate and subjects them to the same often crippling restrictions ordinary Palestinians are subjected to.

Making things worse, Israel’s refusal to fully transfer tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestine Authority means that security force personnel have only received half their salaries since the Gaza war erupted.

Speaking to The Washington Post last month, the forces’ director of training, who was identified only as a colonel, said Israel has refused for a year the import of live ammunition for training purposes. To circumvent the Israeli restriction, the forces send personnel to Jordan for live ammunition training.

“Israel asserts that we are incapable of maintaining law and order to justify their daily raids and killings. The result is the growth of militancy in the absence of a security force that protects rather than threatens Palestinians,” said a senior security force official.

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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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