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Update on Reform of the Palestinian Security Apparatuses

October 30, 2008
INSS Insight No. 77
Shlomo Brom

One of the main obstacles preventing the signing and implementation of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement is the Palestinian Authority's inability to maintain security control in the West Bank, i.e., ensure law and order and prevent the area from becoming a base for attacks after Israel ceases operations there.

Since the Gaza Strip's fall to Hamas in June 2007, the PA has labored hard to reform its security apparatuses and strengthen their capabilities, mostly with the help of the US, the European Union, Jordan, and Egypt, which provide assistance through funding, arms supply, and instruction. Since the reform has fundamental implications for a viable agreement with the Palestinians, it is important to chart the progress in this area.

Security reform deals primarily with two Palestinian security apparatuses: the National Security Force and the Civil Police (known as the "Blue Police"). The first body is a semi-military organization, a sort of gendarmerie intended as the chief force to confront Hamas militias and other opposition groups. It operates according to a multiyear plan that calls for creating five regiments. So far two regiments have concluded training in Jordan; the first was posted in Jenin and the second is intended to deploy initially on Mount Hebron, outside Hebron proper. In the second phase the regiment will also enter Hebron. The Civil Police handles traditional police matters such as criminal offenses and traffic violations.

This organizational division also defines the division of labor between the US and the European Union. Assistance and advice on national security is extended by the delegation of General Dayton, the American security coordinator, while assistance and advice for the Civil Police is provided by the EU police assistance delegation, EU-POL COPPS (EU Police Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support). Within the Palestinian system, the two apparatuses are subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior, and thus the reform is directed by the Interior Minister in the Salam Fayyad government, General Abed Razek al-Yihya. Prime Minister Fayyad attributes much importance to security reform, and has even said on several occasions that negotiations over a permanent arrangement with Israel are less important than building up the capabilities and institutions of the Palestinian Authority, a vital condition for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Both the National Security Force and the Civil Police suffer from a severe shortage of forces and effective capabilities. On paper, these apparatuses comprise tens of thousands of salaried employees, but the actual ability to activate effective forces is small. This is part of the Arafat legacy, whereby the government apparatus - especially the security forces - was used routinely as a tool for mobilizing political support. Regarding these forces, it was customary to pay salaries to thousands of individuals who essentially weren't filling any jobs. Reform focuses on recruiting and training manpower as well as building infrastructure in the different spheres (construction, communications, logistics, and so on) necessary for the forces' effective operation.

For the PA, the effective deployment of the National Security Force and the Civil Police comprises two important goals. From an internal Palestinian perspective, the goal is to restore law and order to Palestinian localities and demonstrate control and the end of the anarchy. The security anarchy caused by the intifada and Israeli counteractions harmed not only Israel but to a great extent the Palestinians themselves; their territory has turned into an open field of operations for armed gangs and includes extensive crime areas. This has harmed the image of the PA and the ruling Fatah party, and has helped Hamas boost its domestic support. In the broader perspective of the PA's relations with Israel and the international community, the goal is to demonstrate the ability to deal with armed groups, including Hamas, and to prevent terror.

The first real test was Jenin, where the first National Security regiment established under the reform was deployed, along with strengthened Civil Police forces. This experiment was crowned a success: open arms bearing disappeared from the streets; there is a tangible police presence; and criminal matters are handled reasonably well. The sense of security also enables increased economic activity, especially commerce with Israel and visits of Israeli Arabs to Jenin.

The success in Jenin has encouraged the Palestinian government to broaden the security scope to additional regions. The decision to deploy the second regiment in the Hebron area stems almost certainly from the desire to impact on Hamas, as this area is one of its prime West Bank hubs of power. It also indicates confidence in the ability of the new forces to manage the task, since it is obvious to all involved parties that the situation in this area is more difficult and complex than in Jenin.

From Israel's perspective, this progress in Palestinian security reform is only a first step; the major test for Israel is the ability to prevent terror and take action against secret Hamas cells and other groups. Other security apparatuses also come into play here, mainly General Intelligence and Preventive Intelligence, intended for uncovering terror infrastructures and dismantling them. The ability of these bodies, and, perhaps more importantly, the extent of their readiness to act firmly against terror cells has yet to be proved. However in these areas too there is progress and it appears that the Palestinian Authority is acting effectively against the Hamas civilian infrastructure. Naturally this activity serves first and foremost the political interests of the PA government. In addition, activity against elements engaging in terror has also begun. The latest example was the exposure of a Hamas cell in Hebron, as well as an explosives laboratory it was operating and a tunnel apparently dug in order to carry out an attack on an IDF roadblock. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which were aligned with Fatah itself, represent a special challenge to the PA. They are being handled within the framework of an amnesty agreement that also involves Israel, whereby amnesty will be granted to wanted Fatah operatives who surrender their arms and commit to refrain from terror and submit to supervision. This agreement, barring some isolated exceptions, is considered a success story as well.

Still, the process involves many difficulties, including:

  • o The slow pace of force building: forces are now stretched to their limit.
  • o A shortage of resources
  • o Insufficient cooperation from Israel. On the one hand, Israel is interested in the success of the security reform, which would enable progress in the security process. On the other hand there is a high degree of mistrust of the Palestinians and a fear that arms and equipment will ultimately fall into the hands of terror elements. Thus each request to transfer equipment to the Palestinian police runs an agonizing course of bureaucracy.
  • o Only partial Israeli cooperation means that Israel at times takes action in areas that are in the Palestinian forces' jurisdiction, without taking into account the effect these actions have on the image of the Palestinian security forces.

In addition, it is hard to expect effective security so long as the entire law enforcement system lacks requisite institutions, especially a functioning judicial system and prison system. Accordingly, the current situation falls far from the acceptable standards of functioning states.

Israel has a clear interest in building up an independent Palestinian capability to guarantee law and order and act against terror. Thus, the relative success of Palestinian security reform must be weighed when Israel determines its attitude towards Palestinian security apparatuses. Accordingly, Israel ought to act more vigorously to enhance the power of Palestinian security apparatuses and include this objective in the set of considerations that govern its own security forces in the West Bank. There is a genuine danger that the lack of faith in the ability and desire of Palestinian forces to act against terror is so deeply ingrained among Israeli decision makers and security forces that even when a fundamental change occurs, it will not be felt and the opportunity for change will be missed. 

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