Israel-PA security coordination: Protection for whom?
To counteract it, Israel employs a mechanism that maintains the status quo while providing pressure vents to prevent a complete meltdown in the occupied Palestinian territories. For a quarter of a century, a significant part of this mechanism has been security coordination with the Palestinian Authority (PA), a by-product of the Oslo Accords.
Last month, against the backdrop of repetitive Israeli statements opposing a “political process” with the Palestinians, and rising tensions in Gaza, Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz met with the PA’s President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the first high-level meeting since 2011.
From the outset, Gantz contextualised the meeting in overt security terms, although repackaged some of those terms as economic and logistical help to the PA. The majority of Palestinians and political factions condemned the meeting.
"Oslo set in motion two parallel but clashing projects: state-building and national liberation"
Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu-Zuhri, told Al-Quds Al-Araby: “The Abbas-Gantz meeting indicates the Palestinian Authority’s little consideration for Palestinian blood. The meeting shows that its security liaison is more important than Palestinian national interests”.
Islamic Jihad’s spokesman pointed out that while the PA had laid down strict conditions for resuming a national dialogue, it unconditionally met with Israeli officials.
Security coordination once again, if rather intensely this time, was caught in the public’s crosshairs following the Gilboa prison break, and particularly when the Israeli army invaded Jenin and recaptured the last two jail-breakers. The footage of Palestinian forces standing down as Israeli forces entered the city sparked a wave of anger on social media. Commentators lamented the PA’s powerlessness and, to some, collaborationist attitude.
The PA didn’t comment on the incident, and was equally silent about the jailbreak, possibly to avoid Israeli blackmail.
This murky position, however, has made the PA the subject of accusations of collusion, citing security coordination with Israel as the antithesis of Palestinian national interests.
Three decades in the making
The 1995 Oslo Interim Agreement called for the establishment of a Palestinian police force that would "act systematically against all expressions of violence and terror." Every following agreement only heightened this position, increasingly making Israel’s security a priority and adding further demands through which the Palestinian Authority should demonstrate its commitment to combating individuals and organisations involved in planning or carrying out attacks against Israel.
Security coordination lost coherence during the Second Intifada in 2000, deteriorating in an unprecedented manner following then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon’s Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, when Israel briefly reoccupied almost all of the West Bank’s Area A, besieged PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and destroyed the PA’s security infrastructure.
Supported by the United States Security Coordinator (USSC), Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the weakened and lawlessness-plagued PA began rebuilding and reforming its security sector in 2005. It started by encouraging thousands of existing troops to take early retirement and recruiting and training new troops to replace them.
Gen. Dayton focused on the “gendarmerie-style” training of West Bank-based security personnel. Applicants were checked by four different intelligence agencies - American, Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian - to ensure that they had no "terrorist links,” human rights violations and/or criminal records. The training took place at the Jordan International Police Training Center, near Amman - using the same facilities and trainers who rebuilt the post-US-invasion Iraqi police force.
Fundamental to the structuring was the successful maintenance of law and order, crowd control, and the suppression of Palestinian groups and individuals labelled “terrorist” by Israel.
Security coordination has since run uninterrupted, except for brief periods of reduced cooperation or suspension, the last of which was in May 2020 in protest at Netanyahu’s West Bank annexation plans. Six months later, arguably swayed by the wave of Arab countries’ normalisation with Israel and deteriorating economy, the PA resumed security coordination - much to the public’s anger.
Since becoming president in 2005, Mahmoud Abbas has seen security coordination as “sacred” and necessary for the running of Palestinian affairs. His response to calls to end it has been to further cement it.
According to a 2015 strategic assessment by Al-Zaitouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, Abbas views security coordination as the clear and only acceptable alternative to a third Intifada which could lead to the PA’s full collapse, as well as the only route to ensure his credibility before the international community as the only partner who can make peace with Israel based on the two-state solution.
Palestinian political researcher and analyst, Raed Mousa, told The New Arab that security liaison with Israel is necessary. “With the existence of two authorities [PA/Israel] parallel to each other, especially as one of them is autonomous under a military occupation, it’s not possible to ensure the flow of goods, labour, funds, and medical supplies without security coordination,” he said.
"Security services make up the PA's largest department - 45% of its workforce and the largest single consumer of its annual budget"
Raed argues that coordination is also necessary to stop violence on both sides, making it even more needed for the Palestinians who suffer from daily Israeli violence.
Asked about the impact of coordination on the future of the Palestine cause, Raed replied: “As long as the PLO’s route is the two-state solution using peaceful methods, then it’s unavoidable to coordinate with Israel to achieve that.”
This dynamic has been in place so long that it has gradually created an additional system of Palestinian dependency on Israel. So much so that the PA’s 2020 suspension of coordination over annexation threats was thought of as a form of self-punishment, since Palestinians knew Israel would take retaliatory measures such as withholding tax revenues and limiting the flow of labour and medical supplies.
The UN warned that the suspension affected humanitarian operations across the occupied Palestinian territories, including preparedness for the Covid-19 pandemic. Having refused to accept clearance revenues that Israel collects on its behalf, warned the UN, the PA added to the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Also, the already limited access of Palestinian patients, especially from Gaza, to health care in East Jerusalem and Israel was further obstructed.
Multiple surveys over recent years have shown that the majority of Palestinians oppose security coordination with Israel. In 2015, 64% supported ending security coordination, and 58% supported ending civil coordination even if such steps would lead to Israeli retaliation. In 2020, after the annexation plans were frozen, 62% said they didn’t want the return of PA-Israel coordination. The results were similar in August 2021; 61% of Palestinians in the West Bank opposed security cooperation with Israel, and 69% said they supported the cancellation of the Oslo Accords.
This majority public opinion was mirrored by the PLO Central Council’s (PCC) calls in 2015 and 2018 to suspend recognition of Israel and stop security coordination with Tel Aviv until Israel has recognised a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Opposition is mainly rooted in the understanding that there’s a difference between unavoidable civil cooperation (economic, medical, or administrative) dictated by the presence of military occupation and the exchange of information regarding the whereabouts of Palestinians deemed a threat to Israel’s security.
For Israel, the deployment of Palestinian security personnel across the West Bank serves to reduce Israel’s security burden. In a fashion similar to extensive outsourcing, the PA does more, and Israel does less, the PA takes more responsibility, and Israel less. It’s unsurprising then that the PA’s security services make up the government’s largest department - 45% of its workforce and the largest single consumer of its annual budget.
The PA, in part, functions according to the strategy of “one authority, one gun.” Save for ensuring a Fatah-led dominance in the West Bank, the strategy establishes a monopoly of violence under occupation, according to Alaa Tartir from Al-Shabaka. It effectively makes the PA’s security forces the only body with the right to dominate the security realm. This renders non-state actors - specifically armed resistance groups - a target for arrest, marginalisation, neutralisation, and delegitimisation.
This is part of the PA’s obligation under the 2003 Quartet-led (US, Russia, EU, and UN) Phase I of the Performance-based Roadmap. Funding and logistic support to the Palestinian security apparatus are conditional on the PA declaring “an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism and undertaking visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere.”
The PA is also committed to carrying out “sustained, targeted, and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure.”
Between 2008 and 2009, within Phase I, the PA security arrested 3,700 members of armed groups, summoned around 4,700 individuals for questioning, and confiscated 1,100 weapons and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
To late Palestinian academic Abdul Sattar Qassem, the PA’s Oslo-stipulated security arrangements with Israel make it an agent of the occupation. Security coordination, therefore, cannot stop completely because it justifies the PA’s existence and preserves the privileges of its officials.
"It reduces the occupied Palestinian Authority into a mere security subcontractor entrusted with the protection of the Israeli occupiers and settlers"
Similarly, As’ad Abu Sharkh, an academic and the International Spokesperson of the Great March of Return, told The New Arab: “The Oslo Accord was originally and deliberately designed at least from the Israeli point of view as a security agreement devoid of any agreed-upon political mechanisms, timetables, or terms of reference. It reduces the occupied Palestinian Authority into a mere security subcontractor entrusted with the protection of the Israeli occupiers and settlers.”
Oslo set in motion two parallel but clashing projects: state-building and national liberation. The former operates within the matrix of Israel’s control and the latter outside it as part of the self-determination project. The PA was supposed to be a transitional administration expiring in 1999, but twenty years later, it has turned into a permanent fait accompli government minus any true aspects of sovereignty.
But what it lacks in territorial and administrative sovereignty it makes up in tighter security arrangements with Israel. This has harnessed Israel’s ability to avoid political solutions and be instead invested in a sustainable and cost-effective process of conflict management.
So, it’s not about the existence or lack thereof of security coordination; rather, it’s about who benefits the most and at whose expense.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa