West Bank backlash

Is the security crackdown by the Palestinian Authority restoring order – or breeding discontent?

July 10, 2012 15:21
West Bank backlash

West Bank backlash. (photo credit: ABED OMAR / REUTERS)

In the early hours of the morning on Sunday, July 1, unknown gunmen fired at least eight pistol shots at Shami Shami, a Palestinian lawmaker and member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, as he returned to his home in Wadi Bruqin just outside Jenin in the northern West Bank. Shami survived the attack, and was rushed to the hospital with two bullets in his leg. The gunmen, who fired on him from the cover of a small forest near his home, fled into the trees.

The assassination attempt shattered two months of fragile calm in Jenin, which has been the epicenter of a major security crackdown by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Shami, a 48-year-old father of six, is a senior local leader of the ruling Fatah party of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. He was born in the Jenin Refugee Camp and spent eight years in Israeli jails. He has no idea who was behind the assassination attempt, he tells The Jerusalem Report between treatments for the bullet wounds. He had not received any threatening messages or other sign that he had enemies who wanted him dead.

“I don’t have a conflict with any political party in the West Bank,” says Shami, who is recovering at home. “On the contrary, I am in favor of national unity and the attack surprised me. It could be a message to the PA that whatever measures they take, they will not be able to impose security in Jenin.”That could be a major challenge to the stability of the PA. The current crackdown began after the city’s governor, Qadura Mousa, died of a heart attack on May 2 following a similar shooting attack on his home. Mousa had barreled out into the street after the latenight gunfire, vowing to bring his would-be assassins to justice. But as his officers patrolled the streets hunting for the gunmen, he suffered heart failure and died later in the hospital.

PA leaders declined to blame anyone publicly for the attack on Mousa, which came a year after the still-unsolved murder of Jewish-Arab theater director Juliano Mer Khamis. Mer Khamis was gunned down in broad daylight near the Freedom Theater he founded at the entrance to the Jenin refugee camp.

Violent outbursts

The outbursts of violence have undermined efforts by Palestinian leaders, backed by Quartet Middle East Envoy Tony Blair, to depict Jenin, once a notoriously radical stronghold into which even Yasser Arafat hesitated to venture, as a model for the success of European- and US-funded training for the 28,000-strong Palestinian police and security services. At a meeting in Ramallah immediately following the death of Mousa in early May, Abbas told his security chiefs that he had promised the Palestinian people when he was elected in 2005 to bring them security and he would not allow that promise to be broken. An investigation revealed that the attack on Shami had been carried out by former members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah founded during the second intifada, along with rogue members of the security forces.

But Abbas’s efforts to reimpose the jurisdiction of his security services over the troubled city immediately ran afoul of the tangled relations between the PA and Israel.

Palestinian intelligence found that some of those wanted for the attack on Mousa had fled from the West Bank into Israel. Abbas asked Hussein Al-Sheikh, the minister in charge of coordinating civilian affairs with Israel, to carry a stark message to his counterparts across the Green Line: If they allow the suspects in the attack on Mousa to evade justice, Abbas would immediately suspend security coordination with Israel.

Palestinian officials say the issue also prompted an angry exchange between Abbas and Yoram Cohen, head of the Shin Bet Israel Security Agency. During a visit by Cohen to Abbas’s office in Ramallah on May 12, the PA president repeated his threat to suspend security coordination. Israel duly forced at least two of the suspects from Jenin to return to the West Bank where they were later arrested by the PA security forces. They are still being held at the Preventive Security interrogation facility in Jericho.

Until May, PA security forces had concentrated their efforts on breaking up a re-emergent Hamas military and financial network in the West Bank that threatened both the Fatah- dominated PA and Israel. Since Mousa’s death, PA security has switched direction, targeting rogue elements within Fatah itself and even within the ranks of its own officers.

In the past two months, Palestinian security sources tell The Report, PA security services have carried out the broadest security operation in the West Bank since 2008, not against their political enemies in Hamas, but to regain control over dozens of Fatah gunmen who have rejected party discipline. They include former members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and officers in the PA security services. The security chaos threatens to make it more difficult to recruit financial support for the PA security services, which senior officers say is already suffering from a shortage of money, weapons and equipment.

As Abbas reconsiders a new UN bid for recognition of a Palestinian state, the breakdown in internal security could weaken him diplomatically, as well as reducing the capability of the PA to provide security for itself and its neighbors.

Nearly 150 rogue security personnel and former Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militants have been arrested since May, including a colonel in the Palestinian General Intelligence and two regional commanders from the Palestinian National Security Forces, who trained at the US-funded International Police Training Center in Jordan. PA Interior Minister Said Abu Ali says the security personnel suspected of misconduct will be tried in military courts and, if guilty, dismissed from the security services.

The investigation soon expanded from Jenin to include Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah. Following raids by PA security forces throughout the West Bank, suspects have been taken for interrogation to detention facilities operated by the Palestinian Preventive Security Apparatus in Jericho and Dahariya, near Hebron. Since it was founded by Arafat, Preventive Security has traditionally dealt with internal dissent in the PA and, where necessary, worked closely with Israeli forces.

Al-Aqsa founder

The most prominent person arrested was Zakaria Zubeidi, one of the three founders of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the effective commander of underground Fatah fighters in Jenin. Zubeidi was also a co-founder, along with the assassinated Mer Khamis, of the Freedom Theater. Zubeidi was granted amnesty by Israel after the intifada on condition that he remain under the supervision of the PA. He is now under interrogation in a Palestinian Authority prison in Jericho, where he has declared a hunger strike.

“They are playing with Zakaria, juggling him between the civil and military court in order to circumvent their own so-called law,” says Jonatan Stanczak, managing director of The Freedom Theater.

The PA absorbed hundreds of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades members into the ranks of its security forces in 2007, giving them jobs and buying their illegal weapons in an amnesty negotiated with Israel. Many of them were subsequently equipped and trained in Jordan and at a newly constructed police academy in Jericho, with financial backing from the US, the EU and several individual European countries.

“What happened in Jenin confirmed that the integration of gangsters into the PA security services without their accountability was a fatal mistake that has exacted a heavy cost,” Palestinian analyst Hani Al-Masri tells The Report. “It has created a negative impression among the citizens who saw that the source of the chaos this time is the security services themselves.”

The renewed instability in Jenin, which followed isolated shooting attacks on Palestinian police stations in the West Bank, has convinced senior Palestinian officials that the more volatile former fighters have failed to absorb the new discipline. Some are also suspected of illegal trade in weapons on a burgeoning black market, which links Fatah rebels, Hamas and Israeli criminals. Dozens of firearms, including M-16 assault rifles and night vision equipment believed to have originated in the Israeli black market, have been seized in raids by Palestinian security forces.

PA officials are concerned that some of the rogue elements may have sold weapons to Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants operating in the West Bank or received money from Iran or Hizballah. “These undisciplined groups worked to create security-free areas that would be a challenge and threat to the PA,” Major General Adnan Damiri, the Security Forces spokesman, tells The Report.

“The PA security institution has learned the lesson from this phenomenon and will not allow its repetition.”

Damiri calls the attempted assassination of Shami in Jenin at the start of July the work of rogue elements seeking “revenge” for the crackdown. “It continues the security chaos,” he says. “The security campaign will continue until the undisciplined elements within PA security have been completely uprooted.”

Swooping on Hamas

Hamas, meanwhile, was hoping that these internal divisions would keep their foes in PA security too busy to bother them while Fatah purged the rebel elements from its ranks.

However, a senior PA security official tells The Report that three weeks after the security crackdown began, Preventive Security officials swooped on a Hamas stronghold in Halhul, north of Hebron, and arrested 25 Hamas operatives suspected of trying to rebuild the movement’s military infrastructure in the West Bank.

In 2008, in an attempt to finally impose law and order on the West Bank after the chaos of the intifada and the Arafat era, Palestinian civil police and armed security forces fanned out through previously lawless areas in a largely successful effort to bring community policing and normal justice to ordinary Palestinians.

Traffic cops began writing speeding tickets and petty criminals were not only arrested but dealt with in a formal manner in a court system revamped with US and European support. Detectives were trained in basic forensics and fingerprinting.

For the first time in many years, Palestinian police officers started to be viewed as servants of the public instead of gunmen loyal to the regime or rival political factions.

Four years later, the new crackdown has forced the PA security forces to admit that they have deep problems within the ranks of their own officers. The PA also decided to confiscate arms held by large families fearing they might fall into the wrong hands or be used in internal clashes, adding to the potential chaos.

Palestinian leaders are also nervous about the general climate in the Middle East. Although Abbas’s rule has so far remained largely unchallenged by the historic changes roiling the Arab world, the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, civil war in Syria, and rising tensions in Lebanon and Jordan have produced a wariness in the Palestinian leadership that the current low level of sporadic shooting attacks could mushroom into a full-blown rebellion.

The senior PA security official says that the chaos could “pave the way for a Palestinian Arab Spring against the Abbas regime.”

Palestinian leaders are particularly concerned that parts of the West Bank could once again become what the Jenin Refugee Camp used to be: a no-go area for PA security.

A loss of PA control in such areas would show the Abbas government as weak and undermine its efforts to pursue UN recognition of an independent Palestinian state, as well as harming relations with Israel and the international donor community whose contributions continue to support the PA budget.


Palestinian officials were particularly incensed by comments made on May 29 by Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a security conference in Tel Aviv, where he floated the possibility of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. A PA security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an Israeli pullout would leave the Palestinian security forces stretched too thin to deal with the continual security threats against both the PA and Israel.

Security experts in the region tell The Report that the PA security campaign has concentrated on confiscating unauthorized arms instead of addressing the roots of dissent.

Politically, the crackdown could backfire, proving to skeptics that the security forces lack discipline and that instead of protecting the rights of ordinary Palestinians, they are more interested in protecting the regime and Israeli security.

Those fears appeared to be realized on June 30, when dozens of uniformed and undercover personnel violently dispersed a gathering of Palestinians at Manara Square in Ramallah. The demonstrators were protesting against plans by Israeli Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz to meet with Abbas in the city in July. It was to be the first top-level diplomatic contact for nearly two years, and the first such meeting of any kind since Abbas held a series of private encounters in Amman and London with President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Barak in 2011.

In the wake of the public protests and the violent clashes with Palestinian police, the meeting with Mofaz was canceled. The Palestinian police reaction to those demonstrations has done little to enhance their reputation among the Palestinian public.

Fatah youth activist Hazem Abu Helal tells The Report that the peaceful protest was intended to convey a message to the PA: Palestinians are frustrated by the lack of progress in peace negotiations with Israel.

Negotiations, when held, seem to have achieved little for the Palestinian people.

“The Palestinian march confirms the rejection by the Palestinian people of receiving Mofaz in Ramallah at the headquarters where he besieged Yasser Arafat before his martyrdom,” Abu Helal says, recalling that Mofaz was chief of staff and then defense minister at the height of the intifada.

The combination of the security crackdown against former Fatah fighters and growing political dissent could prove an explosive mix for the Palestinian leadership.

Security experts warn that without progress on other fronts, the PA my only be able to dampen the discontent for so long.

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