It has been just over 10 years since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. The Office of the US Security Coordinator (USSC), established in 2005, played a key role in preventing the chaos there from spreading, yet key aspects of how it achieved that have gone unreported. A look at secret US diplomatic cables, published by Wikileaks, sheds some light on what happened and why it still matters today.
“The Palestinian Authority is having difficulty asserting its authority in Gaza and the West Bank,” reads a US diplomatic cable written in Tel Aviv on January 6, 2006, intended as a “scene setter” for a visiting delegation. The US Embassy said that Fatah, the ruling party of the PA, “is fractured by internal rivalries, and is being challenged by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other armed militias affiliated with Fatah,” according to the cable.
The memo also said that then-USSC head Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton had recently returned from Washington after meeting then-president George W. Bush and then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. “Dayton’s mission is to work with the Palestinian security sector reform issues and his multinational team works to ensure coordination and communication between the PA and GOI [Government of Israel],” the 2006 cable read.
Ostensibly, this was about the US “commitment to peace,” but it was really about saving the Palestinian Authority. With the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004 and the rise of Abbas, the PA was in crisis. Hamas was on the march in the West Bank and Gaza. The Bush administration had supported Israel’s policies to defeat the Second Intifada and wanted Arafat to exit the stage.
Washington “believed that an opportunity had arrived to achieve progress on Palestinian security reform,” wrote Jim Zanotti in a 2010 report for the US Congressional Research Service titled “US Security Assistance to the Palestinian Authority.”
Lt.-Gen. William “Kip” Ward was the first leader of the USSC, but Dayton left the biggest mark after taking over in December 2005. An interview request to Dayton, who is now retired, was turned down.
By 2010, the USSC had 45 personnel working for it, including 16 Americans attached to the US Consulate General in Jerusalem, and 29 foreign personnel, including Canadians and UK citizens in Jerusalem and Ramallah. According to Zanotti, another two dozen Americans employed through contractor DynCorp International worked in mobile training teams “in charge of training, strategic planning and equipment delivery.”
Almost $400 million was invested between 2007-2010 in the program through the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement account. By 2010, six battalions had been trained – around 3,000 men. Many of the trainees passed through training centers in Jericho before being deployed to places such as Nablus (2007), Jenin (2008) and Kalkilya (2009). They were also trained at the International Police Training Center in Jordan.
In July 2007, Dayton met with United Arab Emirates National Security adviser Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed. Dayton said US “policy was to ensure the survival of the [Salam] Fayyad government,” which shows how much the US was wedded to Abbas’s prime minister.
Dayton “added that President Abbas continued to request weapons and equipment, but in his judgment, what the Palestinian Security Forces needed was capacity building, not more weapons.”
The issue of guns was ongoing. In 2005, Israel had rejected requests, passed through the Americans, for arms transfers to the PA. Palestinian security sources told Defense News in 2009 that training wasn’t enough, “we need vehicles, communication gear, and most importantly, we need personnel weapons.”
What Dayton really needed to save the PA was money, which was slow coming from Washington. “Dayton passed on a request for $120m. in UAE assistance.” This would go to train Presidential Guard units and “institution building” for the National Security Forces as well as police units and a new training center in Jericho. However, the 2007 cable said that the US and UAE were being outspent by support for Hamas in Gaza. “Hamas had received at least $150m. from Iran and $400m. from Qatar, as well as training and equipment,” it read.
Sheikh Hazza told the Americans that the Syrians were also a key supporter “on the ground,” while Iran provided training. The UAE complained that Abbas “had tried to balance Hamas, not destroy it.” Dayton, according to the memo, said he had warned about a Hamas coup in Gaza and that lack of organization and leadership in the PA had led to the disaster.
The US diplomatic cables reveal the obstacles Dayton faced. In a 2008 meeting with IDF Central Command, the USSC sought to assuage Israeli fears that Palestinian forces would “go back to the old ways,” which evidently meant terror or lawlessness.
The USSC also wanted to acquire helmets for the trainees, and the IDF told them they would allow “a protection level that would prevent the penetration of 9mm rounds but not 5.56mm rounds, the standard IDF issue M-16 ammunition.” Obviously the IDF was concerned about a future confrontation with the Palestinians or terrorists getting their hands on the gear. The USSC also sought to prevent Palestinians it had trained who held Gaza IDs from being deported to Gaza by the Israelis.
Security was improving in the West Bank. Lawless and violent areas, such as a refugee camp in Jenin, had been brought under control of PA forces. Refugee camps have been notorious for having stocks of illegal weaponry. But the IDF pressured PA forces to act against Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In each area of the West Bank, the briefing noted the USSC attempting to encourage closer coordination between the IDF and the Palestinians.
“The USSC raised the Palestinian complaint that incidences of IDF daylight incursions in Jenin were on the rise,” the 2008 memo read. It also said “the IDF takes great risks in order to minimize embarrassing situations.”
The USSC also concentrated on improving the daily lives of Palestinians, including freedom of movement, which would build up the economy. They were also focusing on criminality, seeking to establish more Palestinian Security Forces checkpoints in Bethlehem “in order to stop Palestinian Hebron-based criminals from fleeing there.” In many of these cases, the PA wanted more power to crack down, and was hampered by needing to ask the IDF for more freedom to move forces around.
According to a January 23, 2009 cable, Dayton met with Jordanian armed forces senior officers to “describe the successful training the Palestinian security forces” at the Jordan International Police Training Center. The 1,500 Palestinians trained in Jordan had shown “superb performance” and it was one of the “brighter spots in terms of improving security and stability in the West Bank.”
The memo also said that Israelis were supportive. “Israel is anxious for more Palestinian capability, and respect the Jordanians.” But there were hurdles. The idea of more “counter-terror” training, and training Palestinian “border guards” was sensitive. The Jordanians warned that “Palestinian forces not be seen as collaborating with the Israelis” because it would “backfire” on Abbas, the 2009 memo said.
Overall, the 87 US diplomatic cables that mention Dayton and the mission he ran until Lt.-Gen. Michael Moeller took over in October 2010, paint a remarkable picture of a successful US policy that helped stabilize the West Bank. It increased security, and through doing so, also led to economic improvement and increased freedom of movement. Close coordination with the Jordanians and Israel helped create transparency and dialogue, and work with governments such as the UAE and Egypt helped stymie the plans of Hamas, Syria and Iran. The issue of Qatari funding for Hamas is still very much a feature of crises in the Gulf between Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Dayton told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in May 2009 that the USSC existed to help the “restructuring and training necessary to improve their ability, to enforce the rule of law and make them accountable to the leadership of the Palestinian people whom they serve.” He spoke glowingly of the “new Palestinian men” who had been trained in Jordan and “tools adequate to the task” of bringing security.
For some Palestinian commentators his mission has been seen more negatively. Mohammed Herzallah, a former president of the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Movement, wrote on the Electronic Intifada website in 2009 that “Dayton’s security coordination program has weakened the Palestinian presidency, discredited it in the eyes of its people and rendered it critically dependent on American and Israeli support for political survival.”
Ten years after Hamas, in the words of Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, “flush[ed] away a 53,000-strong PA security apparatus which was a 14-year Western investment,” the Dayton mission seems to have succeeded in replacing the eroding Palestinian security institutions with something new and more professional.
In concert with EU support for the Palestinian police, the Palestinian Authority was likely spared a series of conflagrations that would have coincided with the Arab Spring in 2011. However, Dayton warned in 2009, “there is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you’re creating a state, when you’re not.”
It has been eight years and there isn’t a Palestinian state. Whether the USSC’s accomplishments in 2007 were key to building one or just reducing the chance of a crisis, depends on who is asked.