'Patriots, kingmakers or warlords': PA security forces face crossroads

A new report looks at the history of the security forces, US support and cooperation with Israel.

Members of Palestinian Authority security forces patrol following clashes with Palestinian gunmen in which a Palestinian woman was shot dead, in the old town of the West Bank city of Nablus, November 16, 2016. (photo credit: ABED OMAR QUSINI/REUTERS)
Members of Palestinian Authority security forces patrol following clashes with Palestinian gunmen in which a Palestinian woman was shot dead, in the old town of the West Bank city of Nablus, November 16, 2016.
The tens of thousands of Palestinian security personnel, many of whom were trained by the United States over the last 10 years, are headed to a crossroads.
As the Palestinian Authority faces questions about who will come after President Mahmoud Abbas, now in his 10th year of power, the security forces increasingly appear like the only stable institution within the PA. There is one problem: They are a partisan institution, and that makes them central to the future of any Palestinian political entity.
In a report titled “A state with no army, an army with no state: evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces 1994-2018,” published on Wednesday by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Neri Zilber and Ghaith al-Omari present a convincing case that the forces are a largely unrecognized key to security in the West Bank, and between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli security forces use crowd dispersal methods against Palestinian protestors in Jerusalem, December 9, 2017 (Seth Frantzman)
This is important because there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment as the Trump administration prepares a peace plan and the PA seeks reconciliation in Gaza.
The Palestinians largely avoided the chaos of the Arab Spring and the rise and fall of Islamic State. They tested out democracy in the 2006 legislative elections and saw Hamas come to power. At the time, the US had established an Office of United States Security Coordinator to support the reform and training of the security forces. But when Hamas came to power, “the US security coordinator broke off all contact with the government and restricted its interaction to the president’s office, thus working primarily to coordinate international assistance to the Presidential Guard and for Gaza border control,” wrote Zilber and Omari.
The Palestinian Authority Security Forces were already closely connected with the Fatah movement, but it became clear after the elections that any concept of a nonpartisan security force wouldn’t work.
Even though the Palestinian Authority Security Forces were supposed to come under control of the PA Interior Ministry, the Fatah-connected security chiefs “carried more institutional weight than the Interior Ministry,” the authors noted.
PA Prime minister Salam Fayyad was the last gasp of an attempt to professionalize things along the lines of a modern state, with government instead of party control of the forces. Fayyad was pushed out in 2013. “The center of gravity [for the PA Security Forces] ultimately reverted back to the president, where it remains until today.”
This infighting and change were largely welcomed by the US and Israel. As long as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other extremist groups were kept out of Palestinian areas in the West Bank, or severely curtailed, it was fine if the security forces were directly run through Abbas and his appointees.
The US and Israel faced a hurdle in the second US appointment to advise the PA Authority Security Forces. Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton ran the Office of United States Security Coordinator from 2005 to 2010.
He was outspoken in his desire to create an armed force that would underpin a future Palestinian state. Eventually, 19,000 personnel would be trained in Jordan and 10,000 in Jericho.
But the program has largely gone under the radar over the last few years. The authors of the report noted that Dayton’s visibility created tension. “Likely due to Dayton’s experience, his successors have either had their public profile diminished or themselves chosen to diminish it.” In addition the Office of US Security Coordinator was left to “languish on the margins of the peace process policy program.”
The report concludes that the PA Security Forces will play a crucial role after Abbas.
They term the next stage as either “patriots, kingmakers or warlords.” In the first scenario, the security forces would remain “professional, cohesive and accepting the decisions emanating from Ramallah by whoever emerges” in power. This model is similar to how the Hagana, the pre-state underground of the Zionist movement, emerged to become the IDF after 1948.
In the second scenario, the PA security chiefs and intelligence officers would move to the center and influence power through some kind of figurehead or play kingmaker over weak executives. This is the role Gamal Abdel Nasser and the officers in Egypt assigned themselves when they appointed Muhammad Naguib president in 1953 and got rid of him a year later.
Another scenario has a crisis leading to fragmentation of the PA and Israeli security operations.
“West Bank cities would be isolated from one another, leading... to localized armed factions seizing effective control.”
Warlordism emerges and the security forces commanders partner with “local armed gangs.” That is basically what has happened in failed states such as Afghanistan in the 1990s, or Libya today, where generals like Khalifa Haftar run part of the country.
The PA Security Forces have thus become the elephant in the room of the never-ending “peace process.” The Oslo Accords didn’t result in a Palestinian state but they have resulted in an army without a state. For Israel, this has been a dividend. Even though Jerusalem pays lip service to condemning Palestinian incitement, and even though Abbas recently cursed the US ambassador, the reality is that quietly, in the shadows, security cooperation is perhaps the best it has ever been between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
There have been only a handful of security incidents involving members of the PA Security Forces, a major change from the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, when the IDF had to disarm the security forces and destroyed most of their institutions.
When two Israelis mistakenly drove into Jenin in February, the PA Security Forces helped extricate them. This has led to accusations on the Palestinian street that the security forces are “collaborators.” But at the highest levels, the security forces appear to shrug this off.
For Israel and Washington, the question of what comes next has not been answered. Israel appears to prefer the status quo, which includes strong PA Security Forces. Chaos and instability would lead to terrorist groups entering the power vacuum. The Trump administration has not articulated a policy.
Zilber and Omari argue that the Office of United States Security Coordinator must be protected from political changes in Jerusalem and Washington.
They also argue that Washington should “refrain from using security as a lever in restarting peace talks or influencing their course.” However, the authors also argue that the office “will need clear support and occasional direct intervention from principals in Washington in order to nudge Palestinian leaders at the highest levels” and to “enable genuine reform.”
This presents a contradiction.
The PA Security Forces have been accused of being overly politicized and using torture.
Reforming them would mean Washington turned a blind eye to the problems. Whatever comes next, the PA Security Forces should not be ignored and their role must enter into any calculations of a peace process or new Israeli moves.