Security and Defense: Quietly taking over

The PA’s and Israel’s interests dovetail in the West Bank, as both work to prevent Hamas from taking power there.

PA Security Forces 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
PA Security Forces 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
A few weeks ago, a senior Israeli religious official wanted to visit Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. He asked for permission from the IDF, which in turn coordinated the visit with the Palestinian Authority and its various security apparatuses.
A visit to Nablus is not taken lightly by Israelis who are easily reminded of the dozens of suicide bombings, car bombings and shooting attacks that originated in the city – home to about 130,000 Palestinians – throughout the second intifada, whose 10th anniversary was commemorated earlier this month.
Given the green light, a convoy of armored cars entered Nablus in the middle of the night. What was immediately noticeable was that after crossing into the city, two more jeeps joined the convoy, this time filled with armed PA security officers. As the convoy rolled down the mostly empty streets, PA security officers were standing at every street corner, blocking off traffic as they held their Kalashnikov assault rifles in front of their chests.
After a five-minute drive inside the city, the convoy arrived at the tomb, whose dome – smashed during riots in October 2000 – was recently rebuilt by the PA, which also allowed Israel to insert a fiveton stone atop the site of the grave. The religious official pulled together a minyan and began to pray the evening service, while IDF and PA officers conversed outside in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic.
Once unheard of, visits to Palestinian cities which are home to Jewish religious sites are fairly common these days, made possible by the unprecedented security cooperation with the PA. This is because the PA’s interests are aligned with Israel’s interests, which both center on preventing Hamas and other terrorist organizations from taking over the West Bank as they did Gaza in the summer of 2007.
Israel cracks down on Hamas in the West Bank since it wants to prevent terror attacks against the settlements as well as inside the country. The PA cracks down on Hamas since it does not want its rule to be challenged and since an increase in terrorism would undermine the legitimacy of its call for statehood – primarily based on the impressive security reforms it has made in recent years.
In two weeks, a sixth battalion trained by the US in Jordan will deploy, raising the number of PA security officers in the West Bank trained by the West to just over 3,000. A seventh battalion will soon after depart for Jordan, continuing the process aimed at creating a standing force of 10 battalions and 10,000 US-trained troops by the end of 2011.
The increased coordination is more than just about visits to places like Joseph’s Tomb. In recent months, Israel has relied on PA security forces in assisting Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and IDF investigations into various terrorist attacks. The coordination has paid off and in several cases, the PA actually helped solve the case.
This trend is what turned 2009 into the first year in a decade without a suicide bombing inside Israel. This has continued so far this year.
WHERE IS all this headed? The PA is doing an effective job in stopping terrorism, successfully undermining the Israeli argument that it requires a military presence and operational freedom in the territories to stop attacks. Defense officials and senior IDF officers stationed in the West Bank readily admit that what they are witnessing is essentially the building of an independent state by the Palestinian leadership.
While the IDF could still argue that the PA is not yet ready, a continuation of the lull will make for a strong counterargument.
In addition, under orders from the Defense Ministry, Central Command has been drafting plans for steps that could include the complete transfer of security responsibility over certain West Bank areas to the PA. One area under consideration is the larger Ramallah region, which would include Beitunya, El-Bireh and possible even Bir Zeit, parts of which are in Area B, which according to the Oslo Accords is meant to be under Israeli security control until a final agreement.
Such a step, which would require a political decision, appears unlikely today as the Netanyahu government continues to debate the pros and cons of extending the freeze on settlement construction.
But IDF officers and senior defense officials admit that there really is no obstacle to handing over security control of areas like the Ramallah region to the PA.
“We don’t really go in there anymore,” one senior officer explained, adding that due to the lull in terror, military commanders in the West Bank actually have more time to trying to curb the rise in settler violence against Palestinians, even though without too much success so far.
The decision of how to advance will ultimately be up to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who will have to decide whether to give in to US pressure on the settlements or to maintain the stability of his coalition and continue to press for PA recognition of Israel as a Jewish state at the risk of completely derailing the nascent peace talks.
Netanyahu’s resolve was clearly demonstrated by his rejection to date of an unprecedented US security package ironed out by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Dennis Ross, a senior adviser on the Middle East at the National Security Council, as well as between the IDF Planning Division and Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Exact details on the incentives offered have not been made public, but officials said that it would likely include guarantees that Israel would retain a long-term presence in the Jordan Valley.
It could also include a commitment that it will retain its qualitative military edge in the region possibly by receiving another squadron of F-35s, the first squadron of which was officially ordered two weeks ago. If this were to happen, Israel would receive 40 F-35s for the price of 20, making the most expensive aircraft Israel has ever purchased even cheaper than the average F-16.
“If the public knew what was really offered, it would be calling on Netanyahu to extend the freeze for eight months and not eight weeks,” one defense official explained.
A year ago, many Israelis speculated about the possibility of a Yitzhar-for- Bushehr plan, meaning an evacuation of the settlements would lead the US to eliminate the threat from Iran’s nuclear program.
A squadron of F-35s for an eightweek freeze is slightly more modest, but it is an offer Israel cannot lightly ignore.