Security and Defense: Triggering a tough choice

Though Israel appreciates the work of PA security forces, it fears giving too much overt praise.

PA police 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
PA police 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
One of the success stories of Operation Cast Lead took place far from Beit Hanun and Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip - in Jenin, Hebron and Tulkarm in the West Bank. When the IDF embarked on its three-week battle against Hamas, one of the main concerns in the defense establishment was of a possible uprising in the West Bank. Of the tens of thousands reservists who received emergency call-up orders, a large contingent was deployed in the West Bank to confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad elements - as well as the general population - which the defense establishment feared would find it difficult to stand by idly in face of a rising Palestinian death toll in Gaza, and would therefore launch attacks. But that never happened. While there was a slight increase in the number of stone-throwing and shooting attacks throughout the West Bank, the Palestinian street was relatively quiet. In total, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) recorded 186 attacks, 173 of them involving the throwing of Molotov cocktails. There were no suicide bombings, and no reports of bombers caught in the West Bank or trying to infiltrate across the Green Line. The consensus in the defense establishment is that while the IDF's operational freedom throughout the West Bank is key in preventing terror attacks inside the Green Line, what kept the lid on terrorism in the West Bank during the Gaza operation was the Palestinian National Security Force. Last year saw the largest deployment of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank since the early days of the Oslo Accords. Within the framework of a new program - directed by Quartet envoy Tony Blair and US security envoy Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton - 1,600 troops have already deployed throughout the West Bank. Another 500 are currently in training in Jordan. The NSF officers are deployed in Jenin, Nablus, Jericho, Bethlehem and, most recently, in Hebron. Hebron was the third step in the plan and appears to be far from the last. The first stage began in Nablus in November 2007, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak accepted a request by PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad to allow several hundred soldiers into the city to enforce law and order. The second stage came in May 2008, when a battalion trained under US direction in Jordan was allowed to deploy in Jenin. The third stage was in October in Hebron, with the deployment of 500 troops. BEHIND CLOSED doors, defense officials - including Barak and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi - have no problem praising the NSF and the job it did in curbing terror in the West Bank during the Gaza operation. But the praise is not yet out in the open, because the IDF is concerned that if it praises the NSF too much, it will find itself in a Catch 22 situation. Though Barak and Ashkenazi recognize that it is in the country's interest to have strong Palestinian forces which can enforce law and order, they do not want to transfer security control of those cities to the PA. If Israel speaks publicly about how good the forces are, it may be asked to do just that. With US President Barack Obama's special envoy George Mitchell headed back to the region later this month, the defense establishment is concerned that overt praise of the NSF would open the door for an official US request that security control of the cities be transferred to the PA to advance the peace talks with President Mahmoud Abbas. The IDF is opposed to the suggestion, senior officers said, since an official transfer of security would take away the military's operational freedom. "It is one thing to allow the PA to deploy forces inside a city and for us to scale back our operations," explained a senior defense official. "It is another for us to transfer security over that city to the PA, since that would mean our no longer having the right to enter it." Last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about a day he spent with Dayton. "The Dayton mission - a rare bright spot in a broken landscape - is the ground floor we need to build upon," he wrote. "So it is important to have George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, steadily pushing the diplomacy from above, but nothing will happen without vastly increasing US efforts from below to help West Bankers build a credible governing capacity." Barak and Ashkenazi are aware of this, which is why the IDF fully supports Dayton's work. The objective, officials said, was to ensure that if and when the Palestinians establish an independent state, they will have a functioning and effective security force in place. A time line has not been set up for the rest of the West Bank, but officials said it was possible that by the middle of the year, two more cities would receive a beefed-up US-trained battalion. ANOTHER KEY factor that could affect this process is a future prisoner swap with Hamas for Gilad Schalit. Israel, officials said this week, was closer than ever before to striking a deal with Hamas that would free the abducted soldier, who has spent the past 964 days in captivity. Behind the increased chances, it seems, is the fact that Israel is now willing to release more and "higher quality" security prisoners than it was before Operation Cast Lead. The heavy blow suffered by Hamas also serves as an incentive for it to reach a deal under which hundreds of its operatives would be released from prison. If the deal goes through, the defense establishment is concerned that it could undermine Abbas. This is why the government is mulling a goodwill gesture to the PA in the West Bank, either during the swap or immediately after. Defense officials said this week that one gesture under consideration is exactly what the IDF is afraid Mitchell will request - the transfer of security control of a West Bank town to the PA.