PA walking fine line between security coordination and normalization

PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS: For critics of the Palestinian Authority, security coordination is a form of 'collaboration with the Israeli enemy' in cracking down on Hamas, PIJ and other terrorist groups.

Palestinians boost security ahead of Christmas Eve in Bethlehem last month. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Palestinians boost security ahead of Christmas Eve in Bethlehem last month.

It’s been a while since the hashtag #SecurityCoordinationIsTreason trended on social media platforms. In recent weeks, the hashtag, which refers to security coordination between the Palestinian Authority security forces and the IDF in the West Bank, resurfaced, spotlighting the controversy among Palestinians about this sensitive and controversial issue.

The controversy reached its peak after the recent meeting between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Rosh Ha’ayin.

A statement issued by Gantz after the meeting stated that the two “discussed the implementation of economic and civilian measures, and emphasized the importance of deepening security coordination and preventing terror and violence – for the well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Critics of the PA were quick to cash in on Gantz’s reference to security coordination to lash out at Abbas and the Palestinian leadership.

For these critics, security coordination is a form of “collaboration with the Israeli enemy” in cracking down on Palestinians belonging to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other groups involved in terrorism in the West Bank.

 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (credit: ALEX BRANDON/POOL/REUTERS) Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (credit: ALEX BRANDON/POOL/REUTERS)

Hamas and PIJ have long been condemning the ongoing security coordination between PA security forces and the IDF and urging Abbas to suspend all civilian and security relations with Israel.

Commenting on the Abbas-Gantz meeting, Hamas said that it “reveals once again the great decline that the Palestinian Authority and its leadership have reached, including cooperating with the enemy and cracking down on the resistance and freedom fighters of our people.” Such meetings, Hamas added, “serve only the enemy.”

PIJ, for its part, pointed out that some of its members in the West Bank were arrested by the IDF shortly after the meeting. The arrests, PIJ said, “are an indication of the extent of the abhorrent security coordination between the two parties.”

Hamas and PIJ were quickly joined by many Palestinians from across the political spectrum, who expressed outrage over the meeting in general and the talk about “deepening security coordination” in particular.

These Palestinians were particularly disturbed by the fact that the renewed talk about security coordination came amid growing tensions and violence, especially in light of increased settler attacks on Palestinian villagers and farmers in the northern West Bank.

Moreover, they seemed to be enraged by the fact that the meeting took place at a time when the PA leadership and other Palestinians continue to denounce some Arab countries for normalizing their relations with Israel.

“How can we call on the Arabs to refrain from normalizing their ties with Israel, while our president goes to meet the Israeli minister of war at his home?” asked Palestinian activist Ziad Aloul.

Another activist, Salah Hijazi, said that the meeting “reaffirms that the Palestinian Authority is an integral part of the Israeli security apparatus.”

He added: “Many people, however, understand that the Palestinian Authority has no other choice.”

When Gantz talks about deepening security coordination, Hijazi remarked, “he’s saying that the Palestinian Authority and Israel have a common interest in preventing the Palestinians from resisting the occupation. The Israelis have always regarded the Palestinian Authority as a subcontractor for security-related issues in the West Bank.”

Other Palestinians were further enraged by reports in the Israeli media that quoted Abbas as saying during the meeting that he will not allow violence or the use of firearms against Israel, notwithstanding the nature of relations between the PA and Israel.

The meeting between Gantz and Abbas came days after the PA security forces in Nablus thwarted two attempts by Palestinians to set fire to Joseph’s Tomb.

Palestinian sources said that dozens of residents of Balata refugee camp, which is located near Joseph’s Tomb, twice marched toward the site carrying Molotov cocktails, but were intercepted by Palestinian security officers. The protesters claimed that they only wanted to set fire to “installations” used by Jewish settlers who come to pray at Joseph’s Tomb escorted by IDF troops. According to the sources, the foiled arson attempt came in protest of settler “assaults” on Palestinian villagers and farmers.

The PA came under attack by several Palestinians for thwarting the arson attack. They argued that the foiling of the attack was another sign of the continuing security coordination between the Palestinian security forces and Israel.

Palestinian activists took to social media to denounce the PA security forces as “guards of settlements.”

Such accusations have become the norm among Palestinians, particularly each time the IDF uncovers a terrorist cell or foils plans by Hamas and PIJ members to carry out attacks against Israel.

Many Palestinians are convinced that Israel’s successful crackdown on terrorism in the West Bank is mainly the fruit of the security coordination with the PA security forces.

THE PA leadership, for its part, has never denied the existence of security coordination with Israel.

Privately, some PA officials have admitted that the security coordination is a two-way process that also benefits the Palestinians. A few officials have also acknowledged that were it not for the security coordination with Israel, Hamas would have been successful in its efforts to extend its control to the West Bank.

It is no wonder, then, that in 2014 Abbas described the security coordination as “sacred.” Abbas made the rare confession during a meeting with Israeli activists in Ramallah.

“Security coordination is sacred and will continue whether we agree or disagree on policy,” Abbas emphasized, drawing sharp criticism from many Palestinians.

A PA official said this week that the security coordination with Israel was in the context of Abbas’s opposition to “violence and terrorism.” Abbas, the official added, “supports a peaceful popular resistance” against Israel and is committed to “combating all forms of terrorism.”

According to the official, the PA’s security coordination is not limited to Israel, but to other parties as well, first and foremost the US.

“We have strong security ties with the Americans and other international parties,” the official said, without elaborating.

Aware of the importance of the security coordination to Israel and the US, Abbas has not hesitated to use it as a tool to extract concessions or exert pressure on the Israelis and Americans.

In 2020, the PA announced that it had halted the security coordination in protest of Israel’s plan to extend its sovereignty to Jewish communities in the West Bank.

The decision, taken at the recommendation of various Palestinian key decision-making bodies, also came in protest of the “anti-Palestinian” policies and measures of the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

Six months later, however, the PA rescinded the decision and said it was resuming the security coordination with Israel.

“In the light of President Mahmoud Abbas’s international contacts, and given the written and verbal commitments we have received from the Israelis, we will resume relations where they were before May 19, 2020,” explained Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the PA General Authority for Civil Affairs and member of the Fatah Central Committee.

Unsurprisingly, the PA again took flak for its decision to restore the security coordination with Israel. Skeptics claimed that they anyway did not believe the PA when it announced its decision to suspend the security coordination.

“Many Palestinians did not believe Abbas when he said that he would stop the security coordination,” said political activist Khalil Abu Saleh.

“They knew that halting the security coordination would mean that President Abbas would not be able to leave Ramallah. Everyone knows that he needs permission from Israel to travel abroad. Everyone knows that most of the senior Palestinian officials would not be able to move around freely without the security coordination with Israel.

“That’s why it was important for Abbas to ask for many [Israeli-issued] VIP cards for senior Palestinian officials during his meeting with Gantz. These cards give the officials privileges that are denied to most Palestinians, including freedom of movement and entry into Israel.”

THE SECURITY coordination is based on the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (Annex 1), signed between the two sides on September 28, 1995.

Article III of the agreement, titled “Coordination and Cooperation in Mutual Security Matters,” stipulates that Israel and the Palestinians will form a joint security coordination and cooperation committee to deal with all security matters of mutual concern. The committee is also tasked with providing “the proper channel for exchanging information between the two sides.”

It was understood back then that the “security matters” would be dealt with through the Joint Regional Security Committees and the Joint District Coordination Offices. The goal of the two bodies was to settle differences and disputes, deal with alleged violations and maintain contact between Israeli and Palestinian security officials.

Palestinian officials insist that this type of coordination is necessary to ease the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, where the situation on the ground is “complicated” because of the daily friction with IDF soldiers and settlers.

“The security channel is an integral part of the political and economic channels,” said Prof. Mohammed Dajani, a widely respected Palestinian academic and political analyst. “It is important that there should be cooperation within the security level in order to prevent violence and killings. I think that the security channel helps to prevent violence that would have taken place in Israel and Palestine.”

For now, it seems that the security (and civilian) cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians will continue, in spite of the criticism voiced by Hamas and other Palestinians. Relations between the PA and Israel have somewhat improved since the new governments came to power in the US and Israel.

Abbas does not seem to be bothered by allegations that he and his security forces serve as “security subcontractors” for Israel. For him, the top priority remains holding on to power and preventing Hamas or any other group from undermining or even toppling his regime in the West Bank.

Abbas knows that the security cooperation does not come without a heavy price. His popularity has fallen to its lowest level since he was elected as PA president in January 2005.

He and his security forces are being condemned by several Palestinians as “spies,” “agents,” “collaborators,” “traitors” and “sniffing dogs.”

But at the age of 86 and as he is set to enter the 18th year of a four-year term in office, Abbas knows that his safety and survival are more important than his popularity.

In due time, it will be seen whether his successor – whoever it may be – will continue this policy or succumb to the threats from Hamas and other Palestinians who are opposed to any form of ties with Israel.