Ramallah/Jerusalem/Brussels - Security reform is one of the Palestinian Authority’s most notable successes, but recent attacks on West Bank settlers, coinciding with resumed Israeli-Palestinian talks, illustrate the difficulties in sustaining such progress as long as the occupation and internal Palestinian divisions persist.
Squaring the Circle: Palestinian Security Reform under Occupation, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the prospects for deepening West Bank security sector reform. Since Salam Fayyad was appointed prime minister in June 2007, Palestinian security forces have re-established public order in the West Bank, restored central authority and disarmed militants. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has introduced initial structural changes to reduce redundancy and empower the civilian leadership.
Coordination with Israel is stronger than ever, and the scepticism of its defence establishment slowly is be ing overcome. The U.S. and Europe are backing the PA and helping train its forces, which they see as both a key element of any eventual Palestinian-Israeli accord and a way to strike a blow against Islamists.
“Fayyad’s security reform agenda represents the embryonic success of a particular political outlook”, says Andreas Indregard, Crisis Group Senior Analyst. “It is the notion that by ensuring personal security and a monopoly over the use of force, Palestinians can regain the international community’s and Israel’s confidence and neutralise a key Israeli argument against statehood”.
However, as difficulties born of the intifada era recede, Palestinian security forces have come in for greater popular scrutiny. Many in the West Bank appreciate the PA’s achievements but are troubled by two key aspects. First, they see an inherent contradiction in coordinating with the occupier. Israel, harbouring doubts even as it commends Palestinian progress, questions the reliability and effectiveness of Palestinian security forces. As a result, those forces operate under tight restrictions; they cannot protect their people from settler violence; and Israeli forces carry out frequent incursions into West Bank cities.
Secondly, the security forces’ commitment to political pluralism has been questioned in light of their unprecedented campaign against Hamas, as well as the limits they sometimes impose on a broad spectrum of political dissenters.
“The PA has successfully re-established public order, but it is a public order of a particular kind”, says Robert Blecher, Crisis Group Senior Analyst. “Palestinian civil society is unaccustomed to, and resents, the controls to which it is subject. Moreover, Hamas has been frozen out of many aspects of public life and debilitated politically”.
There are some short-term remedies. Palestinian security forces ought to be permitted to operate more widely, and Israel ought to sharply reduce its incursions while taking firmer action against settler violence. The PA should enhance respect for human rights and political dissent, allow Hamas to function as a political party and refrain from closing down civil organisations. The U.S. and European Union should insist on respect for human rights and ensure that judicial reform catches up with that in the security sector. But this cannot address fundamental dilemmas.
“Palestinians are trying to square the circle: build a state while still under occupation; deepen cooperation with the occupier even as they seek to confront it; and reach an understanding with their historic foe even as they prove unable to reach an understanding among themselves”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East & North Africa Program Director. “Without serious progress towards ending the occupation and reversing intra-Palestinian divisions, the PA won’t have the credibility it needs to pull it off”.