- The West Bank is more secure now than at any point since the outbreak of the first Intifada, over twenty years ago, and the current situation is undoubtedly creating a more supportive environment for negotiations.
- The improved security situation cannot be isolated from the wider state-building programme championed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
- The encouraging performance of the Palestinian National Security Forces is the most important calculation in the IDF’s decision to withdraw from the Palestinian towns and to reduce overall troop numbers.
- Britain plays a crucial role in supporting the security reforms on the ground that benefit both Palestinians and Israelis.
- However, concerns about human rights abuses by Palestinian security forces and Israeli fears that Palestinian guns will once again be turned on them remain.
Recent reports suggest that the security situation in the West Bank is better now than at any point in the last twenty years. The Palestinian police and the National Security Force gendarmerie are out on the streets, keeping the peace. The IDF, on the other hand, currently deploys fewer troops in the West Bank than at any time since the late 1980s. Barriers to movement and access have been reduced, and the economy of the West Bank grew at 9% in the first half of 2010. What underpins this calm? What other indicators point to a real change? And are there any threats to its continuation?
The security calculus
The collapse of Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza in June 2007 marked a significant turning point in the approach of Israel, the US government, and other western allies, to Palestinian affairs. International relations with Ramallah were severed after the January 2006 election brought Hamas to power, but the split between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip opened up a new chapter. The Bush administration ended its embargo of the PA, Israel released tax revenues totalling $500m, and the PA mounted a major offensive against Hamas-controlled or -influenced institutions and businesses in the West Bank. Where interests were opposed, now they were in line; Israelis, Americans and Palestinians now wanted to oppose any Hamas influence in the West Bank, and the most effective way to do this was to ensure that the PA was fully in control
Congress approved its first appropriation of funds for assistance to the Palestinian security services in July 2007, with an initial $86m which was supplemented in 2008 by a further $75m. Since 2007, the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) mission has received budget appropriation totalling nearly $400m. Its budget for 2010 is $100m; in 2011, it will have $150m to spend.
The improved security situation cannot be isolated from the wider state-building programme championed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. With an explicit target of Palestinian independence by mid-2011, Fayyad has been working to create ‘bottom-up’ momentum to join a ‘top-down’ diplomatic process in the pursuit of peace. Palestinian security capacity is a critical element of that programme.
What is the current situation?
The most significant element of the improved Palestinian security situation is the National Security Force (NSF), a lightly armed gendarmerie. Under the direction of the USSC four battalions of the NSF have been deployed in the West Bank; a fifth is currently in training at the Jordan International Police Training Center (JIPTC). Five further battalions will complete a force numbering around 8,000 men, which is scheduled to be recruited, trained and deployed to the West Bank by the end of 2011.
Once deployed, they are visible on the streets, and according to polls, are trusted by the Palestinian people, with 73% of those polled in a recent survey responding that they work for the Palestinian people. 61% of Palestinians say they feel secure in their own homes. Given the fact that personal security consistently outpolls other issues – including the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the end of occupation – this represents significant domestic political capital for the PA.
At the level of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian relations, the encouraging performance of the NSF, particularly in re-establishing the authority of the PA at the expense of local militias or Islamic rejectionist groups, is the most important calculation in the IDF’s decision to withdraw from the Palestinian towns and to reduce overall troop numbers. The effectiveness of the NSF was revealed recently when a credible plan to assassinate the governor of Nablus, Jibrin Al-Bakri, was foiled.
Whilst the USSC mission is led, financed and largely staffed by the US, British and other nationals are able to move around the West Bank more easily than their American counterparts. Consequently, the USSC detachment of military and civilian advisors in Ramallah is led and largely staffed by British nationals. The detachment, which reports to the United States Security Coordinator, Lt-Gen Michael Moeller, is properly referred to as USSC-Ramallah. However, since its leader and largest single contingent are from the UK, it is also sometimes referred to as the British Support Team. Building on Britain’s long experience in mentoring foreign forces, this team is at the forefront of building local leadership capacity across the various security agencies, through the Senior Leadership Course (SLC). The SLC is the only formal command and staff training in the PA that brings together police, NSF, Presidential Guard, Intelligence, Preventative Security and others, creating cadres of future leadership.
Alongside the work of USSC with the NSF, EUPOL-COPPS (EU Police Co-ordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support), a European Union mission, supports the institutions that uphold the rule of law in the PA. Initially focussing on the blue-uniformed Palestinian Civil Police, the mission now includes support for the courts, prison system, public prosecution and the Ministry of Justice. Again, there is a significant British contribution to the mission, with its first three heads of mission coming from the UK. High police visibility – even when this includes the unwelcome novelties of speed cameras, parking fines and seatbelt checks – increases public perceptions of personal security and the rule of law.
Along with the low numbers of IDF troops now deployed in the West Bank, there are a number of other highly encouraging indications regarding Israel’s assessment of the security situation:
- Israel is currently not seeking the arrest of any security suspects in the northern West Bank, and only a handful in the southern West Bank. This is the first such time that the ‘wanted list’ has been so low in a decade
- The number of fixed, manned IDF checkpoints in the West Bank has dropped from 41 in July 2008, to 14 at present. Some 200 smaller earth-mound obstacles have been removed over the same period. OCHA, the UN’s humanitarian agency in the region, reports that the falling number of obstacles to access and movement between the urban centres of the West Bank is ‘improving access to services and livelihoods’.
- Nablus is now under the full security control of the Palestinian Authority, completing the transfer of control over of the major West Bank towns to Palestinian security forces. Until recently, PA forces were restricted to barracks during the night, whilst IDF troops patrolled.
- Palestinians and Israelis have returned to a pattern of consistent and close coordination on security matters. In 2009, the IDF recorded 1297 coordinated operations, a 72% increase from the previous year.
Despite the significant improvements in the security situation, there are a number of challenges ahead. Perhaps the most significant vulnerability is that the bottom-up process will lose momentum unless it is joined with the resumption of the top-down Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process.
The allegation of PA complicity in ongoing Israeli control of the West Bank, is also a significant challenge. Whilst IDF incursions into the West Bank are increasingly rare, the fact that they happen at all, and are coordinated with the PA, sits uneasily with Palestinians. Whilst IDF incursions into the West Bank are increasingly rare, the fact that they happen at all, and are coordinated with the PA, sits uneasily with Palestinians. The work of the USSC, whilst clearly in the best interests of the Palestinian state-building effort, has been easy to criticise as further complicity with Israel’s American ally. When General Dayton talked of the IDF’s eagerness to see more of the ‘new men’ he was training, relations between him and the PA leadership soured irreparably.
Furthermore, there are questions about the NSF’s respect for human rights, with a sharp increase in complaints about torture. According to Randa Siniora of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, “We’re looking at a very gloomy situation. I’m afraid that this (torture and abuse) will become systematic.” International observers, including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, have also expressed their concerns.
Whilst the USSC training programme places significant emphasis on engendering loyalty to the PA and the Palestinian people, there is a lingering concern that the security forces are overzealous in quashing legitimate opposition, either to the PA or to Fatah, its dominant faction. And with no legislature since June 2007, the expiry of any popular mandate for either the president or his government, and the culture of “rampant impunity” for those involved in civil liberties abuses creates legitimate concerns.
From an Israeli perspective, the current calm is a welcome change. However, many years of conflict with the Palestinians leaves a very real awareness that the military capacity which is currently keeping the peace could, again, be turned on them. The shooting attack near Beit Hagai in late August, in which four Israelis were killed was a reminder of the recent past, and of the fragility of the current calm. The scars of deadly Palestinian terrorism in the early years of the last decade are still fresh, and translate into extremely low tolerance for any deterioration in personal security.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that Israel’s security is a critical element for substantive progress in the peace process. The current situation in the West Bank is undoubtedly creating a more supportive environment for negotiations.
However, security alone is not sufficient. Israelis and Palestinians both need to see evidence that the Palestinian state-building programme is delivering real change if serious momentum is to be built. For the Palestinians, it is critical to be seen to be advancing the overall Palestinian interest of ending the occupation and achieving independence, and to avoid the impression that it is merely doing Israel’s work. For Israel, credible Palestinian state-building activity, where energies are channelled into the positive direction of creating a state that can exist alongside Israel in peace, and away from ‘resistance’ in all its variants, will give greater reassurance that current period of calm is more than a temporary expedient.