The issue of security coordination has been a subject of much controversy among the Palestinian public since the inception of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Palestinian-Israeli agreements established the security function as the benchmark for the PA’s competence and Israeli probable concessions. However, as time passed and negotiations stalled, it soon appeared that the ceiling for these “concessions” was below the bare minimum. This prompted the PA leadership to rethink the whole issue, especially that the factions and public had rejected it from the beginning.
However, it is unlikely that the PA leadership would actually stop coordination. For it does not believe that it would be able to bear the high price of such decision, whether internally or externally. But this does not exclude the possibility of gradually reducing the level of security coordination, or that there would be an accumulation of pressure so that the coordination would stop against the will of either the PA or Israel.
Security coordination continues to be one of the most controversial aspects of the PA work since its inception. Some see it as a contractual obligation without which Palestinian home rule cannot survive, and as a gateway to statehood. Others see it as a sin that carries a heavy price paid by the Palestinian people and their liberation project, because it hits the resistance forces, the strongest card. It is also seen as an element fueling Palestinian schism.
In addition to the above debate, the PA has inner discussions concerning the balance between the gains and losses due to security coordination. For Israel insists on maintaining the PA as a “functional” entity providing security to the occupation. In return, the PA has no gains that would help it in fulfilling the dream of statehood, as settlement and land grabs continue in territories that are supposed to be part of the future Palestinian state.
Since the Oslo Accords and later agreements that allowed the PA to gradually take control of heavily populated Palestinian areas in the West Bank (WB) and Gaza Strip (GS), i.e., Area A; Israel successfully convinced it that security matters are the main criterion for Israeli cooperation and for allowing it to assume more functions and truly govern certain areas.
But repeated Israeli stalling in peace negotiations and its imposition of facts on the ground, have made the PA leadership feel that the peace settlement was at an impasse. Each time, it was compelled to consider the question of continuation or cessation of security coordination, albeit with large differences in the factors impacting this decision.
The eruption of al-Aqsa Intifadah on 28/9/2000 was a major milestone in this regard. The Intifadah had the blessing of the late President Yasir ‘Arafat. The frequency of PA security forces arresting resistance activists decreased to a large extent, as did the pace of cooperation with the occupation authorities. This is despite the fact that the PA caved in to US and Israeli pressure in some instances such as with the arrest of the Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Ahmad Sa‘adat following the assassination of Israeli Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in October 2001. Furthermore, members of PA security forces also participated in the Intifadah, where most of these were previous resistance activists prior to PA formation.
As a result, Israel decided to attack PA security forces and isolate the Palestinian president. It put pressure to change the reference frame and structure of the PA security forces, in agreement with the United States (US) and the Quartet on the Middle East, as embodied in the roadmap in April 2003.
After Mahmud ‘Abbas took over the PA leadership, he would respond to repeated demands to stop security coordination by stressing that it was an irreversible obligation and a Palestinian interest. ‘Abbas would stress his keenness on not seeing another Intifadah erupt. It was clear ‘Abbas had in mind the fate of the security forces following al-Aqsa Intifadah, and his “achievements” in rebuilding them on acceptable basis to Israel and the international community. This made him a credible partner keen to achieve peace with Israel.
The PA leadership reaffirmed its position even after when Minister Ziad Abu Ein was killed by Israeli soldiers during a peaceful march in December 2014, and despite the fact that the impasse in the negotiations had lasted for a long time in parallel with Israel continuing to impose more facts on the ground.
After seeking the recognition of a Palestinian State at the United Nations and Security Council, and after signing up to join the International Criminal Court and a number of other international institutions, halting security coordination was the last option the PA had to put pressure on Israel, as it continued to lurch further to the right. The reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his opposition to a Palestinian state, while the Israeli government withheld tax funds collected on behalf of the PA in response to the PA’s bid to join international organizations.
So what are the possible future prospects related to the security coordination in light of these facts?
1. Internal Factors
a. Popular Rejection: The popular position rejecting security coordination with Israel is one of the leading internal factors putting pressure in the direction of halting coordination. The latest sign of this popular mood was expressed through a poll conducted by the Opinion Polls and Survey Studies Unit at An-Najah National University in March 2015, in which 59% expressed their support to end security coordination.
The popular protests that erupted from Jerusalem to the WB in July 2014, following the immolation of Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir, further underscored the Palestinian anger against violations by Israel and Israeli settlers.
However, the fact that those protests could not be sustained in the WB under the PA’s security control (unlike Jerusalem where no PA security forces exist) underscores the ability of security coordination to repress popular anger against coordination.
b. The Positions of Resistance Factions: There’s a consensus among various Palestinian political parties to oppose security coordination with the Israelis, and these include Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as well as voices within Fatah itself. All these factions believe halting security coordination is in the national interest, despite some variation in their interpretations of the issue.
c. Reconciliation Requirements: The Palestinian reconciliation agreements clauses regarding security coordination included mainly what was mentioned in the 2006 National Reconciliation Document of the Prisoners. It differentiated between resistance weapons, which should be organized and protected, and the arms of “chaos and lawlessness.” So did the general outlines of the reconciliation agreement of May 2011. Although subsequent agreements did not tackle the issue of security coordination directly, in order not to go into contentious issues, this point remains the most important cause of dispute between Fatah and Hamas in the reconciliation talks. Therefore, both sides realize that achieving true reconciliation requires first resolving this issue.
2. External Factors
a. Israeli Stance Towards the Peace Settlement: In the absence of agreement between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, the PA was compelled to find alternative means to end the occupation and establish a state. It considered the threat to end security coordination is an important bargaining chip, seeing as the security function of the PA is the most important function that Israel wants to continue.
Netanyahu’s vow in the recent elections to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state makes the PA leadership even more skeptical about the wisdom of security coordination, especially with the ongoing Israeli violations and settlement building. In addition, there have been increasing attacks by settlers against Palestinians and their properties in WB, which puts further popular pressure to end security coordination with Israel as this is seen as providing cover and protection for the aggressors.
It seems that the move by the Israeli government to withhold part of tax transfers due to the PA for three months came in response to the PA signing up to join a number of international treaties in early 2015. This forced the PA to threaten a halt to security coordination in a more serious manner, with the Central Council and the Executive Committee of the PLO both issuing a decision backing an end to security coordination in March 2015.
b. The US Opposition to the PA Accession to the UN and UN Agencies: This has reinforced the PA’s conviction that there is no prospect for a solution. Washington had sought to block Palestinian bids at the Security Council and impose financial sanctions on international agencies that accept Palestine’s membership, without putting any pressure on Israel in what is a clear bias. This has prompted the PA to resort to threatening again to pursue other options, including halting the security coordination with Israel.
1. Internal Factors
a. Political Exploitation of Security Forces: Since the PA’s inception, security coordination was an instrument of dual political empowerment. Security forces pursued the opposition, who at the same time champion resistance against the occupation. Thus, the PA took advantage of the convergence of interests with Israel and the US.
The political significance of security forces appeared clearly in many occasions. During the Israeli-American campaign against Yasir ‘Arafat, a prime minister post was established to handle security powers, then again following the 2006 legislative elections, the main dispute between the president and the prime minister, and behind them between Fatah and Hamas, was over security powers.
For the PA, the “military takeover” or “coup” in GS in June 2007 enhanced the importance of the political function of security forces, and security coordination at home and abroad, out of fear of a repletion of the GS scenario in WB.
b. Security Forces Structure and Doctrine: Unlike the case during al-Aqsa Intifadah, the Palestinian security forces and their doctrine underwent a process of thorough change in line with the roadmap plan. Security personnel who had background in resistance were sacked, while a new doctrine and a “new Palestinian” were formed under the supervision of US General Keith Dayton. This new generation did not see Israel as an enemy, and saw the continuation of security coordination a major Palestinian interest. Subsequently, this greatly reduces the odds of repeating al-Aqsa Intifadah, during which security officers took part in resistance activities.
2. External Factors
a. Israeli-Palestinian Agreements: Security coordination is the core of successive Palestinian-Israeli agreements, where the existence of the self-rule authority is linked to the performance of its security functions. Consequently, deviating from this function means for Israel the end of the PA’s raison d’etre, and whatever course of action it chooses would be justifiable internationally.
b. Foreign Military and Economic Control Tools: In addition to the above, Israel possesses military, security and economic tools that can be used against the PA whenever it wants (and a large part of these emerge under the previous agreements mentioned), in case the PA proceeded to stop security coordination.
The experience of al-Aqsa Intifadah and the reoccupation of the WB with the destruction of the Palestinian security forces by Israel falls in the same context, in that they have created a deterrent for the current PA leadership. There is also the fact that Israel controls tax transfers, which account for 70% of total PA local revenues, and 43% of revenues after factoring in foreign aid and grants (in turn about 37% of PA revenues).
This means that the PA has to take into account the possibility of losing around 80% of revenues in the event it decides to halt security coordination, since the US and the EU are the top donors and both are in favor of continuing security coordination. What also increases this burden is the fact that the salaries paid to security forces account for 42% of PA salaries, which could be frozen and suspended in the event of financial embargo.
1. Continuation of Security Coordination
In light of previous factors, the possibility of continuing security coordination is the most likely. Especially so if we take into account the ability of the PA to overcome popular rejection of security coordination, and the lack of serious interest in implementing the requirements of reconciliation. Recall as well that on 18/4/2015, Mahmud ‘Abbas declared the end of crisis that withheld Palestinian funds.
In addition, Israel offered the PA facilitations in parallel with the announcement, most notably agreeing to open PA police stations and deploy PA security personnel in the suburbs of Jerusalem (Aizariyeh-Abudis, al-Ram, and Badou). This means that Israel is not only keen for security coordination to continue, but also wants to expand it to include suburbs in Jerusalem, which has seen widespread anger that Israel is struggling to contain. Israel wants to toss this issue over to the PA, which so far does not seem to mind.
This path does not rule out the possibility of the PA threatening to halt security coordination again in the event Israel freezes financial dues of the PA.
2. Halting Security Coordination
This path requires one or more of the following factors to be fulfilled:
1. The negotiations continue to stall and Israeli violations persist. Netanyahu takes actual measures to preclude the emergence of a Palestinian state and weaken the PA, by creating financial crises for example.
2. Moving seriously to implement Palestinian reconciliation, all the way to restructuring the security forces in accordance with foundations agreed-upon among Palestinians.
3. Accumulation of popular pressure, which successfully brings about an uprising or popular protest movement that the PA and Israel would not be able to contain, pushing them into a confrontation that they may not necessarily want. Among the scenarios that could lead to this would be formidable resistance attacks that would push Israel to respond, or crimes by settlers that would provoke uncontainable outrage among the Palestinians.
3. Reducing Security Coordination
This path would involve the PA taking measures to reduce the level of security coordination gradually, yet without fully halting it, with the goal of avoiding a strong Israeli reaction. The likelihood of this path increases in the event the negotiations continue to stall and Israel continues to be inflexible with the PA and continues to put financial pressure on it. This is in addition to the prospect of rising popular anger, to the extent that the PA would have to take measures to contain it, perhaps by allowing protests to vent their anger directly at Israeli checkpoints. Such a path could go out of control and lead to the second scenario above.
The PA, under popular and resistance pressure, could adopt the third option as something that can achieve some Palestinian interests while meeting some popular and resistance demands, yet without incurring heavy costs that the PA cannot afford at present. At the same time, this would give the PA a bargaining chip against continued Israeli violations.
1. Encouraging PA orientations to halt security coordination as this would achieve a Palestinian interest and serve as a way to revive the implementation of reconciliation.
2. Encouraging the PA to refuse any security tasks in the suburbs of Jerusalem, as this is a bait through which Israel is seeking to throw a hot potato into the PA lap, instead of dealing itself with the consequences of its Judaization and settlement policies in Jerusalem.
3. Encouraging acts of resistance, both individual and collective, in WB, without necessarily adopting them through a certain faction or party. Rather, these should be kept as part of a rising popular resistance trend.
4. Encouraging solidarity between security personnel and the Palestinian people, and avoiding accusations of treason and hostility.
5. Continuing to work on establishing a financial support network for the PA, outside the framework of Israel and US domination.
6. Seeking to build a resistance economy that would adopt small or home-based productive projects, and reverse the culture of consumerism that makes people dependent on their government salaries.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre would like to thank Mr. Hasan Ibhais for contributing to the draft on which this Assessment was based..