The month of April witnessed the entrance of a new actor in the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis – after almost every significant exchange of fire between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers in recent weeks, the Israeli Defense Forces claimed the involvement of the Palestinian security apparatus “Force 17.”
If one leafs through the IDF’s daily summary of events on its homepage, this trend becomes obvious. From the start of the Aqsa Intifada last September until last month, Force 17 is only mentioned three times. In the several weeks since, the group has made more than half a dozen appearances. Where shooting attacks on Israeli military targets were once mainly attributed to either Fateh’s activist corps, the tanzeem, or “Palestinian rioters,” Force 17 has become the target of choice.
But while Force 17 has taken on mythic proportions in Israeli lexicon, the group is otherwise little-known.
Force 17 was created in 1973 during the Palestine Liberation Organization’s exile in Lebanon. Among its original tasks was the guarding of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, which accounts for the fact that its most senior commanders – Faisal Abu Sharakh in Gaza and Mahmud “Abu Awwad” Damra in Ramallah – are very close to the Palestinian leader.
After the PLO’s return to Gaza in 1994, Force 17 officially disbanded to become part of the General Security Services set up as the Palestinian security umbrella, according to the Cairo- Agreement of the same year. Most of its 5,000 members were then signed up with the “Presidential Guard” or “Al Amn Al Ri’asah.”
On the books, then, Force 17 no longer exists. But some of the old cadres continue to operate under the name Force 17, mainly manning checkpoints at the borders of Palestinian-controlled areas and intelligence work.
Israel often claims that Force 17 is solely responsible for the Palestinian president’s safety and acts only according to his orders. But Palestinians say this is wholly untrue.
“Force 17, like every other Palestinian security body, is part of a proper chain of command,” says Marwan Kanafani, spokesperson of the president’s office.
Why then, has Force 17 become an Israeli target?
Certainly the Israeli government has not forgotten that it was members of Force 17 that claimed the killing of three Israeli citizens in Larnaka, Cyprus in September 1985. But this does not fully explain the revival of animosity.
“Israeli governments always create myths to present a clear enemy on the Palestinian side,” explains political analyst Saleh Abdel Jawwad of Bir Zeit-University. “They began with ‘the tanzim’ at the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada, and now it is ‘Force 17’.”
Abdel Jawwad estimates that no more than perhaps 10 people who happen to be members of Force 17 are actually involved in attacks against Israelis.
For its part, Israel claims that at least eight Israeli citizens have died at the hands of Force 17 members. Mahmoud “Abu Awwad” Damra, the man responsible for West Bank Force 17 operations and, according to TIME Magazine, at the top of an Israeli assassination hitlist, laughs at Israel’s charges. “We know about all these allegations. They are nothing but propaganda.” Then he adds, “We only act in self-defense, for example, when Israeli special forces try to enter Area A [under Palestinian security control].”
One can brush off comments like these as propaganda meant to obscure the fact that Palestinian gunmen have shot at Israeli targets. But it is clear that Palestinians believe that Israel’s interest in Force 17 has multiple motives. On the one hand, the Israeli government seems to be deliberately exaggerating Force 17’s involvement in shooting attacks in order to charge that the Palestinian Authority itself orders and directs “terror.” Israeli spokespeople have frequently said that they consider Force 17 to be governed by Arafat himself.
On the other hand, by drawing a picture of its enemy as a well-trained “terrorist” force, the Israeli army portrays itself as an army defending itself in a war between equals.
Israeli military spokespeople often stress that it is facing an “elite unit” in Force 17. But Damra says that Force 17 members receive six to seven months of training, as opposed to the usual three months of other Palestinian security recruits. Of 500 applicants, some 200 are accepted to serve in the unit. This weeding-out cannot compare to Israel’s rigorous training of special force operatives.
“The Israelis are making a big effort to distract the world’s attention from the fact that the Palestinians have every right in the world to resist their aggression. They are a creating a scapegoat in the form of Force 17,” says Professor Riyad Agha of Gaza’s National Institute for Strategic Studies.
The price paid by the Palestinian security establishment for this Israeli tactic has been high. Nearly 30 of its employees, among them at least 4 members of Force 17, have been killed over the course of the Aqsa Intifada, half of them assassinated by the Israeli military. In addition, the Palestinian Authority security and civil infrastructure has sustained heavy Israeli bombing raids.