At the end of the second intifada, the Palestinian territories and the West Bank in particular were on the verge of complete anarchy. PA security organs had ceased to function; their installations had been attacked by Israeli security forces and their members arrested and disarmed. The resulting vacuum was filled by armed gangs ruled by thugs and self-appointed warlords. At this stage, Israel had succeeded in achieving freedom of action in the West Bank for its security forces and had substantially reduced the scope of Palestinian terrorism. Many of the armed gangs had become less involved in fighting Israel and more a menace to the Palestinian population.
Beyond the resulting insecurity for the Palestinian population, this situation caused several severe repercussions. For one, the PA continued to rule the West Bank only because Israeli security forces prevented its rivals, primarily Hamas, from taking over by force following their successful takeover of the Gaza Strip. The PA also lost the trust of the West Bank population, which perceived it as a dysfunctional entity incapable of protecting it from common crimes and helpless against Israeli security forces that roamed Palestinian population centers in search of terrorists.
Israel lost trust in its Palestinian partner. Even when Mahmoud Abbas succeeded Yasser Arafat as president of the PA and convinced the Israeli leadership of his sincerity in wishing to resolve the conflict and attain a permanent-status agreement, most Israelis felt that it was not possible to conclude any agreement with the PA. It had no security control over the West Bank and therefore could neither implement agreements nor assure Israel that areas under its control would not turn into launching pads for attacks similar to those emanating from the Gaza Strip.
The steps Israel took to fight terrorism have inhibited the freedom of movement of goods and persons in the West Bank. This has caused great damage to the Palestinian economy and a reduction in the standard of living, thereby further damaging the PA’s image in Palestinian eyes.
These repercussions are a strong impediment to progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. From Israel’s standpoint, any agreement that leads to its withdrawal implies that the West Bank would fall into the hands of Hamas and thereby become a source of security threats to Israel. The geography of the West Bank and its proximity to Israeli population centers would create an unbearable situation for Israel.
The conclusion is that security reform and a build-up of Palestinian security forces that enable the PA to regain security control over the West Bank are a pre-condition for any progress toward stabilization and resolution of the conflict. This is clear to the three main actors involved in the Israeli-Palestinian process: the PA, the international community and Israel. Palestinian security reform is a key item on their agenda.
After a problematic and stormy beginning, when PA forces trained as part of the security reform performed shamefully against Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip, the PA appears to have succeeded during the past year in developing a viable process of security reform and build-up of security capabilities. The National Security Forces and civilian police were reorganized and new units trained. This was done with the assistance of the Dayton mission, which helps in reorganizing the security sector and training the National Security Forces, and the EU-POL COPPS mission that helps train the civilian police. Jordan is also helping by putting its training installations at the disposal of the new National Security Forces.
The best indication of the success of PA security reform is the city of Jenin. Shortly after a newly-trained National Security battalion and civilian police forces were deployed there, they succeeded in establishing law and order in the city. Armed gangs and thugs disappeared from the streets and life returned to normal. The success of this experiment has encouraged the PA to expand these operations to other areas of the West Bank. Forces deployed in Nablus, Qalqilya and Hebron havealso changed the situation on the ground in these places.
Palestinian security organs have also become more proactive in dismantling terrorist infrastructure and preventing terror attacks. Their achievements have generated some economic progress, including a reduction in unemployment. Israel is more willing to ease restrictions on freedom of movement. Some main roadblocks have been removed; new routines at others speed passage.
The main constraint on this expansion is the slow pace of the training of new forces. Only two National Security battalions have finished their training, with a third graduating shortly. At this stage, any further expansion could endanger previous achievements.
And there are additional problems and difficulties. Law and order cannot be fully established without functioning legal and prison systems; here reform is lagging behind. Nor does Israel yet fully trust in the willingness and capabilities of Palestinian forces to prevent terrorism; hence Israeli security forces continue to operate in areas where these new Palestinian forces are deployed, albeit only at night. Consequently, Palestinian forces are perceived as collaborators that not only serve Israel’s interests but are also not able to protect the Palestinian population from Israeli troops. And although the newly-trained forces are much more proficient and professional, they are still perceived by segments of Palestinian society as political tools of the Fateh party and of the old and corrupt Palestinian leadership. Indeed, sometimes they act in ways that validate this perception.
All told, the recent build-up of Palestinian forces has several implications. First, it brings the PA closer to a capacity, without Israeli intervention, to prevent Hamas from taking over the West Bank. It is less clear how capable the National Security Forces will be to dismantle terrorist infrastructure and prevent operations by covert terrorist cells, and to what extent Israel can reduce its anti-terrorist operations in the West Bank.
Second, there is still a long way to go until the Palestinian security apparatuses gain the trust of the population as professional, non-partisan security forces.
Third, the improved security situation in the West Bank enables acceleration of the process whereby Israel eases restrictions on freedom of movement in the West Bank. The recent wave of attacks following the fighting in Gaza, perpetrated by West Bank Palestinians using primitive and improvised means and not operating in organized cells or linked with any Palestinian organization, does not justify a reversal of Israel’s new policy; it is doubtful whether renewed restrictions can prevent this sort of spontaneous action by individuals.
Finally, there is a strong linkage between Palestinian security reform and the political process. On the one hand, progress in security reform is a strong enabler of progress toward political agreement between the two sides. On the other, viable Palestinian security reform is doubtful without a real Israeli-Palestinian political process that legitimizes it within Palestinian society and ensures it is not perceived as a purely political ploy by a failing Palestinian leadership that has no support in Palestinian society.