On February 5, 2013, the reconstituted US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa held a subcommittee hearing on the subject of “Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation: Threatening Peace Prospects.”
Two senior expert witnesses from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy testified and expressed optimism that US trained Palestinian Security Forces, affiliated with the Fatah, will combat the Hamas terror group which competes for power in the nascent Palestinian Arab entity.
Yet the Fatah policy and attitude towards Hamas can be summarized in an exchange that I had with Fatah founder Yasser Arafat at a press conference in Oslo, on December 10, 1994, the night before Arafat became one of the recipeints of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Mr. Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, and Israeli Foreign Minister of Foreign Affairs Peres said a few hours ago in answer to my question, that you deserve the peace prize because you have committed yourself to crushing the Hamas terror organization.”
Arafat response: “I do not understand the question. Hamas are my brothers.”
When the Palestinian Authority was founded in 1994, President Yasser Arafat, by design, established a multiplicity of security forces with overlapping authority and in competition with one another.
The 17 diverse forces of the PA, which often constituted no more than private fiefdoms, were ineffective and corrupt. What mattered to Arafat was that no force was of sufficient size or competency to seize power.
In several instances while Arafat was in power, PA forces turned their weapons on Israel. In September 2000, Arafat recruited security forces to organize attacks on civilians and soldiers in the course of what was called the Second Intifada, or uprising.
The Israeli military decimated the PA security forces in 2002, with facilities demolished and weapons seized.
Serious involvement by the West began to revitalize the PSF, the Palestinian Security Forces, after Arafat’s death in November 2004.
Subsequent US support for the PA Security Forces was intended to be a step towards creation of that stable Palestinian Arab entity.
In 2005, the Office of the US Security Coordinator was established. The 16 US officers who work within that office are assigned to the State Department. The Coordinator reports directly to the Secretary of State.
Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, reorganized the security services into six main forces, and instituted a policy of mandatory retirement at age 60. Efforts by the US to strengthen the PA forces were delayed, however, by the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Authority legislative election in 2006. Hamas held a majority of the seats in the legislature and was heavily represented in the government. In addition, it had created its own security forces, with generous funds from Iran and Syria.
In June 2007, Hamas fighters routed a US-equipped and US-trained PA force that was 10 times bigger and captured the Gaza Strip. The failure of the PA forces was plain to see, and the US was prepared to invest more vigorously in strengthening that force because Abbas then ostensibly separated a Fatah-controlled government from direct involvement with Hamas.
By 2008, the Office of the Security Coordinator, with a staff of 145, defined as a key goal of its efforts, the development of a PA security force with paramilitary capabilities that could protect Abbas’ regime from Hamas. The American investment in this venture encompassed major assistance in reforming the forces and rebuilding of infrastructure, providing of equipment and major involvement in training.
In 2011, the Security Office enlarged its focus to include the development of PA indigenous readiness, training, and logistics programs as well as the capability to maintain and sustain operational readiness and support infrastructure. By that year, U.S.-financed training programs had graduated 4,761 Palestinian cadets from the U.S.-supported Jordanian International Police Training Center in Amman. The Coordinator’s Office also conducted training in the West Bank attended by 3,500 security commanders and troops. Washington helped build joint operations centers for planning, command, and control, as well as the National Training Center in Jericho.
However, as we consider the situation now, in early 2013, we see that not only has that goal of providing PA Security Forces with the capacity to repel Hamas not been achieved; over the past year, the influence of Hamas within the PA security forces has grown significantly. This, in spite of all the funding, training, and weaponry that has been supplied.
All other factors aside, there is an underlying cause that is routinely overlooked: the nature of traditional Arab (which includes Palestinian Arab) culture. Whatever the PR promoting a Palestinian state would have us believe, the reality is that for many Palestinian Arabs, loyalty does not rest with some abstract notion of a state that must be defended. Primary, loyalty is to the extended family: the clan. Training does not significantly alter this perception.
The problem lies with the fact that within the same extended clan there may be those serving in the PA security forces and those who are members of Hamas. Security forces officers are loath to do battle with their brothers in Hamas. In a 2011 report done by the Center for Near East Policy Research on “The Dangers of US aid to PA security forces,” this issue was addressed. Dr. Mordecai Kedar, research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, said the troops can be loyal to the PA for the present:
However, when (not if) there will be domestic problems in the PA/Palestinian State these people will be loyal primarily to their clan [Arabic: hamula] rather than to the state, since they will never shoot their brothers or cousins…
A prominent Palestinian-Israeli journalist explained that the clan system is not as strong as it once was, however:
This is Arab society. You can’t erase a centuries-old tradition—can’t tamper with culture. It will never work. You can’t impose a solution on anyone.
Another cultural predisposition among the Palestinian Arabs has to do with combating terrorism. General Amidror, former head of the IDF’s Research and Assessment Division and currently serving as Security Advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, observed that:
There is a huge difference in the Palestinian view between law enforcement, which is seen as legitimate, and anti-terrorism, which is NOT seen as legitimate.
The US confuses the two.
This assessment has never been properly assimilated by US authorities involved with the training program. The PA has no laws against money laundering for terror groups; PA statutes do not define any group as a terrorist organization. There has never been action against Hamas undertaken by PA security forces out of an anti-terrorist ideological conviction.
We might ask then, why American government and military officials have blithely ignored these realities, instead proceeding according to their own version of the situation: a version that is likely doomed to fail.
But even beyond these basic cultural facts lie other problems. There has been a decline of the PA security forces that has been accelerated by the fiscal crisis that began in the fall of 2012. With monthly salaries withheld or partially issued, many PA officers have stopped any semblance of work. With the consent of their commanders, the officers clock in and then go off to other jobs. This search for money has been exploited by Hamas, made rich by donors such as Iran and Qatar.
Numerous PA officers have been quietly working for Hamas, notably in its military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Hamas penetration has been strong in several areas of the West Bank, particularly in the Hebron region, where senior PA intelligence officers are believed to be providing intelligence to Hamas.
Coupled with this is a new rapprochement in process between the PA and Hamas, with talk of a unity government.
Separation between the PA and Hamas following the Gaza coup was never as total as was popularly imagined. As early as 2008, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter charged that the PA was committed to transferring roughly 4 billion shekels each year to Hamas to help pay salaries of its workers and security officers. Abbas also arranged for the PA to pay for the electricity generated for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Now there is evidence of Fatah-Hamas coordination in parts of the West Bank. The PA has lifted the ban against Hamas rallies, and Hamas has gained control of many West Bank mosques. Israel’s intelligence community has determined that Hamas politburo Chief Khaled Masha’al has ordered the establishment of military cells to take over the West Bank.
What Israel now faces is a worst-case scenario: PA security forces have a history of turning on Israelis. With the increased cooperation between the PA and Hamas, the likelihood of this happening again grows more likely. Statements of late by PA officials suggest such cooperation. Former PA Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, for example, has called for unity with Hamas that would “win further victories for us.” With Hamas cooperation, he said the PA would escalate “the struggle against Israel” in 2013.
However, should there be a repeat of prior attacks by PA forces, bolstered by cooperation with Hamas, dealing with the situation will be far more difficult than it has been previously. Now those PA forces are far better equipped and trained, thanks to a US policy that may have been ill-advised from the outset.
The time has come for an evaluation of the impact of US aid to the PA Security Forces, however well intended.
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