US-trained Palestinian security forces now key to peace

US-trained Palestinian security forces now key to peace
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Israel could face an “explosion” of protests and violence in the coming weeks, the chief of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman) warned on March 25. As Jerusalem prepares for the country’s 70th anniversary, which Palestinians see as a “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” a growing list of pressures could lead to new conflict. Washington is planning to complete the initial move of the U.S. embassy, which President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE announced in December. Whether stability continues relies partly on a rarely acknowledged institution: the Palestinian Authority security forces the United States has been training since 2007.

A new report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, authored by Neri Zilber and Ghaith al-Omari, looks at the development of the Palestinian security forces since 1994. Part of the study focuses on the internal rivalries and Palestinian factions that returned with Yasser Arafat from Tunisia in the 1990s.

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These eventually grew into the Palestinian security forces that were largely disarmed and broken by the Second Intifada. By 2006, they were incapable of challenging the wave of instability that came after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections.

 

As Hamas consolidated control over the Gaza Strip, the United States realized it had a crisis that only financial and military support for the Palestinian Authority could reverse. Through the State Department, financial support to the tune of $100 million a year was provided for the office of United States Security Coordinator. Since then, around 29,000 Palestinians have been trained and they have helped shore up the Palestinian Authority to keep peace with Israel in the absence of a final status agreement on the two-state solution.

“As the USSC enters a new phase, it will need clear support and occasional direct intervention from principals in Washington in order to nudge Palestinian leaders at the highest levels, including the president (Mahmoud Abbas), to make and sustain the necessary political decisions to enable genuine reform,” Zilber and al-Omari write in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy report. They argue that USSC’s key role in continued security coordination with Israel is “unmistakably in the strategic interest — and a strategic need — of both parties. The relative stability of the past decade, a sea change from the 13 years that preceded it, has been built on this mutually beneficial security relationship.”

From Washington’s perspective, if the Palestinians have a strong security force they can more easily work with Israel to stop groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from growing. The security forces also can crack down on support for lone wolf attacks. It is part of the overall U.S. strategy in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Niger to do “military first,” rather than “democracy first” investment in institutions. These institutions help confront terror and are supposed to create stable spaces for other government institutions and civil society to grow.

The Trump administration has said it hopes to present a peace plan this year. Recent meetings with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were a key to proposals that might be made. The White House has kept details under wraps, tapping Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump's battle with Pelosi intensifies McConnell blocks bill to reopen most of government More than Mueller: Senators must ask Barr about criminal justice policy MORE to lead the effort. However, the Palestinian leadership has rejected the U.S. role, claiming the embassy move proves America is biased.

This creates a combustible situation. The United States still trains the forces that are supposed to guarantee stability and peace in the West Bank under any future deal. Those forces were supposed to be deployed to the Gaza Strip eventually, under a reconciliation agreement with Hamas. Instead, someone in Gaza tried to assassinate Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and General Intelligence Service chief Majid Faraj in early March when they visited the area to open a wastewater treatment plant. Bombs targeted their convoy, damaging vehicles.

Any change by the United States in the delicate balance of supporting the Palestinian security forces could fuel a crisis. This is one of the perils of the “military first” strategy that seemed to have worked so well in 2007. The Palestinian Authority got a small army with U.S. trainers, but it never had to really reform. It hasn’t held elections and it is unclear who will take over if Abbas ever steps down as president. There is no long-term goal.

Can the USSC be part of the new peace deal? So far, the Trump administration has largely ignored the office, allowing it to quietly continue its role. That may be for the best, since a spotlight on security cooperation between the Palestinians, Israel and Washington undermines the security forces who are accused of “collaboration” with Israel. Nevertheless, it is essential to take these forces into account as the summer months heat up and rumors of conflict circulate.

Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum.