‘I have never seen such brutality in my life, except from the Israeli forces,’ says Aliya,* still shocked a day after her protest march through the West Bank town of Ramallah was violently attacked by Palestinian security officers. ‘They just kept on beating us.’
Aliya was one of a few hundred young people who had marched on Sunday 1 July to protest against police brutality which had broken up an earlier demonstration.
As the protesters started to call for the resignation of Abdul Latif al-Qadumi, the head of the Ramallah police force, the reaction of the police grew more violent. “No to Dayton’s police! Stop the coordination!” was one of the protesters’ cries.
Lt-Gen Keith Dayton, the former US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC), ended his term overseeing US assistance in restructuring Palestinian security forces in 2010, but his legacy – newly trained and equipped Palestinian police and intelligence forces – remains. Others have also helped reform the Palestinian police: the European Union’s Police Advisory Mission EUPOL COPPS (EU Police Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support) and more than 17 different states.
Created in 2005 as part of the Roadmap to Peace agreement, donors agreed to provide assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) to re-establish functioning security forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, the assistance of the USSC and the EUPOL COPPS mission has been limited to the West Bank. The mandate of these missions is to reform the six different, often competing, Palestinian security services – a legacy of Arafat’s divide and rule days – and train and equip them so that they can keep order.
Most of the Palestinian security forces were only officially established during the years of the Oslo II Agreement of 1995 together with the new PA. As the second Intifada beginning in 2000 grew violent and many of the freshly equipped recruits took part in battles against Israeli forces, the latter made sure that both infrastructure and operational capacities were destroyed. Lawlessness and the rule of armed gangs – many of them connected to armed party militias – were the result.
Security with a Twist
Today the situation in most of Area A – the 17.5 percent of land controlled by PA forces in the West Bank – is different. Palestinian security forces patrol the streets while militiamen with guns are only seen on posters celebrating killed “martyrs”.
A 2010 UN Development Programme survey in the area showed that 52 percent of respondents felt the security services ensured a safe environment. But this new security comes with a twist: the police and intelligence services are also protecting the security of Israel.
Coordination with Israeli security services is a pillar of the reforms. Forces are trained and equipped to react to the demand of Israeli agencies in quelling armed groups. During the month of Ramadan, when many Palestinians try to cross the checkpoints into East Jerusalem for religious reasons, it is now the Palestinian police which screens people, checking to see if they fit set Israeli criteria for a crossing permit.
Many Palestinians and external experts say the developments inside the PA and its security services are worrying. “For sure,” one international security expert based in Ramallah and who preferred anonymity told IRIN, “what we have here is nothing compared to the situation in Egypt or Syria, but there are strong authoritarian tendencies within both the PA and the security services.”
This view is reflected in a recent poll among 1,200 Palestinians. Only 29 percent of respondents in the West Bank felt they could criticize their government without fear.
For now, most of the repression has been directed against political opponents and their armed militias: Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and even president Abbas’s Fatah party armed group, the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades.
The recent demonstration in Ramallah, however, is an indication that things could be changing. The protesters were young Palestinians, many of them sons and daughters of Ramallah’s elite. The expert interviewed by IRIN said it was no secret that both equipment and training for anti-riot operations comes from EUPOL COPPS and bilateral donors.
Support Role for EU Police
“EUPOL COPPS supports the Palestinian Special Police Forces (SPF) in matters of specialized equipment and training. The SPF has several duties among the Palestinian Civil Police and crowd control management is one of these… The SPF has covered hundreds of public order events without any problems and that happened in full respect of human rights and police ethics standards,” EUPOL COPPS told IRIN.
According to Aliya, the specialized SPF only arrived late on the scene of the demonstration; it was plain clothes security officers and uniformed members of the Palestinian Civil Police who attacked the protesters.
A spokesperson for EUPOL COPPS provided information to IRIN showing that the mission is investing heavily in programmes designed to secure greater accountability from the police and mainstream human rights in all its work.
Shirin Abu-Fannouna, who works for the Palestinian human rights organization al-Haq, told IRIN there was a trend among security forces to target political dissenters protesting against the PA.
Providing advice to the security sector under such circumstances is difficult. While EUPOL COPPS has been upgraded with a rule of law component in recent years, most donors have a hard time monitoring that their equipment and training are not used to oppress legitimate protest.
Officially the six PA security services employ a total of 29,500 people in the West Bank. But the PA also continues to pay the salaries of 36,500 security personnel who have been inactive since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007. In such a context security sector reform, rather than just being technical assistance, becomes a highly “political exercise” as the International Crisis Group noted in a 2010 report. This is especially the case as legal oversight over the different services is weak. The Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament) has been inactive since 2007 and President Abbas rules by decree.
The security services provide one of the few job opportunities for Palestinian men without higher education, and political leverage can be obtained by determining who gets such a job in the bleak economic situation in the West Bank. Political affiliations still play a major role, and most of the security services are staffed with members of Abbas’s Fatah movement.
But “identities are shifting”, said the security expert. “It is no longer just a Fatah militia that acts against political opponents. They are willing to act against other Fatah members as well, if needed. We have a strange mixture now, where the security services have become much more professional and technocratic, but where self-interest plays a much larger role.”
The rationale for the Palestinian leadership’s reform of the security services was two-fold: first to regain control over the different feuding militias, and second, to take any security argument away from the Israeli government that could have been used to postpone peace negotiations.
However, as the Palestinian leadership comes to realize that the international community is not able to deliver on the peace negotiations, keeping the current situation stable seems to be the PA’s strategy.
"The big question is, what impact can security sector reform have under such circumstances? How sustainable can it be?” asked the security expert.
*not her real name