Learning from Lessons Past

By Joharah Baker – The West Bank

If the Palestinians had not gone through the Oslo experience, I would have said this plan just might work. Ideally, nothing makes more sense than for Palestinian police to be patrolling the Palestinian populace. That is how it works in other countries, right? But Palestine is hardly like any other country, namely because we are not independent or sovereign.

On October 25, 550 Palestinian policemen were deployed in Hebron to control the Palestinian area of the city. On the day of deployment, a newly appointed officer stood before television cameras, chest puffed up and beret starched to a tee, confidently explaining that the police had a duty to restore law and order and not allow any transgression from any party to go unaddressed in Hebron. Again, it all sounds, well, perfect. Except for the fact that we have once again put the cart before the horse and have started solving the problem from the wrong end.

Seeing the jubilant troops entering Hebron – a similar scene adorned our television screens months ago in Jenin and before that in Nablus – reminds me of the early days after the Oslo Accords were signed. This agreement, which basically constituted the beginning of the end of the Palestinian revolution, stipulated that Palestinian police be deployed in the major cities designated as Area A, under full Palestinian control. The Accords also allowed for major historical events such as the return of Yasser Arafat, who had ruled the Palestinians in exile for decades.

I was in Jericho to greet the first Palestinian troops who crossed the Allenby Bridge into Palestine. The mood was surreal. This was the dream we had all been waiting for – to see our own troops, strapping young men in military garb wearing kuffiyas around their necks and guns across their backs. We watched, hearts bursting with pride and love, as truckloads of soldiers greeted the throngs of people, bright Palestinian flags fluttering from their windows. Yes, at the time we thought our prayers had been answered. We thought the sight of Israeli jeeps racing through our streets, shooting at our boys and arresting our men would soon be a distant memory.

Needless to say, the dream dissipated in record time. It took six years, to be exact, for all hell to break loose and for us average Palestinians to finally understand that you can’t skip steps on your way to an ultimate goal. In other words, a police force, ministries, a presidency, and diplomats are all trappings of an independent state, something which we are still sorely lacking. It is not enough to “declare” independence and make November 15 a national day of celebration. The reality of the situation will always come back to bite you. It happened in 2000 when Israel reinvaded Palestinian cities, bombed the symbols of Palestine’s quasi government such as the presidential headquarters in Ramallah and the Gaza International Airport. My fear is that it is happening all over again today.

In Nablus, the Palestinian security services have been deployed for almost a year, keeping close watch on the internal Palestinian situation and trying to keep any wayward rebels in check. The strongest critics of these forces will tell you the police there are merely caretakers of the Israeli occupation, doing the dirty work the Israelis don’t want to get their hands soiled with. If Israel wants a man from Nablus, either the PA police arrest him or Israel simply goes in itself, usually taking out the wanted man in a body bag.

In Hebron, the situation is even more complex. In the heart of this Palestinian city live approximately 400 of the most hostile and belligerent Jewish settlers you will ever encounter. Unfortunately I know because I have had the pleasure of coming face to face with some of them during a trip to Hebron’s old city years ago. In a nutshell, I can say I would die a happier person if I never came in contact with that particular group of Israelis ever again.

The Jewish presence in Hebron has always been problematic, particularly because many have taken up residence in the center the city, their homes nestled unnaturally amongst those of Palestinians. They are guarded by thousands of Israeli soldiers whose sole purpose is to protect them, ensuring that the friction between them and the Palestinians is minimal, and to punish the Palestinians with curfews, closures and raids any time this “friction” gets out of hand.

Of course, the 550 Palestinian policemen who have newly made their homes in Hebron have no jurisdiction over the settlers and can by no means arrest them, put them under curfew or raid their homes. This group of “Hebronites” is off limits to the newly-deployed law enforcers who will no doubt feel completely helpless when the settlers go on one of their rampages. The most they can do is call their Israeli liaisons to report the disturbance or at best, lodge a complaint.

The police force was given quite an early wakeup call after barely two days on the job. Settlers from Kiryat Arba (known for its notorious inhabitants) vandalized a Muslim graveyard near the settlement. The settlers reportedly smashed several headstones and splashed paint on others. They also smashed Palestinian car windows and slashed their tires before being deterred by Israeli police. The settlers were protesting the government evacuation of a settlement outpost just outside of Kiryat Arba, which they said was – get this – “illegal”.

The point is, the Palestinian police deployment in Hebron was first and foremost a political maneuver to boost President Mahmoud Abbas and hopefully reign in any Hamas hopefuls looking for a possible West Bank takeover similar to the one in Gaza. That in itself is a recipe for disaster on the internal front. If, on the side, order is restored among the Palestinian populace, that is just icing on the cake.

My question is: why would the leadership think this time will be any different than a decade ago? Hasn’t it been made clear to all of us that we need to be independent and sovereign first before adding all the trimmings? It won’t take long before this lesson is driven home for the second time around. Hebron is already unraveling at the edges.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org.)

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