Questions and Answers with Rafi Dajani

The American Jewish community watched Israel withdraw from Gaza and four northern West Bank settlements this summer with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. Though those of us involved in Brit Tzedek deeply hope that the pullout may prove to be a step on the road to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, many of us have legitimate concerns about the ability of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to maintain order and rein in extremists. The road to peace must lead to safety for all sides, and it is important to ask hard questions along the way. In order to answer some of these questions, we asked Rafi Dajani, executive director of the Washington DC-based American Task Force on Palestine  (ATFP) to take an in-depth look at the situation on the ground. 

The ATFP is a Palestinian-American organization dedicated to articulating the American national security interest in achieving lasting peace and stability in the Middle East by establishing a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel. Dajani has been active in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace and coexistence since 1995. He has contributed to and written for a wide range of American and foreign news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, BBC TV, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. 

1) What security arrangements are required of the Palestinians by the U.S. backed Roadmap? To what extent have these terms been met?

2) What has been done to dismantle the militant groups that continue to oppose the PA’s attempts at rapprochement with Israel?

3) What is the current state of the Palestinian security forces?   

4) To what extent is the PA capable of addressing security issues on its own?

5) To what degree is the PA really in control of the areas under its authority, especially Gaza, and what steps need to be taken for them to be “in charge”?

6) How has the Sharon government linked issues of Palestinian security to the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?

7) What is the relationship between the Palestinian economic situation and security?

1) What security arrangements are required of the Palestinians by the U.S. backed Roadmap? To what extent have these terms been met?  

The Roadmap itself addresses the issue of security in Phase I. In this phase, the Palestinians are to issue a statement “calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere.” In addition, the Palestinians are to “declare an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism and undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere,” as well as “beginning sustained, targeted, and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure. This includes commencing confiscation of illegal weapons and consolidation of security authority, free of association with terror and corruption.”  

It is important to note two things here. First, by using words such as “beginning” and “commencing,” the Roadmap does not necessitate that the Palestinians complete the process of disarming and dismantling in Phase 1, but instead requires that the PA take substantive steps to set the process in motion. In this regard, there is no doubt that this requirement has been met, as testified to by the U.S. security coordinator General William Ward at a May 2005 Senate hearing. To date, the security agencies have been consolidated from sixteen to three; a new Minister of the Interior, Nasser Youssef, has been appointed; all members of the security services over 60 years of age have been retired; and a communications plan that will better enable the security services to work with people in the community has been developed 

In addition, the ceasefire that President Abbas secured from militant groups is now approaching eight months (although we cannot ignore the eruptions of violence which have threatened it, notably the exchanges of fire in late September). The importance of the current ceasefire should not be minimized, as it is something Israel was not able to achieve despite its long tenure and overwhelming military advantage. There was little Israeli-Palestinian violence during the Israeli Disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, with the only major incidents between the two peoples being two Jewish attacks, one against Arab citizens of Israel and the other in the West Bank. In addition, Abbas has acted strongly to curb anti-Israel incitement in the official Palestinian media, appointing a new Palestinian director of TV who publicly made it a priority to address the issue. Israel has not since complained about the issue. 

Second, the opening sentence of the Roadmap compels both the parties to take “reciprocal” steps in implementing their respective responsibilities to ensure one another’s security. Many of Israel’s Phase I responsibilities have not yet been addressed, including the immediately dismantlement of settlement outposts erected since March 2001, a freeze of all settlement activity, including natural growth, and withdraw from Palestinian area occupied since the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000. [back to top] 

2) What has been done to dismantle the militant groups that continue to oppose the PA’s attempts at rapprochement with Israel?  

There is no doubt that for the Palestinians, establishing rule of law and implementing the idea of “one Authority, one gun” is a vital national interest, one that will likely play the most important role in determining the success and stability of a Palestinian state. Further, there is no question that the Palestinian leadership recognizes this. The debate concerns the best way to achieve these goals. 

The approach taken by President Abbas has been first and foremost to secure a ceasefire from Palestinian militant groups. Abbas has chosen not to disarm militant groups by force for three main reasons. First, quite simply he knows that doing so would lead to civil war. Second, he realizes that his forces would lose such a confrontation against the better-trained and equipped militant groups. Third, he also realizes that there is no public support for such a confrontation, because the majority of the Palestinian public believes that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was a result of armed resistance. Recalling that the pullout was a unilateral Israeli action, with little coordination with, or transfer of power to, the Palestinians, Abbas is not yet in a position to demonstrate to his people that his platform of political negotiation achieves results that would be endangered by violence.  

On the other hand, both Abbas and the Palestinian militant groups know that the majority of the Palestinian people do not support a return to violence. A recent poll conducted by an-Najah University in the West Bank shows that 62% of Palestinians oppose launching attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip now that it has been evacuated. In addition, the same majority is in favor of the collection of weapons from militant groups. Capitalizing on this majority sentiment, Abbas is attempting to co-opt militant groups, primarily Hamas, by bringing them into the political process and by extension, obliging them to express their grievances through legitimate political channels rather than through violence. The challenge Abbas has set, at least through the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, is not to disarm Hamas, but to prevent them from using violence. [1]  

In the meantime, Abbas is attempting to “de-politicize” the security issue, by turning enforcement into a routine matter of law and order. In other words, if a person is arrested for carrying arms, he will not be arrested for being a member of Hamas, but rather for being a Palestinian citizen who has broken the law. Following the elections, Abbas is hoping that Hamas will appreciate that, as a full-fledged participant in the Palestinian national decision-making apparatus which rejects the use violence as contradictory to Palestinian national aspirations, it cannot continue to bear or use arms. In other words, Abbas is counting on the political process to moderate Hamas.  

In late September, a senior Israeli army source was quoted in Haaretz as saying that Hamas' participation in the elections could be advantageous to Israel. The more it plays an institutional role, the source said, the more it will heed public opinion and show responsibility. Hamas has already demonstrated its sensitivity to Palestinian public opinion in its offer to both cease all attacks against Israel from Gaza, as well as end all armed rallies, without stipulating conditions from Israel in return, despite the fact that this pledge came during an Israeli offensive against the group. Most recently, on October 7, 2005, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted Brigadier General Ya’ir Golan, Israel’s West Bank commander as saying: "Let us not delude ourselves. We cannot run the politics of the Palestinians...If Hamas wins in the elections, government responsibility will compel it to behave differently." 

Abbas believes that if he is empowered by Israel and the international community to be able to deliver tangible improvements in the lives of the Palestinian people, Hamas will quickly realize that using violence would threaten these improvements and turn the Palestinian people against them.   

On the other hand, Abbas’ moderate platform in support of negotiations is similarly vulnerable to political circumstance and subsequent shifts in public opinion. Haaretz reported in August that the head of Israeli military intelligence warned of a return to violence and a Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections if Palestinians are not presented with a credible “political horizon” for statehood soon. If Jewish settlements in the West Bank continue to expand, outposts are not dismantled, and plans for new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem (intended to prevent the establishment of the capital of a new Palestinian state there) are not halted, Palestinians will conclude – “correctly,” he said, – that Mr. Sharon has no intention of returning to the Roadmap.  

To date, Abbas’ overall approach has had some success, although it is too early in the game to predict an outcome. Recent statements by some Hamas leaders on the possibility of future negotiations and recognition of Israel after certain conditions are met have shown a more pragmatic and ‘moderate’ outlook on relations with Israel  among some of the group’s leadership. The ongoing internecine bloodshed currently plaguing Palestinian society clearly demonstrates the extent of the challenge, but Abbas gives every indication of taking a serious approach to curbing violence as a critical step in realizing Palestinian national aspirations. [back to top]

3) What is the current state of the Palestinian security forces?

The most recent (July 2005) and comprehensive report on the Palestinian security sector, prepared in conjunction with the U.S. Security Coordinator’s Office headed by General William Ward and sponsored by the governments of Norway and Canada, lays out a very detailed and honest assessment of the capabilities of the Palestinian security sector. The main findings of the report are: 

  • Current PA security sector reform initiatives including force redistribution, the strengthening of command and control mechanisms, downsizing through retirement, changes in command and the integration of militants into the security services have begun and are ongoing.
  • Attempts to consolidate the PA security forces under the Ministry of the Interior have not been implemented.
  • The National Security Council (NSC) is not functional, leaving no central body for national security decision-making.
  • Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) oversight of the PA security forces is negligible.
  • The influence of powerful informal actors, such as Fatah, and the distance between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank all have a negative impact on the efficacy of Palestinian security governance.
  • Overall capacity and capability to fulfill core functions is weak, despite the fact that there are pockets of strength at the tactical level and personnel numbers are sufficient, if not too high.
  • The security forces are generally more capable in the Gaza Strip than in the West Bank.
  • Military and communication supplies remain woefully inadequate. European donors have sent military equipment and arms to the Palestinians, most of which is held up in Israeli ports. 

Thus, it is clear that while the PA has made significant strides in retraining, reforming and consolidating their security forces, much remains to be done. This reform is made all the more urgent by the withdrawal of the Israeli military from the Gaza Strip and the increasing lawlessness in that area. More can and should be done by the security forces in enforcing law and order and establishing the rule of law, although the PA is not yet in a position to forcibly confront militant groups.[back to top] 

4) To what extent is the PA capable of addressing security issues on its own?  

Palestinians, Israelis and the international community all have a vested interest and subsequent responsibility to strengthen the Palestinian security forces in establishing law and order.  

Irrespective, however, of the support of the international community and Israel, the Palestinians have certain responsibilities regarding security reform that can and must be implemented in the short term. These include: 

  • Rebuild and reform Fatah, President Abbas and the PA’s ruling political party. Currently Fatah constitutes the only single party counterweight to Hamas. One crucial way of reforming Fatah would be to hold primaries before general elections, as the "young guard" have been demanding. This would enable Fatah to select the most popular and capable candidate as a means of maximizing support for the party in its run against Hamas. There will inevitably be resistance to this by the "old guard" who see changes in the process as a threat to their own positions of power.
  • Streamline and fully integrate the Palestinian security sector under the PA ministry of the Interior. 
  • Establish an independent judiciary to sustain security sector reform.
  • Aggressively patrol and prevent the launching of rockets by militants against Israel.
  • Establish a visible security presence on the Palestinian street. 
  • Seal the border with Egypt to stem the smuggling of weapons. 

The Palestinian responsibilities outlined above will go a long way to improving the security situation and increasing public confidence in the PA, but are insufficient in and of themselves to create a stable security situation. For that to happen, Israelis must both allow the necessary equipment to reach the Palestinians and refrain from inflammatory actions such as targeted assassination, mass arrests, settlement expansion and construction of the separation barrier, particularly the portion walling East Jerusalem off from the West Bank. These provocations undercut Abbas and his message of political negotiation, making it difficult to garner public support, crucial for confronting militant groups. [back to top] 

5) To what degree is the PA really in control of the areas under its authority, especially Gaza, and what steps need to be taken for them to be “in charge”? 

The fact that there is no territorial contiguity between the areas under Palestinian control creates an enormous, and often ignored, burden on the PA in terms of its ability to consolidate its authority. Moreover, current conditions dictate that anyone in the PA – including President Mahmoud Abbas – wanting to travel or transport equipment, medicines, food or goods of any kind between Gaza and the West Bank can do so only with the prior approval of the Israeli military.  

With the seat of Palestinian government in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the PA has more authority there than in Gaza, but in both areas, a number of factors have greatly contributed to weakening its hold on the population: the proliferation of armed groups (from Hamas to the tiny Popular Resistance Committee); the paradoxical mandate given the security sector to provide security for Israel at the cost of Palestinian national aspirations; Israel’s destruction and extensive physical dismantling of the Palestinian security sector during the second Intifada in retaliation for Hamas bombings; the lack of political and organizational structure afforded it by Fatah, the PA's ruling party; and the competition that Hamas poses in terms of popularity and street legitimacy. The PA has taken important steps toward restructuring the security services and incorporating them into the Ministry of the Interior, but many issues remain outstanding.  

In historical cases of state-building, difficulties such as these have been met over the course of decades and even centuries, as systems and infrastructure are developed to maintain order and grow a political system. Unfortunately, the Palestinians do not have the luxury of time.  

In order to strengthen the hold it does have and build an effective infrastructure, the PA urgently needs international support and aid, with an eye toward conflict resolution. Much of what the international community has offered to date revolves around managing the violence, focusing on the security sector’s ability to command and control, without simultaneously creating jobs, opportunity and hope. A broader vision must be conceived, in which the political process, Palestinian national aspirations, and organizational structures are also considered and integrated into a long-term negotiation process leading to a two-state solution. [back to top]

6) How has the Sharon government linked issues of Palestinian security to the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? 

Following the disengagement, calls for the immediate disarmament and dismantling of Palestinian militant groups (including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades) have increased, particularly from within the Israeli government. In fact, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly stated that Israel will only agree to renewed peace talks and a resumption of the Roadmap after this has occurred. Moreover, he has referred to the current stage of Israeli-Palestinian relations as the ‘pre-Roadmap’ phase.  

To enter the Roadmap phase, according to the Prime Minister, will necessitate a “full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement,” with the PA “dismantling militant organizations, collecting their weapons and implementing serious reforms in the security services.” Yet Israel has, in fact, already committed to the Roadmap, and Sharon’s interpretation of the agreement diverges sharply from the document’s language.  

In addition to linking the dismantling of Palestinian militant groups to the implementation of the Roadmap, Sharon has also tied it to the address of two other issues. The first is the resolution of outstanding issues directly related to Gaza such as opening of the airport and seaport, the border crossing with Egypt and a link between the West Bank and Gaza 

The second issue is that of the participation of Hamas in upcoming Palestinain legislative elections scheduled for January 2006. Fearing the international legitimization Hamas would receive, Sharon has warned that Israel would hinder the elections in the West Bank, to which American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as responded that the Palestinians should be given ‘political breathing space’  to sort out their elections. Rice also urged Israel to allow Palestinians to carry out their legislative elections in January without Israeli interference. On the issue of Hamas’ disarmament, Rice has stressed that this is something that must ultimately happen, noting the inconsistency of an armed resistance group being part of a new national compact and political process.  Calling for disarmament as something that must ‘ultimately’ happen, recognizes it as part and parcel of a longer political process. [back to top] 

7) What is the relationship between the Palestinian economic situation and security? 

Palestinian security is intrinsically linked with the economic situation. The Gaza Strip is one of the most impoverished stretches of land on earth, on par with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. An estimated 60-70% of Palestinians live on less than $2 per day; the unemployment rate stands at over 50%. Almost more to the point, these figures represent a significant lowering of Palestinian living standards since the Oslo Accords were signed. Such conditions breed the despair that in turn fuels disenfranchisement and extremism. It is not difficult to understand Palestinian indifference to Israeli security concerns and even, though to a lesser extent, to Palestinian security concerns. There is no doubt that an improvement in the Palestinian economic situation will give Palestinians a stake in supporting measures to enhance Israeli and Palestinian security, especially when the link is made between political progress and an improved economic situation. As long as Israel continues to rule Gaza’s borders, controlling what and who goes in and out by sea, land or air, unilaterally sealing all borders when the government deems it necessary, Gazans will not be able to create anything like the social stability necessary to foster real, sustainable economic growth.  [back to top]

[1] Abbas has taken a different tact in dealing with Islamic Jihad and armed groups within Fatah such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which he has pledged to disarm or incorporate into the security services prior to the January elections. He has been able to confront these groups directly because they are in a much weaker political position than Hamas. Islamic Jihad has no political wing and has the support of only 2-3% of the Palestinian people. As for the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, as an off-shoot of the Fatah Party, it is being taken on as an internal party issue. Because the group’s political platform is in accord with the PA’s call for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders alongside Israel, Abbas believes that it can be successfully integrated into the security service. For this to happen, the group demands that corruption within the PA be addressed and progress be made on the political front, two goals which are also in accord with Abbas’ agenda. [back]

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