Prospects for Palestinian Security Reform

Alastair Crooke

Arab Reform Bulletin, February, 2005

Events since PLO Chairman Arafat’s demise—the unexpectedly smooth transfer of business to a pragmatic leader committed to negotiations and reform, Palestinian security forces’ efforts to stop militant attacks, and the Israeli-Palestinian truce announced at the February 8 Sharm Al Sheikh summit—have brought a wave of optimism to analyses of Palestinian affairs. Observers are seeing this as the window for the reform of Palestinian security services, a crackdown on militants, and the opportunity to call Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s bluff in respect to further steps along the route of the Road Map. This reading of the situation, however, is almost certainly misconceived. Even should the security services be consolidated and reformed, and attacks on Israelis ceased temporarily, an effective and lasting crackdown on militants is unlikely. The problem is not reform; the problem is mandate.

Expectation of a real crackdown of the sort demanded by Israel and enshrined in the Road Map—disarming groups such as Hamas and dismantling their militant capabilities—flies in the face of the lessons of recent years and the changes within the Palestinian constituency. As a Fatah Tanzeem leader and member of the Security Forces expressed it succinctly: “Hamas does not believe Sharon to be serious about a Palestinian state; Hamas doubts U.S. willingness to press Israel; and it also doubts that the Palestinian Authority has the ability to be effective in achieving a state. And are we are going to arrest and kill them for this?” The Hamas discourse on the failure of Oslo and other incremental measures is no longer a minority sentiment; it has become the consensus. Polls that suggest otherwise should be treated with caution.

Still, so far the international community neither acknowledges nor accepts this erosion of credibility of incremental approaches and the consequent collapse of Fatah’s mandate to dismantle and destroy its rivals. We overlook the evidence that Fatah no longer has the political will or legitimacy to arrest those who are perceived as resisting Israeli occupation. We refuse to see that marginalizing and isolating some Palestinian groups from the political process did not prevent them from frustrating the efforts of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and General Anthony Zinni to return to the security arrangements and commitments of the status quo ante. We ignore the fact that these groups are not a handful of armed militants, but are political movements deeply embedded in all levels of Palestinian society.

New Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is trying now to co-opt Hamas and other militant groups. This may be his intention, but he is unlikely to succeed. Fatah has chosen to attempt to gain legitimacy via a presidential election that was little more than internal Fatah housekeeping. It was never probable that Hamas would contend the presidential election. The real test of Abu Mazen’s mandate, the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in which Hamas is likely to participate, has been postponed until July 2005. Elections within Fatah itself are set to follow the legislative elections. By putting the process in reverse order, Abu Mazen and Fatah are in essence postponing real change rather than pursuing it. In these circumstances, it is not clear that Abu Mazen will be able to deliver the power sharing he has offered to Hamas. Will he gain the support of Fatah’s Central Committee for this radical departure? Hamas, for its part, remains doubtful that Abu Mazen will extract true reciprocity from Israel.

If the international community is genuinely seeking an end to conflict, it needs to help recreate legitimacy and a critical mass of popular support for the means and objectives that we are urging upon the Palestinians and Israelis. This would require a genuinely inclusive political process, through fair elections, that would include other factions such as Hamas within some power sharing agreement. Internal Palestinian accommodation would permit the selection of negotiating objectives and a negotiating team that are broad-based and mandated to make difficult decisions. The international community should not shy away from the fact that political inclusiveness is an Israeli benefit as much as a Palestinian requirement for any durable outcome.

The international community should save the money it plans to spend on security reform and focus on creating a real mandate. Security in a place such as Gaza is not about more computers, guns, and four-wheel drive SUVs. It is about legitimacy and credibility in a society in which one brother may belong to Hamas and the other may be a Palestinian Authority policeman. To shift our policies in favor of inclusiveness and away from support for Palestinian disunity is the path to re-legitimize security policy. International pressure on Abu Mazen to confront militants may end paradoxically by further weakening and dividing Fatah to the benefit of other factions.

This article first appeared in Arab Reform Bulletin.

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