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West Bank unrest tests loyalty of Palestinian Authority security forces

Analysis: End of peace process leaves PA forces, built on a promise of statehood, securing an unpopular status quo

Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem have in recent weeks suffered multiple fatalities and hundreds of injuries at the hands of Israeli forces, while at least four Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians. Israeli settlers, who live under the protection of the Israeli military in enclaves built in violation of international law, have taken matters into their own hands, burning Palestinian olive trees and farmland. This mounting wave of unrest casts the security forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the familiar, yet increasingly uncomfortable, role of keepers of order. 

Formed as an interim authority under the Oslo Accord to create the administrative and security infrastructure for the Palestinian state being negotiated by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PA is responsible for maintaining security in the Palestinian territories. Its mission has been to suppress Palestinian protest and armed activity in order to protect the peace process and, ultimately, the interests of an emergent Palestinian state. But in a speech last week at the U.N., President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged what has long been evident to many: that negotiations with Israel no longer offer any realistic prospect of ending the occupation. And that raises existential questions about the purpose of the PA’s security forces. 

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Abbas on Tuesday ordered those forces to act urgently to prevent protests from escalating the conflict. But since then, violence has continued. On Wednesday, a Palestinian woman was shot and killed after allegedly stabbing an Israeli man, and more than 271 Palestinians were wounded in the West Bank as clashes between protesters and Israeli military forces. On Thursday, at least two Israelis were stabbed in separate knife attacks.

Unlike previous instances when Abbas ordered his forces to break up protests and arrest activists, he’s no longer able to provide the rationale of safeguarding an emergent Palestinian state when asking his men to act against fellow Palestinians, because he's told them himself that there's no longer any process under way for ending the occupation that has endured since the war of June 1967.  

In his Sept. 30 speech to the General Assembly, Abbas pronounced dead the Oslo process that began 22 years ago with the goal of settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via a two-state solution. Accusing Israel of systematically violating the letter and spirit of Oslo, Abbas declared that “we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements and that Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power.” 

That statement effectively acknowledges that the status quo now being secured by the PA security forces is one that requires Palestinians to live under an open-ended Israeli occupation. Activists present at a protest on Tuesday told Al Jazeera that the PA security forces sent to disperse them confined their actions to trying to persuade demonstrators to end their march before reaching the Beit El settlement in the West Bank. 

“It was different at that time,” an activist, who asked that his name be withheld to shield him from possible reprisals, told Al Jazeera, contrasting that approach to previous heavy-handed responses to Palestinian protests by PA security forces. He saw the shift in tactics as prudent, adding that it would be unwise for PA forces to respond harshly to demonstrations right now.  

“Everyone is in the street,” he said. “We are all angry.”

Despite Abbas’ words at the General Assembly — and his previous threats to suspend security cooperation with Israel — the PA’s security forces have been hardwired for cooperation with Israel’s military and Shin Bet secret police, serving as Israel’s first line of defense in the occupied territories. Israeli government and security officials having on various occasions quietly urged Israel's most vociferous supporters on Capitol Hill to drop plans to cut funding to the PA security forces that had been under consideration in order to punish Abbas for seeking recognition at the U.N.

Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told Al Jazeera that Abbas and his security forces are a “big part of the problem … They have been in many ways the Palestinian subcontractors of the Israeli occupation.”

Despite the mounting pressure and their president's speech last week, top PA security officials appear to be conducting business as usual for now: On Tuesday, they met with their Israeli counterparts to coordinate efforts to suppress the unrest. But a renewed season of confrontation with no horizon for realizing Palestinian statehood certainly re-raises the question posed by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. commander who oversaw the training and funding of those forces starting in 2007, of how long the rank-and-file PA security men will be willing to protect a status quo defined by occupation.  

The strain under which the failed peace process puts the PA security forces, amplifying the perception that they protect Israel rather than Palestinians, was recognized by Dayton.

During a 2009 appearance in Washington, he warned that PA security forces enforced order in the West Bank in the belief that they were securing an emerging Palestinian state. But “with big expectations come big risks,” he reportedly told his audience. “There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you’re creating a state when you’re not.” That was six years ago, and today Abbas can no longer credibly tell his security personnel that they’re creating a state.

Public support for Abbas and the PA has steadily eroded over the years as they proved unable to secure Palestinian freedom of movement or prevent the expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements or protect their own people from the actions of Israeli settlers and security forces.

“The reality is, the people on the ground have given up on [Abbas] and his leadership,” Munayyer said. “They’re not taking orders from anyone about what to do right now, and they don’t seem to be prepared to listen. Essentially, people are really fed up.”


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