Israeli-Palestinian Accommodation: A Circle Not Easily Squared

JERUSALEM – Security first or borders first: security says Israel, borders retort the Palestinians. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are finally again getting under way. Israel, though, remains adamant that the only chance the talks have to make headway is for its security concerns to be satisfactorily addressed.

A report by an international think-tank propitiously timed for this week’s down-to-brass-tacks encounter between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators suggests the security dimension has already largely been successfully taken care of.

In parallel, the report cautions, however, that success in creating a secure West Bank may be at the expense of creating a viable democratic Palestine.

Titled “Squaring the Circle: Palestinian Security Reform Under Occupation,” the report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) notes that in the past few years, “the Palestinian Authority (PA) has largely restored order and a sense of personal safety in the West Bank, something unthinkable during the second Intifada.”

Security reform, the ICG report notes, was high on President Mahmoud Abbas’s agenda from the moment he assumed office in January 2005. Then, after the Hamas 2007 takeover of Gaza, the PA, Israel, and the international community all saw “great urgency in bolstering the Palestinian security forces.”

The PA, the report notes, was intent on ensuring it alone was entitled to use force so as to preempt any potential Hamas challenge to its rule in the West Bank.

Israel, for its part, was intent on dismantling militant groups while the international community seized the opportunity to shore up its Palestinian allies and strike a blow against their Islamist foes.

The reforms in PA security proved successful. No more would militias from Hamas or Fatah threaten to hold the West Bank in their grip. The report notes: “Most West Bankers – including many sympathetic to Hamas – liked what they saw, satisfied at a restoration of normal life that, only a few years earlier, had seemed out of reach.”

So far, so good.

But a leading researcher in the ICG team, in a conversation with IPS, warns of a potentially negative fallout from the relative success of the reformed PA security apparatus: “They have managed to put an end to chaos, but this has been accompanied by widespread extrajudicial practices, human rights violations, and oppression of the opposition,” says Ofer Zalzberg.

“Such practices undermine the very legitimacy of the PA and popular support for the state-building project.”

The 42-page report was compiled from extensive interviews with Palestinian and Israeli security officials, politicians from both nations and from the international community, as well as internationally renowned experts.

The report concedes that the security achievements cannot conceal more contentious dynamics, notably the deepening of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on the security level, an internationally backed requirement of the PA since its inception in 1994.

“Palestinians are ill at ease at the sight of their security forces teaming up with their occupiers. The answer, offered most articulately by Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, is that by working in tandem with Israel to bring back security, Palestinians can gain the international community’s and Israel’s confidence, neutralize a key Israeli argument against statehood, and thus pave the way for independence. The argument, logical as it is, would be far more compelling were the peace process at hand more promising,” says the report.

Underlining this problematic cooperation, this weekend the PA announced suspects had been detained in the case of two attacks on Jewish settlers in the West Bank in which four were killed.

In a sweep against militants identified with Hamas, some 300 people have been detained by the PA since the attacks that took place on the eve of the Washington peace kickoff ceremony a fortnight ago.

Should the arrests continue, Hamas has threatened to counter-attack PA security forces: “You know that the hand that reached the heart of the occupier is capable of reaching you, too,” a statement from Gaza said.

This highlights a second contentious dynamic in the report – that of troubled intra-Palestinian relations, and the unwillingness of the PA to move to include Hamas in the political process. That, the report asserts, is a key component for Palestinians to accept the security measures as an integral part of the ultimate purpose of the PA – the building of an independent state.

The trouble is, the report points out, “the crackdown against the Islamists’ military branch broadened into a far more controversial crackdown against Hamas’s social and political manifestations.”

A crackdown also sometimes directed against dissenters from within civil society.

Says Zalzberg: “The lack of inclusiveness in the PA approach might alienate a significant segment of the West Bank population, deepen the intra-Palestinian divide, and thus put the whole Palestinian project into jeopardy.”

Still the report notes, “This is not to say that security cooperation is about to end or that Palestinians are on the verge of resorting to armed struggle. Far from it. West Bankers are worn out, exhausted of conflict, and happy to recover a sense of normalcy.”

The report highlights the Catch-22 situation encasing Palestinians: “Without a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or their own genuine reconciliation process, Palestinians will be stuck in their long and tenuous attempt to square the circle – to build a state while still under occupation, to deepen cooperation with the occupier in the security realm even as they seek to confront it elsewhere, and to reach an understanding with their historic foe even as they prove unable to reach an understanding among themselves.”

How then to try to square that circle?

The report recommends that Israel allow Palestinian security to expand the areas in the West Bank in which it operates while itself keeping out of those areas; that the PA enhance its respect for human rights, respect freedom of association on the basis of political affiliation, and allow Hamas to operate as a political party.

The PA should also work to strengthen the democratic traditions in the West Bank, and refrain from closing down civil society organizations.

The U.S. and the EU should continue their support for the security sector reform, while insisting on respect for human rights, and ensure that the justice sector is accorded equal priority as the security forces, the report insists.

There is, however, another circle to be squared. The report seems to evade it.

Without PA-Hamas reconciliation, a two-state solution may indeed remain elusive. But, as President Barack Obama seems to have realized, to include Hamas in the Palestinian political process at this stage when it continues to advocate an uncompromising approach towards Israel – no recognition, no talks, continuing “the resistance” – would mean that the peace talks would not be getting under way at all.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.