Australia/Israel Review

Policemen on the Ball?

Dec 18, 2008 | Yehonathan Tommer

By Yehonathan Tommer

In recent weeks, numerous Israeli commentators have noted strong progress in the performance of the West Bank Palestinian security forces, both in terms of their ability to control the streets of Palestinian cities, and their coordination with Israeli authorities. In particular, cities such as Jenin, Nablus and Hebron have reportedly seen significant improvements in both law and order and the security situation which have largely obviated the need for Israeli security forces to operate routinely in those cities. As one unnamed senior figure in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) General Staff told Haaretz (Nov. 27), “We now have an excellent subcontractor in dealing with Hamas. It’s not like in the past, when we transferred responsibility to the PA [Palestinian Authority]. You can see the spark in their eyes.”

This article looks at the Palestinian police and other security services and the explanation for these recent improvements in performance.

The Basic Facts

The PA currently deploys a 7,000-strong civilian police force in the West Bank, recently trained and equipped by the European Union. Its units are permanently stationed in ten principal West Bank cities where they enforce law and public order on a daily basis – in coordination with top level senior Israeli police and security officers.

In addition, battalions of Palestinian National Security Forces, trained in Jordan under US supervision, have played an important role in restoring law and order and reducing the influence of Hamas-affiliated bodies in Jenin and Hebron.

EUPOL COPPS, the European Police support operation for the Palestinian Civil Police is based in Jerusalem and Ramallah and employs a staff of 53 instructors from different contributing European countries. The EU does not play a role in the Gaza Strip where, following the June 2006 Hamas coup, PA police officers who did not transfer their allegiance to Hamas were dismissed.

Furthermore, EUPOL COPPS has been training young West Bank Palestinian recruits at the police officer cadet training base in Jericho over the past two years. Courses comprise community law enforcement, prison management, detentions, investigations, interrogations and forensics.

Palestinian police units have been established to improve school and general road safety, and to deal with traffic violations, crime and car thefts. A special women’s unit also services a hot line investigating complaints of family violence and abuse of women and children as part of the PA’s efforts to gain community trust and confidence.

Another 15 European defence and human rights instructors, corps managers and administrators are assisting the Palestinians to build rule of law institutions for a system of criminal justice for the PA.

EUPOL COPPS: “Great strides”

“The Palestinian agencies are to be congratulated on their hard work, despite the many difficulties. Progress is frequently three steps forward and two steps back,” said Colin Smith, the outgoing British police commissioner and Head of Mission for EUPOL COPPS, at a recent briefing in Jerusalem. “During my 20 months here (in the territories) things are improving. Police get out on the streets, deal with traffic and work with the local councils to make people feel better. You don’t see now militia-men walking around with rifles slung over their shoulders. That’s part of the police community work and they are respected for it. It’s a start, but a lot more needs to be done.”

Smith praised the Palestinian police leadership as “future oriented, responsible to a civilian minister and accountable to an independent judiciary.” The police recruits, he added, were “competent and highly motivated, intelligent and many were university educated.”

Much of the organisational infrastructure destroyed during the second intifada has to be rebuilt. The Palestinian police force lacks basic equipment from handcuffs and armoured police vans to prisons, as well as information, communications and radio equipment to enable them to enforce public order. “Money is also needed to develop new courts, new prisons training and to purchase equipment,” Smith said.

The challenges and frustrations of creating Palestinian state institutions in territories occupied by Israel are enormous, Smith said. To develop them properly and effectively, the Palestinian police must exercise operational mobility over the entire West Bank and not just in Zone A – built-up Arab municipalities delimited by the 1993 Oslo Accord.

“Police officers are forbidden to engage in political activity and recruits must declare allegiance to the Palestinian Authority and to all agreements signed by the PLO with Israel,” says Adnan Damiri, Director General of Palestinian Police Media and Public Relations.

In 2008, some 200 police officers suspected of political and/or criminal activities appeared before a disciplinary tribunal and 36 were dismissed. “We have learnt our lesson very well,” he said.

This way the PA keeps a tab on its police manpower. Immediate dismissal deters moonlighting and the eventual transfer of loyalties to a militant terrorist organisation, Smith says, referring obliquely to a problem frequently complained about by Israel both before and during the second intifiada.

Israel: “Good daily coordination”

Palestinian civilian police units permanently operate in Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, Kalkilya, Tubas, Salfit, Ramallah, Jericho, Hebron and Bethlehem. The Israelis have also proposed that the Palestinians deploy ad hoc police units in rural areas in Zones B and C to deal with organised crime and drug trafficking.

Senior officers on both sides meet weekly at Palestinian police headquarters in Ramallah and at Israeli Civil Administration coordination offices near each Palestinian city to brief each other on routine matters, exchange intelligence and resolve problems. “The coordination is good. We also speak several times a day on our cell phones,” says Danny Israel, Chief Superintendent since 1994 of the Israel Police Division for Judea and Samaria. The relationship with his Palestinian counterpart, Deputy Superintendent Bilal Abdu, he says, is based on “trust and confidence.”

“The EUPOL COPPS have put tremendous effort into training the Palestinian police. They still have a long way to go, but they are heading in the right direction,” says Chief Superintendent Israel. “The Palestinians naturally dislike the zoning system and want unrestricted mobility over the territories. It’s a political issue, though in practice Israeli roadblocks do not restrict them from pursuing and apprehending Palestinian offenders and bringing them to justice,” he says.

Permission for Palestinian police to cross Israeli roadblocks can be obtained within an hour through rapid, high level police and security coordination. But this is rare. Mostly, they alert the Israeli police to a stolen Palestinian car or wanted criminal crossing into Israeli-controlled Zones B or C, says Chief Superintendent Israel. The Israeli police pursue and arrest him and hand him over with his file to the Palestinian police authorities. The Palestinians operate by the same procedure when a wanted Israeli offender crosses into Palestinian controlled Zone A.

The Key Questions

For Israel, a couple of key questions remain about how far the recent positive developments among the Palestinian security will allow it to relax its own West Bank security measures and operations, which have been highly successful in bringing terrorist violence under control.

1. Can the Palestinians dismantle their terrorist infrastructure? This is a legitimate Israeli concern and its success over time lies in the Israeli-Palestinian security relationship, says Smith, who has widely studied the role of the police and military in an unpublished study of the development of British counter-terrorist strategy. “Terrorism is a criminal offense and should be dealt through the courts,” Smith says. “No early change in the system of military detention and military courts in the Palestinian territories is likely and a ‘police revolving door’, however frustrating for Israel, is almost inevitable.”

The Palestinians have made great strides in arresting terrorist suspects, but it’s hard to obtain evidence for it, says Smith.

“The PA is pressed to prove that it’s capable of enforcing domestic law and order and criminal policing. They are still not capable of dealing with organised crime and their dependence on Israel for coordination will cast them as the enemy’s caretakers doing Israel’s dirty work,” says Smith. “The checkpoints will come down when the IDF are happy that the Palestinian security forces can satisfactorily deliver the goods.”

2. Can the PA forces defeat a Hamas takeover? The Palestinian Authority today has an overall West Bank national security force of 3,750 trained men, a Presidential Guard of 900 and a combined force of 1,000 men in the Preventive Security Organisation and General Intelligence trained in Jordan. More of these last are expected to complete their training and become available for duty in coming months.

Smith says he is sceptical of their ability to cope without IDF support and coordination.

However, according to Haaretz, Israeli military sources say that intelligence assessments made a few months ago which estimated that Hamas would require just 72 hours to take over the West Bank from Fatah in the absence of an Israeli military presence in the area are no longer operative. The sources quoted say the PA now possibly seems capable of holding its own in such a confrontation.



IDF tanks in the Rafah crossing precinct (Image: X/ Twitter)

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