A Palestinian youth throws rocks towards a tank during clashes with Israeli soldiers

The Arab Spring is coming to Palestine

And U.S.-trained forces are caught in the middle


Justin Elliott
September 15, 2011 7:45PM (UTC)

As the Palestinian Liberation Organization moves forward with its plan to seek recognition as a state from the United Nations in the face of American and Israeli opposition, focus on Capitol Hill turned yesterday to U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, particularly the $113 million requested by the Obama administration for security forces next year.

"By providing the Palestinians with $2.5 billion over the last five years, the U.S. has only rewarded and reinforced their bad behavior," declared the hard-line chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. "It raises tough questions as to just what are the tangible benefits for the U.S., or for lasting peace and security between Israel and the Palestinians, derived from decades of assistance provided by the United States taxpayers."

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Meanwhile, press reports suggest that the Israeli Defense Forces are preparing themselves and Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank to put down popular unrest there that is expected as a result of any showdown at the U.N.

One crucial unanswered question facing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is what role the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank -- which the U.S. has helped train over the past several years -- would play in such a showdown. In May 2009, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, who led the training effort between 2005 and 2010, warned a Washington think tank audience that, "With big expectations, come big risks. There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you're creating a state, when you're not."

To learn more about the looming showdown in the West Bank, a I spoke to Geoffrey Aronson, director of research at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.

So where is this going?

What we see on the ground is each side mobilizing. The IDF and the settlers are mobilizing. [Palestinian president Mahmoud] Abbas and Fatah in particular are increasingly seeing the U.N. push as a way to win back and energize their public. They're hoping Fatah can mobilize the Palestinian public in expressions of popular support for the idea of the U.N. and for Fatah over Hamas.

At the same time, they want people to demonstrate, but not in a manner that challenges Israel -- that is, at settlements or Israeli checkpoints. This to some extent a contradictory impulse. Remember what Dayton said: In the absence of a political horizon, these security forces may lose whatever commitment they have to maintain law and order, and we're setting ourselves up for that kind of challenge here.

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As an example: If Palestinians seek to march on an isolated settlement, one whose residents are active in torching mosques, near Nablus for example, and the PA security forces try to keep people away from the settlement. But let's say the settlers decide to take aggressive action and start shooting. Are the Palestinian forces going to shoot back? If they do that, then all hell breaks loose because that's an absolute red line that the forces understand they have not been given authority by Israel and the U.S. to cross.

What's the history of these Palestinian security forces? Where did they come from?

There's a Palestinian Authority that operates these days in the West Bank. It was created as part of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the early 1990s. At that time members of the Palestinian Liberation Army who had returned from throughout the Arab world, along with new recruits from the West Bank and Gaza, formed the core of the various Palestinian security forces. Like any aspiring country, they tried to field a whole spectrum of security forces, and these numbered in the tens of thousands.

After the second intifada in 2000 -- which featured the activation of some of these security forces as armed elements attacking Israeli forces in the occupied territories -- these forces were no longer seen as helpful in improving relations between Israel and the Palestinians. So as part of the effort to reestablish security forces under the control of the Palestinian Authority who would operate in a professional manner and, more important, whose development would proceed under the watchful eye of the U.S. and Israel, there were efforts to "reform" the security forces. It was in that context that, in the mid-2000s, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton arrived to oversee the training.

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So the theory was that this U.S. training was going to advance the peace process because, if these Palestinian forces existed, the Israeli occupation wouldn't be necessary?

There are various views on this. No. 1, the Americans needed something to do. This was not their first preference. They hit upon the idea of reforming the security forces as a way of maintaining some dynamic progress in an environment dominated by stalemate. Gaza had fallen apart. The Road Map was going nowhere, and so forth. Now, no one could argue with the need for these Palestinian security forces to operate professionally, to reconstitute themselves, and to restore order in the West Bank. But they couldn't do these things in the face of Israeli opposition. The security agenda that Dayton and the PA were following could only proceed in the context of an Israeli endorsement.

I understand most of the actual training took place in Jordan. How big is this Palestinian force and how were they trained?

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The U.S. has trained eight battalions, which are roughly 500 people each. That's 4,000 people. And the Palestinian security services in the West Bank in total -- if you include the police and everything else -- are about 30,000. So it's not tens of thousands of people the U.S. was training. It's certainly not the kind of large program the U.S. is undertaking in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a rather small effort, and it's been restricted by the parameters that Israel has imposed. Israel doesn't want these folks to operate or possess any heavy weaponry, for example. It doesn't even want them to have bulletproof vests, in some cases.

The money -- a couple hundred million dollars over the years -- has been appropriated by Congress, which sees this primarily through an Israeli security prism. They're supporting this not because they're committed to the creation of Palestinian security forces that can operate effectively and transparently; they're committed to this because they see the Israelis supporting it, and they see these forces working in concert with Israel according to a security agenda set by Israel.

There was a hearing Wednesday at the House Foreign Affairs Committee that addressed aid to the Palestinians. There is reported to be a split in the right-wing pro-Israel community, with some explicitly arguing against cutting off security aid and some arguing for cutting it off. What do you make of this dynamic?

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There is a difference of opinion here. The Israelis aren't as divided, especially those in the security field. They understand that these Palestinian security forces are doing stuff that saves Israel the energy of deploying more aggressively throughout certain areas in the West Bank -- without precluding the Israeli forces from operating or restricting their operational freedom. They still go anywhere and everywhere at will, without coordination with the Palestinians if they so choose. So these Palestinian forces are really seen as a strategic adjunct to the Israeli security forces. I think this energy in Congress for cutting off aid is directed not specifically at the security aid, but more broadly at punishing the PA for having a mind of its own politically.

There have been reports of the IDF preparing both itself and Jewish settlers to put down expected unrest in the West Bank following the push for recognition at the United Nations. What would these Palestinian security forces do in that situation?

Anything could happen. They could do what they've been trained to do, or they could collapse. In May 2009, Gen. Dayton spoke at a think tank in Washington and said, "We've got two years for these guys I'm training to operate effectively."

[Ed. Note: A spokesperson for Dayton, now in a position in Germany, declined a request for an interview.]

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They have been tested under rather provocative circumstances in the past. When Israel went into the Gaza Strip in 2009, for example, there were demonstrations against the war in the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority security forces repressed. So when they have been challenged, at least until now, they remained effective and cohesive and implemented the security agenda consistent with Israeli concerns.

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So, will the U.S.-trained Palestinian forces suppress Palestinian protesters inspired by the example of the Arab Spring? That's the question as the Palestinian Authority prepares to submit its application for statehood to the United Nations next week.


Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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