Mondoweiss / June 24, 2022
A recent debate over the rank of the U.S. Security Coordinator for the Palestinian Authority has refocused attention on security cooperation with Israel and the question of who it truly benefits.
In 2017, Congress adopted a plan in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to, among other things, reduce the number of high-ranking military officers stationed around the world. In some cases, that plan called for the posts they occupied to remain, but for the rank of the officer in charge to be reduced. One such location was Israel and Palestine, where the U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC), currently headed by a three-star general, would be helmed in the future by a colonel.
It won’t happen largely because the State Department, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority all don’t want it to. To bolster that opposition, a bipartisan group of 30 senators, led by Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin requesting that he maintains the required rank for the USSC at the current level.
The Defense Department is not going to just ignore all those sectors to make a change that, by itself, won’t mean very much. Indeed, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl is already hard at work devising a way to avoid it while still going along with the budget cuts that the 2017 NDAA calls for. But the discussion is still illuminating.
The letter Ossoff and Graham led was truly bipartisan, with 19 Democrats and 11 Republicans signing on, in another example of Israel being nearly unique as an issue the two parties can agree on. But the fact that the DoD was even considering this step runs counter to the letter’s statement that the current high-level engagement is “in the national security interest of the United States.”
The security cooperation between Israel and the PA that the USSC coordinates is one of very few explicitly stated goals of the Oslo process that has largely endured. The United States and Israel have repeatedly praised the cooperation the PA has given Israel. But for most Israelis and their supporters in the United States, it is taken for granted. It’s not visible to them except when it is specifically pointed out by American or Israeli leaders.
But that security cooperation is one of the very few things the PA has been able to use to leverage Israel. That leverage exists because the PA security forces can take a lot of the pressure off the Israeli occupation forces by handling much of the common, day to day enforcement of “order” in the West Bank. More importantly, the PA can gather intelligence on Palestinian activists in the various anti-occupation groups (whether they employ violent tactics or not) that is impossible for anyone but Palestinians.
Since human rights groups and some media monitor encounters between Israeli military and police and Palestinians, Israel is glad to reduce the number of interactions they have, if the outcome is the same.
The result has been what Alaa Tartir of the Al-Shabaka Policy Network described as the entrenchment of Israeli security interests.
“Disarmament and criminalization have impaired popular resistance against the occupation, including peaceful demonstrations and marches, advocacy against Israel’s violations of human rights, and student activism. Today, the PA security forces largely protect the security of the occupier and not that of the occupied. In short, the security of Palestinians has been jeopardized because their own leadership has been subcontracted to repress them.”
Repressing PA opponents
Yet while Israel certainly wants to maintain security cooperation with the PA, Mahmoud Abbas’ local network wants it even more. Although Abbas frequently threatens to stop security coordination with Israel, he has rarely carried through with the threat, and when he has it has been for limited periods, and only partially halted.
Security coordination with Israel serves a key purpose for the PA by helping them target Hamas cells in the West Bank, as well as other groups—including some affiliated with Abbas’ own Fatah party—that are or could potentially work to erode the PA’s power structure in the West Bank. Israel’s intelligence services, though not able to exploit community networks as well as the PA, is obviously far more sophisticated than the Palestinians’.
But even independent of service to Israel, the training that the USSC provided Palestinian security forces has been used to clamp down on enemies of the Palestinian Authority. According to the Palestinian human rights organization, al-Haq, just in 2021, “the PA conducted violent mass arrests and used disproportionate force to disperse demonstrations. Repression was carried out by both uniformed and ununiformed security personnel.”
The murder of Palestinian activist Nizar Banat by PA security was particularly inflammatory. Banat was a long-time critic of the PA, accusing it of corruption and illegitimately holding on to power without any popular mandate. On June 24, 2021, in the dead of night, PA security forces broke into Banat’s house and beat him mercilessly. He was alive and conscious when he was taken away, but several hours later, died in PA custody.
Protests over Banat’s death were brutally suppressed, and it was the training PA forces had gotten from their American and Israeli backers that was employed in these “crowd control” techniques.
The US role
The USSC was a key ingredient in building this security system. When the Second Intifada completely ended in 2007, it was the USSC that developed and implemented the training for a new generation of Palestinian security forces. Many Palestinians who had been on the force prior to and during the intifada were retired, and the new recruits were screened for connections to activist and militant groups.
Crucially, the USSC’s mandate deals entirely with the Palestinians’ security system. It has no mandate to address any issues with the Israeli security apparatus. It has no role in protecting Palestinian human rights from Israeli abuses, although it does cover ensuring that Palestinian security forces “support gender equality and human rights; and have implemented systems and processes to become more accountable.”
The USSC leads a coalition of eight NATO countries in its efforts to mold the Palestinian security forces. The mission statement says the eventual goal is to “safeguard the Palestinian people.” The reality was summed up by the first head of the USSC, General Keith Dayton, who said he had heard a senior Palestinian official tell a class of newly trained security officers, “You were not sent here to learn how to fight Israel…you were rather sent here to learn how to keep law and order, respect the right of all of our citizens, and implement the rule of law so that we can live in peace and security with Israel.”
At the same time as Dayton was developing his training program for Palestinian security forces, he was working with Mohammed Dahlan, who, in 2006, was Fatah’s main official in the Gaza Strip. Dayton worked with Dahlan to develop the plot to try to unseat Hamas in Gaza after Hamas won a legitimate election that gave them a majority in the Palestine Legislative Council. This failed attempt at a coup resulted in Dahlan’s forces being routed in Gaza, creating the split between Gaza and the West Bank that has been crippling the Palestinian movement ever since.
In the wake of that failure, and its devastating effects, we’re left to wonder where U.S. interests even lie with the USSC. When the system was first set up, it was part of the attempt to build state-like institutions in Palestine, ostensibly for a future Palestinian state. Whether or not that was ever a sincere intention, it has long since splintered away, leaving only a Palestinian force protecting the Fatah old guard and Israel from perceived threats.
Protecting the PA at all costs
The United States cannot afford to see the Palestinian Authority collapse. There was never a good time for such a thing to happen, but now—with efforts focused on integrating Israel with the Gulf dictatorships and other authoritarian Arab states, and, above all, the effort to form an aggressive, anti-Iran military alliance with Israel at its heart—the last thing the U.S. and Israel want to see is increased, and increasingly visible, confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis.
Israel, similarly, would want to see the USSC leader remain at the current rank, which allows the US representative high-level security access in both Israel and the West Bank. This helps to facilitate strategizing and intelligence sharing. These things would still go on with a colonel in charge, but it would be more cumbersome.
The PA’s interest doesn’t really change much, whatever the rank of the USSC. But, as the day when leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization becomes more contested—likely when the 86-year-old Abbas dies—the opportunity for challengers to the PLO old guard to steer a new course is as advantageous as ever. Given that ongoing fighting in the West Bank on a larger scale than we’ve seen since the Second Intifada would be an embarrassment, and possibly risk some pushback, in the streets of Israel’s new friends in the Gulf, it’s as good a time as any to try to get some significant concessions from Israel, despite U.S. reluctance and the Israeli political turmoil.
It’s that kind of scenario Israel, the State Department, and the members of Congress want to avoid. Diminishing the rank of the commander of the USSC would send the opposite message. That’s why they won’t do it. But most Palestinians have, for years, opposed Palestinian security coordination with Israel. And unless they are part of the upper echelons of Fatah, they are right to do so.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics