Visiting Saudi Arabia with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week, Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki was asked by a local newspaper reporter to justify security cooperation with Israel.
“From the start we have considered security cooperation a pure Palestinian interest,” Maliki answered. “It helps us to maintain security inside Palestine and prevent Israeli intervention on the security level.”
By the time the interview went to print on Sunday, Operation Brother’s Keeper was in full force, with IDF soldiers reestablishing a presence in all major West Bank cities after years of near-absence. Maliki’s confident assertion of Palestinian autonomy could hardly ring more hollow.
The Israeli-declared dual-purpose operation, aimed at bringing back the kidnapped teenagers and dealing a crushing blow to Hamas’s infrastructure in the West Bank, is prompting growing Palestinian criticism. But Palestinian society is increasingly directing its rage and frustration at the PA and its institutions rather than the already weakened Hamas.
While IDF forces clashed with Palestinians at the entrance to Ramallah on Saturday night, demonstrators also confronted Palestinian security downtown, pelting the Palestinian police station at Manara Square with rocks. As the Israeli operation intensified and the Palestinian death toll rose, the term “security cooperation” — once mostly the target of Hamas and Islamic Jihad critique — has become a buzzword among run-of-the-mill Palestinians for everything corrupt and rotten with Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.
One Palestinian Facebook user tried to justify the quiescence of Palestinian security in the face of IDF forces, commenting on the photo of a PA Mercedes with a shattered rear windshield — presumably broken by angry protesters — in the town of El-Bireh outside Ramallah.
“People ask where the police were when the [IDF] incursion in Ramallah took place last night,” wrote Imad Khatib. “They were in their headquarters under occupation just like the rest of us! Did you want them to shoot at the army? Had they done that, seconds later the police station would be bombed over their heads and you would write on your Facebook page ‘God have mercy on their souls,’ nothing more.”
Even Palestinian moderates are growing more cynical of Abbas’s cooperation with Israel. Naser Lahham, editor-in-chief of the independent Bethlehem-based Ma’an news agency, wrote on Sunday that “the primary goal of the Israeli operation is to weaken the PA and harm its power base so that it doesn’t become a state. But Israel will prevent its collapse so that it continues to serve and serve even more.”
“Every child now knows that Israel rules Deheisheh [refugee camp near Bethlehem], not the [Palestinian] Preventative Security Force,” wrote Lahham.
With the change in Palestinian mood, the PA has also quickly shifted its policy. In a matter of days, the Palestinian leadership has moved from an unequivocal condemnation of the kidnapping and the affirmation of security cooperation with Israel to a scathing attack on the Jewish state coupled with a diplomatic bid to halt the operation – not through dialogue with Israel but rather through urgent appeals to international institutions.
“The goal [of the operation] is clear: destroying the Palestinian Authority and terminating it,” said Muhammad Al-Madani, a Fatah official tasked by Abbas with Palestinian dialogue with Israeli society. “It’s meant to export [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s crisis to the Palestinian street … We don’t know where things will go if the operation continues like this.”
Madani scoffed at the notion that Operation Brother’s Keeper was directed against Hamas, not the PA.
“Is Hamas present on the street here? Hamas has no official presence on the ground,” he told The Times of Israel, adding that the institutions and civilians targeted by the IDF have no connection to the Islamic movement. “Unfortunately, what the [Israeli] government and army are doing is targeting the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority.”
“What purpose is there in placing President Abu Mazen (Abbas), the PA, and the Palestinian leadership in a corner, where they’re unable to do anything in the face of these barbaric daily attacks?” he wondered.
‘Every child now knows that Israel rules Deheisheh [refugee camp near Bethlehem], not the [Palestinian] Preventative Security Force,’ wrote Lahham
The potential danger facing Abbas was picked up by Israeli President Shimon Peres, who on Sunday lauded Abbas for “risking his life” in a public stance against the kidnapping. In a not-so-tacit critique of Netanyahu’s antipathy toward Abbas, Peres said that Abbas’s Saudi speech, “being clear on peace, being clear on terror, risking his life,” was “not a simple position.” Peres said he did not know of “anyone else on the Arab side who would do it.”
But Brig. Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari, a former Arab affairs adviser with Israel’s Defense Ministry and current fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya, said Abbas was far from naive by publicly standing up for security cooperation with Israel.
“Do these [IDF] incursions help the PA? No,” Harari told The Times of Israel. “But positive statements about cooperation with Israel boost his position with the Americans and the Europeans, which are the main contributors to the PA. One billion dollars a year of funding don’t make him weaker, they make him stronger.”
Abbas would not have declared that security coordination with Israel is “sacred” had he felt that his life would be in danger as a result, Harari added. “He considers the pros and cons of such statements, knowing that he may lose in one domain but gain in another.”
But even at the top of Israel’s security establishment, some highlight the limits of Israeli force in the West Bank. Just two days after the kidnapping, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin warned of the use of excessive power against Abbas and the PA. It would be much more prudent, Diskin argued, to disincentivize Hamas kidnappings by changing the law which currently allows for the mass release of Palestinian prisoners, while at the same time boosting Abbas’s position by freezing settlement activity during negotiations.
“I’ve been reading experts recommending the use of force against Abu Mazen — and Palestinians in general — to solve all the problems. I don’t accept this,” Diskin wrote on his Facebook page on June 14. “We need to find the missing youths … but statements about using more force, as if we haven’t, and don’t continue to use force on a regular basis [are wrong]. Who can attest to this better than me, who has been there for so many years? Claiming that if we used more force the problem would be solved is nothing but cheap populism.”
Hamas, for its part, has been using the Palestinian frustration with Abbas in the West Bank to bolster its own agenda of armed resistance against Israel. “An iIntifada in the occupied West Bank has been launched,” boasted former Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Monday, at the funeral of Hamas health minister Mufid Mukhalalati.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas MP from Gaza, added that history has proved that Israeli incursions in the West Bank only strengthe his movement.
“Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 is the best example,” Masri told Hamas-affiliated news agency Bayan on Sunday. “It targeted all the leaders of Hamas and the resistance, but [four] years later Hamas won the municipal and legislative elections. This proves that the people rally around the heroes and the lions, and don’t turn to those who practice security coordination or cling to pointless negotiations that harm our cause.”