Palestinian police soldier on amid Israeli raids, US neglect
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Palestinian police soldier on amid Israeli raids, US neglect

Security cooperation, which has endured many crises, faces mounting public pressure in the West Bank

Israeli forces deploy during a raid in the West Bank City of Ramallah. January 9, 2019 (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)
Israeli forces deploy during a raid in the West Bank City of Ramallah. January 9, 2019 (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

On a cold winter’s night earlier this month, a convoy of 10 Israeli armored jeeps drove into the heart of the West Bank city of Ramallah and parked in front of the Palestinian police headquarters.

Soldiers fanned out, searching nearby shops for security cameras after a pair of recent shooting attacks against Israelis in the occupied territory. The raid attracted dozens of stone-throwing Palestinians, and the Israelis responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

It was the latest in a series of Israeli raids into urban areas that the Palestinians say undermine their own US-trained security forces. Those forces have been coordinating operations with Israel in the West Bank for years, but ties have frayed as the peace process ground to a halt.

“This humiliates the Palestinian Authority,” said Zakariya Musleh, head of Palestinian military intelligence. “It’s a clear message from the occupying power that we are not a partner for peace.”

The Palestinian Authority has faced mounting protests over the security coordination as the Trump administration pursues policies seen by critics as obliterating whatever chance remains for a two-state solution, from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to cutting off economic aid to the Palestinians.

And yet the security coordination with Israel has endured for more than a decade, through one crisis after another, including three wars in Gaza and clashes at Jerusalem’s holiest site.

Israeli soldiers, medical officials and police inspect the scene of a terrorist shooting attack near Givat Assaf, in the central West Bank, on December 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

This is in part because the Palestinian Authority and Israel have a shared enemy in the Hamas terror group, which drove Palestinian security forces from Gaza in a week of street clashes in 2007, less than two years after Israel withdrew from the territory.

The Israeli military declined to comment on the recent raids or the security cooperation.

Alon Eviatar, a retired Israeli colonel who served in the Palestinian territories for nearly three decades, said Israel is aware of the political pressure the Palestinian Authority faces. He said Israeli forces only launch their own West Bank raids in “sensitive cases” when they need to quickly apprehend an assailant or act on highly classified intelligence.

“The Israeli side was afraid (of) a real escalation in the West Bank, especially in Ramallah,” he said, referring to last month’s shootings, in which gunmen killed two Israeli soldiers at a West Bank bus stop and wounded seven Israelis outside a settlement, including a pregnant woman whose baby later died. Israeli forces killed one of the suspected gunmen in December and arrested the other earlier this month. The two, brothers, were found north of Ramallah.

A Palestinian policeman stands guard at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity as people gather for Christmas Eve celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, December 24, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)

Palestinian security forces will face another setback at the end of January, when the US is required to cut off its financial assistance because of a law known as the Anti-Terrorism Cooperation Act that was passed with bipartisan support last year.

Under the law, the Palestinian Authority would be disqualified from receiving any US aid unless it agrees to pay court judgments of up to hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of American victims of Palestinian attacks. The deadline for accepting that condition is January 31. The administration and some pro-Israel members of Congress have been looking for ways to preserve the aid, but it’s unlikely a fix will be found until after the shutdown ends.

The court settlements far exceed the aid itself, which totaled $61 million last year. The US has provided more than $850 million to support the Palestinian security forces since 2007, when it ramped up assistance after Hamas seized Gaza.

Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the looming cuts should be of more concern to the United States and Israel than to the Palestinians.

“They want that security support,” he said. “The most unpopular thing we are doing now here is security coordination with the Israelis. Believe me, that’s not the way to put pressure on us.”

The US aid is mainly spent on training and equipment, and salaries will not be affected. Israel is believed to support the US assistance, but the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the looming cuts.

As unpopular as the security coordination is, no one expects it to end anytime soon. The Palestine Liberation Organization’s mini-parliament called for ending security coordination with Israel last year, the latest in a long line of heated statements and empty threats.

Abbas has always been staunchly opposed to violence. Cutting ties with Israel would presumably lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli forces are deployed across the West Bank, at military bases and checkpoints between and around nearly every Palestinian town and city.

Nabil Shaath speaks to reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, October 1, 2011. (Issam Rimawi/Flash 90)

The funding and training of Palestinian security forces was historically seen as part of the process of building an independent state. But there have been no meaningful peace talks in a decade, and the Palestinians cut all contacts with the Trump administration when it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, effectively siding with Israel on one of the most divisive issues in the decades-old conflict.

These days, Abbas relies on the security forces to preserve his increasingly unpopular rule. The security forces have helped keep a tight lid on Hamas in the West Bank, where they have been accused of human rights abuses. They have also used force to break up protests against Abbas’s policies.

Alaa Lahlouh, a former Palestinian officer who now researches security issues at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, says the security coordination is deeply unpopular, but that authorities maintain it for political and personal reasons.

“The Palestinian Authority believes the security cooperation with Israel and the United States will enhance its role as a political partner,” he said, adding that they also cooperate for personal reasons. Israel grants special movement privileges to senior Palestinian officials, allowing them to avoid crowded checkpoints.

The raids in Ramallah, meanwhile, cause “huge damage,” Lahlouh said. “It shows the (Palestinian Authority) is useless in the face of Israel and only powerful when it comes to confronting its own people.”

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