AnalysisReporter's notebook

In Ramallah, Abbas’s top negotiator says they’re running out of patience

A day spent at the soccer club and with the security forces in the capital of the West Bank ends with a warning from Saeb Erekat

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian police with riot gear stand guard as they stop supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) from reaching the headquarters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 7, 2013, during a protest against negotiations with Israel (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian police with riot gear stand guard as they stop supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) from reaching the headquarters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 7, 2013, during a protest against negotiations with Israel (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

RAMALLAH — We are in the athletics club of the al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah. It is hard to explain precisely how this club became a synonym for success in Palestinian athletics. The soccer club is considered the most popular in the West Bank, perhaps even in the Gaza Strip. It is a sort of local version of Beitar Jerusalem (may Maccabi Tel Aviv forgive me; I am still a Jerusalemite by birth).

Countless trophies are displayed in their places of honor in the cabinets of the small building at the camp’s southern entrance. Al-Amari, about which almost every Israeli soldier serving in the West Bank has heard in connection with terrorism and terror attacks, is well-known among Palestinians as the birthplace of the best soccer club in the territories in recent years. The club has garnered so much interest, in fact, that Tarek Abbas, the son of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who never lived in the camp, took on the role of club manager slightly over a year ago.

After the resignation of more than half of the managing committee, which wanted to remove Tarek Abbas from his position, the agency that runs the club held elections several weeks ago. The “son of the rais” (Arabic for “president”) prepared a list of 11 candidates, matching the number of members of the managing committee, who ran against Jihad Tamliya — a member of Fatah who lives in al-Amari — who prepared an opposing list. The elections ended in a crushing defeat for Tarek Abbas; all 11 people on Tamliya’s list were elected to the managing board. Tamliya is no newbie in terms of Palestinian politics. He won a seat in the Palestinian parliament in 2006, as a regional representative of Ramallah and El Bireh from Fatah. On the regional list in the primary election, he was second only to Marwan Barghouti. Surrounded by trophies, he does not conceal his pride in the victory.

An alley of Al-Amari refugee camp in the West Bank city of Ramallah  (Issam Rimawi / Flash90)
An alley of al-Amari refugee camp in the West Bank city of Ramallah (Issam Rimawi / Flash90)

“The name of our list was ‘Sons of the Camp’,” he says. “Tarek called his list ‘Change’. There are 1,400 people with the right to vote for the managing committee. One thousand participated in the elections, and 750 voted for me — 75 percent of the vote, in other words. So people may be interpreting that as a victory over the rais himself, but in the end, Tarek wanted what was good for the club, as I did. Politics had nothing to do with it.”

I have a hard time believing that.

“It was only a vote about sports, about the club,” he insists. Still, he does not try to hide the rumors. “I know it was said that Tarek represented the rais while I represented Dahlan. [Mohammed Dahlan, who is considered Abu Mazen’s enemy, and who was removed from Fatah and now lives in the United Arab Emirates.] It’s all nonsense. At the end of the day, we are an athletic club. It is obvious that Dahlan has friendly connections here with people in the camp, but that does not mean he is trying to push a personal agenda.”

Several young men play pool opposite the entrance to the club complex. It is only 10:30 a.m. and it seems that the group has decided to concentrate more on pool and less on their studies at school.

Palestinian riot police in the West Bank city of Ramallah last year. The US appointed a new Israeli-PA security coordinator, Paul Bushong, Saturday. His main task will be working with Palestinian security forces. (photo credit:Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian riot police deployed in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2011. (photo credit:Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

“The matriculation tests are being given at school now, so there are no classes,” one of them tells me. But after I press them for a few more details, two of them admit that they dropped out of school. The others are already over high-school age. Omar, 21, is unemployed. He wears a shirt bearing the photograph of a shahid (martyr). “This is my brother Isa,” he says. “He was killed nine months ago by gunfire from Israeli troops.”

Hamudeh, Ziyad, Hassan, Mohammed and, of course, Omar, do not look particularly disturbed about the situation in the refugee camp. Mohammed asks: “Are you looking for a worker for a job in Israel?” He seems very proud of where he lives. “I don’t want to leave al-Amari,” he says. “I’ll stay here even after I grow up. Forget about Umm Sharayet and Masyoun [Ramallah’s luxury neighborhoods to the west and the south]. Everybody ‘eats’ there,” he says, to the group’s laughter.

Keeping the peace

Can the example of al-Amari teach us anything about the status of Fatah, the Palestinian Authority in general and its president in particular? Maybe it can. The recent elections for the students’ association of Birzeit University, which ended in victory for Hamas, tell a similar story.

Young Palestinians are not enthusiastic over the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, nor does Abu Mazen excite them, as Yasser Arafat did. Still, the rais’s seat is far from shaky. His position is firm, he shows high governing ability and currently there is no element in the West Bank that can threaten his rule. His security services impress even the Israeli side, and in the end, since the start of the Arab Spring in December 2010, the West Bank has remained the calmest place in the Middle East (besides Israel). This is due to the work of Abbas’s security services, among other reasons.

A small story that illustrates the PA security services’ high level of ability, specifically in intelligence, unfolded recently in Syria. Two Swedish members of a human-rights organization were kidnapped by members of the Al-Nusra Front, which is identified with Al-Qaeda. During Abu Mazen’s visit to Sweden, the prime minister asked him to help get the two Swedish nationals released. The Palestinian Authority’s general intelligence agency, under the command of Majed Faraj, took on the assignment. Several members of the Palestinian security agency went, via Jordan, to the environs of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria and had a talk with the kidnappers, who agreed to release them. Now there was a new problem: How could the two Swedes be brought safely to Jordan when the road was full of checkpoints set up by members of Islamic State and other groups? Somehow, the members of the Palestinian security service managed.

Prime Minister of Sweden Stefan Loefven (R) and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas hold a joint press conference in Stockholm on February 10, 2015. (Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND)
Prime Minister of Sweden Stefan Loefven (R) and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas hold a joint press conference in Stockholm on February 10, 2015. (Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND)

Roughly 30,000 Palestinians serve in the security services. Unlike Arafat’s time, the hierarchy is clear, and the various agencies cooperate with one another without the blatant and aggressive competition of those years, which often ended in bloodshed. The largest agency is the Palestinian National Security Forces, which has 10,000 troops, while the civilian police force has approximately 8,000 members. They may be seen everywhere in Ramallah, and in other cities as well.

Perhaps since Ramallah is considered a governmental and political center, the members of the National Security Forces are deployed at almost every place in the city. Some wear brown striped uniforms, while others wear green. Their appearance is extremely different from that of the troops of the National Security Forces of the 2000s or the 1990s. The master sergeant in charge of discipline seems to have worked overtime on the rubber bands that hold his trouser cuffs in place over his boots. He wears his beret on his head and looks clean-shaven and polished.

A conversation with General Adnan Damiri

Adnan Damiri (Youtube Screenshot)
Adnan Damiri (Youtube Screenshot)

The spokesman of the Palestinian security services, General Adnan Damiri, accompanied us on a visit to the Guard and Defense Unit, a special unit of the civilian police force that specializes, among other things, in guarding VIPs, foreign missions and government offices (Damiri’s own VIP card was taken away from him about a year ago when he compared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi).

Seven hundred police officers work in this unit. They provide security for large-scale events such as the visit of the pope or of the American president. Several dozen of them wait for us on the parade ground and show us what they do. One by one they demonstrate various scenarios that they may have to deal with, and they appear to be well trained and highly disciplined. The group that portrays the “enemy,” usually rioters, plays a different role each time. In one scenario, a member acts the part of a resident spraying the walls with graffiti and then threatens to stab a police officer with a knife. Another time, the group members play the role of protesters at a quiet demonstration. The police officers do their work in relative calm, with no drama; nobody is jumping through flaming tires anymore. “Reinforcements” waiting constantly on the sidelines will intervene if things should go downhill.

“There are many Palestinians who would like to join the services,” General Damiri tells us. “There are 2,000 applicants for every hundred places. And they must meet a certain physical standard — taller than 175 centimeters [five feet, ten inches]. On the regular police force, 170 centimeters [five feet, seven inches] is enough.

And then comes the stage of medical examinations. After that, the candidates undergo a security and criminal check, to see that they do not support radical groups or have a criminal record. Our intelligence agency checks them, and at the same time the courts tell us whether they have any complaints pending against them or were ever prosecuted.

“We check their families too, to find out whether they come from a radical or criminal background. And yes, if the applicant is from a family of members of the security service, it is clear that he will be given preference over someone whose family is identified with Hamas. “The security services’ image today is a good one, and there is no comparison from what it was in the past. This is mainly due to the internal security situation. There are calm, law and order and stability. The residents are satisfied as a result,” Damiri says.

‘There is no sense in having security coordination with an extremist government like Netanyahu’s

“In addition, we assist families in distress, and we work with the community. We have projects for cooperation with the community, such as the Department for the Defense of Families and Children, or the workshop we gave to teenagers approaching their high-school graduation. They were invited to spend a few days with the members of the security services. This gives our image a strong boost for the young people. It helps a great deal in handling crime. “And I tell you today that the situation in the West Bank is much better than it is in Arab countries and even in Tel Aviv. The level of crime is lower here than it is among you. We have no organized crime. We have none of those families that are in your news every day. It’s true that there is a drug problem, but it is not substantial, and the source of most of the drugs that have been reaching the West Bank recently is Israel. We checked with drug offenders. The big dealer will always turn out to be an Israeli — an Arab or a Jew, but an Israeli.”

And how is the security coordination with Israel these days?

“The security coordination is not a matter for the security forces to decide, on our side or on yours. It is a matter for the political echelon. But I think there is no sense in having security coordination with an extremist government like Netanyahu’s. And the coordination is linked to the political situation; that cannot be ignored. Even if the officers on your side are more moderate than the government, they still carry out the government’s policy. The coordination these days is not at a good level. Not like it used to be.”

Actually, I’ve been hearing the total opposite.

“Anyone on your side who talks about good security coordination with the Palestinian Authority is trying to create crises between the Palestinian Authority leadership and the members of the Palestinian people. The Netanyahu government wants fauda [chaos] here, and is trying to incite against the Palestinian Authority.”

But you’ve prevented more than one terror attack in recent months. You arrested people who were suspected of terrorist activity or who identified with Islamic State.

“Preventing terror attacks does not mean that we serve Israel’s interests. It is in our own interest to do that. We do not want radicals, and we do not want Islamic State. We work against terrorism because nobody wants terrorism in his area, and not because we are fighting on Israel’s behalf. We do it for our own sake, not for Netanyahu.”

Quiet for how long?

Despite General Damiri’s attempts to downplay the importance of the current security coordination, the security services and the Israeli army cooperate with one another, as do the intelligence services on both sides. Any peek at Hamas’s reports gives an idea of the Palestinian Authority’s work against its members and those of Islamic Jihad. For example, in 2014 the security services arrested or held for questioning approximately 1,000 Hamas activists in the West Bank. While most of them were released, it was evident that the security services were making an effort to prevent terrorist activity or subversion against the Palestinian Authority and Abu Mazen. The question is whether the security services’ motivation is not worn down in light of the stalemate in the peace process and whether this security coordination will not be stopped sometime soon.

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (Photo credit: YouTube screen capture)
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (Photo credit: YouTube screen capture)

“I can promise you only one thing,” Saeb Erekat, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, tells us. “Before the summer is over, life will not look the same.”

He does not elaborate too much about what he means, whether he is referring to something that has to do with the International Criminal Court in The Hague or the UN Security Council, or the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority and the cessation of security coordination.

“I am not talking about violence. We learned our lesson from the previous decade, and we are not Hamas. We succeeded in internationalizing the conflict. We succeeded in flying the Palestinian flag in many places all over the world without firing a single shot. That gave us an enormous push, and that is more effective than an intifada,” Erekat says.

“I think it is obvious to everybody that the current situation will not last. More and more people support a one-state solution, and fewer support the idea of two states. Netanyahu wants to preserve the status quo, but that will not happen. The internationalization of the conflict has already gone past the point of no return. Even in the International Criminal Court, it is no longer in our hands, but rests with the panel of judges, which is examining several instances of Israeli operations and will have to decide what shall be done with the results of the investigation.”

‘I am not talking about violence. We learned our lesson from the previous decade, and we are not Hamas’

Erekat goes on: “Israel must open its eyes and see what is going on around it. You see it on the college campuses of the United States, Europe and every place. The people in those places want something ‘fair’ [he says the Hebrew word for “fair,” hogen, over and over], and that is the basis for any relationship, be it in a family, between members of a couple, among friends or partners. But the Israelis have erased the word ‘fair’ from everything that has to do with relations with the Palestinians.”

What do you say about the report this week in Haaretz that Netanyahu wants to discuss the borders of the settlement blocs?

“I am willing to discuss the borders of the Palestinian state that will be established alongside the State of Israel on the basis of the June 4, 1967 borders. But should I grant legitimacy to the settlement blocs so that Netanyahu can build more there? I ask you [he points to his forehead]: Is it written here that I have an IQ of nine? I didn’t believe it when I heard it. And the funniest thing is that [hawkish Jewish Home minister] Uri Ariel announced in response that the current government was committed to the idea of Greater Israel — in other words, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river. “And really, I ask Netanyahu: All right, you won. You have [Naftali] Bennett and Ariel in the government and Dore Gold in the Foreign Ministry and Sheldon Adelson by your side and even the United States Congress. So what? What is your long-term solution for the Israelis and the Palestinians? How do you imagine the day after? Will it be a single state with two systems [the Palestinian Authority and Israel]? We understood that you do not want a Palestinian state, so what do you want? After all, your one state will become an apartheid state very quickly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset plenum session, July 29, 2013. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett during a Knesset session, July 29, 2013. (Flash90)

“Even now, the non-Jews make up the majority from the sea to the river,” Erekat claims. “So tell me that there are other demographic studies. All right, so in another five years you will be the minority here. And then what? What kind of state will you have? “I cannot understand the Israeli government’s policy,” he goes on. “After all, what is Netanyahu doing when he says that no Palestinian state will be established on his watch? He is destroying the moderate camp among the Palestinians.

Two major trends are developing among the Palestinians today. One: The attitude that says that the path of the talks of Abu Mazen and Erekat is leading nowhere, so the use of violence is necessary. Two: Those who say that the two-state solution is not relevant. And the latter position is growing stronger everywhere. And what then? Can you imagine yourselves in a situation like that? “In the meantime, the current situation is very comfortable for Netanyahu,” says Erekat. “He is not paying any price for the occupation. He wants us to make arrests, and for us to pay the salaries of the Palestinian Authority workers. He wants a Palestinian Authority that has no authority. So I say: You, Bibi, you are the occupation, so take responsibility. And I am not calling for the keys to be handed over, since the keys are not in my hands anyway.”

So what exactly are you saying? Will you be dismantling the Palestinian Authority sometime soon? Will you stop the coordination?

“Personally, I am amazed that we are allowing the status quo to go on. There was a tolerant attitude among us too, at first, since pressure had been put on us to hold off and wait and not to dismantle and not to stop the coordination. “But the patient attitude is changing,” concludes Erekat. “And I tell you: the PLO Central Council has taken upon itself to examine the nature of relations with Israel, and the coordination as part of that. Let us wait and see. I believe that we will be making decisions soon.”

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