Security coordination under fire after suspect once held by PA killed

Palestinian groups call for halt to working with Israeli forces after alleged terrorist killed during shootout in Ramallah

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Palestinian security forces patrolling Bethlehem in 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian security forces patrolling Bethlehem in 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Palestinian groups went on the offensive against the unpopular security coordination between Jerusalem and Ramallah Monday, after Israeli forces killed a suspected terrorist in Ramallah who was once a high-profile prisoner of the Palestinian Authority, during a shootout.

Basel al-A’araj, 31, was killed in his hideout in Ramallah after he opened fire at Israeli forces who came to arrest him, the army said. He was suspected of planning a terror attack against Israeli civilians.

Inside his home, troops uncovered an M-16 rifle and an improvised Carlo-style submachine gun, the IDF said, referring to the suspect as a “terrorist.”

According to Palestinian media reports, A’araj, who was a well-known activist in the West Bank, had been wanted by the Israeli army ever since he was released from a Palestinian Authority prison last September.

A’araj and two others were arrested in April while camping out in a mountainous area near Ramallah. PA police said they were found with weapons, hand grenades, and camping equipment, the Palestinian news site Ma’an reported.

Shortly after A’araj was taken into custody, Abbas told the German daily Der Spiegel that the operation had been the fruit of security cooperation between Israel and the PA.

Palestinian groups who have been historically opposed to security cooperation seized the opportunity of A’araj’s death to attack the policy.

The Hamas terror group, which rules the Gaza Strip and is often the target of coordinated security efforts, released a statement Monday claiming his death was the result of the security coordination.

“There must be a joint national effort by all Palestinian factions and the various national institutions in order to put an end to the security coordination of the Palestinian Authority with the occupation. It ultimately leads to the delivery of [fighters to the IDF] and makes it easier for the occupation army to target them,” Hamas spokesperson Husam Badran said in a statement posted to the terror group’s official website.

A’araj was not a member of Hamas but a left-wing intellectual, according to numerous depictions of him in Palestinian media.

A pharmacist by training and profession, A’araj was a prominent supporter of the BDS boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel. Shortly after his death on Monday morning, videos of his anti-Israel speeches circulated on Palestinian social media. He also led tours around the West Bank in which he lectured on the history of the Palestinian armed conflict.

A’araj and his companions made headlines in September after three men joined them for a hunger strike. They were protesting what they said was their detainment by Palestinian security forces without charge.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist terror group, called A’araj “one of the most important Palestinian resistance men,” and a “revolutionary intellectual.”

The group said his death “was the result of the abhorrent security coordination.”

The Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, a network of activists based in North America, said A’araj’s death “highlights once again the devastating and deadly reality of security coordination,” and demanded an end to the policy.

Security coordination between Israel and the PA has long been a contentious issue in Palestinian society.

A December 2015 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 64% of Palestinians support ending security coordination with Israel.

Abbas, however, has continued to defend security coordination as necessary to maintaining safety both for Palestinians and Israelis. Israelis also see the coordination as key to thwarting terror attacks emanating from the West Bank

In early February Abbas threatened to halt security coordination over continued Israeli settlement expansion.

In an April 2016 interview, just a week before A’araj was arrested, Abbas pleaded with Israel during a prime-time Hebrew news segment to stop IDF raids into Palestinian urban centers.

“Give me responsibility for the Palestinian territories, and test me… If Israel has specific intelligence information, give it to me and I’ll handle it,” he said. “But they don’t give me the intelligence information. So what am I doing here? Where is the security cooperation? You want me to be your employee, your agent. I don’t accept this, I want to do it myself,” Abbas said.

Not long before the April interview, security talks collapsed after the Palestinians rejected Israel’s offer to stop operations in Ramallah and Jericho as a trial; the Palestinians said the offer did not go far enough.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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