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Authoritarianism in Palestine

This week Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank, released a report on the troubling issue of the Palestinian security sector. The report, authored by Alaa Tartir and Sabrien Amrov, argues that the Palestinian security sector has grown significantly in terms of its power and prominence since the schism between Hamas and Fatah in 2007.

It suggests that this is problematic both because the security sector’s growth has come at the expense of other areas of government spending – such as education and agriculture – that would represent more important efforts to challenge Israel’s occupation, and because the increase in the security agencies’ power and autonomy, relative to the general population and civilian leadership, can also be seen as anti-democratic. In short, the report sees the growth in the security sector as an important indicator of Palestine’s integration with the main priorities of Israel and the US-led donors, which are in favour of a weak but stable form of authoritarianism in the West Bank, as opposed to the potential instability of a more democratic Palestine.

The report states that the evident increase in power of the Palestinian security sector is guided primarily by the necessity of serving the interests of foreign donors and satisfying Israel’s security concerns. It argues that, “far from providing for Palestinian security, the rapidly mushrooming sector has, as Israel intended from the start, served as an instrument of control and pacification of the Palestinian population.”

A few of the indicators identified by Al-Shabaka, are startling: “There is now one security person for every 52 Palestinian residents compared to one educator for every 75 residents… there are already 52 new prisons and eight new security compounds – as well as riot control gear.”

What happened to “the Spring”?

In my own research on this topic I arrived at similar findings as Al-Shabakal’s report, although my argument focused more directly on authoritarianism in Palestine rather than on the question of integrating with Israel’s occupation. In particular, in an article published earlier this year in the journal Democratization, I argued that the progressive increase in power for the security forces was one of the key issues undermining Palestinian democracy and were contrary to the claims that the PLO made at the UN when it was asking for recognition as a state in 2012. Indeed, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had explicitly couched the PLO’s appeal for statehood in the language of democracy and the “Arab Spring”, the actions of the PA security forces were replicating the actions of their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts by beating protesters in the streets on several occasions during 2011–2012.

According to data drawn from news reports published during the period, there were some 59 protests in the West Bank, 42 of which were directed against the PA. The majority of these were products of the then severe fiscal crisis affecting the authority, which hindered its ability to provide services to the public. However, 6 protests were explicitly political and challenged the PLO leadership’s engagement in negotiations with Israel. It was these anti-negotiations protests which were the most openly hostile to the status quo and the locus of most violence.

The first round of these protests were triggered by the news of a meeting between Abbas and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former General and Israeli Chief of Staff, who was in power when Yasser Arafat was besieged in 2004. Moreover, the fact that the meeting was to take place in the presidential headquarters in Ramallah – the very place where Mofaz’s soldiers had surrounded Arafat just prior to his death – was especially incendiary.

According to an Amnesty International account of the events: “The brutality that followed was shocking even by the standards of the PA security forces, whose use of excessive force on previous occasions and abuses against detainees had already earned them an unenviable reputation at home and internationally.”

Furthermore, Amnesty noted that the PA’s response to criticisms was prompt, but also both disorganised and – thus far – ineffective. Indeed, immediately after the events, the president and the interior ministry launched simultaneous inquiries. However, no meaningful action was taken.

Eating its own head

According to the mainstream narrative of security reform under the PA, the growth in the power and significance of the security forces in the period 2007-11 was justifiable on two grounds. First, that it was necessary for the PA to confront and quell the conditions of lawlessness that had developed during the second intifada. Second, that the international donors which were supporting the PA more or less demanded the removal of Hamas from the West Bank and a new emphasis on organisation and order.

Both of these two goals may be critiqued as deeply politicised. Indeed, the PA (with Israeli and foreign support) prioritised the political goal of removing Hamas from the West Bank. In so doing the PA security forces first collaborated with the Fatah-aligned Al-Aqsa Brigades and then facilitated far softer measures to deal with their cadres despite the fact that they were seen by many as more directly responsible for the lawlessness.

Yet, perhaps the most urgent conclusions to be drawn are that, in spite of the fact that the period of lawlessness has been replaced decisively by that order on the streets, the power of the security forces continues to grow. Evidence of this is widespread and easily accessible; it includes examples cited by Al-Haq, the Palestinian human rights group, such as the suppression of the right to protest by opposition parties.

Moreover, in private interviews I have undertaken recently with several former members of the Palestinian government – who were in office during the period 2007-13 – a common theme that has emerged is a serious concern that the security forces have grown both more capricious and inclined to pursue their own interests. Perhaps the most profound example of this includes the apparent use of intimidation tactics against the former PA Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, who was the original driver behind security sector reform. A move that, according to Haaretz, Western diplomats have suggested is likely to be a result of direct orders from the PA president.

The conclusions reached by Al-Shabaka’s report are blunt: “Security reform under occupation is fundamentally flawed: The more the PA invests in security reform, the more it entrenches the occupation and the more it is obliged to work as Israel’s sub-contractor.” It goes on to warn that, “There is an urgent need to move away from the securitised development paradigm that was built under Abbas and strengthened under Fayyad and instead address the real development needs of the OPT.”

Indeed, the suppression of opposition groups, denial of the right to protest and even the moves against the former prime minister, all of which have taken place in an environment where democracy has been all but prorogued, point to the troubling conclusion that authoritarianism in Palestine has become entrenched and increasingly unpredictable.

Dr Philip Leech is a visiting research fellow at the Council for British Research in the Levant. He is on twitter @phil_haqeeqa and his academic profile is available at academia.edu.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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