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Palestinian sovereignty: between international recognition and security coordination

When Sweden became the first EU member state in Western Europe to recognise the State of Palestine on 30 October, it brought the total number of UN member states to do so to 135 out of 193. More might follow. France’s National Assembly, albeit in the absence of the prime minister and foreign minister, voted on a non-binding resolution in favour of a Palestinian state on December 2. The Danish parliament will hold its first debate on the subject on December 11.

On 29 November, Arab foreign ministers also met to discuss the UN bid for the State of Palestine. According to Wassel Abu Youssef, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, one of the main concerns regarding the move towards statehood mentioned at the meeting was the urgency to end the security coordination between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel. In the same week, a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad called on the PA to end its security coordination, echoing similar calls made in the past by Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Meanwhile, on 29 November, Mahmoud Abbas threatened to cancel security coordination should the bankrupt peace process fail to resume. Abbas, like his critics, is well aware that the relationship between Palestinian statehood and security coordination is an increasingly prioritising matter; it is an enterprise which involves, at different levels, international donors, the PA and Israel.

International administration of policing

Indeed, according to a recent policy brief published by Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, “Security eats up a sizeable proportion of the PA budget, accounting for almost $1 billion (26%) of the 2013 budget, compared to only 16% for education, 9% for health, and a staggeringly low 1% for agriculture.” Furthermore, in 2013 alone, the United States provided $427 million in economic assistance, of which $70 million was allocated specifically to fund the PA’s security forces. “At the same time, the European Union gave $227 million in direct funding to the authority, and a further $406 million in economic aid and support for security forces.” With the Oslo Accords in 1993 and, subsequently, the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the US, the EU and Russia) Road Map Initiative in 2003, the international community, including those EU members now encouraging the creation of a Palestinian State, effectively made the realisation of a Palestinian state conditional on Israeli security. The then US President, George W Bush, echoing the sentiment of the Quartet, was explicit in the responsibility imposed on the PA: “The United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure. This will require an externally supervised effort to rebuild and reform the Palestinian security services.”

Both the amount of funding and the reasoning behind the reforming of the PA security sector speaks to the type of security logic deployed in the Israel-Palestine question. For too long, security – whose security and for what purpose — has been Israel-centric. Rarely, if ever, do policy makers question if Palestinians and their security are at risk. Instead, there is an institutionalised insinuation that Palestinians must prioritise Israel’s security, even though it is the state that evicts them and demolishes their homes; confiscates their lands and identity cards; imposes regular administrative detention; and, ultimately, menaces their collective and individual security. This assumption by the Quartet suggests that Israel alone is subject to threats and that it alone is searching to counter “existential threats”, as the forlorn non-Arab state in the region. However, empirical analysis of the security conditions in the occupied territories demonstrates otherwise.

In 2014 alone, under the guise of security, Israel launched its third attack (“Operation Protective Edge”) on Gaza in recent years, which, according to OCHA, left 2,205 Palestinians killed, including at least 1,483 civilians, including women and children. Approximately 18,000 housing units were destroyed or severely damaged, leading to around 108,000 Palestinians being made homeless. In the West Bank, the systematic targeting and killing of Palestinians by Israeli forces was taking place simultaneously. In less than two months, with the cooperation and assistance of Palestinian security forces, over 500 Palestinians were arrested without charge and placed in administrative detention; most had recently been released from Israeli prisons in the latest deal with Tel Aviv over an abducted Israeli soldier. In East Jerusalem, while Palestinians are subject to Israeli police harassment, there is also a growing and unpunished level of settler violence targeting Palestinian public and private spaces which has also lead to the death of Palestinian youths. Irrespective of which part of divided Palestine is considered, Israel proves able to practice complete control over security management. It has demonstrated its ability and willingness to strip Palestinians unilaterally of their right to security inside and outside its as yet undefined borders without international accountability.

Proceeding with such a unilateral security approach which ignores Palestinians’ right to protection has proven to be increasingly taxing on Israeli citizens as well. In recent months, there have been several violent episodes directed at Israelis, including the stabbing of 4 civilians at a synagogue in East Jerusalem. Israelis are becoming targets of individual attacks by Palestinians who turn their sense of disenfranchisement into direct action. Yet, the Knesset’s exclusive response is to increase the collective punishment of Palestinians, yielding only a vicious circle of revenge.

Understanding the power dynamics of these security relations is crucial. That the PA and the Palestinian people are expected to ensure that Israel, the occupying power, feels safe is taken for granted; such politics sides with the occupier and neglects to acknowledge Palestinian experience. After all, it is the Palestinians who are enduring the burden of post-colonial military occupation of their land, their economy and their collective and individual security. International donors, including EU member states, should confront and rethink the reality that international development aid and state-building agendas supported by donor states are geared towards embedding this power dynamic rather than offering as a right a platform for sound state-building founded on self-determination. Without an acknowledgment of the necessity to break Israeli security logic, there is very little to celebrate in the international recognition of a State of Palestine.

Security as “Israeli stuff”

Israeli officials have already established that they expect a future Palestinian state to have limited sovereignty. Among the evidence for this is a “Security Session” between Israeli and Palestinian negotiation teams; Major-General Amos Gilad (Retd.), presiding on the security dossier, explained to his Palestinian counterparts that “it is understood that demilitarisation must be a pillar.” After numerous shifts back and forth on the concept, in July 2008, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat explained that the PA forces were doing everything that the international donors were asking of them and there was no reason to impose limited sovereignty if Palestine was to have real rule of law: “This is the objective set for us by the international community. I did not invent anything. It’s the work that the US, General Dayton and the Europeans, EU COPPS, are doing. They are the ones who use the term ‘international standards’. There are objective things relating to rule of law, one authority one gun, professional work… referring to the state-building programmes by the European Union, the United States and other donor states. But the Israeli delegation explained that internationals don’t understand all the Israeli concerns and that some issues are just ‘Israeli stuff’.”

Reproducing a security paradigm which filters out the concerns of Palestinians and their right to security is effectively attempting to write-off Palestinians from their own sovereignty. Israel will not choose to reconsider its draconian measures on Palestine and Palestinians unless it is sanctioned to continue its control even in the eventuality of the Palestinian state. If states are serious about their recognition of Palestinian sovereignty, they must be equally serious about the policy changes it entails around the limitations and exaggerations of Israel’s security apparatus and ways in which they are complicit.

It is imperative to rethink how to frame security around the question of Israel-Palestine within policy-making circles. It is one point to admit, after more than 65 years, that Palestinians have the right to wave their flag, but it is quite another to challenge the verities that prevent this from occurring within a context of full-fledged freedom and sovereignty.

Sabrien Amrov is a research assistant in the Foreign Policy division of SETA, an Ankara-based Turkish think tank, where she researches politics of the Levant. See here profile on Al-Shabaka and on SETA.

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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