Creating new perspectives since 2009

Security as emancipation in Palestine

June 11, 2016 at 2:09 pm

What does “security” mean in the context of Israel’s occupation of Palestine? According to a plethora of literature produced by Israeli and US think tanks – including recent reports by the Centre for a New American Security and a new programme by the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) – “security” remains at the core of this issue. Moreover, security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has often been cited as the only reasonably successful product of the stagnant peace process. As a recent column from the IPF articulated:

“If there is one area in which Israel has a demonstrable partner in the Palestinian Authority, it is security… the single biggest factor is the willingness of the Palestinian security forces to enforce and maintain quiet. These are forces that have been trained by the US, work in close coordination with the IDF, and spend their days keeping the West Bank quiet and effectively protecting Israeli lives. Even the most right-wing member of the Israeli government will tell you that the Palestinian security forces are one of the true success stories of the past decade.

However, in reality, these interpretations are demonstrably deeply flawed. Not only has “security coordination” (keeping the occupied West Bank “quiet”) failed to bring about a two-state solution, but the PA Security Forces have also only grown more pernicious and authoritarian as they have grown in power. So what it the alternative?

In a new article forthcoming in the Journal of Borderland Studies – which is part an excellent special edition focusing on the West Bank Wall – Dr Nadia Abu Zahra, Leah MacNeil and I suggest an alternative approach. In our view, there is a strong case to be made that any reasonable interpretation of the concept of “security” should have a human dimension. That is to say, when we talk about “security” we shouldn’t just be thinking about the military actions or the wellbeing of and interests of particular states, but reaching for a deeper level of meaning that puts human beings at the core of our concern.

In short, in our view, security should not be a question that is reduced merely to Israel’s and/or Palestine’s right to exist as states but rather, we are interested in the existence and welfare of Israelis and Palestinians as individuals and communities. Moreover, the same would apply to any other state, including Britain.

Thus, in our article, we argue that there are two clear criticisms of the mainstream view of “security” in its application to the context of Palestine-Israel. Specifically, the first of these is that “security” as it is generally understood in international relations unduly prioritises the welfare of states at the expense of individuals. Second, is that the way the term “security” has been used in this context has overwhelmingly prioritised Israeli-state concerns at the expense of numerous Palestinian rights and freedoms. In short, “we contend that for the sake of seeking to satisfy an expansionist state-centric definition of Israeli ‘security’, the basic personal, political and economic ‘securities’ of Palestinians have been sacrificed.”

Critical conceptions of security

While the state-centric view of “security” still dominates in most policy-making and even academic circles, an alternative approach to the issue has emerged over the past few decades that is usually categorised under the heading “critical security studies”. While there are three main sub-groups of critical security theories, the most prominent is known as the Copenhagen School. The key idea, according to this approach, is known as “securitisation”. This describes a process where an issue is politicised to an extreme degree. For instance, the way in which the refugee crisis – which can and should be seen as a devastating human tragedy and an opportunity for wealthy, stable communities to support those fleeing terrible crises – has been recast in the media and within some political rhetoric as a security threat to European civilisation.

In the words of Ole Waever, who developed the concept of “securitization” originally, “The word ‘security’ is the act; the utterance is the primary reality.” Or as we put it in our article:

“Securitisation describes the practice through which an agent exerts its power through naming another thing as a threat. Moreover, by so doing the agent (the referent object) seeks to justify an urgent change to the practice of political engagement in order to ensure its own survival.”

However, while securitisation is certainly a very significant and useful concept, the Copenhagen School is not beyond criticism itself. Rather, like the mainstream approaches to security, the school is decidedly state-centric. “Security,” according to Waever, “has to be read through the lens of national security,” because, in his view:

“Neither individual security nor international security exist… There is no literature, no philosophy, no tradition of ‘security’ in non-state terms; it is only as a critical idea, played out against the concept and practices of state security, that other threats and referents have any meaning.”

It should be immediately obvious why this statement is not an easy fit for the case study of Palestine-Israel. After all, this is a context where a near-universally recognised “state” pursues its “security” concerns through the occupation and oppression of a population that exists in the absence of statehood.

Moreover, Waever’s assertion that “security” outside the bounds of “statehood” is nothing more than a “critical idea” effectively disregards the very real lived experience of numerous individuals and communities who seek to create their own forms of security outside of the state, in many cases as a direct response to oppression by the state.

An alternative approach

Instead of this state-centric approach, we suggest that a different body of literature offers some constructive alternative ideas that may be considered. This is known as the Aberystwyth School and is named after the base of its principal proponent, Ken Booth.

In addition to reaching for a conception of “security” beyond the military sphere, the Aberystwyth School also challenges the key idea that the “state” is and should be the referent object for all such discussion. Instead it should be human beings themselves who should be thought of as the main foci of concern. Moreover, more often than not, it is “the state” which is the primary threat to what we understand as human security. As Booth argues, “to countless millions of people in the world it is their own state, and not ‘The Enemy’ that is the primary security threat. In addition, the security threat to the regimes running states is often internal rather than external.

Such an observation clearly resonates as much today, in the context numerous crises in the Middle East, as it did when it was published in the dying days of the Cold War.

Most notably, this approach rejects the idea that discussions of “security” should be an issue focused on solving problems. Instead, according to Richard Wyn Jones, who is also part of the Aberystwyth School, it should be about “the existence of possibilities for progressive alternatives” and the main vector of this progressive alternative is “emancipation.”

What this would mean would be the removal of structural barriers that impede general participation in politics. In other words, security is more about the ability to make choices for oneself, than mere survival. In this respect, security can be the mechanism by which the polity expands and overcomes exclusion; that is to say, from this perspective, security can mean the very opposite of how it is usually interpreted.


In the context of Palestine-Israel clearly much ink has already been spilt on the competing goals of either explaining why – from Israel’s (and increasing the PA’s) perspective — such draconian security measures are necessary or why – from a Palestinian perspective – they are both oppressive and insulting. Focusing on the mainstream discourse to security then, in our article we suggest that that the securitisation of Palestinians occurs through two primary strategies: “Securitising the Palestinians by constructing them as ‘the Other’ through a discourse of threat and containment, and maintaining repression below the threshold of visibility through depoliticisation.”

Via such methods, the repression of Palestinians is seen as a non-political issue and instead treated as if it were within an untouchable black box of “security”. Indeed, according to numerous examples from within the Israeli defence establishment and the US administration, Palestinians are characterised as a threat to Israel by virtue of nothing more than their national identity. For example, as the CNAS report puts it:

“Israelis also have little trust for Palestinians when it comes to the question of security. Despite strong cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces and significant improvements in PASF [PA security forces’] capabilities, many Israelis consistently express scepticism about Palestinian will. They argue that even if Palestinian capabilities were upgraded to a point at which the IDF could redeploy, the Palestinians may still not have the political will to follow through and arrest or jail dangerous extremists, especially those with connections to influential Palestinian families.”

In the Israeli view such a threat to Israel can and should be countered by maintaining and reinforcing the occupation, including the use of indiscriminate methods such as the Wall, yet — as we argue — “the reverse is not considered, despite the fact that Israel is clearly the more dominant party and is actively occupying and colonising the West Bank.”

In our article we discuss some of the implications of those methods in terms of the impact on the security of individuals and communities who have been worst affected by the construction of the Wall. They include families cut off from the outside world, teenagers pursued surrounded by soldiers and bulldozers and children threatened with bullets for approaching the structure.

Yet, in spite of the fact that mainstream discussions of security simply overlook these concerns, our article also documents that, in these communities, there is also evidence of a deep commitment to resistance and for fighting for themselves. It is those conclusions that give us the greatest hope that another interpretation of security not only exists, but is highly relevant, despite it being overlooked consistently by mainstream theory and reportage. As we conclude in the article, ”In each case, it is ultimately through the individual choices of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances that demonstrate that human emancipation is possible, and that an inclusive interpretation of security can and should become a reality for all.”

 Dr Philip Leech is a Senior Fellow for the Centre on Government at the University of Ottawa. He is the co-editor (with Shabnam Holliday) of Political Identities and Popular Uprisings in the Middle East (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016) and the author of The State of Palestine: A Critical Analysis (Routledge, Forthcoming August 2016). His full profile is online at and is on twitter @phil_haqeeqa.

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