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The PA threat to disband security personnel is just hot air

July 15, 2019 at 6:42 pm

Palestinian Authority officials can be seen taking control of Gaza crossings [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

The Palestinian Authority’s latest financial crisis began in February after the Israeli government cut part of the tax money owed to its treasury, amounting to $140 million. The consequences of this have spread to various parts of the PA, including its ministries, municipalities and governorates.

Now a number of senior Palestinian officials have made statements about the possibility of the security situation in the occupied West Bank being affected due to the financial crisis. This also poses a security threat to Israel, which is currently enjoying relative calm in the West Bank, for the first time in many years.

“When the authority can no longer pay its bills we will start to send our security people home,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced suddenly on 5 June.

The Palestinian Security Services (PSS) in the West Bank consist of four major agencies: the National Security Council, Preventative Security, Military Intelligence and General Intelligence. It is clearly overstaffed, with 66,000 personnel; that’s one security officer for every 48 Palestinians in the occupied territories.

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The PA also has a glut of senior officers whose salaries are a burden on the already stretched budget. Security takes up 31 per cent of the budget annually, equivalent to around $1 billion.

All of these security personnel do not protect the Palestinians in the West Bank. According to a poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in December last year, only 47 per cent of the Palestinians living there feel secure. The centre did not mention what the Palestinian security personnel are actually doing to warrant such a general feeling amongst almost half of the population.

Despite the political rift between the PA and Israel since April 2014 and the latter’s financial sanctions on the Palestinians since February this year, the Israelis still reassure the PA that this situation will not affect security coordination between the two sides. Such coordination has faced difficult tests in recent times, but it has managed to outlive several increases of tension.

However, the fact is that the PA warnings about dismissing a number of security personnel coincide with an unsettled situation in the West Bank. More Palestinians are carrying weapons, and are using them in domestic disputes as law and order takes a hit.

Security coordination is the only connection between the PA and Israel at the moment. Whenever there is any tension or incident on the ground, the relationship goes back to normal, as both have a lot to lose if security coordination stops. Nevertheless, both Tel Aviv and Ramallah are aware that any security incident is enough to escalate into something very serious and difficult to stop. Hence, the coordination of the Israeli army’s operations in the areas under Palestinian control is a very sensitive matter.

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The danger is that the financial crisis suffered by the PA may affect the security services, as its officers also face difficult financial and living conditions. Israeli officers in the West Bank speak of their Palestinian counterparts facing serious hardship due almost entirely to the PA’s financial crisis. According to one Israeli officer, one Palestinian colleague he met has just $4 left in his account, and yet is married with three children.

Israel could exploit this situation by recruiting Palestinian officers and security officials to work for Tel Aviv in exchange for the money owed to them. The Israelis claimed in May that the PA military intelligence had uncovered a network of individuals recruited by Hamas from the PA security services with the intention of infiltrating them and handing over sensitive information. The movement apparently just had to offer monthly grants to these officers in order to get their loyalty.

Regardless of the accuracy of such reports, the crushing financial crisis hitting the PA is ringing alarm bells, especially in the security services, which still maintain an advanced level of coordination with the Israelis. The common threat to Israel and the PA is the Islamic Resistance Movement.

It seems that the situation is serious enough to make Israel think again about the sanctions against the PA. Security is the red line which Israel will not cross, as the agencies on both sides have thwarted many resistance operations over the past year.

Moreover, Israel agreed in May to transfer armoured vehicles to the PA for its security services. This led to Ramallah backing down on its threat to stop security coordination due to the political rift with Tel Aviv and the sanctions. The vehicles in question entered the West Bank through Jordan, and were given to the PA by the US administration after a group of Palestinian security officers graduated from a course where they were trained in their use.

It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the PA threat to create a security crisis by dismissing members of the PSS due to the financial crisis is likely to be the same as earlier threats to hand over the keys to the West Bank and dissolve itself. Such threats are never carried out; they are just so much hot air.

Israel knows that the survival of the Palestinian Authority and its security coordination is essential for its own strategic interests. The danger of the Israeli decision to cut Palestinian tax revenues is that Tel Aviv may find itself facing a ruined PA, including its security services. It is no secret that Israeli security circles are very concerned about these developments. The heads of the Israeli security agencies know the magnitude of security coordination with the PA and how much it contributes to stability in Israel and the West Bank. As such, they will not allow Palestinian security personnel to be cut due to the financial crisis.

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I can say with great confidence that Mohammad Shtayyeh’s words carry a message to frighten Israel and the US that the security situation in the West Bank will deteriorate, and yet he, along with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, know that they will pay the price for any disturbance in the West Bank before anyone else.

As the situation in the West Bank gets close to boiling point, the differences within the PA’s ranks are no longer hidden. Moreover, the increased interference of foreign parties in the Palestinian arena can be seen clearly. All of this requires the PA to maintain its security services, and perhaps even reinforce them, not reduce them.

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