How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On January 31, Amjad Sukkari, a Palestinian father of four, drove to an Israeli military checkpoint just outside of the central West Bank city of Ramallah. As he approached what's locally known as the “VIP” crossing—it is used by diplomats, humanitarian workers, and Palestinian Authority (PA) officials—Sukkari, who was part of the Ramallah district attorney's security detail, drew a gun and shot three soldiers, wounding them, before he was killed himself.
Sukkari's attack marked the second time in recent months that a PA security officer had opened fire on Israelis. The first time was in December 2015, when an intelligence officer shot two Israelis at the Hizma checkpoint near Jerusalem. Mazen Ariebeh, also a father of four, was shot dead at the scene. He happened to be the nephew of Saeb Erekat, a lead Palestinian negotiator of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which led to the establishment of the PA.
These two incidents occurred during a wave of stabbings and other attacks against Israelis, mostly by disgruntled Palestinian youth, that began in October 2015. Throughout this period, more than 180 Palestinians and 28 Israelis have been killed. The violence, particularly by the PA officials, reflects an unprecedented level of malaise that has settled over Palestinian life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With no end in sight to the Israeli occupation, and a broken economy, the situation is so unsustainable that even the PA’s security forces, on which Israeli authorities rely as their first line of defense, have started to turn against Israel. Sukkari and Ariebeh had families and stable jobs, yet they found it increasingly difficult to ignore the contradictory nature of their daily work as security officers—coordinating with the Israeli army as it carried out near-daily arrests and killings of other Palestinians.
After the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel and the Palestinian Authority began coordinating on security issues. With U.S. and EU funding and training, the PA security apparatus grew tremendously—not only in sheer numbers but also in the responsibilities assigned to it, such as stopping Palestinian demonstrators from reaching Israeli military installations. PA security forces have also been accused of quashing domestic political dissent.
The security relationship broke down during the second intifada from 2001 to 2005 after Palestinians revolted against what they saw as the normalization of Israeli occupation. In 2002, talks between Israel and the Palestinians over a two-state solution ground to a halt, and Israeli forces invaded the West Bank, destroying police stations and PA ministries. The security relationship resumed after Yasir Arafat, the late chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and president of the PA, died in 2004 and Mahmoud Abbas took over as leader of both bodies. In 2005, the United States appointed General Keith Dayton to rehabilitate and retrain PA security forces. Abbas, who has always made it clear that he believes the second intifada was a strategic mistake, embraced U.S. support for the PA security sector. In 2007, the PA enacted a formal security sector reform program by centralizing all militias and groups under one body—the Palestinian National Security Forces.
This structure persists today, but has alienated many of the PA’s constituents. Despite repeated threats, the PA's cooperation with Israel continued, even after Ziad Abu Ein, a Palestinian minister, died in late 2014 after an Israeli soldier assaulted him during a tree-planting event in the West Bank. Just a few months before Abu Ein's death, Abbas said that liaising with Israeli forces on security matters was “sacred.” In a rare interview last month, the head of the PA's General Intelligence Service, Majid Faraj, revealed that since October 2015, the PA has thwarted some 200 attempted attacks against Israel.
Proclamations such as Abbas’—and the continuation of the security coordination—have contributed to rising frustrations against the Palestinian political elite. With a suspended peace process, a political stalemate, and the mushrooming of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, many Palestinians view the PA security forces as a vessel for perpetuating Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In a recent poll, 64 percent of Palestinians said they support ending security coordination with Israel, and two-thirds back the current attacks against Israelis. The polls also revealed waning support for Abbas and the two-state solution he continues to call for.
Today, the PA grapples with a serious crisis of accountability and legitimacy. Abbas remains PA president even though his four-year term expired on January 25, 2009, but elections have been delayed indefinitely over disputes between Fatah and Hamas, which govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively. The now defunct parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, has not met since 2007, as many of its members are being held in Israeli prisons for various political offenses, including membership to Hamas.
This crisis of authority has been exacerbated by the PA’s crackdown on even peaceful opposition. Just last week, PA security officers were dispatched to stop thousands of Palestinian teachers from protesting for better wages and benefits. A member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Najat Abu Bakr, is currently staging a sit-in inside parliament after police tried to arrest her following remarks she made against Hussein al-Araj, a Palestinian minister, whom she accuses of corruption.
The current generation of Palestinians has come of age with a grossly unfulfilled promise of statehood and what many see as a governing authority that sacrifices its dignity for a level of quiet on the ground.
These incidents followed the detention of a Palestinian professor for remarks he made during an interview on Al Quds TV regarding security coordination. Abdul Sattar Kassem, a professor of political science at An-Najah National University, said that PLO bylines mandated capital punishment for those who “collaborated” with Israel, a euphemism for a traitor or working as an agent to Israeli. Soon after, security officers took him into custody, accusing him of sedition. They said his comments essentially amounted to a call for assassinating Abbas.
Kassem is not alone in denouncing Israeli-Palestinian security coordination. In March 2015, the Palestinian Central Council, the PLO's second-highest executive body, called for terminating security cooperation with Israel. Several months later in October, the PCC voted for suspending security cooperation, citing “Israel’s systematic and ongoing noncompliance with its obligations under signed agreements.” The PLO Executive Committee, which can carry out recommendations by the PCC, never acted on this vote.
Today, the PA spends almost a third of its budget on security—approximately the same amount it assigns to health and education combined. The security sector also employs roughly 40 percent of the 145,000 workers on the PA payroll. And although security cooperation continues to be the hallmark of Abbas’ administration, Israel fears that it may collapse. Amos Harel, a military analyst for Israel’s daily newspaper Haaretz, termed this a “nightmare scenario that has worried the Israeli defense establishment.” Harel said these fears come in light of Israel's “failure to . . . stop [the recent] lone-wolf attacks before they happen.” A collapse of the PA’s security forces would no doubt see an increase in such incidents.
Some experts say that Dayton forewarned of such a scenario back in 2009 when he said, “With big expectations, come big risks. There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you’re creating a state, when you’re not.”
Despite the pressure on Abbas to end security cooperation, it is difficult to imagine him doing so when the PA’s very existence depends on Israel. As such, the PA has had a mixed response to the attacks. After the first attack, Palestinian intelligence chief Faraj said, “There is a difference between individual acts and the group. . . . In some cases, we may see individuals acting. . . . Until today, we really are a stable institution. We will continue to do our work.” At the same time, he also said, “We really are at a crossroads. We see ourselves as powerless when the Israelis invade where we live. . . . What can I tell my officers and the people we’re supposed to protect?”
Similarly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned after the first attack that there was a “profound sense of alienation and despair” in Gaza and the West Bank, especially among the younger generation. “Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process,” he said, raising the ire of Israeli politicians. “As oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation.”
Less than two weeks after Ban Ki-moon’s statement and just hours before Sukkari drove to the VIP crossing and wounded the three Israeli soldiers, Sukkari took to Facebook, quoting a verse by renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “We have on this earth what makes life worth living. But I don't see this to be true for as long as the occupation is muzzling us and killing our brothers and sisters. God have mercy on our martyrs, heal our wounds, and break the shackles off our prisoners.”
The international community has largely remained silent as Israel responds with force to these attacks. Israeli military forces have turned villages in the West Bank and neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, from which the attackers hail, into closed military zones, enforcing closures and curfews. They even destroyed the homes of the attackers’ families. Although both Israeli and foreign critics have said this response is tantamount to collective punishment and does not work as a deterrent to future attacks, Israeli authorities have not listened. The current generation of Palestinians has come of age with a grossly unfulfilled promise of statehood and what many see as a governing authority that sacrifices its dignity for a level of quiet on the ground. In this context, violent groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which have refused to take a place at the formal negotiating table with Israel, emerge even more powerful. In the meantime, a shaky status quo remains in place. But for how long will it hold?