The Middle East Channel

Palestine: The latest Middle East security state?

On recent trip to Ramallah, I spoke with a senior Fatah official and former Palestinian Authority minister about the state of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Consistent with most other Israelis and Palestinians who I'd met, he was not particularly optimistic. The conversation turned to the advances in security and economic development in the West Bank under the widely hailed leadership of Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad. I asked whether progress on political reform had tracked at all with the progress in those other areas.

After acknowledging the vastly improved security (demonstrated most definitively by the depth of cooperation between Israeli occupation authorities and Palestinian security forces) and economic growth (which is real, despite being donor driven, and thus unsustainable), the official dispatched my question with a flick of his cigarette.

"Political reform?" he smiled. "It's a joke."

One of the key problems of the U.S.'s approach to dealing with the Middle East, particularly with the Palestinians, has been to focus on persons at the expense of politics and institutions. Rather than cultivating and supporting democratic habits and procedures, U.S. policymakers have tended to identify individual leaders who could deliver various goods, usually broadly defined as "stability" or "progress," ignoring the longer-term implications of how exactly those goods were delivered.

There's a fairly strong consensus that this has been a mistake. Indeed, one of the great and least remarked-upon ironies of the post-9/11 era is the fact that the George W. Bush administration latched upon a critique of U.S. foreign policy that had theretofore been mainly the province of "leftist" academics and liberal pundits: that America's interest in stability in Middle East had led it, for decades, to support a series of authoritarian regimes who promised to keep the relative peace if we didn't bother them too much about democracy or human rights, and that the terror visited on America that fall morning was a consequence.

This idea was clearly expressed by Republican presidential candidate John McCain in a major foreign policy address in March 2008: "For decades in the greater Middle East, we had a strategy of relying on autocrats to provide order and stability," said McCain. "In the late 1970s that strategy began to unravel. The ensuing ferment in the Muslim world produced increasing instability."

Conservative strategist Bill Kristol offered a similar statement in 2005 at Tel Aviv University, at a symposium on the Bush foreign policy and neoconservatism. "We had made too many accommodations with dictators," Kristol said. "The reaction was, in many cases, leading to greater anti-Americanism, greater extremism, and greater terrorism."

Underpinning George W. Bush's "freedom agenda," this analysis -- which clearly suggests that past U.S. policy was, in part, responsible for 9/11 -- was spared classification as "America-hating," probably because, issuing from neoconservative mouths and pens, there was no one else around willing to cast such cheap aspersions. But also because, having identified the problem, the preferred neoconservative solution primarily involved America sallying forth to blow more stuff up. Much, much more stuff.

Regardless of whether Bush's "freedom agenda" was born of a genuinely progressive impulse, or just a fig leaf for the further entrenchment of U.S. power in the region, that agenda quickly collapsed, one of many casualties of the furies unleashed by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

But just because the Bush administration latched onto this critique as a justification for its attempt to reorder the Middle East doesn't mean it was necessarily wrong. A focus on security at the expense of democracy does generate bad consequences, and acknowledgement of this fact, by anyone, however late coming, is a good thing.

So why are we doing it again in Palestine?

The West's fixation on the goods currently being delivered in Palestine by Prime Minister Fayyad is perhaps best symbolized by the fact that Tom Friedman, the English speaking world's greatest condenser of conventional foreign policy wisdom, has awarded him with his own "-ism": Fayyadism, defined by Friedman as "a nonviolent struggle [against the Israeli occupation]... building non-corrupt transparent institutions and effective police and paramilitary units."

Appointed Prime Minister in 2007 in the wake of the Fatah-Hamas civil war, Fayyad operates without a political mandate. After Hamas' takeover of Gaza in June 2007, President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Fatah-Hamas unity government and, at the encouragement of the Bush administration, created an emergency government and began to rule by presidential decree, which he does to this day, effectively under a "state of emergency" that resembles Egypt's. The Palestinian Legislative Council hasn't met since 2007. National elections were scheduled for January 2010, and local elections for June, but there's no sign either will be held any time soon.

While Fayyad's accomplishments in cleaning up government corruption, promoting greater financial transparency, and clamping down on terrorism are indisputable, there is evidence that the PA's forces (U.S. trained and funded) have also directed their energies against peaceful political activities.

In August, the Ma'an News Agency reported that members of the PA General Intelligence Service attempted to quash a rally against the PA re-entering direct talks in the absence of an Israeli settlement freeze, and then assaulted field workers from the Palestinian rights group Al-Haq as they attempted to document the Intelligence Service's activities.

The most recent Freedom House survey of Palestinian civil rights and press freedom gave the PA a grade of "not free."

"While the PA parades each of its new initiatives before the media, it obstructs, manipulates and lies about what it is doing against opposition movements," says George Hale, an editor for Ma'an. "Palestinians hold protests somewhat regularly on issues like the cancelled municipal elections, and the PA security forces often break them up when they get too loud." The level of intimidation is high. According to Hale, "It's the protests that aren't happening which reveal more about the levels of freedom."

"I find it preposterous that there's transparency when the IDF arrests Palestinians but not from the PA when they arrest their own people," says Hale, who also blames international journalists "who only care about what Israel does and never hold the PA to any semblance of accountability."

Three different sources also confirmed to me that the PA has appointed a number of Salafi prayer leaders in West Bank mosques, on the condition that they direct their rhetorical fire away from the PA and Abbas' Fatah Party, and toward Fatah's political opponents, primarily Hamas.

Not only does this bargain reproduce an arrangement common to authoritarian governments in the region, where extreme conservative clerics are tolerated and supported as long as they withhold criticism of the government, it mirrors Israeli policy beginning in the 1970's, when the Israeli occupation authorities lent aid to the ministry of a little-known Sheikh named Ahmed Yassin, in the hopes that his Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood would draw support away from the secular nationalist PLO.

It worked. With the first Intifada in 1987, the now deeply entrenched Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood morphed into the Palestinian "Islamic Resistance Movement" -- Harakat al-Muqawamat al-Islamiyyah, Hamas.

Suppressing Hamas' ability to carry out violence has been a central goal of the Abbas-Fayyad government, with strong U.S. and Israeli support, as well as diminishing Hamas' political appeal through combating corruption and increasing economic opportunity. But the security service's energies have also been directed at non-violent Hamas activities, harassing and shutting down charitable groups associated with Hamas, and removing locally elected Hamas officials and schoolteachers. Having agreed to "play by the rules" and eschew violence, these activists have now found that any association with a disfavored political orientation is enough to make them targets of repression

In the absence of genuine progress toward ending the occupation however, Palestinian dissatisfaction with the PA, which is already severe, is only likely to grow. And without opportunities to express that dissatisfaction through legitimate democratic institutions and procedures, the likelihood of greater violence will grow, too -- both toward Israel and toward the PA, who increasing numbers of Palestinians see as simply managing the occupation for their Israeli bosses.

Israel's security concerns are real, and require attention. But, as with decades of privileging the flow of oil of over human rights in the Middle East, continuing to privilege Israeli security perceptions over Palestinian political realities is unlikely to lead to an outcome that makes anyone happy.

According to the former PA minister I spoke to, the storm clouds are already forming. He was getting more and more concerned about the level of unrest and hostility being directed toward the PA by his own neighbors and relatives. "If you find me with a bullet in the back of my head," he said, "you will know why."

Political freedom is not a peripheral concern in Palestine -- it is central to the U.S. goal of a functioning, viable, and democratic Palestinian state at peace with Israel. The Obama administration must not allow itself, in the interest of an illusive stability, to keep kicking the can down the road, and oversee the creation of yet another security state in the Middle East.

Matthew Duss is National Security Editor at the Center for American Progress

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Unsafe space in East Jerusalem

A private Israeli security guard in East Jerusalem doing the graveyard shift decides to go and fill up his gas tank at 4:00 a.m on September 22. He leaves his fortified station at the home of an Israeli family that had relocated to Silwan, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood just south of Jerusalem's Old City. He enters one of several well-equipped jeeps, used to chauffeur the family and their guests upon leaving and arriving, and heads out, driving through the narrow and winding streets. After that, the precise sequence of events of those early morning hours is disputed, but there seems to be agreement that the guard's fatal shooting of Samer Sarhan, a 32-year-old Palestinian from Silwan, added fuel to the existing high flames of East Jerusalem.

Security guards in the area have become growingly hostile in recent months, leading to injuries, for the first time last month, a loss of life. Sarhan's death hit shock waves across East Jerusalem but came as no surprise to those closely following the deteriorating conflict between settlers and Palestinians in Jerusalem. A report published recently by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, titled ‘Unsafe Space: The Israeli Authorities' Failure to Protect Human Rights amid Settlements in East Jerusalem', details how accounts of security guards being "quick on the trigger" in Silwan have been a growing phenomenon.

To provide some context of the situation on the ground, the numbers game of this story is rather alarming: East Jerusalem's Palestinian population is estimated at 300,000. About 2,000 Jewish residents live today in the midst of several densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (excluded from this account are tens of thousands of Israelis who live in neighborhoods located east of the Green Line. These were built after 1967 for solely Jewish residential purposes and are considered a consensus among Israelis.). Some of the settlers live in large compounds of ten and more families, while others live in private family residencies. Nearly all are surrounded by fences and protected by armed sentries and surveillance cameras.

Thus, one of the stunning examples of the financial support given to Jewish settlement in Jerusalem is the investment in security. Of the Housing and Construction Ministry's annual budget for 2010, more than 54 million NIS were diverted for paying private contractors to guard the 2,000 Jewish settlers of East Jerusalem. This translates evenly to 27,000 NIS per settler (though the figure is much higher for those living in more hostile environments and lower for those who rarely need such security measures). The fatal shooting in Silwan illustrated the problems involved when virtual militias are deployed in residential neighborhoods. Indeed, while the conduct of the police in these neighborhoods is far from perfect and routinely criticized, it is still governed by a public code and standards of accountability that are plainly lacking from the private security apparatus.

A crucial point to bear in mind is that the investment diverted to support Jewish presence in Palestinian neighborhoods is carried out on top of a backdrop of years of neglect to these areas, considerably worse-off in terms of public infrastructure in comparison to West Jerusalem and other Israeli cities in general. The severe shortage in schools, medical facilities playgrounds, etc., is acknowledged by the authorities, but a much-needed change of policy is not being implemented.

ACRI's report "Unsafe Space" brings to light Palestinian residents' testimonies concerning the routine physical and verbal aggression, including racial slurs, directed against them and their children by settlers and their visitors. Such complaints, it is important to note, are also sounded by Jewish residents. But while the Police and Border Patrol make a genuine effort to provide safe shelter for settlers, and to ensure that Palestinians suspected of violence are interrogated and brought to trial, the treatment of Palestinians' complaints is entirely different. In cases when Palestinians decide to file official complaints with the police against perpetrators of violence, they are often treated with disregard and indifference, or worse -- are themselves named as suspects. Complaints against Jewish residents and security guards are too often dismissed without serious investigation, even in cases when Palestinian victims have suffered severe physical injuries. Moreover, complaints made against Palestinians have often resulted in their detention, at times for several days, and restriction orders have also been issued to prohibit them from entering their own neighborhoods for weeks or more.

But the scope of the support received by settler groups is not merely confined to an unequal application of the law. Indeed, several recent visits by high-up officials to Silwan underscore the tight cooperation between settler groups and the state. In August, Attorney-General Yehuda Winstein, State Attorney Moshe Lador and Jerusalem Police Chief Aharon Franko paid a surprise and covert visit to the neighborhood. While the Justice Ministry initially denied that Winstein and Lador had met with Jewish residents and representatives, the official version was quickly altered after Palestinians released a video showing the head of the ELAD group, David Be'eri, climbing with the officials to the rooftop of a compound previously owned by a Palestinian family, now in the hands of ELAD, and speaking to them at length. That several ongoing court cases against ElAD are pending, it should hardly require pointing out that a Justice Ministry responsible for formulating the State's legal positions should not be associating with implicated organizations.

Palestinians have pleaded time and again for a change of policy in the neighborhood, yet the high-delegation chose to come to the neighborhood and ignore them. As a letter by representatives of Wadi Hilwe, a sub-neighborhood of Silwan, noted of the incident: "Many of us fear that the actions taken by the police and the law enforcement system in Silwan stem from an attempt to assist the settlers, and are possibly even carried out with their direct involvement… [Making] it extremely difficult for us to maintain any confidence in the Israeli law enforcement system".

Sadly, this trend shows no indication of reversing. Following in the footsteps of the Attorney-General and State Prosecutor, Knesset Members and other officials have repeatedly arrived in Silwan to meet with settler representatives. Just two weeks ago, the Knesset State Comptroller Committee, discussing zoning and building in Silwan, held its meeting in Beit Yehonatan, a settler house in the center of Silwan which was built in defiance of the neighborhood building restrictions. They too did not meet a single Palestinian representative.

Yet for all of the problems that Silwan continues to face, it is far from the exception when it comes to East Jerusalem. Indeed, things are looking nearly as bleak in nearby neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, north of the Old City, where Palestinians are being evicted from their homes to make way for right-wing Israeli nationalists. The evictions have led to the creation of an unusually strong activism movement, now known as "Solidarity", which has been organizing weekly protests for more than a year in the neighborhood attended by Israelis, Palestinians and internationals. Yet a few days after Sarhan was shot and turbulence was felt across East Jerusalem, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that settler groups would be allowed to obtain the rights to a large plot in the western portion of the Sheikh Jarrah which had previously been unaffected. The decision means the properties' owners, including settler representatives, will be able to initiate proceedings for the eviction of dozens of Palestinian families living on the property.

What events in Silwan (and Sheikh Jarrah) underscore is that the political battle over Jerusalem seems to have entered a new phase. Ideologically driven ultra-nationalist and settler groups are increasingly calling the shots and working to change the city's borders and landscape. Having succeeded in garnering the support and backing of the Israeli authorities, including the Police and Jerusalem Municipality, these groups are settling growing numbers of Jewish families in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods. And left without the backing of the Israeli establishment, Palestinians' sense of safety in their own neighborhoods has rapidly deteriorated and their basic rights infringed upon on a daily basis (for an example of what this situation looks like on the ground, see yesterday's 60 Minutes report on Israeli efforts to create an archaeological tourist attraction in the biblical ‘city of David'--right in the middle of Silwan). This is done in contravention of Israeli law, which for the most part details provisions for equal rights to citizens and permanent residents of the country.

In this neighborhood conflict, the Israeli authorities have taken sides: the young settlement guard's salary in Silwan, the jeep, and the fortification of the family house are all paid for by the Israeli taxpayer and meant to protect Silwan's Jewish settlers. And as some of the local Palestinians' attitude to the new neighbors efforts to "Judaize" the neighborhood is not hospitable, to say the least, and in some cases involves violent reactions, this is considered a security necessity.

Legally, the situation in Jerusalem is different than that in the Occupied Territories, where Palestinians are subject to military ruling. Yet those familiar with the situation that has evolved in Hebron cannot but help make the comparison to East Jerusalem, and in particular with the Holy Basin around the Old City: in both places a small minority of ideologically driven Israeli Jews have taken control over space, and with the support of the authorities they maneuver the Israeli security forces to subject the majority Palestinian community to their whims. In Hebron it has led to numerous and reoccurring violations of human rights and episodic violence. Where once Palestinian commerce thrived, a ghost town today exists.  That talk of "Hebronization" is being heard more often than before in the streets of Jerusalem is enough to underscore the severity of the current situation.

Tali Nir is an attorney and director of the Human Rights in East Jerusalem Project at The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI)