The Middle East Channel

Building a police state in Palestine

"If we are building a police state -- what are we actually doing here?" So asked a European diplomat responding to allegations of torture by the Palestinian security forces. The diplomat might well ask. A police state is not a state. It is a form of larceny: of people's rights, aspirations and sacrifices, for the personal benefit of an élite. This is not what the world meant when it called for statehood. But a police state is what is being assiduously constructed in Palestine, disguised as state-building and good governance. Under this guise, its intent is to facilitate the authoritarianism which creates sufficient popular dependency -- and fear -- to strangle any opposition.

The transition from the lofty aspiration of statehood to a scheme intended to usher West Bank Palestinians into a new alleviated containment -- a new form of remotely-managed occupation -- is not some unfortunate error. The roots of this manipulation of the Palestinian aspiration into its opposite -- cynically dressed up and sold as statehood -- were present from the outset. Professor Yezid Sayyigh has shown how U.S. and EU rhetoric "promoting democratic development and the rule of law is pious at best, at worst disingenuous". Both America and Europe bear responsibilities for this betrayal.

The seed of this deception which was to grow into a new police state in the region was the US and European acquiescence to Israel's self-definition of its own security needs -- and by extension, Israel's definition of the requirements for Palestinian security collaboration. This Faustian pact, which prioritized Israel's security-led criteria as the boundaries for negotiations -- above any principles of justice -- set the scene for the inevitable inflation of Israeli demands of security collusion by the Palestinian leadership -- demands on which America's ‘war on terrorism' poured fuel.

The hidden, and false, western assumption was that if a two-state solution was in the interest of the dominant party, all that the Palestinians needed to do was to establish that a stable two-state solution was available to Israel. And in the end, it would emerge simply because it was in Israel's demographic interest to give it. On this false premise, the Abbas-led Ramallah leadership embraced security collusion comprehensively. The western state-building project was conceived simply with the aim of providing Palestinian efficiency in the delivery of security collusion, nicely wrapped in a discourse of security reform and good governance.  But the problem is that the underlying assumption -- that Israel was going to give the Palestinians a sovereign state in its own interest -- was false.  

If Palestinian state-building is understood as a pact by which Palestinian institutions are built and shaped to facilitate security-collusion -- in expectation that this will cause Israel to see it to be in its own interest to give Palestinians a state -- then the overall matrix of western policy becomes clear. It is a pre-requisite of Oslo and subsequent agreements that the PA should work with the IDF -- "with the participation of US security officials" -- to defeat and dismantle any opposition to this project, and, as Mrs Clinton reminded Mahmoud Abbas last year, this demand extends to Hamas -- unless it should accept the Quartet's conditions.

These principles are not new: they are long-established principles of American counter-insurgency dating back to the US campaign in the early 1900s against Filipino ‘rebels' and were adopted in subsequent conflicts. This doctrine has combined the establishment of harsh, unaccountable security apparati to a ‘benevolency pacification': Security strongmen evolve to control the business and financial sectors.

In the Palestinian context this pacification has come to mean something far more extensive than the original Oslo demand for collusion with Israel to dismantle and destroy Oslo's opponents. Indeed, the concept is being used to create a politico-security and economic architecture and élite in order to implement a benevolency pacification. In return the elites receive significant material benefits and privileges. So successful has this political and security architecture been in normalizing the West Bank that the then US Assistant Secretary of State, hailed it as "the best Palestinian Authority government in history". 

These oligarchs dominate key political, economic and security positions, and in many instances own and direct key companies in the new Palestinian landscape. A recent expose by Reuters documenting "Washington's growing role in the Palestinian private sector which is dominated by a small group of wealthy companies and investors linked by a web of cross-holdings", singled out Mahmoud Abbas' two sons, both of whom have received contracts from USAID for millions of dollars, including one to "improve America's image in the Palestinian Territories". Another oligarch -- reportedly on the payroll of the CIA and Britain's intelligence services -- is Mohamed Dahlan, who, from his position as head of security in Gaza, oversaw the use of pitchforks at crossings and the oil monopoly established with the Israeli company Dor, which reportedly made him many millions of dollars. (Dahlan is currently under investigation by Fateh). Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's remark in a thank-you speech to Mrs Clinton on receipt of $150 million for the PA last November aptly summed up the general situation of the created dependency: "there is hardly any sign of visible progress on the ground today in Palestine that does not have the caring prints of USAID on it".

The security apparati being created, in tandem with a second-generation of monopolies and concentrations of economic power, have little to no domestic transparency or accountability. Effectively, final control rests with Israel, the CIA and other external intelligence services. Western diplomats and officials have described the relationship between the CIA and the two Palestinian security bodies responsible for most of the torture of Hamas supporters as being "so close that the American agency appears to be supervising the Palestinians' work". In the wake of the Hamas 2006 election victory, funding for these security services increased, and continued to be off-balance sheet: it was supplied by western donors and their regional allies, covertly.

A major addition to this covert funding has been official funding for the so-called ‘Dayton Battalions', a paramilitary forced trained and funded by the Americans and some Europeans under the former guidance of Gen. Keith Dayton -- and who now number over 8,000 armed men. So successful have these battalions been -- 2009 figures show a 72% increase in co-ordinated activities between Palestinian and Israeli forces -- that even senior IDF commanders asked how many more of these ‘new Palestinians' Dayton could generate, and how quickly?

The Dayton Battalion recruits have a single allegiance. Israel vets every recruit; the PA, the Jordanian government and a US database also approve each candidate. Israel notes the serial numbers of each and every weapon issued to Palestinian security forces -- and maintains the right of veto on all equipment issued. Even the security forces' performance is determined by Israel: as one Western diplomat explained, the main criterion is Israeli satisfaction: "If the Israelis tell us that this is working well, we consider it a success".

Across the board, donors -- including the EU and the UN  and of course the US -- are financing and implementing the construction of the infrastructural matrix for the security sector -- including prisons (the EU is providing the bulk of funding for 52 prisons -- "more prisons than schools" a security analyst told me during a recent visit to the West Bank), new security facilities and camps in 8 Palestinian cities (each intelligence agency has its own detention center in each town), an academy and a host of training colleges, security force barracks and other facilities.* The principal target for this security infrastructure has been Hamas. Campaigns ostensibly to re-establish public order have provided the cover to clamp down predominantly on Hamas: Palestinian human rights groups have documented over 10,000 supporters of Hamas being arrested by the PA security forces since 2007. The current police/security-to-population ratio in Palestine -- 1:80 -- is not only one of the highest in the world, but is also financially unsustainable.

Torture by Palestinian security forces of opposition detainees, mostly Hamas, is common: "At the very least", notes a Western diplomat, "US intelligence officers were aware of the torture, and not doing enough to stop it". Anyone with supposed Islamist tendencies is denied work, or sacked from the public sector (since employment -- as well as holding a position on any civil society board -- requires a good conduct certificate issued by the security services).

General Majd Faraj, Commander of West Bank General Intelligence Service summarized, in a joint liaison meeting with the IDF, his vision: "There is no rivalry between us...we have a common enemy...there are no more games. Hamas is the enemy. We have decided to go to war against it...there will be no dialogue...You made a hudna (truce) with them. We didn't".

The detailed security objectives, which according to some sources have been approved by Mahmoud Abbas (and who reconfirmed his commitment to these principles last month, despite his own conflicting record on the issue) in conversation with former senior Israeli security officials, are contained in an annex to the Geneva Initiative. They include the de-militarization of the PA, limits to its weapons holdings, and an Israeli presence in the non-militarized Palestinian state and the deployment of one Israeli and three multi-national infantry battalions in the Jordan Valley--purportedly for 36 months. It also envisages Israeli involvement at the Jordan and Egyptian border crossings and Israeli overflights of Palestinian territory.

In addition, Salam Fayyad has proposed to the Israeli Defence Minister that the number of Palestinian West Bank police stations be doubled, and that Israel reduce the number of roadblocks contingent upon Dayton forces assuming these tasks. Fayyad had already sought Israeli approval for the number of Dayton battalions to be doubled from 12 to 25.

Democracy, which was once a key component of the institution-building project, has all but disappeared. Having removed elected Hamas officials from office under the guise of faulty performance, and with accountable democratic bodies suspended and local elections recently postponed, the PA effectively operates an ad-hoc and unaccountable legislative process: the rule of law is administered by decrees issued by a President whose own legitimacy is contested. Abbas' official mandate ended in January 2009 and the Prime Minister and cabinet are appointed by the President, effectively operating with no constitutional basis.

In place of accountable institutions, Mahmoud Abbas has proposed the establishment of a new General Council -- to be composed of 451 members. It would subsume Fateh's Central Committee and Revolutionary Council, with all remaining members to be directly appointed by Abbas. According to credible reports, Abbas has already used a new committee in the PLO to approve decisions that he knew would be rejected by existing leadership bodies, which, as one analyst comments, "Effectively provides Abbas with the power to replace the current members of leadership bodies"; members are "effectively dependent on Abbas for their positions".

In the financial sector, the picture similarly is one of a lack of accountability: take, for example, the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF). Set up under the guidance of a number of US institutions in 2002, the aim of the PIF was to close the secret bank accounts from the Arafat era into which billions of dollars had been siphoned and to transfer the funds to the Palestinian treasury. Originally under the control of the Minister of Finance, and Arafat's former economic adviser, Mohamed Rashid, Arafat's secretive money-man, the board was to consist of representatives from the public and private sector, including 3 ministers. By 2004 it held $ 1 billion. But in the wake of the 2006 election, Abbas amended the PIF articles of association by decree: All public figures -- including all ministers and Fayyad himself -- were removed, and the PIF was subsumed into the PLO. Today, explains a former senior Palestinian official, "the board is reshuffled every few weeks according to the changing preferences of the very narrow circle in the Muqata'a that controls the PIF". It is not clear whether the amendments made by presidential decree were legal, but more importantly: "if the raison d'etre for setting up the PIF was to retrieve the outstanding accounts and reimburse the funds to the national treasury, as the World Bank and IMF called on Arafat to do, why are these institutions and the donor community at large now looking the other way?".

The classic components of a counter-insurgency strategy are clearly being worked out for Palestine: the establishment of a Palestinian élite committed to working to this American-(Israeli) plan, the establishment of security services whose only allegiance is to this pro-American élite, full-spectrum control over the economy, destruction of all opposition to the project, employment provision and foreign aid directed at the delivery of economic benefits to the population (‘improved quality of life') sufficient to suggest at least a semblance of popular support in order to offset the odium of authoritarianism, and the financial dependency of the people on the élite.

This is the level to which statehood has descended. Full demilitarization -- taken to the limit -- has essentially become no more than occupation by another name. And it has in the process shut out any alternative attempts at nation-building and the mobilization of the Palestinian nation under the umbrella of a reformed PLO. But this, of course, is what the current paradigm has hoped to destroy.

*[Correction]: The author would like to offer sincere apologies to UNDP for wrongly stating that they were involved in funding the building of 52 prisons in the OPT in the original version of this article. It is in fact the EU which is funding the bulk of the prison-building project. While the UN Office of Project Services has built a number of prisons, UNDP is not involved in financing or building prisons in the OPT.

Aisling Byrne is Projects Co-ordinator with Conflicts Forum and is based in Beirut 

The Middle East Channel

Tunisia: booting up a development model or back to the future?

Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" is the first successful uprising in the Arab world against a post-colonial state. While at present, Arab audiences and commentators are focused on the uprising itself, attention will soon shift to the new political order that is to come. A successful "Tunisian model" would further embolden Arab citizens against their incumbent governments, which have equally threadbare nationalist legitimacies, while a failure would likely intensify Arabs' despair and resignation. Little Tunisia, therefore, is carrying a heavy regional political weight, something it has not done since the late President Bourguiba (1903-2000) emerged in the 1960s as a champion of modernization, forging "un pays pilote," or model for the developing world.

May Tunisia really recover its lead role? The challenge this time will not be as easy as in the 1960s, the "Decade of Development." Tunisia, however, weathered the structural adjustment required by the new global order and is relatively well positioned after years of reasonably successful economic stewardship under ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2010). Its average per capita growth rate of three percent since 1987 is tops for the Middle East and North Africa region, although less than half East Asia's. Tunisia has a broad middle class that enjoys widespread home ownership, 80 percent of the population by official accounts. Its broad based bilingual educational system offers a solid foundation for a knowledge-based economy. Investments in research and development, though pitiful by Western standards, are unrivaled by other Arab states as a proportion of GDP. The culture of modernization bequeathed by the Bourguiba era (1955-1987) remains embedded in the society despite the years of repression at the hands of Ben Ali's police state.

The Jasmine Revolution, however, occurs in a political wasteland. The revolution had no leader or organization apart from friends of friends interacting over Facebook and Twitter. There are few intermediary bodies, political parties or NGOs that have any credibility because they have been compromised and contaminated by Ben Ali's police state. The new transitional government headed by Mohammed Ghannouchi and presided over by interim President Fouad Mebazza has little credibility, although the leftovers from the Ben Ali era -- who, at least today, still occupy all the key ministries -- are for the most part technocrats who were not directly associated with Ben Ali's thieving family networks, the principal target of the revolution.

As for the institutions which make democracy possible -- including civil society, political parties, parliament, local government and even the state administration -- they are in Tunisia, as in most Arab republics, even less vibrant than they were at the end of the colonial era. Moreover, those new nations were united by nationalism, which in Tunisia was overwhelmingly secular, albeit with a deep spirit of Islam supporting that nationalism. Now, however, there is no such unity of belief or purpose. Islamists and secularists, for example, have  profound disagreements about the role of religion in public life. Has the Jasmine Revolution overcome these political fissures?

Perhaps. But frequently overlooked and potentially just as divisive are disagreements over the model that should inspire economic policy. While the post-colonial era witnessed contention between those who favored more open or closed, more private or public sector dominated economies, by and large the public, import substitution model came to prevail. That approach has given way to more export oriented, private sector economies throughout the Arab world, although not with the same positive results nor near universal acceptance as the model has in East Asia, for example. The Arab version of private sector, export led growth, constrained by lack of transparency and accountability, has achieved only modest economic gains, enriched regime cronies and left behind youths, rural populations and many others. Small wonder then if Tunisia's unemployed youths (and their parents) are more desirous of public employment than of broad reforms required to stimulate real, broad-based economic growth. The task of building consensus around a new economic model -- hence reallocating substantial resources -- will be just as demanding as forging a consensus about the proper role of religion in public life.

The present economic situation, although difficult, is not desperate. Some four percent of GDP has been lost in the month of rioting. Tourism, which accounts for over six percent of GDP, is on hold. But in the medium term, private investment, deterred by the thievery of the Ben Ali regime, may pick up and generate higher rates of growth. Arguably the greater participation of the Tunisian people will enable the government to exact the necessary sacrifices equitably, while also benefiting from the return of the 1.5 million tons of gold and other assets that the Ben Ali family had stripped from the economy. This assumes, however, that a reshuffled transitional government, supported by the military, can perform the necessary lobotomy of the Ben Ali regime.

They are off to a good start. The army has mopped up the remnants of Ben Ali's presidential police guard and others bent on destabilizing Tunisia after Ben Ali's departure. They have also arrested some of the more notorious members of the ex-First Lady Leila's Trabelsi family, because Ben Ali's ignoble getaway must have taken some of the family by surprise. Dangers still lie ahead, however.

When Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar refused to order his troops to fire on demonstrators, President Ben Ali had no choice but to flee. Thus the military has emerged from the wreckage of the post-colonial state with its good reputation further enhanced. It provides, therefore, a potential political base for a new regime. Given the paucity of viable political organizations after a generation of repression under Ben Ali, the scenario of a military caretaker government is not out of the question. One but need recall that Nasser's Revolutionary Command Council was initially presented as such to know how such caretaker status can become permanent.

The further temptation to open the state's coffers may be difficult to resist. Indeed, then Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, two days before the regime fell, sought to quell discontent by announcing a dramatic increase in governmental jobs for young graduates. Since it is they who sparked the Jasmine Revolution, they can now reasonably expect rewards yet more generous than Ghannouchi promised.

So the political ingredients for a new authoritarian populist regime are present. It would be history as farce, however, were Tunisia, and possibly others in the Arab world, to squander its revolutionary opportunity by going back to the future in this fashion. But the task of building a new political order that can provide democracy and development is, if anything, even more challenging than it was for the immediate post-colonial political elites.

A moment of truth is thus at hand for Tunisia and the Arab world more broadly. Can the country's new leaders, whoever they will be, fashion a new political order that avoids their predecessors' mistakes? Can they successfully build a democracy that delivers sustained economic development? The removal of the corrupt dictatorship was necessary, but not in itself sufficient for Tunisia. The country must employ its people and to do so it must further industrialize in a very competitive global marketplace. The inter-related tasks of democratizing and developing the economy have been achieved in Turkey, so they are not insurmountable even in the lagging Middle East and North Africa. Let us hope that this time Tunisia, like Turkey, looks to the future, rather than its past, as it struggles to re-organize its polity and economy.

Clement M. Henry is a Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. Robert Springborg is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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