What About Palestinian Security?

The American approach to peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians has tended to prioritize different concerns for either side. For the Israelis, the focus is usually on security, for the Palestinians, sovereignty. But a recent episode in the West Bank highlights the need for greater attention to Palestinian security needs in the context of continuing Israeli occupation.

On January 7, a group of Israeli settlers from the outpost of Esh Kodesh approached the nearby village of Qusra, allegedly for the purpose of carrying out a “price tag” attack. “Price tag” is the term for acts of settler vandalism and violence against Palestinian persons and property carried out specifically in response to Israeli government acts against settlement expansion, with the goal being to raise the political price of moving against settlements. (In this case, the offending action was the Israeli army’s destruction of an agricultural plot near the Esh Kodesh outpost.)

According to an eyewitness report, the settlers began attacking Palestinian villagers and attempting to uproot olive trees in the fields lying between their village and the settlement. A smaller group of settlers proceeded into the village, where they fought with villagers, and were chased and cornered in the upper floor of an unfinished house. Local elders prevented further violence until the Israeli army arrived to take the settlers away. 

As was noted afterward by Israeli journalist Yossi Gurvitz, the Israeli army admitted seeing the settlers approaching Qusra, but did nothing to stop them.

On January 15, settlers took revenge for the thwarted attack in Qusra, setting fire to the entrance of a mosque in the village of Deir Istiya and writing “Arabs out” and “Revenge for blood spilled in Qusra” in Hebrew on its walls.

Far from rare, such attacks have become a regular feature of life for Palestinians in the West Bank. A new United Nations report notes that the rate of settler attacks has quadrupled in the last several years.

But the phenomenon of unchecked settler violence is only one particularly egregious aspect of the occupation, which inflicts regular acts of violence on its Palestinian subjects as a matter of course, from the checkpoints and closures that keep Palestinian communities separated from each other, making normal economic or social life all but impossible, to more serious abuses such as those against children in Israeli detention.

Stories are regularly filed out of the West Bank warning of a simmering intifada, but most spend little if any time detailing the daily hardships that might fuel such an uprising. And even though there’s virtual unanimity among Israeli commentators and experts that the Palestinian Authority has met and exceeded its security commitments—“This is the best security cooperation we’ve had in years,” retired Brigadier General Shlomo Brom said in October – the perception, particularly in the American media, is that it’s always Israelis who require security from Palestinians, not the other way around.

“There is an assumption in Washington that security is solely for Israel and economic development is for Palestinians. This kind of thinking is wrong,” says Husam Zomlot, a senior Fatah official. “[Palestinians] are the ones who are occupied, who need security the most. Not only in terms of sovereignty, but also because of the history of their rights being infringed and violated constantly. There is a grave need for a sense of collective security.”

“The problem isn’t that the U.S. focus on Israeli security needs comes at the expense of Palestinian security,” says Khaled Elgindy, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. “For the U.S., Israeli security has always been paramount, and in any case, I don’t view Israeli and Palestinian security as mutually exclusive but rather as complementary. The problem is that the U.S., as a rule, places far more emphasis on Israeli needs and demands than it does on Palestinian needs or even rights.”

The Israeli desire for security has often been balanced against the Palestinian desire for sovereignty, with demands on the former requiring concessions on the latter. “Since security is Israel’s overriding concern, the [Obama] administration believes that if they can satisfy Israel’s main security concerns this will make them more forthcoming on issues like territory and Jerusalem,” Elgindy says. “Thus, in the administration’s view, if Palestinians hope to have a contiguous state with a capital in Jerusalem, they will have to make some major concessions in the area of security, namely by accepting limitations on their sovereignty” such as a long-term Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.

The problem with this, Elgindy says, is that Palestinian security performance has not been met by any meaningful Israeli reciprocation. The West Bank is still dotted with dozens of checkpoints, Israeli troops still stage incursions into areas ostensibly under Palestinian Authority control, and Israel’s settlements continue to grow and suffocate Palestinian communities. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, who spent several years training Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, warned that a lack of meaningful progress would eventually cause security cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis to collapse. “There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you're creating a state, when you're not,” he said—in 2009.

The Israeli security vs. Palestinian sovereignty framing also “reinforces the notion that Palestinian rights, including the right to self-determination, are somehow conditional,” Elgindy says. “As long as U.S. policymakers view Palestinian statehood as a conditional outcome rather than an inherent right, there is virtually no limit to the kinds of concessions they might seek to pressure the Palestinians into accepting.”

As I wrote several weeks ago, it’s a smart move by Secretary Kerry to address Israeli concerns up front, thereby removing another excuse on which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long relied to avoid making touch choices. Israeli security is, of course, important in its own right. But Palestinian security is no less so. And right now, Palestinians lack security amid an Israeli occupation in its forty-seventh year. It’s important that this be addressed as a part of the process Secretary Kerry is managing, even in advance of a final status deal.

“If you really want to have Palestinians support any peace deal, they would have to feel that the deal gives them the kind of security that they have been deprived of for all these years,” says Zomlot. “The Israelis have the best security they’ve ever had, the best security in the region, given everything else that is going on. Washington must stop thinking that security is a commodity that is only consumed in Israel. Everyone needs security, but Palestinians need it the most. It’s a scarce resource in Palestine.”

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