The improbable U.S. plan for a revitalized Palestinian security force

The improbable U.S. plan for a revitalized Palestinian security force

JERICHO, West Bank — At a U.S.-funded training center tucked between Jericho’s desert slopes, the next generation of Palestinian Authority security forces gripped their guns and readied for a mission.

The objective: arrest two “violators of the law” who had taken refuge in a restaurant. The location: a collection of metal trailers meant to mimic a Palestinian neighborhood. The gear: face masks, plastic weapons and paintball guns.

The recruits spread out methodically, moving in and apprehending the assailants without a shot being fired.

The training director, a colonel, looked on proudly. He spoke on the condition that he be identified by his rank to discuss sensitive issues.

“You see, we are very professional here,” he told The Washington Post last month at the Palestinian Authority’s Central Training Institute. “We are really trying.”

Post reporters were granted rare access to the training center, affording a look at the challenges faced by the Palestinian security forces — regarded by Washington as central to its plans for a strengthened Palestinian Authority that can help stabilize postwar Gaza. Despite two decades of reforms, the security forces remain chronically underfunded and widely unpopular, ill-equipped to take on the massive responsibilities that their Western backers are envisioning.

“As we strive for peace, Gaza and the West Bank should be reunited under a single governance structure, ultimately under a revitalized Palestinian Authority,” President Biden wrote in a Post op-ed in November. In the months since, U.S. envoys have shuttled among Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Arab capitals, trying to bring the president’s vision to life.

But the Palestinian Authority and its security forces are already struggling to maintain order in the West Bank. Hemmed in by the Israeli occupation, the force operates in ever-shrinking territory. Its members are subject to the same Israeli restrictions as their fellow Palestinians, while also being viewed by many in their communities as Israel’s repressive subcontractors.

The Palestinian security forces cannot intervene to stop Israeli settler violence or military raids. And they are not welcome in some Palestinian towns and cities, where militant groups have become the de facto authorities.

These days, members cannot even count on a steady paycheck.

The Palestinian Authority has paid employees less than half their salaries since Oct. 7 due to a tax revenue standoff with Israel. For the past year, the colonel said, the center has had no live ammunition for training because Israeli authorities have rejected import requests. Select groups are sent to Jordan to practice with real weapons.

Palestinian and Western officials said major efforts would be required to expand and train security forces at the scale needed for Gaza — and to get political buy-in from the Israeli government, which openly opposes the plan.

Boosting Palestinian security forces through the State Department would require a new mandate, a Western diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

“The PA is not ready to go to Gaza and won’t be anytime soon,” the diplomat said. “I don’t see them having the numbers to be able to do it, or the will, or the knowledge of Gaza.”

The colonel, 45, comes from a family of Palestinian refugees. Born in exile in Lebanon, he returned with his family to the West Bank after the mid-1990s Oslo peace accords, brokered by Washington, which set up the Palestinian Authority to govern over a future Palestinian state. Under the agreement, the authority was allowed a limited security force in place of an army.

The colonel has dedicated his career to serving the unrecognized state of Palestine and trying to improve its security forces. “This is my country,” he said. “It’s my duty.”

After the Palestinian Authority was driven from Gaza in 2007, its Western backers invested heavily in reforming its bloated, loosely organized units into a disciplined force that could effectively coordinate security with Israel. Over the years, as hopes of a two-state solution faded, many Palestinians came to view the force as an arm of the Israeli occupation, or a private militia that answered to their increasingly authoritarian leaders in Ramallah.

From the start, those leaders and their U.S. supporters cared about “the functionality and effectiveness of the security forces in containing any confrontation or pushback” to Palestinian Authority rule, and not public legitimacy, said Alaa Tartir, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But “all of that is not for the security of the Palestinian people,” he said. “And that is the ironic part. … It was reformed in order to deliver stability, security coordination and Israeli security first.”

West Bank protests spread over Gaza war; militants bide their time

Now 35,500 members strong, the force is often openly at odds with the public it is supposed to serve. Its members have cracked down on Palestinian protests against the war in Gaza. They have arrested alleged members of Hamas and critics of the Palestinian Authority. When Israeli forces raid Palestinian towns and cities, Palestinian security forces are instructed to stay inside.

“If I leave my job there will be chaos,” the colonel said. “No matter the challenges I face.”

The Jericho training center first opened in 1994, with a sister branch in Gaza, the colonel said. The current site, one of about 10 training facilities, was built in 2008, in the early days of U.S. efforts to rebuild, train and finance the force.

In 2005, Washington and seven allied nations set up the Jerusalem-based United States Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Initially, the USSC funded Palestinian training programs at Jordanian military academies, away from the pressures of local politics; over time, more programs shifted to the West Bank.

The State Department, which speaks on behalf of the USSC, declined to comment on Washington’s training plans.

The several branches of the PSF — among them the National Security Forces, Presidential Guard, Preventive Security and General Intelligence Services — report to Mahmoud Abbas, the 88-year-old Palestinian Authority president, who has not held elections since 2006.

On Feb. 26, he accepted the resignation of the Palestinian prime minister and his entire cabinet — the first step in a larger shake-up supported by Washington and Arab states — but there is skepticism over how much, if any, power Abbas will agree to relinquish.

Palestinian Authority gets a shake-up, but Abbas clings to power

Abbas and his predecessor, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, are depicted together in a mural overlooking the training center. On a recent morning, a new batch of customs police recruits marched by, nearly in unison. They wore matching fatigues with mismatched socks and sneakers.

“We yearn for darkness,” they chanted, lines by the late Syrian poet Najib al-Rayyes. “It won’t be long before the night is overcome by glorious dawn.”

Inside, some students study English and Hebrew. Others attend lectures on Palestinian criminal proceedings and simulations for interagency emergency responses. Since Oct. 7, internationally led trainings on topics such as gender rights and driving in high-risk operations have been put on pause, the colonel said.

The center can house only 900 trainees at a time. Foreign-funded plans to expand its capacity are ongoing, he said, but have been delayed.

Up a wind-swept road, the center’s 140,000-square foot shooting range has been silent since February 2023. The colonel said 400,000 rounds of training ammunition are in Jordan awaiting Israeli import permission.

COGAT, the Israeli military agency in charge of the Palestinian territories, did not respond to a request for comment.

“How can I maintain security with an officer who is not trained well?” said another colonel responsible for the shooting range, who also spoke on the condition that he be identified by his rank. “How can he be accurate in the field and deal with the weapons without fear?”

After having received more than a billion dollars in foreign funding, the Palestinian security forces are “a different ballgame” than under Arafat, said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute think tank and a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team.

“The problem is with the politicization of the security forces’ leadership,” he continued. “Seeing how bad the PA’s standing is right now, it’s very hard to see how they can perform security work.”

‘A very large challenge’

From his office in Ramallah, Palestinian security services spokesperson Talal Dweikat acknowledged the lack of public trust in the PSF. But the issue, he said, was a systemic one.

“When I’m in a city with my security forces, and the Israeli army comes in the daylight — entering Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron — isn’t this weakening the authority? Isn’t this a widening of the gap between it and the people?”

Who will run Gaza after the war? U.S. searches for best of bad options.

Since Hamas’s deadly attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli forces and settlers have killed more than 400 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to the United Nations, many in raids targeting militant groups that have taken root in the territory’s refugee camps.

The West Bank’s already fragile economy is on the verge of collapse.

Israel has withheld the monthly tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, which traditionally sends about half of the funds to Hamas-run Gaza to pay for salaries and services. The embattled administration in Ramallah had already been unable to pay full salaries for two years, Dweikat said. In the war’s first three months, payments were reduced even further.

“This is a very large challenge that obstructs your ability to enlist new conscripts,” he said, adding that supervisors have turned a blind eye to employees taking second jobs.

“If they are struggling now, just imagine adding 10,000 more people to the payroll,” the Western diplomat said.

The Palestinian leadership, for its part, has flatly rejected any role in Gaza that is not directly linked to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a postwar plan that envisioned indefinite Israeli military control over the enclave.

With U.S. encouragement, Palestinian officials have dusted off lists of their old security forces in Gaza, 17 years after Hamas violently ousted the authority from the enclave. Out of 26,000 names, only 2,000 to 3,000 are thought capable of becoming fit for duty.

Of those, it’s unclear how many are still alive.

The colonel said his forces were ready to train for Gaza — but on their own terms.

“If I had equipment, arrangements, political decisions, logistics, then we can discuss,” he said. “If we have orders [by the Palestinian president] to go, we go. Will it happen?” He laughed. “Neither Biden nor anyone can answer.”

Morris reported from Jerusalem.

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