An incident in the West Bank last week should serve as a stark reminder that at its foundation, Israeli-Palestinian security coordination is a fairly tenuous arrangement: Colonel Ahmed Abu al Rub, the chief of the Palestinian police in Hebron, was pulled off the job after images leaked showing him helping Israeli soldiers replace a flat tire on their jeep. Al Rub’s suspension comes down to a question of whether his actions should be viewed as common courtesy and professional imperative, or as collaboration with a hostile foreign power. That debate speaks to the broader controversy in Palestinian society surrounding security cooperation with Israeli forces in the West Bank, and whether or not it has been useful in achieving sovereignty. Though this incident alone is unlikely to definitively sink the Israel-Palestinian Authority relationship, it will undoubtedly make it even more unpopular in the public eye, especially as al Rub’s conduct is juxtaposed with Hamas’ “armed resistance.”

At this point, it is easy to treat Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation solely as a cynical ploy on the part of the Fatah-dominated PA, which aims to stabilize an authoritarian statelet at the expense of political rivals, namely Hamas. That analysis isn’t so much wrong as it is incomplete. The PA Security Forces (PASF, an umbrella term covering several institutions) have doled out harsh abuses against dissidents on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat before him. In a way, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank also helps keep the PA in power, and the experience of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza after Israeli ground forces withdrew in 2005 likely gives some leaders in Ramallah pause. But it is important to take stock of the original and enduring purpose of the security arrangements between Israel and the PA (from the Palestinian perspective): to facilitate the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Relations with Israel are a touchy subject throughout the Arab world, where anti-Semitism remains pervasive. Even in Egypt, which boasts four decades of official peace with Israel, state security has been known to harass citizens for visiting a Cairo-based Israeli cultural center. These trends are only exacerbated among Palestinians, who experience the conflict most immediately and understandably feel aggrieved by many of Israel’s actions over the last seven decades. Two states will always be a hard sell when many Palestinians feel Israel’s very existence is illegitimate, but a plurality in the territories accept it as the best way to achieve independence. However, supporting Israeli security forces without any obvious return does nothing to benefit this compromise-minded constituency. West Bank residents already encounter enough incitement against Israel absent the real damage caused when leaders in Jerusalem openly flaunt their intentions to perpetually deny true sovereignty to the Palestinians.

Israel benefits greatly from its understandings with the PASF, which just this August thwarted a major bombing plot against IDF troops in the West Bank. The United States sponsors the PASF along with a U.S. Security Coordinator mission under the direction of a three-star American general stationed in Jerusalem, who supports the professionalization of the Palestinians’ security apparatus. Leaders in Washington and Jerusalem ignore the broader implications of episodes like Colonel al Rub’s suspension at their own peril. The reformation of the PASF under American patronage after the Second Intifada (in which PA forces directly and indirectly abetted terror attacks against Israelis) is a rare success story in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, but that victory is barely over a decade old and its longevity is hardly guaranteed. And the al Rub story, while not catastrophic by itself (except perhaps for the erstwhile Hebron police chief’s own career), cannot be viewed in isolation.

It is easy to treat Israel-PASF ties as a given. Even U.S. President Donald Trump has lavished praise on the PA’s paramilitary, police, and intelligence agencies, remarking during a 2017 visit by Mahmoud Abbas to Washington, “I also applaud the Palestinian Authority’s continued security coordination,” and observing (somewhat hyperbolically) that “they work together [with Israel] beautifully.” But the phrase “security coordination” is general and non-descriptive, and it belies just how delicate the relationship can be. Cooperation rarey entails PASF catching someone themselves and handing the suspect over to Israel. Rather, the PA may facilitate Israel’s interception of an individual, provide intelligence to Israeli forces, and preempt attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers. The most public element of security cooperation, joint patrols by PA and Israeli troops, has not survived to the present day, and 68 percent of Palestinians support a perennial and so far unenforced P.L.O. resolution calling for an end to security cooperation. There is a reason the PA is now straining to contain the fallout from last week’s incident, with al Rub suspended and Palestinian Authority Hebron Governor Jabrin al Bakri putting forth a bizarre story that the police chief was actually helping to “end our suffering and reopen the road for us [Palestinians]” by expediting the disabled IDF vehicle’s departure.

Considering how unpopular this largely behind-the-scenes program already is, the sight of a PA police commander assisting Israeli troops in the open must have felt especially incendiary to Palestinians — even if it was something as mundane as changing a flat tire.

Matzav-R copy
We respect your privacy.