The West Bank town of Tamun northeast of Nablus is in many respects a typical West bank village. Its 10,000-plus residents are Muslim, divided among two large families — Bani Odeh and Bsharat. A large percentage were compelled to exchange employment in Israel for subsistence agriculture when Israel restricted access to Palestinians from the West Bank as a consequence of the Second Intifada that erupted in 2000. Residents are still trying to claw their way back to a standard of living that dropped by a third from 2000 to 2004.
The town's name is derived from the Arabic word tammen, which means quiet. But life in the village has been anything but quiet in recent days. On Jan. 1, a covert unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered the village to arrest two men linked to Islamic Jihad. One of the two, Murad Ban Odeh, was arrested in an operation that, when exposed, sparked a confrontation between stone-throwing villagers and regular troop reinforcements that raged for hours.
A small contingent of Palestinian police is stationed in the village, but in keeping with their operating protocols, they did not intervene as long as Israeli forces were present.
The IDF has been at pains to describe the confrontation as nothing out of the ordinary — neither the decision to enter the area in search of suspected bad guys nor the Palestinian response. They are right. There is noting unusual in what happened in Tammun. Israel routinely operates in areas of the West Bank under nominal Palestinian authority, rolling up those who have come to the attention of Israel's security services. They call it “mowing the grass.” And when it does, Palestinian police and others from the PA's National Security Forces and its intelligence agencies grit their teeth and sit on their hands.
Nothing unusual happened in Tammun on New Year's Day ... and that is the problem. In Gaza, Israel is building a relationship with Hamas and its security forces led by the Izzedin al Qassam and undertaking measures to ease Gaza's economic and political isolation. It has all but recognized the government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniye and Hamas politburo chairman Khaled Meshal as its formal interlocutor, much to the dismay of its Oslo partner Mahmoud Abbas, whose writ long ago stopped running there despite the impressive crowds that tuned out today [Friday] to celebrate Fatah’s anniversary. In contrast, in the West Bank, Israel by its actions across a broad settlement, security, and economic front, is undermining the popular legitimacy and the esprit de corps of the Palestinian political and security institutions it has created to facilitate its rule.
Israelis and Palestinians alike are increasingly disenchanted with a security relationship whose disintegration would be a disaster for both but a surprise to neither. A senior Palestinian security official recently observed (to me) that he would rather have the problems of Gaza security forces, which operate with an autonomy he can only dream about, than his own in the West Bank. And who can blame him? In Gaza, Palestinians have an army of sorts that fights a well-defined enemy, protects its territory, and arms in whatever way it can manage. None of these classic instruments of sovereignty exist in the West Bank, where the PA is a junior partner to its friend cum enemy Israel and its brothers in Hamas are its adversaries. Its forces are committed to a security agenda defined in Tel Aviv. They don't control a centimeter of space and are prohibited from confronting their most existential threats — the settlers and the IDF.
No less an observer than former prime minister Ehud Olmert says that the Palestinian security forces “are deeply frustrated and feel that their leaders, whom they feel are adopting policies of appeasement, will eventually forsake them. Their situation is unbearable.”
Their situation may be unbearable, as Olmert says. But it is also true that they have performed the duties that Israel has defined for them better than anyone could have expected. It is much to their credit that they have saved the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike. They have kept Palestinian demonstrators out of harm's way by barring their way to Israeli-manned checkpoints, and not only because of Israel's dictates but also because its serves a Palestinian interest. They have pursued domestic opponents in Hamas, and maintained their cohesion and effectiveness in an environment characterized by diplomatic stalemate and Hamas' growing power.
Yet it is one of the ironies of the Oslo process that the PA is undermined even when it succeeds. The achievements of its security services have, at best, won the praise of Israeli security officials but little else. And as long as “quiet” reigns in the West Bank, American efforts to build on their achievements and to end occupation — the heart of the bargain that enables Palestinian officers to report every day — have instead gone missing.
Defensive Shield — the April 2002 reintroduction of IDF throughout the West Bank — closed the book on an Israel’s willingness to accommodate a Palestinian interest in increasing the ability of its security forces to act autonomously and to control territory. Since then Israel has been prepared to tolerate the resurrection of security forces in order to keep the Americans busy and as long as they are kept on a very tight leash.
The foundations of this system have never been solid but they are now shaking. The day of the Tammun incident, Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave voice to what is becoming an Israeli consensus, when he said that “every intelligent person knows that Hamas could take over the Palestinian Authority.”
In the last couple of months, and especially since Israel's intervention in Gaza and November's UN vote on Palestine, a cascade of direct confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians have erupted throughout the West Bank. Settlers continue their daily assault on Palestinian land and a terror underground mounts brazen “price tag” attacks on Palestinian property with impunity. During Pillar of Defense, Israeli officials recorded a threefold increase in security-related incidents initiated by Palestinians throughout the West Bank. These incidents create dynamic situations in which security forces of the Palestinian Authority may break out of the ever smaller box built for them, either by intentionally “switching sides” and confronting the IDF or settlers, or simply by ceasing to operate under the pressure of events.
Almost four years ago, Lt. General Keith Dayton, then the U.S. security coordinator responsible for standing up the new Palestinian National Security Forces, acknowledged that many Palestinians were accusing the Palestinian battalions he was training as being no more than “enforcers of the Israeli occupation. With big expectations,” he said, “come big risks. There is perhaps a two year shelf life on being told that you are creating a state, when you’re not.” In the absence of what used to be called a “political horizon” the PA security forces have continued to perform long past their sell-by date.
Geoffrey Aronson has long been active in Track II diplomatic efforts on various Middle East issues. He writes widely on regional affairs.