Does shootout threaten Israeli-Palestinian security ties?

A recent run-in between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank raises questions about the future of their security coordination.

al-monitor An Israeli soldier takes a position as forces search for a Palestinian gunman, Nablus, West Bank, March 17, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

Jun 19, 2019

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The calm that had prevailed in Nablus in the northern West Bank turned into an overnight battle early June 11 after Israeli soldiers surrounded and opened fire on the Palestinian Preventive Security (PPS) headquarters. Palestinian security officers responded and two of the men were slightly wounded.

The exchange of fire was the most dangerous between Palestinian security forces and the Israeli army since Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002, when Israeli forces invaded Palestinian cities and destroyed Palestinian security headquarters.

According to the PPS, the recent clash broke out after they approached a civilian car that had raised suspicion as it was parked near the Nablus security headquarters. The car, however, was occupied by special Israeli forces, who opened fire after they were discovered; the Palestinians responded to the shooting. When Israeli military reinforcements arrived, they encircled the area and opened fire.

Burhan Mashaki, spokesman for the PPS, told Al-Monitor, “PPS officers were surprised with intense shooting from Israelis at the headquarters.” He said that they were shooting through the offices and corridors of the headquarters to kill, and security members obstructed their advancement.

Israel said the soldiers mistook the security forces for terrorist suspects they were seeking. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it is investigating the incident.

But Mashaki said, “The incident was intentional and highly organized. The Israeli forces entered and surrounded the headquarters, then military patrols and armored forces joined and opened heavy fire.”

The Palestinian government condemned the shootout, and its official spokesman, Ibrahim Melhem, said in a press statement June 11, “The Israeli attack on the PPS headquarters in Nablus portends a dangerous escalation that would undermine the tenets of establishing a Palestinian state and sabotage internal security.”

In the aftermath, Israel called on the PA to open a joint inquiry into the incident, but the Palestinians refused "because the attack is clear and does not need further investigation," Nablus Gov. Ibrahim Ramadan told Al-Monitor.

"The Israeli army opened fire on the PPS headquarters without any consideration for the Palestinian Autority [PA], and we therefore cannot accept a joint inquiry," he said.

Ramadan noted that Israel sent the PA messages after the incident. “Israel apologized to the PA, admitted its mistake and responsibility and promised to reduce its [security] measures in Nablus." Israel said it will not invade the city unless absolutely necessary and, as a sign of goodwill, will forbid settlers from visiting Joseph’s Tomb, Ramadan added.

Hundreds of Israeli settlers, accompanied by Israeli soldiers, regularly flock to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, especially during Jewish holidays. They believe the site holds the remains of the Prophet Joseph. Palestinians believe an Islamic cleric, Sheikh Yusuf Dweikat, is buried there. Violent clashes often erupt at the site.

The overnight shootout raises questions about the future of security coordination between the PA and Israel.

Mashaki noted, “Security relations between the two parties are strained, because Israel continues to target PA institutions. Opening fire on the PPS headquarters and [the Israeli government] confiscating tax revenue funds prove that Israel is taking aim at all that is Palestinian.”

However, Palestinian officials issued no statement about ending security coordination with Israel.

Ramadan noted, however, “The incident affected security coordination. Israel and the PA did not coordinate when the headquarters were attacked, and we asked the Israeli army to retreat because people could have become victims, especially after citizens approached the headquarters to offer protection.”

He noted that the political leadership decides whether security ties with Israel should continue.

On June 11, Israeli Channel 13 cited an Israeli security source as saying, “The Israeli army and Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories are holding peaceful talks with the PA security forces following the incident, which will not affect security coordination.”

Mohammad al-Masri, director of the Palestinian Center for Research and Strategic Studies in Ramallah and former chief of general intelligence in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor, “The Nablus incident establishes two realities. First, the PA will not allow attacks on its sovereign headquarters in the future, even at the risk of a clash with the Israeli forces. Second, Palestinian citizens will clash with any vehicle that is suspected of carrying Israeli security forces in the future.”

"[The shootout] constituted a political message from Israel to the Palestinians that the PA is under threat and its sovereign headquarters can be reached. The response to the message was heard, and the Israelis understood that the response to an attack would be an attack," Masri said.

“If the aim was to weaken the image of the Palestinian security officers in the eyes of citizens, then it failed. Citizens rushed to defend the headquarters and support the security officers, which shows their faith in their security institution,” he added. “Severing security ties with Israel is a nonexistent political decision. The relations are ongoing. The political body decides these relations and the security body implements them.”

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