One week ago, the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) conducted an early morning raid to arrest Nizar Banat, a well known and vocal critic of the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas. This was not the first time the PA was arresting Banat, and it came on the heels of masked gunmen firing bullets into his house a few weeks ago after Banat had condemned the PA for cancelling the parliamentary elections in which Banat was a candidate on one of the independent lists and called for the EU to suspend aid to the PA as a result. During the arrest or shortly after being taken into custody, Banat died, almost certainly killed as a result of being beaten by PA security forces. This has created a crisis for the PA in the West Bank, with protests against PA authoritarianism and corruption and the PA responding with more force against protestors, and vigorous international criticism of the PA, including from the U.S.
There is a double-barreled irony here in the wake of Banat’s killing. One sense of irony is that the PA is taking some of its heaviest criticism in years at the same time as it is benefitting from some of the heaviest calls in years to empower the PA, a result of May’s fighting between Israel and Hamas and the need to bolster the PA at Hamas’s expense and to ensure that reconstruction funding for Gaza does not go into Hamas coffers. The other is that the calls to empower the PA have emboldened it to be even more authoritarian and corrupt than it is already since it believes it can act with impunity, leading to a wide crackdown that resulted in Banat’s killing and that may imperil any potential PA empowerment. This cycle needs to be broken, and there are no good, or even satisfying, answers for how to do so without risking an even worse situation on the ground for Palestinians who are currently doomed to Hamas fundamentalism or PA kleptocracy, and for Israelis who have to live with the security fallout of whatever transpires.
The unfortunate truth is that there is little to recommend the PA on its own without viewing it in relation to the alternative. It is a good thing that the PA is officially committed to two states, yet that commitment is mitigated by its constant incitement in official media organs not against the occupation but against Israel and by its continuing policy of paying monthly stipends to perpetrators of terrorism and violence against Israelis that escalate based on severity while glorifying their actions. It is a good thing that the PA maintains security coordination with Israel that keeps the West Bank stable and Israelis safe by focusing on Hamas, but that security coordination too often gives the PA an excuse to act in a brutal fashion against its domestic critics. The PA is unquestionably preferable to Hamas; there is a reason that the West Bank was relatively quiet during Operation Guardian of the Walls despite the IDF decreasing its presence there in order to deploy to the Gaza envelope and to Israeli cities, and there is a reason that terrorism originating in the West Bank is almost entirely of the lone wolf variety. Yet the U.S. is in a bind, since we want the PA in place and want to empower it at Hamas’s expense, but given the PA’s embrace of authoritarianism and corruption, we need to improve the lives of Palestinians while keeping the mission of stability in mind. It makes little strategic sense to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but we are also not doing enough to drain the bathwater.
The area that makes sense to focus on is the PASF, given its role in PA crackdowns on critics, opposition politicians, journalists, and civil society activists, but also since it is the only part of the PA that directly benefits from U.S. funding. For Israel, the fact that the PASF coordinates with the IDF on security and operates as an effective counterterrorism partner may be enough, but that should not be enough for the U.S. The PASF’s role in Israeli security is the critical component, but it should not be the sole prism through which we view it, nor the sole reason that we support it and train it. The U.S. should take a longer term view, and adopt policies that recognize the value of the PASF today in the security realm while also recognizing the role the PASF must play in Palestinian state building and thus helping it rebuild credibility and legitimacy.
First, the security objectives and the political objectives need to be two sides of the same coin. The PA in general and the PASF specifically have lost much of their credibility with Palestinians because they are increasingly viewed as not working toward the goal of Palestinian independence. They are viewed as working toward keeping themselves in power at any cost, and thus as no more than subcontractors for Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. We need to remind the PASF as we fund them and train them that they are not just a paramilitary force, but that they will form the backbone of law and order in a future state of Palestine. That was the initial justification for the creation of the PASF and U.S. support for it, and that has to be drilled into the minds of every commander, officer, and patrolman. If the PASF exists only to keep Hamas on the run in the West Bank and to keep Abbas and his circle in power, then the U.S. justification for being involved becomes less pertinent.
Second, in terms of the role of the U.S. Security Coordinator in Jerusalem and its mandate, we should prioritize building up Palestinian police capacity and law and order in addition to the traditional role of building up units focused on security and intelligence. It will reorient the PASF from thinking that their primary goal is to perpetuate PA rule to thinking that their primary goal is to secure the welfare and safety of Palestinians, which will in turn lead to depoliticizing the institution. Palestinians need more police officers knocking on their doors to investigate crimes and arrest criminals, and less paramilitary troops breaking down their doors in the middle of the night because of something they said to a journalist or posted on Facebook. If we focus our own efforts on supporting the PASF while encouraging it to demilitarize to a greater extent, it will be able to function as both a counterterrorism force and as a local police force.
Finally, our efforts to train the PASF should be broadened as we widen the scope of what we mean by training. Training should have the end goals of protecting Israeli security and laying the ground for a Palestinian state as the mindset, and should also actively focus on political and democratic reform. It is important that Palestinian security forces be responsive police and effective counterterrorism fighters, and also that they adopt a basic set of values, norms, and codes of conduct. The USSC operates out of the State Department rather than the Defense Department, and we should utilize that focus and expertise. Perhaps that means bringing PASF commanders to the U.S. for courses on democratic governance, state building, and civil-military relations in democratic countries. Perhaps that means having State diplomats on the ground in the West Bank as part of PASF training to talk about the importance of accountability and legitimacy in state institutions. We need to fund the PASF, and while doing so make sure that they are receiving the right messages and building the right mindset. It cannot only be about the logistical training of how to shoot a gun; it needs to also be the political training of when that gun should be used and in the service of what.
The PA is a horribly flawed institution, and defending it is unpleasant. The unfortunate reality is that in the context of U.S. interests, it remains necessary. The Biden administration’s new budget called for reducing PASF funding even before Banat’s killing, and there is a strong likelihood that Congress will maintain a reduced number now that the PA is on an authoritarian rampage. If that happens, it may provide the PA with the wakeup call it needs to understand that it is important, but that few in the U.S. are willing to go to the mattresses on its behalf.
We can forsake the PA entirely and risk it being replaced with a designated terrorist organization or a combination of local warlords, which will not improve Palestinian lives one iota and will cause chaos in the West Bank while making fighting between the IDF and whomever controls the West Bank a certainty. Or we can hold our nose and do what we can to make the PA and the PASF better, particularly leveraging the places where we have undeniable influence. As unseemly as it is, and all the more so in light of the PA’s recent behavior since it perceives itself as having carte blanche to do as it likes with no consequences, the latter is the better course of action.