By Daniella Cheslow, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)
JAMAIN, West Bank — Khawla Zeitawi is pregnant with twins, and her husband, Jasser Abu Omar, is not at her side.
He is in an Israeli prison, accused of being part of a terrorist cell that made explosives in a Nablus apartment. Zeitawi asserts that her husband is innocent, jailed on bad information from Palestinian law enforcement provided under security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“Security coordination is treason,” Zeitawi said in her home in Jamain, a village near Nablus in the West Bank. “The Palestinian Authority is giving Israel a service for free.”
Since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, its security organizations have worked closely with Israel to share intelligence, arrest suspected militants, and limit demonstrations in the West Bank. That cooperation was suspended during a Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada, but has been a part of life in the West Bank since 2007. It has been a lightning rod for complaints among the Palestinian public for almost as long.
The Palestine Liberation Organization Central Council voted in March to suspend security coordination. That vote was to protest Israel’s withholding of tax revenue, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered this year to punish the Palestinians for applying for membership in the International Criminal Court.
On Friday, Netanyahu ordered the release of the tax money, which Israel collects on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf at a rate of $127 million a month. But that’s unlikely to silence Palestinian doubts about the security agreement, especially after Netanyahu won re-election in part by vowing never to allow a Palestinian state while he’s prime minister.
“Netanyahu’s recent actions and policies have caused the Palestinian Authority to review the last 20 years of negotiations with the Israelis,” said Akram Rajoub, the Nablus governor and former head of security in Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered. “Is it worth it to continue with security coordination if we do not arrive at a state?”
Sixty percent of Palestinians say the answer is no, according to a poll published last week by Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. Yet nearly the same number doubt that their leadership would drop the agreement, even though the PLO vote authorized Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to do so.
Retired Major Shaul Bartal, who participated in security coordination for the Israeli army in the late 1990s and remains involved, said shared work has already eroded. In December, Palestinian Settlement Minister Ziad Abu Ein died while protesting settlement encroachment on the land of a West Bank village. The Palestinians say Israeli soldiers caused his death; Israelis say he had a heart attack. Bartal said Abu Ein’s death was a watershed.
“The regular meetings stopped,” he said. “Before Abu Ein it was every week or twice a month in every big city.”
But Bartal said he can’t foresee the Palestinian Authority, run by the moderate Fatah faction, ending the agreement. The Palestinian Authority depends on security coordination to stifle the Islamist Hamas movement. He said the memory remains fresh of the Hamas election victory in 2006 and its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip the next year.
“The reason (for Palestinian security coordination) is not because they love Israel, but because they are afraid of themselves,” Bartal said. “Fatah knows if they stop coordination, then maybe eventually Hamas will make another takeover and it will be the end of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.”
In 2014, Bartal said, Israel arrested about 2,500 Palestinian security prisoners, mostly members of Hamas; the Palestinian Authority arrested 1,000 prisoners, also mostly Hamas.
Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner doubted the Palestinians would follow through on ending security coordination, but if they did, the army could manage security in the West Bank without Palestinian assistance.
“We depend for security on ourselves,” Lerner said.
Before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Israel directly ruled and patrolled the Palestinians. Lerner ruled out reoccupying Palestinian cities, although he said an end to coordination would probably result in using more force on the ground.
Others were slower to doubt the Palestinian threats. Retired Colonel Jonathan Fighel, who used to run Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Jenin, and Tulkarem, said access granted to Israel via security coordination is crucial.
He said the relative quiet of the past eight years owes far more to security coordination than to the separation barrier Israel built roughly on its border with the West Bank. Figel recalled that Palestinian Authority forces helped retrieve the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who were kidnaped and murdered by Hamas militants in June.
Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said he believes suspending security coordination is unlikely, even as Abbas has irritated Israel by seeking diplomatic recognition at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.
“It’s very difficult to imagine a PA that exists in the absence of security coordination,” Thrall said.
Without security coordination, he said, the donations on which the Palestinians depend would dry up from the United States and Europe. More likely than ending the coordination, he said, would be a reduction in cooperation, such as refusing to arrest suspects wanted by Israel, or skipping meetings with Israeli commanders.
Public trust in Abbas’ tenure at the head of the Palestinian Authority is eroding. Abbas was elected to a five-year term and has missed multiple deadlines for holding new elections. He turned 80 on Thursday and has not cultivated a successor. Shikaki’s poll found that 77 percent of Palestinians believe the Palestinian Authority institutions are corrupt.
Last week, Randa Saqa, a nurse from Nablus, wheeled her son in a stroller along the main road of Balata refugee camp. She wove between burned bits of garbage and fist-size rocks, evidence of a protest against a Palestinian Authority crackdown on drug dealing and weapons trafficking.
Saqa said the Palestinian Authority used tear gas and live fire to conduct its arrests. “I never expected this to come from the PA,” she said. She lamented the protocol enshrined by security coordination, under which Palestinian forces stay away from Israeli raids in West Bank cities. “When we (Palestinians) are together, we attack each other. But when the Israelis come, the Palestinians disappear.”
Hosam Mostafa, 50, a cleaner from Nablus, said he is keeping his seven children at home for fear of them getting hurt in clashes with the government.
Rajoub, the Nablus governor, insisted that the crackdown was necessary to consolidate the power of the Palestinian Authority.
“For the Palestinian Authority…to consolidate its power, we have to stop all kinds of chaos,” he said. However, he added, now the Palestinian Authority “will give nothing for free. We will not be the service people for the Israelis.”
Photo: blhphotography via Flickr