RAMALLAH—As the Trump administration tries to build suspense about its long anticipated peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dubbed improbably “the Deal of the Century,” some things have changed dramatically on the ground here, and some decidedly have not.
President Donald Trump has encouraged hostility toward the Palestinian Authority, slashing assistance left and right, and backing unilateral Israeli annexations of occupied territory that most of the international community considers illegal.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, shows no interest in ending its 52-year occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, or the de facto imprisonment of some 1.8 million people in the Gaza Strip.
But the form of Israeli military rule has not really changed much since the end of the second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005. Under this status quo the Palestinians endure segregation, Israeli settlement expansion, siege, intermittent war, and political chaos, while Israelis live with unprecedented levels of quiet and economic growth.
It’s a reality created in part by U.S.-led efforts to pacify and divide Palestinian leadership, building up Western-dependent security forces while, until recently, officially committing to a negotiating process that was supposed to result in a Palestinian state.
Even now, after U.S. political commitments and funding for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces were withdrawn in February, other European partners have stepped in to facilitate the continuing PA-Israeli security relationship.
International advisers to the Palestinian Authority from Western militaries and police forces under U.S. command attribute the relatively stable security situation in the occupied West Bank to uninterrupted and increasingly intertwined Israeli-Palestinian security ties.
Since its creation in 2005, when Israel crushed the Second Intifada, the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) has bolstered PA security forces and facilitated their coordination with Israeli military authorities. But it’s not just the United States, it's been an international effort that includes British, European Union, Turkish and Canadian police and military advisers alongside the American military and civilian staff and private contractors.
The basic justification has been the notion that if the Palestinian security forces and political establishment don't stop attacks on Israelis, then the Israelis will do it themselves, and the last vestiges of any Palestinian autonomy will disappear. But by arming the PA to focus on its Palestinian rivals—especially Hamas, but not only Hamas—the USSC helped create a system of oppression conducted under Israel’s watch by both Israeli and Palestinian security forces.
These measures, which relieved the Israelis of day to day occupation duty in highly populated areas, were intended officially to create the environment to resolve generations of conflict, but the Trump administration is acting as if security issues are the only issue.
Today, the USSC does everything from training, supporting and equipping Palestinian security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas to providing technological support that increases coordination with the Israelis. When Israel carries out raids on their towns and cities, Palestinian security forces retreat to their barracks.
The American in charge is Lt. Gen. Eric Wendt, a long-time Green Beret Special Forces officer who speaks Arabic (and Korean) and keeps a very, very low profile. “Eric Wendt wants to be invisible,” says one Western policing adviser. “He says it’s not the politics but the security relationship that needs to be preserved.”
Coordination includes liaison between the Palestinian Civil Police Force and Israeli settlers who volunteer to guard and police their outposts on Palestinian land in coordination with Israel’s National Police. Canadian officers from the Ontario Provincial Police are among those playing a central role facilitating meetings with the head of the “Volunteers Unit of Judea and Samaria,” which, like all other Israeli government institutions, uses the biblical name for the West Bank.
Such meetings have been kept quiet, says the adviser, because, “If Palestinians are seen working with the Israeli police, they are seen as collaborators.”
Meanwhile, information provided by PA security to Israelis has been used in Israeli prosecutions of Palestinians.
“Israeli prosecutors were very impressed with the evidence they got,” says the adviser. As for the goal of bringing Palestinian and settler police together, that's described as “getting them to know each other.”
In fact, the relationship only goes one way. As another Western adviser associated with the military says bluntly: “There is no reciprocity in this country.”
The ABCs of Occupation
Divided by the Oslo accords of the 1990s into three areas, named A, B and C, jurisdiction over the occupied Palestinian territories was split between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.
Area A, which includes the most densely populated Palestinian areas, was placed under Palestinian Authority security control and civilian administration. Apart from Gaza, these larger Palestinian cities and towns exist as isolated islands often surrounded by Area C, which covers over 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli military control, and where most of the arable land and smaller villages exist under the watch of expanding settlements. Palestinians and their land in Area C are under the direct military rule with civilian administrative affairs are run by Israeli military’s Civil Administration. Area B, often flanking Area A, is under Israel’s military control while the residents’ civil and administrative needs are the responsibility of the PA.
Regardless of this division of jurisdiction, the Israeli military continues to make frequent incursions into areas under PA security control.
Both policing and military advisers in the USSC claim that their mission and the international role under U.S. command is to try and decrease violence and contain a volatile security situation, but the political legacy of the mission tells a different story.
Since 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza, the PA has cracked down on Hamas in the West Bank while Hamas represses Fatah (the party at the core of the PA) in Gaza, but these days both authorities also routinely suppress all activists and protests that denounce their leadership’s failures or demand renewed national unity.
At the same time, the people of both territories remain forcibly separated from each other by Israel and exist under different types of domination by its military. This reality of division and repression led Human Right Watch to write a 2018 report titled, “‘Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent:’ Arbitrary Arrest and Torture Under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.”
Crackdowns by Fatah forces have drawn increasing local condemnation, but the PA has traditionally dampened anger by making the case to an exhausted public that these actions are necessary in the short term to negotiate freedom in the long term, and that no longer seems very likely.
For the West Bank’s Palestinian upper class, there was some considerable incentive to accept this supposed security trade-off as a booming economic bubble developed around Ramallah. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called this “economic peace.” But Amira Hass, the veteran award-winning occupied territories correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz and only Jewish Israeli correspondent to make Ramallah home, has described it as “a five star ghetto”—lavish but flanked by walls, with checkpoints always present.
“We used to threaten the Israelis with handing back the keys of the occupation,” says a PA official who was present during negotiations with Israel at the end of 2018. “It would scare them,” continues the official, describing how Israel didn’t have an interest in directly ruling the populous areas of PA control. “We don’t do that anymore.” It seems the Israeli government no longer minds the idea of its military reassuming direct control of PA administered areas.
“It’s quite clear that a key component of the continuation of status quo for the Israeli authorities maintaining their settlements and related infrastructure is the existence of a Palestinian Authority that engages in security coordination with it,” says Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director. “It provides a degree of cover and buffers and enhances their overall control at a time when they have made quite clear they want to maintain settlements and control of resources.”
Since the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy there, effectively killing U.S. diplomatic support for a long-sought Palestinian capital in occupied East Jerusalem, PA repression of opposition in the West Bank has intensified.
“There has been a shift in the type of people who have been arrested,” notes Shakir. “For a while the focus was on political activists, now we’ve seen the span of who can be detained really expand to not only university students, but to people who post on social media or share posts on social media.”
Shakir, caught in a lengthy legal battle with Israeli authorities trying to deport him for his work with Human Rights Watch, is blunt about the responsibility for the deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied territories.
“Yes [Palestinians] live under an ugly, brutal, military occupation characterized by structured discrimination and systematic rights abuses, but at the same time you have Palestinians authorities that are playing a part in the repression,” he says from HRW’s Ramallah office. “In the Palestinian Authority [areas], sometimes it’s done in coordination with Israel. In the case of Hamas authorities in Gaza, not necessarily, but still, the end result means that Palestinians face multiple authorities, sometime in the same territory, that are involved in their oppression.”
Human Rights Watch contends the international actors involved on the ground also need to be held accountable for their contribution to the current reality. “While U.S. and E.U funding is often provided in the name of the rule of law or to address the very abuses the security forces are carrying out, the funding is beefing up security forces involved in very serious repression and playing a part in maintaining a status quo,” Shakir argues.
The experience of Palestinian journalist Sami As-Sai, who went from an Israeli military jail cell to torture and detention by the PA, gives a good idea how the status quo has been maintained. Jailed by Israel’s military courts from March to November 2016 on incitement charges for posting pictures online of Palestinians killed by Israel and videos of attacks on Israelis, he was arrested three months after his release by PA Security Forces for sharing a list of Palestinian prisoners in Israel with a Hamas member in Gaza.
As-Sai says he was taken by the PA’s Preventative Security forces to the main interrogation and detention center in Jericho, where he underwent a continuous ordeal of violence and intimidation to force a confession. “I was tortured in a way I had never seen in my life. It was really brutal,” says the 39-year-old from Tulkarm.
“They said, ‘You will speak. No one enters this place and doesn’t speak.’ They hit me with sticks in the back of my legs, put me in the shabah,” he continues describing a stress position where a person’s hands are put behind his back and tied to a small chair with shorter front legs, forcing them to constantly slide forward. Israeli interrogators have also been criticized by human rights groups for using this method for prolonged periods on Palestinian detainees, but there have been accusation of its use by both the PA and Hamas.
“They hung me by my hands in the cell,” As-Sai continues. “When I was hanging I would think of what I could tell them to make them stop but I didn’t know anything else. After seven days of continuous torture they started using psychological torture.”
Despite Human Rights Watch details systematic abuse by both the PA and Hamas. But PA security services spokesperson Adnan Al-Dimiri forcefully rejects the documentation about PA abuses, while at the same time accepting the finding against Hamas as fact.
“Lots of high-ranking officials of the security forces spent a long time in Israeli prisons, some spent 10 years in prisons and were tortured,” says Al-Dimiri. “All those people who were tortured in the prisons cannot become oppressors because they know how it feels and will never become oppressors for others,” he argues, angrily rejecting the similarity in methods of abuse experienced by Palestinians in Israeli and PA detention.
Al-Dimiri denies that there is information sharing between the PA and Israel and downplays the role of security coordination in the current structure of occupation as “something political, worked out through agreements.”
A System, Not a Solution
Since its creation, the USSC has contributed to the perpetuation of the repressive status quo that the long-stalled “political solution” put forth by the Trump administration may in fact be intended to codify.
“I think I’m working on the Deal of the Century,” says a Western military adviser discussing the initiatives the USSC is currently taking to increase security coordination in the West Bank.
One novel element at the center of the USSC’s current efforts to expand Israeli-PA security coordination is a new program to put GPS tracking devices on PA vehicles so the Israeli military can monitor them.
“This system might be a game-changer because it creates total transparency on all the PA movements,” says the military adviser quoted earlier, who has knowledge of the program.
The adviser describes the program as facilitating the movement of the Palestinian security forces by allowing Israeli forces to see where every vehicle is and do real time approval or denial of PA vehicles wanting to travel between their areas of jurisdiction, through Area C.
This program is favored by the Israelis to such an extent, the adviser says, it has been guaranteed special separate funding that is not affected by Trump’s cutoff of monies to the PA.
Since it started in August of 2018, the GPS program also has had the enthusiastic participation of PA security, who see a chance to make their operations easier, and by Israel, which sees a way to use the PA forces more effectively and securely.
“The Israelis are seeking for a solution somehow. Maybe not on the political level but on the operational level,” says the military adviser.
Digitizing the matrix of Israeli control in the West Bank is the kind of technological security-focused solution to political and human rights problems in fashion in the Trump era.
“If we get them [the Palestinians] to work on their frameworks and governance, we can really make a connection to the IDF side, so they can more or less integrate the processes that are going on,” says the adviser, describing the solidified status quo of the future. “And that will be real progress.”