(February 15, 2018 / JNS) For years now, a fairly quiet security coordination has been in place between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian Authority—a setup that recently faced a major test.
The security coordination has served the interests of both Israel and the P.A., helping them quell a common enemy, Hamas, and stop small incidents from snowballing into large-scale events that could destabilize the region.
But on Feb. 13, an IDF officer and female soldier driving in Samaria got lost and accidentally drove into the Palestinian city of Jenin, where they were surrounded and assaulted by a violent mob. One assailant stole a firearm from the Israeli personnel.
P.A. police saved the situation by dispersing the attackers, transferring the shaken personnel—one of whom sustained moderate injuries—back to Israeli authorities. Hours later, they retrieved the stolen M-16 rifle, returning it to the IDF. It was the latest high-profile illustration of the security coordination in action, though there are a variety of other ways that it plays out in the field.
Col. (ret.) Shay Shaul, director of research at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, told JNS that the security cooperation would not have survived this long had it not tangibly served the interests of both Israel and the P.A.
“If we look at the broader picture, the two sides profit from it. And therefore, it is taking place,” said Shaul, a former deputy head of the National Security Council of Israel.
Shaul, who also served as an intelligence officer and was the former head of the counter-terror branch in the IDF’s Southern Command, traced the cooperation back to 2004-05, when P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas replaced Yasser Arafat, and objected to organized armed violent campaigns against Israel due to the heavy toll that Palestinians had paid for waging them.
“This policy has been very consistent. Of course, there are ups and downs,” acknowledged Shaul. “But as a basic strategy, Abbas has been very consistent, maintaining the cooperation with Israel in almost every situation. If we look at the period between 2004 to 2018, for most of this time the security coordination has been ongoing.”
Despite various permutations, and even a few crises, until now the security coordination has stood the test of time. Shaul said there have been many incidents in which Israeli civilians and soldiers entered violent Palestinian environments and P.A. security forces intervened.
Asked whether the coordination would continue in light of those who seek to end it, such as Hamas, or whether future instability in the Palestinian arena could harm it, Shaul said that “prophecy is very problematic, and it is even harder in the Middle East.”
Nevertheless, he added, even a post-Abbas future would likely see coordination continue if the P.A. remains similar in composition to its present makeup.
Alternatively, in a reality “in which Hamas is dominant in Judea and Samaria,” security coordination would be off the table, he said. “But Abbas is still with us, and even under Abbas, after 14 years of coordination, it cannot be taken for granted. Even in the current context, it must be strengthened and maintained, as both sides continue to have an interest in coordination.”
The P.A.’s vested interest in this arrangement lies in its core need to keep Hamas at bay. Security coordination with Israel is effective in repressing Hamas’s attempts to overthrow the P.A. in the territories. Shaul recalled cases in which “Hamas’s activities threatened the interests of senior P.A. officials. It is not just Israel that enjoys the benefits. So long as the P.A. exists, theoretically it will have an interest in continuing with this because it will want to stop Hamas from taking over, as well as even more extreme organizations. Therefore, it likely will not disappear.”
Uzi Arad, former national security advisor to Israel’s prime minister and the ex-head of the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011, told JNS that “the security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is important and useful to both sides, and this is why it has been sturdy over time, despite the ups and downs in our relations with the Authority.”
Nevertheless, he cautioned, there are no guarantees that the cooperation would last faced with future potential conditions, in which the situation could deteriorate for any number of reasons and under which the P.A. might even collapse.
“For this reason, among others, it is in Israel’s interest to avoid—so much as this depends on it—harming the Authority, to be careful regarding situations that can lead to a deterioration and to try as much as possible to advance a process of arrangement with the Authority,” added Arad, who now serves as a professor of government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
Referring to this week’s Jenin incident, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said: “Regarding the cooperation and coordination, well we have seen the results. Here, this security coordination and the Palestinian police officers deserve a good word. Yet the Palestinians understand that the security coordination is a mutual and joint interest. Therefore, both they and [we] protect the security coordination. The soldiers, and the fact that the firearm was returned early in the morning, speaks to the deep security coordination. I hope this lasts.”