The benefits of decreased security cooperation with the Palestinians

A lull in security cooperation between Israel and the P.A. could be a blessing in disguise for Israel’s security forces.

Palestinian security forces block the entrance to the Balata refugee camp near the Samarian city of Nablus on June 28, 2020. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Palestinian security forces block the entrance to the Balata refugee camp near the Samarian city of Nablus on June 28, 2020. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Hillel Frisch
Hillel Frisch
Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on the Arab world at The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

One of the arguments against extending Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley is that it will lead to little or no security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority; P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas has already announced this. The fear is that diminished security cooperation would render Israel more vulnerable to terrorism.

There is no doubt that security cooperation with the P.A. contributed to a reduction in terrorism. The questions are how much, and whether or not the Israel Security Agency and the Israel Defense Forces can make up the difference.

Answering the first question calls for a comparison of the number of Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorism before and after close cooperation with the P.A.

The year 2007 was a critical juncture. Abbas’s eviction from Gaza by Hamas and the emergence of a rival fundamentalist entity there drove home to Abbas and his Fatah cronies that without cooperation with Israel, the P.A. could meet the same fate in the West Bank. At best, it would find itself fighting an interminable civil war with the P.A./Fatah on one side and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad on the other.

This understanding coincided with the rebuilding and retraining of the P.A. security forces after their mauling during PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s war against Israel from 2000 to 2005. U.S. Lieut.-Gen. Keith Dayton and his staff began that retraining process in 2006.

The careful selection of new recruits to ensure that they were not Hamas moles, the professional training of the security forces, and Abbas’s resolve to work with the IDF combined to yield a close and efficient security cooperation between the P.A. and Israel.

Comparing Israeli performance against terror before and during the period of cooperation reveals that while the sum is greater than the parts, the contribution to the reduction by the IDF and ISA was greater by far than that of the P.A.

Israeli security was able to reduce terrorism from the unprecedented heights of more than 450 terror-related deaths in 2002 to low double-digit figures by 2007, halving the costs in lives in each successive year during this period. The temporary takeover of P.A.-controlled cities and multiple daily pinpoint raids to apprehend active and would-be terrorists destroyed the sanctuary areas from which the terrorists emerged.

So hounded were the terrorists that by 2006, the Tanzim begged for an agreement that would allow them to give up their arms in return for assurances that their members—barring those with blood on their hands—would not be hunted down by Israel.

Even with close security cooperation that ensured against a common enemy, it was Israel, not P.A. security forces, who apprehended at least 75 percent of those suspected of terrorism. This division of labor did not change over the years.

Of course, one important dimension of the cooperation is harder to quantify—the sharing of intelligence. Frequently, the press reported two-way intelligence traffic that contributed to the apprehending of terrorists, the thwarting of terrorist acts and the arrest of fugitive terrorists. Israeli forces sometimes took action based on P.A. leads, and the reverse occurred as well. Hamas and Islamic Jihad media sites often trumpeted this intelligence sharing to embarrass and delegitimize the P.A. in the eyes of the Palestinian public, but in the process, they demonstrated the efficiency of the cooperation.

Yet even in this dimension, contemporary history provides a good lesson that undue reliance on external security intelligence without the building of internal capabilities can backfire—especially in Humint (human intelligence), which involves building informant networks in enemy territory.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously justified the Oslo process on the grounds that Arafat, without the hindrance of Israel’s Supreme Court and the human rights organization B’Tselem, could deal better with Palestinian terrorism than Israeli security forces acting under the scrutiny of both.

Of course, he was tragically wrong. Not only did Arafat fail to clamp down on terrorism, but he spurred it on to new heights in his war against Israel, six years after he entered Gaza in his “liberation” uniform and kefiyyeh and whisked known terrorists into his entourage.

So ardent was Rabin in his belief that he could rely on Arafat that ISA intelligence gathering in P.A.-controlled areas was seriously reduced. Israel paid dearly for this “intelligence withdrawal.” Multiple suicide squads were formed undetected, with lethal consequences. The long hunt for their organizers extended into 2007.

A lull in such cooperation, then, will undoubtedly keep Israeli security on its toes. The ISA will fill in the gaps via its own self-generated intelligence network, which emerged during 13 years of close cooperation.

The challenge of coming to grips with more mass forms of Palestinian protest, which the P.A. rarely prevents and often goads, will force the IDF and the Border Police to train more ardently and creatively.

My colleague, IDF Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, often writes about the virtues of friction with the enemy to keep Israeli security forces sharp and innovative. One can add the virtues of meeting an altered environment.

A good example is the world of high-tech. Its inventiveness stems from its ability to attract innovative minds who thrive when solving problems—but it is also honed by the competitive and ever-changing environment that made the once cutting-edge Nokia name a has-been and Huawei a household word.

Much of the IDF brass and former brass pine for the tried and true. The lull in security cooperation will only contribute to making the ISA and the IDF better-honed organizations.

Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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