The Palestinian Authority’s announcement on Jan. 26 of a halt to security coordination with Israel, following the Israel Defense Forces’ counter-terrorism raid against Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Jenin and the ensuing firefight, is not the first time that Ramallah has made such an announcement.
On May 21, 2020, the P.A. also stated that it would cease security coordination with Israel, in protest at the Trump-administration peace plan that supported Israeli annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria, commonly known as the West Bank. The P.A. also said at the time it would stop cooperating with the CIA.
Then in November 2020, the P.A. announced that it had renewed security and civilian coordination with Israel, following assurances given by Israel that it was committed to prior agreements with the P.A.
The P.A.’s latest proclamation, when viewed in the larger context, should therefore be seen in proportion, a former defense official told JNS.
“The truth is that the announcement and the decision are not unusual, and in fact, are even softer than the ones taken two years ago,” said Col. (res.) Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University in Herzliya (formerly IDC Herzliya).
Milshtein, a former adviser on Palestinian affairs to the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit, and ex-head of the Department for Palestinians Affairs in Military Intelligence, noted that in 2020 there was a “real, absolute and harsh” stoppage of coordination, unlike now when dialogue is continuing between lower levels in the P.A. and the Israel Defense Forces.
“The P.A. has been in fact holding a kind of almost set ritual in the past 15 years of ongoing frozen or crisis-filled political process. In light of the crises in the Palestinian system, the ritual undermines the most basic foundation of relations with Israel—and of the P.A.’s existence. But this is always a symbolic maneuver, and usually, short-lived,” Milshtein assessed.
The P.A.’s downfall?
The P.A. is concerned that harm to coordination with Israel could lead to its own downfall, by creating friction with the IDF, losing control over members of the P.A. security forces, and principally, by allowing Hamas to raise its head in Judea and Samaria—a concern that Milshtein described as P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s deepest fear.
“Our central concern should not be about the plans of senior P.A. officials, who, as stated, do not really want to go all the way and are always anxious about how this can project onto them. The concern is about how P.A. field elements translate these events [into action],” Milshtein argued.
For example, P.A. security force personnel could conclude that there really is a severe crisis and that the suspension is a green light to carry out terrorist attacks, he said.
In the past year, Milshtein noted, there have been several incidents of P.A. security force members taking part in terrorism.
“The more the crisis between the sides deepens, the more friction there will be between the IDF and the P.A. security forces,” he cautioned. For example, a lack of coordination, or poor coordination of Israeli activity in P.A. territory, could lead to armed clashes.
Moving towards terrorism
“The more there will be intense incitement, including through the involvement of the P.A., and the more the standing and the status of the P.A. will be eroded, and the more problems it has paying salaries—the more incidents that we will see ‘slip through’ of P.A. security force members moving towards terrorism,” said Milshtein.
During his visit to Ramallah last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressured Abbas to adopt a U.S. security plan aimed at the P.A. regaining control over the cities of Jenin and Nablus, Axios reported on Feb. 1, citing American and Israeli officials. The P.A. has lost all control of Jenin, where Palestinian Islamic Jihad and local gunmen have filled the vacuum, and has lost much of its control over Nablus.
Milshtein, responding to the report, said that in the current reality of rising tensions and ahead of Ramadan, which begins on March 22 or 23, and of the disconnect between Jerusalem and Ramallah, “the American involvement in Israeli-Palestinian relations is more essential than in the past.”
He added that “the first step that the Americans should take is to apply pressure for the renewal of the coordination, and the U.S. has leverage over Abbas. It is highly recommended that Jordan and Egypt be integrated into this pressure.”
The next stage, he said, should be based on pushing the P.A. to return to enforcing its authority in northern Samaria, particularly in Jenin.
“This will not be fast or easy, but it is essential for preserving the P.A.’s survivability. The vacuum in Jenin could spread to other areas in Judea and Samaria and undermine the P.A.’s standing,” Milshtein said.
“It is a little strange, but it seems that the U.S. (and also Israel) have more vigor in preserving the existential interests of the P.A. than Abbas himself, who is very concerned and is experiencing a low point in terms of his image [among Palestinians].”