On a Friday afternoon in September 2013, dozens of Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces looked exasperated as they tried to move Palestinian youth away from the wall near Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Attempting to corral hundreds of children, the PA troops pushed them down the hill toward Aida refugee camp and implored them to stop throwing stones at the Israeli military positions above.

Everyone knew there would be protests that afternoon. Israeli settlers had become increasingly aggressive since negotiations resumed in August — with almost daily “price tag” attacks and assertions of sovereignty over religious sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, including the al-Aqsa mosque. In an effort to prevent confrontations, the PA deployed its security forces at all of the hot spots in the Bethlehem area. But they could not stop the youth from gathering at the entrance of Aida to challenge the Israeli army.

For several hours, the PA police struggled to keep the kids away from the wall. Tensions escalated each time an officer used violence against the children until the protesters turned their anger and stones upon the PA police. At the end of the day, the Israeli military told the PA to withdraw and sent in its own soldiers to disperse the children with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Local activists said that the youth went to Aida that day to defend al-Aqsa. But their grievances run much deeper: incursions, arrests and administrative detentions; poverty and unemployment; the killing of a 15-year-old in Aida earlier in the year; the enormous concrete wall surrounding the camp and the city; the siege on Gaza; Israel’s refusal to discuss the right of return; and the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo “peace process.” An increasingly prominent target of frustration and anger is the system of security coordination between Israel and the PA.

Over the last six years, a complex network of security forces has been built to police the Palestinian people in the West Bank. It is one of the world’s most sophisticated — and, some would say, successful — efforts to manage an unruly population. While its foundations lie in the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s, the system of security coordination has been completely retooled since 2007. And from the point of view of Israeli military officials, the new system is working quite well.

Roots of Security Coordination

The 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip called for the establishment of a Palestinian police force that would “act systematically against all expressions of violence and terror.” Every subsequent agreement has made security coordination with Israel a priority—with increasingly detailed steps that the Palestinian Authority must take to demonstrate its commitment to combating individuals and organizations involved in planning, financing and carrying out violent attacks against Israelis.

During the 1990s, the Palestinian security forces were built from existing armed networks based either within the Occupied Territories or in the diaspora. Each force was loyal to its commander, who maintained his position through loyalty to PA President Yasser Arafat. Israeli and US officials were never satisfied that the PA forces were truly committed to security coordination, despite US investments in training the PA troops and close ties between the CIA and the Palestinian Preventative Security Forces.

Coordination lost all coherence during the second intifada, when Israel unleashed the full force of its military against the Palestinian people: reoccupying cities, demolishing refugee camps, assassinating leaders, and killing and arresting thousands. Members of the PA security forces took part in battles against the Israeli army. And Israeli forces repeatedly assaulted PA prisons — including one operated by US and British forces — to capture Palestinian fighters and political leaders held by the PA. By the end of the uprising, the PA security forces were almost entirely destroyed; their headquarters, police stations and prisons bombed; their members arrested and killed; their weapons confiscated.

In 2005, the PA began to rebuild its security forces. Supported by the United States Security Coordinator (USSC), the PA has pursued “security sector reform” focused on the centralization of command and the professionalization of its troops. The PA began by encouraging thousands of existing troops to take early retirement and recruiting and training new troops to take their place. All applicants are vetted by four different intelligence agencies — American, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian — to ensure that they have no “terrorist links, human rights violations and/or criminal records.” [1] PA officials are proud of their achievements, in particular their success at reducing crime and improving security for Palestinians in the West Bank: “We have improved our capability, capacity and professionalism. There is more focus on the rule of law and human rights.”

The USSC oversees much of the training, which takes place near Amman at the Jordan International Police Training Center, using the same facilities and many of the same trainers who rebuilt the Iraqi police forces after the US invasion in 2003. So far, the USSC has trained nine special battalions of the Palestinian National Security Forces, as well as two battalions of Presidential Guards — nearly 10,000 troops in total. The EU runs a similar program in Jericho for training the Palestinian Civil Police. In 2009, the official then in charge of the USSC, Gen. Keith Dayton, claimed: “What we have created are new men…. They have shown motivation, discipline and professionalism, and they have made such a difference — and I am not making this up — that senior [Israeli] commanders ask me frequently: ‘How many more of these new Palestinians can you generate, and how quickly, because they are our way to leave the West Bank.’” [2] The political fallout from this statement contributed to Dayton’s replacement, and to more caution in discussing the relationship between the PA and the USSC.

Two Occupations

In coordination with Israel, the new PA security forces have been deployed throughout the West Bank. According to a former Israeli general, the deployment operates under the following principle: “You do more and Israel will do less. You take more responsibility, we will take less.” Starting in Jenin and Nablus in the northern West Bank and then spreading to each of the major Palestinian enclaves, the first priority was to establish the PA security forces as the only organized armed forces in the West Bank (with the obvious exception of the Israeli military). As a senior PA official explained, “There are no excuses — no exceptions for anybody. The only legal arms belong to the security forces. The first part of the plan was to meet that main goal. The only legal arms are those carried by the security services and there is no excuse for any other arms or armed structures.” PA officials believe that the key to establishing a future Palestinian state lies in the PA’s ability to neutralize armed opposition in the West Bank. Asserting the authority of the PA was a pillar of former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan for building a Palestinian state and remains the policy of the current regime. And the Israeli government has expressed its appreciation for the new arrangements by easing the movement of Palestinians within the West Bank and granting more permits for Palestinian workers to enter Israel.

The revival and reorganization of security coordination in the West Bank has been driven by the schism between Fatah and Hamas after the latter’s victory in 2006 legislative elections and the armed confrontation in 2007 during which Hamas expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip and Fatah took over the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority. [3]

Since 2008, the PA security forces have coordinated with the Israeli military to eliminate all organized armed factions in the West Bank, whether they are aligned with Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front or even Fatah. Through shared intelligence, coordinated arrests and weapons confiscations, the PA and Israel have virtually eliminated the organized opposition. According to a US official, “There are no terrorist cells in the West Bank. They are broken before they can stand up. Israel and the PA see this as a common interest.” A former Israeli commander pointed to the “huge amount of arrests by both sides. Anyone doing violence since 2000 was arrested by the PA, Israel or Jordan.” A man who was arrested by the PA in 2013 on suspicion of belonging to Hamas and owning a weapon said that he was interrogated heavily and subjected to intense psychological torture. One of his Palestinian interrogators told him: “You are now in an American-Israeli hotel.”

But the arrests are not limited to armed forces. In early 2013, hundreds of youth descended on an Israeli checkpoint in Tulkarm to protest the death of a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail. People who were at the demonstration told me that the PA security forces appeared out of nowhere — possibly from behind Israeli lines — and pushed the youth back to the center of the city where they arrested several people. According to the mother of one young man, the PA officers took her son back to the checkpoint and asked the Israelis if he was the one they wanted. Three months later, PA officials in Tulkarm arrested several young men when graffiti began to appear on walls calling for an end to security coordination. According to the parents of one of the men, “They came in the middle of the night like the Israeli army, knocked on the doors, came into the house, disturbed everybody, upset them, asked people questions, searched the house and took our son away.” The youth were interrogated about the graffiti, held for two weeks and told not to talk about politics. Soon after their release, all but two of the men were rearrested by the Israeli military.

These back-to-back arrests are common, although it is unclear how coordinated they are. There is more evidence that information gathered during interrogations is shared. US and Israeli officials confirmed that there is an open flow of information, especially from the PA to Israel and the US. Information does not move so easily in the other direction, except when, in the words of a Palestinian lawyer, “the Israelis don’t want to arrest someone and they want the PA to do it.” In these cases, she says, the Israeli intelligence will tell the PA, “‘This guy is involved in one, two, three. Go and arrest him.’ And the PA will do it.” Several people who have been arrested by both Israel and the PA said they were asked the same questions by both interrogators. The lawyer hears similar stories: “‘I was released from the PA, and immediately, when the Israelis came, in the same night, they were questioning me about the same things and the same information.’” One of the young men in Tulkarm was sick when the PA arrested him. His family had to take his medication to the police station. When he was released by the PA and Israeli soldiers came to arrest him, they asked his parents, “Where is his medication?”

Such tales raise serious concerns for many Palestinians that the PA is collaborating with the Israeli military to suppress not only armed struggle but all forms of resistance and opposition. It is common to hear Palestinians complain that they are living under two occupations, that the PA are subcontractors for the Israelis, or that they are all part of the same system.

Moral Policing

During the revolutionary uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, a Palestinian youth movement — unaffiliated with any political faction — began carrying out creative forms of direct action against the occupation. In June 2012, the youth organized a demonstration at al-Manara Square in downtown Ramallah to protest a meeting between PA President Mahmoud ‘Abbas and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz at the presidential compound. The protest was violently repressed by PA security forces and Fatah loyalists. An independent commission of inquiry found that officials in the PA president’s office ordered the attacks. Youth activists said that the PA police have only changed two things since that time: They now confront demonstrators on a side street rather than the city center and they often hit people only a few times rather than seriously injuring them. The youth have also changed tactics. According to one young woman, “Girls began taking a leading role in the demonstrations. They are always in front. The reason is that we know that if it were boys, [the PA police] would be more violent toward them. In the demonstrations before, there would always be fights with the boys.”

The violence of the PA security forces was on display in late August 2013 at a youth demonstration in Ramallah against the resumption of negotiations. Youth carrying coffins symbolizing the death of Oslo were met by a line of PA police in riot gear outside the presidential compound. As the confrontation escalated, PA police attacked the protesters with nightsticks. According to one activist, “We were all together, and then suddenly the women were all in front. We thought we’d be protected, but we were not. I was beaten badly. They broke my glasses and bruised my forehead. They treated us the same as they would treat the men.” But the protesters did not back down. Led by young women, the youth challenged the PA police, pushing through the police line, pulling on their riot shields, chanting against security coordination.

As this demonstration made clear, women are not protected from police violence. And the violence continues after the demonstrations. People associated with the PA posted videos of this protest online and circulated them widely. They expressed shock and horror that young women would use offensive language and would call the police spies and ‘Abbas a dog. “After the demonstration, they continued to attack us — saying that these women are sluts who go to bars and curse God. They attacked our reputation on TV and online.” Appealing to patriarchal elements in Palestinian society, supporters of the PA argued that the young women drink alcohol, date men and therefore should not be taken seriously. While women are the primary targets of this moral policing, they are not the only ones. According to a young man, “They would rather arrest me for marijuana on the street than at a demonstration. They focus on things like marijuana, going to bars, drinking, having girlfriends. They say that your sister does this and that. This type of pressure is especially strong on the women activists and their families. There is also a lot of sexual harassment against the women activists. The point is that they won’t let you seem like you are presenting ethical challenges to the system.”

On the Front Lines

Overall, the dynamics of security coordination are shaped by the unequal power relationship of the occupation. Israel remains the dominant force and Israeli interests have priority. At a certain level, however, the interests of the PA line up with those of Israel. According to a PA official, it is mere coincidence: “We work for our own benefit. Whether we meet or don’t meet their goals, we work for our own benefit.” But there are deeper reasons for the alignment of interests.

First, the PA wants to prevent the emergence of organized forces opposed to Fatah rule or to Oslo more generally. The PA crackdown on Islamists and leftists in the West Bank is about keeping Fatah in power and preventing a repeat of 2007. Second, the PA depends almost entirely on funds from donor states and taxes collected by Israel. Both Israel and the donors use this funding as leverage to extract political and economic concessions from the PA, including security demands. Third, a small class of Palestinians has grown rich as a result of the Oslo process and is invested in maintaining the status quo. And finally, the PA wants to demonstrate to Israel and the US that it is “willing and able” to ensure security and stability in a two-state solution. Forced to constantly prove itself a “serious partner for peace,” the PA is doing all it can to demonstrate that it is ready to rule. In 2003, the Performance-Based Road Map to a Permanent Two-State Solution promised that “when the Palestinian people have a leadership acting decisively against terror, willing and able to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty…the Palestinians will have the active support of the Quartet and the broader international community in establishing an independent, viable state.” As a Palestinian involved in the negotiations explained, “Now our message to the West is that we are a serious partner and can deliver on our promises. And we are succeeding. Israel is enjoying security because of this.”

On a daily basis, the process of security coordination is much more contested. Many conflicts arise from Israeli incursions into Area A, which is supposedly under the jurisdiction of the PA security forces. Yet Israeli troops invade these enclaves every day to carry out arrests or confront demonstrators. Generally, the Israeli military contacts the PA security forces and informs them that soldiers will be present in a given city at a particular time. They do not say exactly where they will be or what they will be doing. But they insist that the PA security forces leave the streets. So the PA police have to move inside and wait until they are allowed back on the street. Other times, the Israeli military does not inform the PA that they will be entering an area. A Palestinian soldier explained: “They pass right in front of us without letting us know that they are entering. And the people see them pass in front of a Palestinian police car and just keep going. We can’t speak with them and they don’t speak with us. But the picture is clear to the people. It is not right.” Another told me, “They are saying to your people that you are a joke — that you didn’t do anything and so now the occupation is entering.”

Even more difficult, however, are the daily demonstrations where children gather to throw stones at a checkpoint or a watchtower along the 440-mile separation wall that winds through the West Bank. The standard procedure is for the Israeli military to contact the PA security forces when they see a demonstration brewing and “request” that the PA move the children back. These requests constitute daily demands that the PA continually prove its willingness and ability to cooperate in the suppression of even the least organized forms of resistance.

When the PA security forces are deployed to move the children away and prevent them from throwing stones, several things can occur. According to PA security officers, Israeli soldiers often fire tear gas at the demonstrators while the PA troops are trying to push them back. PA troops have been injured by Israelis while standing between the army and the children. “This happens a lot. And it creates anxiety. It makes people see themselves as small.”

At the same time, the PA soldiers become — in the eyes of many children — the front lines of the occupation. Children insist angrily that they want to throw stones at the Israeli soldiers: "Why are you trying to stop us? You should be joining us instead." Like the Israeli soldiers, the Palestinian youth show little respect for the PA police. Sometimes, the PA troops move the children away as gently as possible; other times, they use violence; and sometimes the children respond with stones. According to a Fatah leader in the area, “It is a very difficult job. They are asked to move the kids away from the soldiers. They tell the kids that it is to stop them from being shot. But the kids say: ‘Leave me alone. Let me be shot.’ And they call them all kinds of bad names.”

The PA police find themselves squeezed between two conflicting forces, charged, on the one hand, with not doing enough to protect Israel, and, on the other, with being traitors to their people. Their internal conflicts are intense. Several security officers admitted that it is “impossible work” and that the psychological impact is one of the worst aspects. It is made even worse by the fact that many of these troops have taken work with the security forces simply because there are so few other job opportunities. An NGO worker told me, “I know the people who are soldiers. They don’t want to be there, but they have no choice because they need a job.”

End of the Road

Israeli officials praise the new regime of security coordination. According to a retired Israeli general, “This is the only aspect of the peace process that is working well. There is nothing else like this. It should be encouraged.” But the Israeli government is simultaneously undermining the stability of this system by invading Palestinian cities and camps, building settlements, besieging Gaza, arresting and killing activists, and allowing settlers to carry out "price tag" attacks. While squeezing the PA with one hand, demanding proof of its commitment to the suppression of resistance, Israel stokes the flames of resistance with the other. Stability seems more illusory every day.

Still, US officials express cautious optimism that the security regime can form the basis of a lasting solution. “With economic development and support from Arab countries, they can work out a solution. We can encourage investment, but it will only happen if there is security and stability.” And the PA continues to invest its hopes for a state in security coordination. As a senior PA official explains, “We have met all of our security obligations. Everything that has been asked of us in terms of security, we have done. We have done everything asked in terms of security, order, stability, preventing chaos, preventing terrorism. All of these obligations, we have met them. And there is security coordination. We recognize and respect our obligations. The problem is on the other side.”

But many Palestinians have no faith that security coordination and negotiations will generate a viable solution to the occupation. Increasingly, protesters are calling for an end to negotiations and the Oslo process altogether.  In the words of a community organizer, “The road itself is leading to a dead end or to an explosion. Either way, ‘Abbas is sure to fail. Either the negotiations fail, which is quite likely, or they offer an agreement that the people will reject.”   

One question is on everyone’s mind: What will the PA forces do in the event of an uprising? Israeli officials express concern that the newly trained forces will turn their guns on Israel like they did during the second intifada. Palestinians fear that the repression will be directed at them. PA officials seem to recognize that they have no viable options. They would either be crushed by the Israeli military or entangled in an ugly civil war. The PA is thus determined to prevent an uprising. Echoing Margaret Thatcher, they insist that “there is no alternative” to the security coordination regime: “It is either this or chaos.” The imperative to prevent an uprising shapes the PA efforts to repress organized resistance and to limit confrontations with the Israelis. But as one young activist likes to point out, “Every day, Israel reminds us that we are under occupation. I trust them to create the conditions for another uprising.”


[1] Jim Zanotti, US Security Assistance to the Palestinian Authority (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, January 8, 2010).
[2] Keith Dayton, “Program of the Soref Symposium: Michael Stein Address on US Middle East Policy,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, DC, May 7, 2009.
[3] For details on the role of the USSC in this confrontation, see David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Fair, April 2008.

How to cite this article:

Andy Clarno "Securing Oslo," Middle East Report 269 (Winter 2013).

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