Palestinian President Abbas recently proposed a NATO force to replace Israel’s military occupation. But this is not new. Foreign forces are already present in the West Bank and have played an important role in undermining democracy and the formation of a potential security state.
by Philip Leech – Middle East Monitor
On 2 February, Mahmoud Abbas – President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) – told the New York Times that Palestine would accept the introduction of a US-led NATO force to replace Israel’s military occupation. These forces would be present “for a long time, and wherever they want, not only on the eastern borders, but also on the western borders, everywhere”. This proposal was immediately rejected by Abbas’ political opponents, Hamas, and has been overshadowed in most news reports by Israel’s continued demand for Palestinian recognition that Israel is a ‘Jewish State’.
This is not the first time that the use of foreign forces has been suggested as a means to help end the conflict. Indeed, the idea goes as far back as the ‘Clinton Parameters’ – a draft proposal for final status agreements in 2001 – and was also part of NATO’s influential strategic review, the “Albright report” (2010). Nonetheless, Abbas’ latest revision on that proposal deserves further examination.
Taken at face value, Abbas’ suggestion appears to have some virtues. In talks dominated by the question of ‘security’ the presence of independent foreign peacekeepers would seem to be a practical alternative to the status quo. According to the New York Times‘ Tomas Friedman, a supporter of the idea, “Abbas was clearly going out of his way to show that he is prepared to go a long way to address Israel’s security concerns, but in a way that is consistent with his own sovereignty concerns.”
For Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation, the idea may have some appeal simply because it might mean a slight improvement in what is an intolerable situation. As an Amnesty International report entitled “Trigger Happy: Israel’s Use of Excessive Force in the West Bank” detailed, 22 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israel in the West Bank in 2013, including 4 Children. Further, on 27 February, the day that report was released, Muatazz Washaha, according to Ma’an News, a 24-year-old man was killed in the town of Birzeit during an early morning raid by Israeli forces.
It is unlikely that an international force, comprising troops from third party countries – perhaps operating under a UN Mandate, similar to UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon – would behave as brutally as this. And indeed it is at least conceivable that they could serve the additional role of protecting Palestinian civilians from the violence of Israeli settlers too. (Attacks by Israeli settlers have quadrupled over the past eight years according to a recent UN report).
Notwithstanding such a potential silver lining, Abbas’ plan is not quite as honest as it might first appear. In reality foreign forces have been involved in Palestine since the mid-1990s. They have served in various roles such as training and capacity building for the PA’s security and civilian polices forces.
The focus of this arrangement was refocused on supporting the PA’s commitment to ending “violence and terrorism and [to] undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere” in the ‘Road Map’ initiative – an ad hoc agreement between the PLO and a international ‘Quartet’ led by the US – of 2003. But these statements in the ‘Road Map’ represented only the tip of the iceberg.
The outcome of such an involvement between foreign forces and the PA security sector has been deeply problematic. It has, in essence, undermined both Palestinian democracy and potential reform efforts. As leaked documents – exposed by the Guardian in 2009 – revealed, links between the CIA, the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the PA’s Preventive Security Organisation and General Intelligence Service were so close that “the [Central Intelligence] Agency consider[ed] them as their property, those two Palestinian services.”
These links were utilised in the wake of Hamas’ election victory in 2006 to undermine a troubled Hamas-Fatah ‘unity government’ and eventually to drive Hamas out of the West Bank altogether. In 2008, Human Rights Watch stated that during this Hamas-Fatah conflict, for the first time since 1967, “more Palestinians in the occupied territory died in 2007 as a result of internal Palestinian fighting (at least 490) than from Israeli attacks (at least 396).”
In addition, as various reports at the time noted (including “The Gaza Bombshell” a thorough exposé in Vanity Fair and leaked documents revealed in the Guardian), officers from western intelligence organisations were strongly implicated in both planning the military assault on Hamas (according to some reports these plans began as early as 2004) and observing the torture and other human rights abuses of detainees. This was, of course, during the peak of the US-UK’s international ‘War on Terror’ that had a strongly polarising effect on western reactions to political-Islam.
Yet, even if fighting against Hamas had been the raison d’etre for the presence of those western operatives, their impact on the PA security forces did not end with the cession of fighting. Rather, foreign forces continued to play a highly significant role in developing security forces and extending their influence within over domestic political issues. Aisling Byrne – an analyst – suggested that international donors supporting the PA were effectively “building a Police State” in a 2011 article for Foreign Policy.
A similar claim has been made by Yezid Sayigh – a noted academic and expert on security issues in the Middle East – who, in a 2011 report for the Carnegie Endowment, stated that, partly as a product of foreign involvement, “in the West Bank, the [Palestinian] intelligence agencies are emerging as autonomous power centres that acknowledge no higher, constitutional authority”. Furthermore, the strong political support shown by the US and its allies of Abbas’ government, during a period of serious weakness, strengthened the “old guard” of Fatah and undermined much needed potential reform efforts. Both of these troubling developments could, in Sayigh’s view, be steps that might lead to the complete sidelining of civilian government in Palestine.
The conclusion to draw from these events is clear, Israel’s military occupation is clearly intolerable, but an international military occupation is no serious alternative. To date, where foreign forces have been involved in Palestine’s security sector they have prioritised their own agendas at the expense of Palestinian democracy and Palestinian lives, helping to create an environment ripe for the emergence of a potential police state in the process.
Dr Philip Leech is a Lecturer at in International Relations at the University of Liverpool. He is the editor of GlobaliationCafe.com