x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

PA-Israel joint security may be first victim of Fatah-Hamas pact

Coordination between security services that has won international praise is in jeopardy with Israel wary of Hamas's part in unity deal.

Palestinian policemen, right, are watched by Israeli soldiers, left, as they control Palestinians at the Qalandia checkpoint near Ramallah city.
Palestinian policemen, right, are watched by Israeli soldiers, left, as they control Palestinians at the Qalandia checkpoint near Ramallah city.

JERUSALEM // The security agencies of the Palestinian Authority have been praised for fostering stability and prosperity by helping dismantle the West Bank's armed militias and networks of Hamas fighters.

But an element to their success - coordination with Israel's security establishment - may be in jeopardy after Fatah, the West Bank's dominant Palestinian faction, and Hamas agreed to a deal designed to lead to a unity government.

Israeli officials say they are reviewing this coordination, saying they are worried the reconciliation accord may offer Hamas influence over the Palestinian Authority's security establishment. Israel, along with the United States and European Union, lists Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Israel has not made a decision about whether to suspend coordination, an Israeli official said by telephone. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the issue.

"The decision by the Palestinians to embrace Hamas has implications across the board on all sorts of cooperation," the official said.

The Israeli press reported last week that the military was reconsidering whether to allow Palestinian security personnel to travel to Jordan for training from US and military officers from other nations.

The group is part of a 3,500-member, American-trained paramilitary force that has been deployed in West Bank cities.

"Everything is under review," an anonymous Israeli military official was quoted as saying. "If, for example, a Hamas representative takes over the security forces then we will obviously not be able to work with him."

Following Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007 Israeli security and intelligence coordination with the Palestinian Authority was enhanced, in part, to prevent a similar scenario in the West Bank.

That coordination has led to the arrest of many Hamas members, generating bad blood between Hamas and Fatah.

Israel says it has benefitted from the detention of Hamas members. Some estimates put the number of attacks against Israelis in the West Bank at fewer than 50 last year, down from nearly 2,000 during the height of the second intifada in 2002.

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has been rewarded by the reduction of Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks that has helped the economy.

Mark Heller, a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, called the coordination a "win-win situation" because "this has freed up a lot of movement in the West Bank and has had a positive impact on commerce".

But the Palestinian reconciliation pact has Israelis asking questions about this coordination, he said. "Will Hamas people be coming into PA security agencies? Is there any chance for dilution of control, Hamas subversion?"

So far, Hamas and Fatah officials have kept the details of their accord vague. They have agreed to form an interim governing authority while the two factions thrash out issues such as security control until elections are held within a year's time.

At least for the time being, few suspect the agreement will affect either side's control over Gaza and the West Bank.

But the agreement calls for eventually integrating Hamas into the West Bank's political framework, including the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the umbrella group that manages diplomatic contacts and peace negotiations with Israel.

This, many expect, could generate pressure on a Palestinian Authority to halt security coordination with Israel.

"This is part of the gamble that Mahmoud Abbas is taking," said George Giacaman, a professor at Birzeit University's democracy and human rights programme, referring to the Palestinian Authority president. But it was a risk that the Palestinian leader felt he had to make because, he said, "the Palestinian Authority's legitimacy is on the verge of being extinguished" by nearly two decades of fruitless peace negotiations.

Already, Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' Damascus-based leader, has begun warning against further detention of the group's supporters since last week's agreement was signed in Cairo. It calls for releasing political detainees in their respective detention facilities, including the estimated 300 Hamas members thought to be held in the West Bank.

In an article published on Sunday on the website of Hamas' military wing, the Qassam Brigades, Mr Meshaal said that anti-Hamas security sweeps in the West Bank "ran contrary to the spirit of reconciliation". He called them "unacceptable".

Officials from the United States and the rest of the Middle East peace Quartet - the European Union, Russia and the UN - have reacted cautiously to the pact. They have conditioned their support on Hamas' recognition of Israel, abandoning violence against it, as well as adopting previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

Addressing the quartet's conditions, Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian Authority spokesperson, said he did not know if Hamas would comply.

However, he added, "I think having Hamas in the political structure and engaging it is going to contribute to making Hamas more moderate."

 

hnaylor@thenational.ae