US-Backed Palestinian Security Forces 'A Prescription for Civil War'

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Al-Jazeera-English

US-Backed Palestinian Security Forces 'A Prescription for Civil War'

by
Jon Elmer in Bethlehem

Allegations of misconduct have been made against Palestinian security services. (GALLO/GETTY)

Abu Abdullah
has never been charged with a crime, but he has been arrested by
Palestinian security forces so many times in the past two years that he
has lost count.

He has been
arrested at work, in the market, on the street, and, more than once,
during violent raids by masked men who burst into his home and seized
him in front of his family.

Deep in the
heart of the Deheishe refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem, Abu
Abdullah describes in detail the beatings he has endured in custody,
the numerous cold, sleepless nights in cramped and filthy cells, the
prolonged periods bound in painful stress positions, and the long hours
of aggressive questioning.

"The
interrogations always begin the same way," Abu Abdullah explains. "They
demand to know who I voted for in the last election."

Abu Abdullah
is not alone. Since Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's caretaker
government took power in Ramallah in June 2007, stories like Abu
Abdullah's have become commonplace in the West Bank.

The arrests
are part of a wider plan being executed by Palestinian security forces
- trained and funded by American and European backers - to crush
opposition and consolidate the Fatah-led government's grip on power in
the West Bank.

An international effort

The
government of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is bolstered by
thousands of newly trained police and security forces whose stated aim
is to eliminate Islamist groups that may pose a threat to its power -
namely Hamas and their supporters.

Under the
auspices of Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton, the US security
coordinator, these security forces receive hands-on training from
Canadian, British and Turkish military personnel at a desert training
centre in Jordan.

The programme has been carefully coordinated with Israeli security officials.

Since 2007
the Jordan International Police Training Center has trained and
deployed five Palestinian National Security Force battalions in the
West Bank.

By the end
of Dayton's appointment in 2011, the $261mn project will see 10 new
security battalions, one for each of the nine West Bank governorates
and one unit in reserve.

Their aim is
clear. Speaking before a House of Representatives subcommittee in 2007,
Dayton described the project as "truly important to advance our
national interests, deliver security to Palestinians, and preserve and
protect the interests of the state of Israel".

Others are
even more explicit about what the force is for. When Nahum Barnea, a
senior Israeli defence correspondent, sat in on a top-level
coordinating meeting between Palestinian and Israeli commanders in
2008, he says he was stunned by what he heard.

"Hamas is
the enemy, and we have decided to wage an all-out war," Barnea quoted
Majid Faraj, then the head of Palestinian military intelligence, as
telling the Israeli commanders. "We are taking care of every Hamas
institution in accordance with your instructions."

After the takeover

 

When he arrived in the last days of 2005, Dayton's assignment was to
create a Palestinian security force ostensibly tasked with confronting
the Palestinian resistance. The project began in Gaza.

Sean
McCormack, a state department spokesman at the time, explained Dayton's
role as "the real down in the weeds, blocking and tackling work of
helping to build up the security forces".

But within
weeks of his arrival, things began to fall apart. Hamas' decisive
January 2006 election victory ushered in a crippling international
blockade on the Palestinians in Gaza. Soon after, the security forces
of Hamas and Fatah began fighting in the streets, culminating in Hamas'
June 2007 takeover of the enclave.

Dayton's
initial aims lay in tatters, and while Fayyad became prime minister in
a 'caretaker' government in Ramallah, a new security strategy was
formulated.

As a grim
status-quo established itself in Gaza, Dayton's new mission became
clear. The job of the security coordinator was now "to prevent a Hamas
takeover in the West Bank," according to Michael Eisenstadt, Dayton's
former plans officer.

A
coordinated attack on Hamas' civilian apparatus was launched
immediately after the takeover in Gaza in June 2007. Major-General Gadi
Shamni, the head of the Israeli army's central command, led an
initiative to target the base of Hamas' support in the West Bank. The
plan, dubbed the Dawa Strategy, involved pin-pointing Hamas' extensive
social welfare apparatus, the lynchpin of their popularity amongst many
Palestinians.

Dr Omar
Abdel Razeq, a former finance minister in the short-lived Hamas
government, explains the effect this had. "When we talk about the
infrastructure we are talking about the societies and the cooperatives
and the institutions that were to help the poor," he says. "They
finished [off] the infrastructure of Hamas."

Israeli
Brigadier-General Michael Herzog, the chief of staff to Ehud Barak,
Israel's defence minister, summed up the Israeli view of the project.
"[Dayton's] doing a great job," he said. "We're very happy with what
he's doing."

Torture allegations

The Dawa
Strategy has seen more than 1,000 Palestinians jailed by Palestinian
Authority (PA) forces. The arrests - though concentrated on Hamas and
its suspected allies - have touched a broad swathe of Palestinian
society, and all political factions.

They have
targeted social workers, students, teachers, journalists. There have
been regular raids on mosques, university campus' and charities, and
repeated allegations of torture carried out by US and European-funded
security officers, including several deaths in custody.

In October,
Abbas issued a decree against the most violent forms of torture used by
his forces and replaced the interior minister, General Abdel Razak
al-Yahya, a long-time US and Israeli partner, with Said Abu Ali.

While noting
an improvement since the decree, human rights workers say the changes
are not enough. "There is still no due process, still no legal
justifications for many of the arrests and civilians are still being
brought before military courts," says Salah Moussa, an Independent
Commission for Human Rights attorney.

Major-General
Adnan Damiri, a spokesperson for the Palestinian security forces,
acknowledged wrongdoing but attributed the acts to individuals and not
to a policy.

"Sometimes
there are officers or soldiers who have made mistakes in this way, with
torture," Damiri said. "But now we are punishing them."

Damiri cited 42 cases of torture in
the past three months that resulted in various forms of reprimand,
including loss of rank. Six soldiers were dismissed for their acts.

But on the streets, the mood is darkening as the foreign-backed security services tighten their grip on the West Bank.

Naje Odeh, a
leftist community leader in Deheishe who operates a thriving youth
centre in the camp, characterised the security apparatus as akin to the
US-allied regimes in Jordan and Egypt. "If you speak out, you are
arrested," he explains. "This behaviour will destroy our society."

Odeh says
the security forces carrying out the raids know that what they are
doing is wrong. "Why are they masked?" he asks rhetorically. "Because
we know these people. We know their families. They are ashamed of what
they are doing."

Some fear that the behaviour of the US and EU-trained security forces will spark potentially deadly confrontation.

"If they
attack your mosques, your classrooms, your societies, you can be
patient, but for how long?" a senior Islamist leader in the West Bank
asks.

Abdel Razeq, the former Hamas finance minister, is more explicit in his predictions.

He says: "If the security forces insist on defending the Israelis, this is a prescription for civil war."

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