It’s not that Israelis and Palestinians don’t care about things like traffic fatalities and drug smuggling. It’s just that when you’re consumed with and by a military occupation, it can be hard to find effective methods to combat life’s more banal scourges. Where neighbors might be able to help each other on cross border issues, enemies find it a lot harder.
Which is why Wednesday’s revelation that Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian police chiefs have been quietly meeting for the past 18 months (under the auspices of the U.S.-based Police Executive Research Forum), and that furthermore Israeli and Palestinian police forces may soon begin joint patrols, is good news. Following a three-day summit in Jericho, Palestinian police chief Hazem Attallah explained the rationale at a press conference:
As you all know, crime these days has no limits, has no borders, and of course for all police forces in the whole world, their job is to counter this violence, to counter crime. We are gathered here for this reason and for this reason only—how we are going to be able to improve the ways that we are using to counter crime, in different ways and different levels.
There’s nothing easy or simple about any of this. The patchwork—and entirely political—division of West Bank territory into Areas A, B and C lies at the very root of the problem. Aside from anything else, it can be all too easy to (say) nab a car in one area and take it along back roads to another, driving right off police radar in the process.
Moreover, Israel has a vested interest in keeping Palestinian society at a low-boil of instability in order to deepen the occupation, and the military’s regular raids on Palestinian institutions and general disregard for settler violence make it hard for many Palestinians to trust Israeli law enforcement on anything. Israelis, for their part, often react quite viscerally to the image of Palestinians with guns, sure that years of mutual violence means that we can never be sure those guns won’t be turned on us.
But this was, of course, the point of the outreach. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum:
The bigger picture is that sometimes these lines of communication can act as a prelude to something as large as a peace process by simply getting people to work better together.
If any “peace process,” anywhere on earth, is to be successful, it will be made up of a handful of splashy events like those at which the likes of John Kerry or Martin Indyk preside, and a million smaller moments without which the big events will be meaningless and ultimately fail. The enmity, power imbalance, and sheer ignorance between Israelis and Palestinians are staggering and color every aspect of daily life, for people in positions of power as well as the average citizen. Working together to catch bad guys might very well serve as one of those crucial smaller moments in which some of those issues can begin to be addressed.
Israeli Inspector General Yahanan Danino sounded a positive note:
We have [made] a lot of progress. We feel it not only in the working groups, not only on the issues that we mentioned. We feel it in our relations on a daily base when you need something, we have a lot of examples, that we used these relations for the good of our people in all the area.
Hazem Attallah did as well:
It was the first time when there is a Palestinian chief of police standing in the Israeli police academy and give a lecture. I think this is part of the success and No. 2, [I am] inviting Commissioner Danino to come and give a lecture to our officers. This is the kind of progress that we are talking about.
It’s not peace. It’s a long way from peace. But joint Palestinian-Israeli police patrols have the potential to improve real people’s lives, right now—and without such steps, any hope for peace will crash and burn. Again.