GUSH ETZION, West Bank — On a recent cold foggy day at the entrance to Bethlehem, Israel Defense Forces Lt. Col. Yair Pinto pulled his military jeep to the side of the road to point out an overpass where, on occasion, young Palestinians rain down rocks on Israeli cars below.
Pinto, a battalion commander whose infantry unit was responsible for this north-west sector of Gush Etzion, a restive part of the southern West Bank, seemed preternaturally calm despite being at the doorstep of a major Palestinian city—which was likely the point.
Despite the six months of unrest wracking the West Bank, and despite being in a solitary jeep, he seemed to be intimating that there was little to worry about. And what of those youths, or anyone more serious, who might materialize above on the overpass?
“The expectation is that the Palestinian Authority’s security forces will take care of it,” he said. “I don’t feel there isn’t someone to trust on the other side.”
Monday’s bus bombing in Jerusalem that injured over a dozen people might make that argument seem implausible. Hamas reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack, which despite the relatively small size of the explosive device does suggest a reasonably sophisticated terrorist infrastructure.
But, in fact, unrest on the West Bank has declined significantly since December, with the numbers of Palestinian terror attacks and demonstrations dropping steadily month on month.
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been quick to take credit for the overall drop in violence, attributing it to the “government’s strong, responsible, and methodical policy” implemented by the various security services.
It was left to the official Shin Bet assessment to highlight the overlooked fact that has also helped in containing, however tenuously, this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the work of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces themselves.
Cooperation between the IDF and PASF has held firm, a point every Israeli security official, like Pinto from the battalion level and on up to the chief of staff, emphasizes repeatedly, despite nearly 30 Israeli and 200 Palestinian deaths in the last half-year.
As Palestinian General Intelligence chief Majid Faraj told Defense News in January, the PASF had thwarted 200 attacks against Israelis since last October alone, arresting terror operatives and Islamist activists and confiscating weapons. Indeed, this month PA General Intelligence tracked down three Palestinian youths who had been missing for days. According to Israeli press reports, the youths were found in the hills outside Ramallah, armed with guns and hand grenades ahead of a planned terror attack.
This was just the latest sign of what Faraj, in the interview, called a deliberate Palestinian policy on the path to statehood. “We fought for many decades in a different way, and now we are fighting for peace,” he said. “So I will continue fighting to keep this bridge against radicalization and violence that should lead us to our independence.”
Faraj paid dearly for these public statements, drawing condemnations from many quarters of Palestinian society, not least the militant Hamas, for what is popularly viewed as collaboration with the enemy. It’s not uncommon for Palestinians to call the PASF “sub-contractors of the occupation,” a phrase heard repeatedly in the West Bank. For this reason Palestinian security officials rarely speak openly on the matter—in particular since Faraj’s interview.
But if we go back to 2014, to a heavily fortified compound incongruously perched next to an amusement park on a hill high above Ramallah, we can find a senior official from the PA’s Preventive Security agency holding forth on the topic of security coordination with the Israelis.
As its name suggests, Preventive Security is the intelligence arm tasked with internal stability—the Palestinian FBI, or as it’s otherwise known, the “Hamas hunters.”
The senior official explained to me then that security cooperation between Israel and the PA hinges on “daily and weekly contacts, and meetings on all levels,” from brigade commanders in the field to security chiefs like him.
“From a security perspective there is not much difference of opinion with the Israelis… we share the same interests,” he said. In most cases, he added, the focus was on “security hazards and changes which threaten the stable security situation on both sides”—like Hamas, and increasingly over the course of the recent unrest, ordinary Palestinians, overwhelmingly young, who pick up a knife and decide to head out to inflict harm.
According to Israeli military officials and press reports, Palestinian intelligence has taken to monitoring social media, looking for telltale signs of incipient violence and interdicting the potential attacker ahead of time. In the school system, educators issue alerts for any truant students, soliciting assistance from parents in tracking down the individual and ensuring that he or she isn’t on the way to commit an attack.
As Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Israel’s Channel Two this month, “Our security services go into the schools to… search in the students’ bags, to check if they have knives… In one of the schools we found 70 boys and girls with knives. We took the knives from them, we spoke to them and we told them that this is a mistake: ‘We don’t want you to kill and to die. We want you to live and for the other to also live.’”
Seventy knife-wielding kids in one school might seem an odd admission to make, providing succor to those intent on blaming the wave of violence on official and deliberate Palestinian incitement starting from the top.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett has called Abbas a “terrorist,” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month charged Abbas with helping to “inculcate a new generation of young Palestinians with murderous hatred for Israel.”
Even cursory reviews of Palestinian media uncover untold paeans to violence; Abbas’s Fatah party, including at times the president, publicly extols the virtues of the young shahids shot dead while targeting Israelis. So there is indeed truth to the incitement charge and genuine cause for concern.
Abbas in the Channel Two interview readily admitted that incitement exists, although hedging the charge by calling attention to incitement on the Israeli side too. Even more telling, though, is the fact that the PA in recent months has taken major steps to curb official incitement, a positive shift confirmed to The Daily Beast by a senior IDF officer responsible for the West Bank.
Abbas ultimately feels the need to walk this tightrope between the passions of his disillusioned and despairing people and the interest in maintaining stability on the West Bank. It’s a question of legitimacy and confidence on the part of the PA as it struggles to return law and order to Palestinian society.
The early stages of the unrest last fall were the PA’s nadir, according to the senior IDF officer. Back then, the PASF initially “disappeared” from the streets, he said, taking a softer stance against demonstrators marching on Israeli checkpoints (plainclothes security agents simply made sure that protestors were not armed). Now, however, uniformed PASF are back in plain sight, actively suppressing demonstrations before they reach friction points with the Israeli military and settlers (like at the entrance to Bethlehem).
As several IDF officers and international diplomats in Jerusalem told The Daily Beast, the PASF has navigated the tumult better than many expected, managing to maintain its cohesion, professionalism, and discipline.
The PASF, numbering nearly 30,000 armed men, has only seen three isolated instances of its officers taking part in the current violence. This is in sharp contrast to the days of the Second Intifada (2000-2005), when PA security officers stripped off their uniforms and turned their guns on Israeli soldiers and civilians.
The renewed decade-long effort by the U.S. to train and equip the PASF, to the tune of approximately $100 million per year, has clearly borne fruit. “In some ways it’s the most successful part of the entire ‘Peace Process’ effort,” said a veteran former diplomat with knowledge of the training mission.
The IDF, to be sure, still conducts almost nightly arrest operations in Palestinian cities—what the Shin Bet assessment termed “ramified counter-terrorist operations” primarily aimed at Hamas operatives and inciters on social media. Israel is still the ultimate guarantor of security in the West Bank.
Yet such raids require a high level of coordination with the PASF, who stand down as Israeli units pass by, despite such raids badly undermining the legitimacy of the PA in the eyes of its own people. “Once we needed a division to enter [the Palestinian city of] Jenin,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said last October. “Two days ago we did it with a small force.”
The PASF, though, aren’t the only armed group to have stood down thus far. Almost as important, the grassroots militia of the ruling Fatah party, the Tanzim, has not gotten involved in the unrest either. The Tanzim, along with its terrorist arm the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, are believed to have at least a few thousand armed men in the West Bank’s various refugee camps. Abbas and other Fatah officials are known to have met with Tanzim leaders, and whether by persuasion or coercion the Tanzim have not, to date, followed through on their many public threats of violence. If they do, Israeli security officials would view that as a game-changer.
“I don’t see the Palestinian street coming out [to support the unrest],” Lt. Col. Pinto observed as he navigated the fog-shrouded roads of Gush Etzion. “People don’t want to see an escalation.”
Pinto, a veteran of the Second Intifada, recalls the days when each individual demonstration would see several thousand Palestinians squaring off against Israeli security forces. In contrast, on the worst day of the unrest last fall, the IDF estimates 5,000 demonstrators—total—in nearly a dozen locales took to the streets of the West Bank.
It is telling that the largest West Bank demonstration in a decade took place not in the last several months, but rather in the summer of 2014, at the height of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.
On one night, an estimated 20,000 Palestinians marched on the Qalandiya checkpoint connecting Ramallah with Jerusalem. In interviews afterward, several PA officials explained that the demonstration, rather than being a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, was actually organized and led by Fatah. It was a means for the Palestinian leadership to let the people “vent out,” the Preventive Security chief told me then, and “to direct people’s anger against Israel and not the PA.”
Despite over six months of unrest and a litany of internal political problems, the Palestinian leadership has not felt the need to repeat this move. On the contrary, it has been working with Israel to de-escalate.
While the declining levels of attacks are a positive indication, the coming weeks will prove crucial, especially in the wake of the Jerusalem bus bombing, the first such attack on public transport in three years.
The impending Passover holiday period, and Ramadan in early June, will test the security relationship between the PA and Israel even more.
The bigger question, though, is whether such a policy is sustainable given populist pressures on both sides and, perhaps more importantly, whether the policy can outlive its biggest advocate, the 81-year-old Abbas.
“I hold on to security cooperation,” Abbas explained in the Channel Two interview, “because if we give up on it, there will be chaos here. There will be rifles, there will be explosives, there will be gunmen, who will pop up everywhere and want to enter Israel. I put my hands on them and deny them.
“Without security cooperation,” he added, “a blood-drenched Intifada would break out.”