Shortly after the death of Yasser Arafat on November 11, 2004, and the election of Mahmoud Abbas to the Palestinian Authority [PA] presidency in January 2005, the U.S. Department of State increased its security assistance to the PA and began to promote Palestinian security cooperation with the Israeli security services. The motive was not personal support for Abbas, but a belief that Fatah under Abbas could become a more reliable partner for maintaining order and keeping peaceful relations with Israel.
President Bush had declared in 2002, "The United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure. This will require an externally supervised effort to rebuild and reform the Palestinian security services." To establish his leadership, Abbas was determined to have a monopoly over the use of force. So in 2005, the office of the United States Security Coordinator [USSC] for Israel and the Palestinian territories was created to train Palestinian Authority security forces, especially the Palestinian National Security Forces [NSF] and the Presidential Guard.
This process was credited, particularly during the leadership of U.S. Security Coordinator LTG Keith Dayton from 2005-2010, with measurable improvements in the capacity and effectiveness of the Palestinian security services. It led to a great expansion of Palestinian cooperation and enhanced coordination with counterpart Israeli security services. Today, security makes up a sizeable proportion of the PA budget, accounting for 26% of 2013 expenditures. More public servants are now employed in the security sector than in any other sector. Of the 83,000 PA civil servants in the West Bank, 31,000 (37%) are "defense workers." There is now one security person for every 52 Palestinian residents compared to one educator for every 75 residents.
By 2009, General Dayton was able to report that, "The Palestinians have engaged upon a series of what they call security offensives throughout the West Bank, surprisingly well coordinated with the Israeli army, in a serious and sustained effort to return the rule of law to the West Bank and reestablish the authority of the Palestinian Authority."
The head of Israel's Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, agreed that the Israeli security services "have established a very good working relationship with the [Palestinian Authority's] Preventive Security Organization (PSO) and [its] General Intelligence Organization (GIO)." Diskin added that the PSO shares with his agency "almost all the intelligence that it collects." The Palestinian Authority, he said, "understands that Israel's security is central to their survival in the struggle with Hamas in the West Bank."
In April 2010, the government of Israel submitted an official report on enhanced Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation to the international Palestinian donors' group, known as the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee [AHLC], which stated:
"Growing coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces enabled Israel to take significant steps to help improve the security capacity of the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF)...This reflects an understanding that the higher the level of security reached on the ground... the less Israel will need to act on the ground... A mechanism for enhanced coordination has also been established between the two sides. Priority requests are now processed within just a few minutes. In 2009, coordinated operations numbered 1,297, a 72% increase over 2008."
A year later Israel reported that, in 2011, 764 joint security meetings were held between Israeli and Palestinian security authorities. Israel's Ministry of Justice maintains ongoing relations with its Palestinian counterpart, and the Israeli security network maintains close ties with General Dayton.
Although there has been little public acknowledgement, the Palestinian and Israeli forces have developed an elaborate system of detailed security cooperation. Israel produces a great volume of intelligence that is essential for early warning of terrorist threats. Unit 8200, the Central Collection Unit of the Israeli Intelligence Corps, comprising several thousand soldiers, monitors phone calls, emails, and other communication, and maintains covert listening units in the West Bank. In addition, Israel's Shin Bet has a network of Palestinian informers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, who help target militants and tip off security services to imminent attacks. Important pieces of the Israeli intelligence are shared with Palestinian security services, facilitating preventive action to interdict terrorist plots before they can be consummated.
On enforcement, the two sides share the burden of arresting and detaining Hamas and other militants in the West Bank. Sometimes, Israel asks the Palestinian agencies to perform the arrests, while in other cases the Palestinians stand aside while special IDF forces arrest them. As of August 2014, 5,505 Palestinian security detainees and prisoners, more than 90% of whom were from the West Bank, were held in Israel's Ofer, Ktzi'ot, and Megiddo prisons.
On the PA side, according to one study, Palestinian security services detained 13,271 Palestinians during the years 2007-2011, an average of 2,654 per year, although many were released without prosecution. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said, "We counted 1,040 cases that were handled by the Palestinian security services in 2013. How many of them went to trial? Zero." In the same period, Ya'alon said, Israel had arrested some 3,000 Palestinians, many of whom were later imprisoned.
Palestinian Silence about Security Cooperation
Palestinian officials have generally been silent about security cooperation with Israel. They are loath to acknowledge how important it is for the very survival of the Palestinian Authority. There is also a fear that internal critics -- especially Hamas -- will disparage coordination as "collaboration with the enemy." In 2011, Said Abu Ali, then minister of interior in the Palestinian provisional government, emphasized in a leaked cable that it was "necessary" that the security collaboration with the Israelis remain confidential: "Keep them [the contacts] out of the public eye."
Shlomi Eldar, a seasoned Israeli observer of Palestinian affairs, explained that, "Throughout the years, the Palestinians had one absolutely necessary condition... They demanded that security cooperation remained absolutely secret, [especially] exchanges of intelligence information that led to the arrest of suspects for activities against Israelis. The authority's security men did not want to be perceived by the West Bank population as Israeli collaborators."
On rare occasions, when he is under pressure from the international community, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has felt obligated to defend security cooperation with Israel as a necessity because it serves "the Palestinian national interest". Even then, he is defensive. In a speech to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on June 18, 2014, he said, "We don't want to go back to chaos and destruction, as we did in the second [Palestinian] intifadah. I say it openly and frankly. We will not go back to an uprising that will destroy us." He used another formulation in 2010, "We are not Israel's security guards. We are partners. If they want us to cooperate, then we stand ready to do that within the limits of our national interests." And he waxes almost enthusiastic when he assures Jewish leaders, as he did on May 31, 2014: "The security relationship [with Israel]…and I say it on air, security coordination is sacred, sacred. And we will continue it whether we disagree or agree over policy."
A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, observed dryly that the Palestinians "don't operate out of our interest, but they operate out of their own interests. We have a mutual concern with Hamas terrorism." In interviews with Palestinian security officials, the independent International Crisis Group found, that "The PA believes that the... realm in which the IDF truly facilitates its work is the one where there is... a true convergence of interests, namely the fight against Hamas and other militant groups."
Mahmoud Abbas Threatens to Cancel Security Cooperation
Recent events have put a strain on the security cooperation that Dayton built in 2005-2010. 50 days of fighting in Gaza, from July 8 to August 26, 2014, resulted in over 2,100 Palestinian fatalities and vast physical destruction, changing the climate for relations with Israel. Many Palestinians in the West Bank as well as Gaza were heartened by the fact that Hamas was able to launch 4,564 rockets and mortars from Gaza into the Israeli heartland, even though few found their targets. Hamas was seen as an effective fighting force standing up to the Israelis, while the Palestinian Authority was dismissed as ineffectual. Many voices were raised calling on Abbas to adopt a more militant posture toward Israel and to end his cooperation with the hated "Israeli regime".
Under this pressure, in recent months PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been making a series of threats against Israel, even including the idea that he will terminate the security cooperation with Israel if his political demands are not met. On August 21, 2014, he said that he had told Israeli Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen, "If [the U.S.] does not agree [to Palestinian demands], we will stop security coordination and cooperation with Israel," and repeated the threat publicly in a press briefing at his Ramallah office on October 1, 2014 .
Israel Warned Abbas that Hamas Was Plotting a Coup
Abbas, however, has ample evidence that this security cooperation he is threatening to cancel is at least as important to his security, and to control of the territory by Fatah and the PA, as it is to Israel. Just weeks ago, in a private meeting that was transcribed and leaked, Abbas told Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani that Israeli security forces had discovered and thwarted a Hamas plot to overthrow his government in the West Bank. His own words were:
"The Israeli intelligence chief [Yoram Cohen, head of Shin Bet, the Israel Security Agency] came to me two weeks ago in Ramallah... He told me I want to keep you appraised of several dangerous issues that threaten your existence and the existence of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank... [The Israelis] had arrested 93 Hamas members who were preparing for a coup against the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank... He said we have names and details about weapons and tunnels they prepared for the coup against you... I have sensed it, and my security agencies gave me reports about this. All the weapons and explosives we seized were not meant for Israel, but for us.... This is proven information... My intelligence chief... Maj. Gen. Majid often tells me we caught Hamas cells seeking to stage a coup."
Additional details of the plot have been reported. During Israeli interrogation sessions after his arrest in June 2014, the head of the Hamas network in the West Bank, Riad Nasser, described his conversations with a high-ranking Hamas operative in Jordan. The operative, Salah Arouri, was in control of the conspiracy in the West Bank to launch a third intifada, which would lead to a collapse of the PA. The overall plan was "strengthening Hamas so that it would take the place of the PA the day the PA collapsed." Toward this end, "We spoke about providing arms and ammunition to the various regions [of the West Bank] and also about bringing in large sums of money to make the takeover of the West Bank areas possible... It was believed that it was just a matter of time and that sooner or later, the PA would collapse, and Hamas wanted to move into the vacuum that would be created. "
On August 21, 2014, at a meeting in Doha, Abbas confronted Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal directly about the Hamas plot in the West Bank:
"You smuggle weapons, explosives, and cash to the West Bank, not for the fight with Israel, but for a coup against the Palestinian Authority. This continued until the Israeli intelligence chief visited me two weeks ago and told me about the [Hamas] group they arrested that was planning for a coup. ... In addition, my security agencies have proof.... We have a national unity government and you are thinking about a coup against me... If you say this is not true, I will tell you I have images.... We believe [the Israeli report]. "
Mahmoud Abbas (r) meets with the Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal in Qatar, July 20, 2014. (Image source: Handout from the Palestinian Authority President's Office/Thaer Ghanem)
A senior Shin Bet source described the scope of the plot to the Jerusalem Post: The conspiracy began in 2010 and was orchestrated by overseas Hamas operatives headquartered in Turkey. Khaled Mashaal, Hamas's overseas leader in Qatar, was aware of it. 93 Hamas members are in Israeli custody, and security forces plan to indict 70. "This infrastructure stretched from Jenin in the North to Hebron in the South. It is one of the biggest we've seen in Judea and Samaria since Hamas's formation in 1987. They planned to carry out a coup and topple the Palestinian Authority." The head of Hamas in the West Bank since 2010 was indicted in the Judea and Samaria military court in August 2014 for organizing dozens of terrorist cells to advance the plot.
The 2007 Hamas Plot Against the PA
The attempted coup in 2014 was not the first time that Hamas has moved to overthrow the Palestinian Authority. On June 12, 2007, less than three months after agreeing to an earlier national unity government with Abbas, Hamas launched a coup in Gaza. A major Fatah base in the northern town of Jabaliya fell to Hamas fighters, and heavy fighting raged around the main Fatah headquarters in Gaza City, where Hamas militants attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. On June 13, Hamas seized the headquarters of the Fatah-controlled National Security Forces in northern Gaza, and an explosion wrecked the Khan Younis headquarters of the Fatah-linked Preventive Security Service. On June 14, Hamas gunmen completed the takeover of the central building of the Preventive Security Service's headquarters in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas even made an attempt on the life of Abbas, as the PA President revealed in a speech in June 2007. Abbas accused Hamas of trying to assassinate him during a planned 2007 visit to Gaza and said he had seen videotapes in which Hamas militants discussed the explosives that would be used to kill him. After he revealed this information in a speech at a meeting of the PLO in Ramallah, thousands of Hamas supporters demonstrated in Gaza, burning an effigy of him. After the group's takeover of Gaza, Abbas publicly condemned Hamas as "murderous terrorists" and "coup plotters." He said the takeover was a premeditated attack that had been agreed upon with unspecified "foreign elements" in the region. On June 20, 2007, Abbas reacted to the Hamas takeover by announcing the dissolution of the unity government. Yediot Aharonot reported at the time that,
"Four large explosive devices were uncovered by Abbas' security officers on the road leading from the Erez crossing to Gaza, as the Palestinian president left Ramallah and was about to travel on that route... The assassination attempt took place while the Palestinian president was on his way to meet Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to discuss the establishment of a national unity government... Fatah officials accused Hamas of digging several tunnels... to place explosive devices under... the Salah al-Din route... Israeli defense officials have also said that Hamas plans to assassinate Abbas."
Recently, Abbas repeated his accusations regarding the 2007 plot and gave the Qatari Emir a CD containing some of the evidence. Abbas told the Emir,
"Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, they [Hamas] have been working to undermine it and to topple it. ... In 2006 [sic], they planted explosives in my route. They want to bomb me. They also dug a tunnel straight under my house in Gaza, and here's a CD containing images of everything. They were heard saying this is a mine meant for Abu Mazen; where are you going with this?.... This is proven information. Ask Majid, my intelligence chief, he has information as well, and not Israel alone. Maj. Gen. Majid often tells me we caught Hamas cells seeking to stage a coup."
When faced with the Hamas insurrection in 2007, the PA turned to the Israelis for assistance, just as it did in 2014. According to a secret cable dated June 11, 2007 (later disclosed by Wikileaks), the head of Israel's Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, told U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones that the PA had "ask[ed] us to attack Hamas...[and] to train [Fatah] forces in Egypt and Yemen...This is a new development. We have never seen this before. They are desperate."
Will Abbas Reject Israeli Protection?
There is a consensus in Israel that the IDF, the Shin Bet, and other Israeli security services in the West Bank play a greater role in suppressing Hamas than the Palestinian Authority's own security agencies. Most experts inside the IDF and the Israeli intelligence believe that withdrawal of the IDF from the West Bank would quickly lead to the end of the PA and the rise of Hamas. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon reflected this view when he said in September that, if the IDF were not there, Hamas would take over and other terrorists groups such as the Islamic Jihad, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State would be able to operate freely in the West Bank.
Hamas's leaders covet the West Bank: they know that its proximity to the Israeli heartland would make it a far more effective platform for attacks on Israel than firing at it from Gaza. In September 2014, Hamas founder Mahmoud Al-Zahar said that if his movement were to "transfer what it has or just a small part of it to the West Bank, we would be able to settle the battle of the final promise with a speed that no one can imagine." In another speech, he said, "If only the West Bank had one quarter of what Gaza has of resistance tools, the Israeli entity would end in one day... Can you imagine what would happen if the enemy is targeted from the West Bank...?"
If Abbas ends Palestinian security cooperation with the Israeli security services, the move would not remove the IDF from the West Bank, but it might erode the Israeli agencies' performance by reducing intelligence and early warning. While reduced intelligence could be harmful to Israel, for Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority it could be fatal.
Will Abbas end security cooperation with Israel, even knowing this could be a suicidal decision for himself and his government?
What makes Abbas' decision less than certain is that Abbas is under cross-pressure from two different threats to the future of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. One pressure is that "Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority," Hamas has "been working to undermine it and to topple it," as Abbas told the Emir of Qatar. Hamas is apparently now more determined than ever to establish itself in the West Bank. Against this threat, cooperation with Israel is vital.
The other pressure is that the government of Fatah is also threatened by the political acclaim that Hamas has achieved in the Arab world by confronting Israel. This shift puts Abbas under pressure to adopt a more belligerent posture to compete with "the strong horse" in Gaza. In the current political environment, any hint of "collaboration" with Israel could be fatal to Abbas's credibility with an increasingly militant public.
It is possible that neither pressure will prevail. In a typical Middle Eastern solution, Abbas could retreat to a posture of calculated ambiguity, pursuing two incompatible strategic policies at the same time, as did his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who offered an olive branch and a gun. But security cooperation, especially the sharing of intelligence, requires trust. If the Israeli side believes that its information about Hamas might be passed along by double agents, there are bound to be restrictions on what is shared. If Abbas becomes another Arafat, it could be the Israeli side that loses interest in security cooperation.
There is much tension and distrust on both sides of the Israel-PA relationship. So far, the daily cooperation between their respective security and intelligence services has survived in spite of these tensions. The question is whether this precarious balance can hold if Mahmoud Abbas continues to escalate his diplomatic assault on Israel at the United Nations, as he has threatened to do.
For security cooperation to survive, the political leadership on both sides will have to decide what is vital to their respective interests.