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Let Palestinian police control Area C
Kieron Monks
Monday 1 November 2010

When Israeli officials say security is their highest priority, they do not mean in Area C. The 60% of the West Bank placed under their military control since the 1993 Oslo Accords has descended into lawlessness on their watch. Israel could stabilise areas plagued by violence and crime, and further its own interests, by conceding security responsibilities in these areas to the Palestinian Authority.

While `A` areas – cities such as Ramallah and Nablus – have benefited from tight Palestinian Authority control, `C` areas have become notorious for car theft, drug dealing and the growing influence of armed gangs. Jari Kinnunen, lead adviser of the EU police, recently announced that poor policing has made them `safe havens for criminals`.

Conditions are reaching crisis levels in H2, the `C` area of Hebron city, where traditional clans are the only semblance of authority. Palestinian families cannot go to Israeli soldiers to solve a burglary or resolve a matter of family honour. Instead they go to local Sheikhs, who impose the type of religious justice that deems pre-marital sex to be a capital offence.

Feuds between families have become bloodier. The worst of these, between the Rayf and Rajabi families, has claimed 10 lives in the past five years.

Sheikh al-Jabari, the patriarch of one of Hebron`s oldest families, is one of those charged with enforcing justice but he knows it is beyond him. `Criminals are stronger and braver now,` he told me. `Anyone can get an M16 or a Kalashnikov. I want the PA to have power; they would give rights to everybody. The (Israeli) army does not protect Palestinians; they watch fights on the streets and do nothing.`

The Palestinian civil police (PCP) require special dispensation to operate in `C` areas and co-ordination is poor. They must seek permission to enter from the Israeli district command office (DCO), which radios the army, which responds via the DCO and back to the Palestinian police. The process typically takes several hours, and is hamstrung by language issues and inefficiency. Sometimes the answer is no, sometimes there is no answer at all.

It is a running joke among Palestinian police that pursuits of suspects end on reaching the red-painted stones which mark the borders. Police say gunfights sometimes last for days without them being allowed to intervene.

The frustration for the PA is that its police are capable of establishing security in all `C` areas. It is what the police have been trained to do through decades of funding and preparation from elite US and EU security agencies.

Nablus was a hub of terror and kidnappings, until the PA were given control in 2007. Today it is a popular tourist destination and hosts the largest financial institutions. `There is no reason why they cannot take charge,` Kinnunen said. `They have more than enough training and manpower to police the whole country.`

Sallam Fayyad favours ignoring Oslo`s divisions. `Area C is not in dispute, and is an integral part of occupied Palestinian land from 1967, on which the state of Palestine will be established,` he said recently. The prime minister has strongly advocated construction projects, illegal in `C` areas, as part of his bottom-up framework for establishing statehood.

Unilateral actions risk provoking the Israeli authorities, who responded to suggestions of an independent declaration of statehood by threatening retaliation. The PA feels that if Netanyahu`s government is sincere in its stated intention to enable Palestinian statehood, it should be reassured by demonstrations of increased Palestinian capacity. `To prepare for statehood, the PA needs to function in all areas of the occupied territories,` said chief spokesman Ghassan Khatib. `It would benefit both sides to allow them to extend their security services.`

However, the PA must recognise that functioning `in all areas` is wishful thinking, for now at least. Israel has more than 300,000 settlers living in `C` areas and their protection is the army`s main responsibility. Netanyahu has made promises to them he could not easily retract. To surrender Israeli citizens to Palestinian control would trigger a backlash that would dwarf the reaction to the Gush Katif pullout.

The settlement blocs of Ariel and Ma`ale Adumim will never be on the table, and the Jordan Valley has too much financial and strategic value, but a handover could be phased in slowly. Beginning with Palestinian-only `C` areas would give the PA an opportunity to build trust in its capacities, providing a foothold towards further gains. The Israeli government has intimated a willingness to abandon `unauthorised` outposts given the right climate, which could be created by the restoration of order in volatile Palestinian areas.

Giving the PA more security responsibility in `C` areas could reduce the threat to settlers. The PA has already shown its commitment to muzzling Israel`s enemies through arresting thousands of suspected Hamas operatives. The militants who killed four Kiryat Arba settlers in August would have struggled to access weapons or evade the intelligence networks in a PA-controlled area.

The Israeli army recognises the need for better power sharing and co-ordination. At a restricted, local level, this is already happening. Talks are continuing over the possibility of opening a Palestinian civil police station in a `C` area of the northern West Bank.

Netanyahu`s government would improve its image by supporting such initiatives. Conceding limited security control to the PA would assert the Israeli prime minister`s independence from the settler right while winning goodwill from the international community. It would encourage the moderates without provoking the extremists.

The PA has the capacity to restore order in `C` areas and it is in Israel`s interests to allow them to. A slow-phased handover would improve security for both sides and engender better relations between the governments. The alternative is to allow `C` areas to degenerate further into violent chaos.

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