Commentary Magazine


Hitting the Streets in Jenin (and Nablus)

When the vast quantities of baroque rhetoric that accumulate around the peace process are distilled, a basic formula for progress remains: Israel must cease building settlements, and the Palestinian Authority must field a non-corrupt, non-terrorist, non-incompetent police force in the Palestinian territories. If the day arrives when the PA security forces become crack anti-terror squads, the Israeli security presence in the West Bank, the argument goes, will be rendered unnecessary, and the creation of a Palestinian state will quickly follow. The PA will have fulfilled Max Weber’s basic definition of a state: it will have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.

It is regrettable that this linchpin of Palestinian statehood–the competence of the security forces–is the subject of only desultory attention. But if you look closely you can discern a little bit of what’s happening in the realm of PA security on the West Bank. Nablus has been since late 2007 a test case for the PA security effort, and what appears to be happening there is similar to the longstanding relationship between UNIFIL and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon — a tacit agreement between terrorists and western-backed security forces not to create problems for each other. From an LA Times story on two brothers from Nablus, we learn that

There is another explanation for the calm [in Nablus], according to Palestinians informed about security matters: a quiet understanding that police will not pursue militant groups that pose a threat to Israel as long as they lie low and do not challenge the Palestinian Authority.

And when such “militant groups” decide to put on a show of arms, the PA seems helpless to stop them. After a group of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades gunmen battled the PA police two weeks ago, they “held a parade in Nablus in which they carried weapons, promised not to give in to the PA and vowed to continue to fight the Israeli occupation.”

The PA’s security efforts were extended this week to the Jenin area, provoking more clashes. In Qabatya, a village outside of Jenin, a firefight between the PA police and militants left a bystander dead. Thus, the PA “had planned to remain in Qabatya for a few days in a show of force but withdrew to the entrance of the town fearing tension after the killing.”

And so it goes. All of this is not to ridicule the PA effort, which actually I think deserves some limited praise. What’s going on today in the West Bank is unprecedented, inasmuch as it is something that Yasser Arafat certainly never attempted to do — his creation and manipulation of Palestinian security forces revolved entirely around solidifying his own rule and preparing for a terror war against Israel.

The current Palestinian Authority, though, is attempting to impose a western-style centralized order on a land that has been home for centuries to a traditional Arab pattern of social organization, in which families and tribes exist as the arbiters of power across territories and villages. Palestinian terror groups have been adept at operating from within and around this power structure, and Yasser Arafat was a master of playing Palestinian groups and interests off each other. What the PA is attempting today, though, is different — it is a kind of intra-Arab clash of civilizations. And it is one, alas, that the Palestinian Authority is not likely to win.