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Israel and the Palestinians: A New Strategy

By Moshe Yaalon

The former IDF chief of staff proposes a different approach to dealing with an old conflict.


If corruption exacted a heavy price from the Palestinian economy, terrorism destroyed it altogether. Constant terrorist attacks forced Israel to impose intermittent closures of PA territory and to restrict Palestinian movement with roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. These restrictions—essential to Israel’s security—sentenced the PA economy to death by slow suffocation. Tens of thousands of Palestinians lost their livelihood because they were unable to trade freely with Israel or to work within its borders.30 This tragedy did not appear to bother the various Palestinian terrorist organizations, and certainly not the man orchestrating their actions from Ramallah. Knowing full well that destitution and poverty fan the flames of extremism, these men cynically did everything in their power to ensure their people’s misery and even increase it. It is no coincidence that the Israeli-Palestinian industrial zone near the Erez Crossing in the northern Gaza Strip was a favorite target for Palestinian terrorists. At the height of its success in the 1990s, two hundred businesses operated from the crossing—factories, workshops, and textile plants—which employed nearly 4,500 Palestinian workers. This binational success story was yet another casualty of the Palestinian Terror War. Suicide bombers, snipers, and shelling attacks soon made it impossible to work in the area. The zone was gradually abandoned until it finally closed in the summer of 2004, under the orders of Israel’s at the time minister of industry, trade, and labor Ehud Olmert. Thousands of Palestinian families lost their incomes, and recruiters looking for potential suicide bombers simply took their pick.
Current data on the Palestinian economic situation attest to the devastating consequences of the PA’s combination of corruption and terrorism. Prior to the outbreak of the Palestinian war against Israel in September 2000, the unemployment rate in PA-controlled territory stood at about 10 percent. In 2007, it had already reached 23 percent. In an attempt to tackle the problem, the Palestinian Authority became the employer of an enormous number of people. This contributed to uninhibited public expenditure and a gargantuan budget deficit.31 At the same time, the average per capita income fell 40 percent from its peak in 1999. Living conditions under the boycotted Hamas regime in Gaza were particularly severe: Industrial activity in the Gaza Strip stopped almost entirely, and approximately 33 percent of the workforce is currently unemployed. The percentage of Gazans living in deep poverty has been constantly on the rise, from 21.6 percent in 1998 to 35 percent in 2006.32 If remittances and food aid are excluded, this figure jumps to 67 percent.33
The decline of economic security for residents of PA-controlled territories was accompanied by a deterioration in their personal security, which was never great to begin with. Arafat’s internal security policy—if one can call it that—illustrates how far he was from any genuine effort to establish a stable and prosperous commonwealth. One of the most important characteristics of any functioning state is that the authority to exercise violence is entrusted to a handful of established organizations—mainly the military and police forces—which adhere to the law and operate according to a clear and agreed-upon division of power between them. David Ben-Gurion understood this necessity and, after the founding of the State of Israel, united the various armed militias of the Yishuv under the framework of the IDF. The actions he took on this matter—including the shelling of the Irgun’s armament ship, the Altalena, in June 1948 and the dismantling of the Palmach fighting force several months later—were difficult but necessary. History offered Arafat the opportunity of becoming the founding father of the Palestinian state, but he chose not to take it. Instead, with the creation of the PA and in accordance with the Cairo agreement of May 4, 1994, Arafat established no fewer than twelve armed groups, intended, or nominally intended, to carry out police and intelligence-related tasks. The responsibilities of these forces, which numbered over forty thousand people in 2000—the majority of whom were veterans of Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Army—were never clearly demarcated.34 Naturally, this often caused them to quarrel among themselves. In addition, the official Palestinian security forces refrained from enforcing a monopoly on bearing and using arms in the PA-controlled territories. Tanzim, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist organizations—such as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)—continued to amass weapons, which they frequently turned against Israelis.35
Why did Arafat build such a complicated and multi-polar apparatus of police, intelligence, militias, and terrorist organizations, instead of uniting these forces into a single, structured, and disciplined framework? Had the chairman truly been interested in establishing law and order in Palestinian society, it would be difficult to answer this question, but, it is clear, Arafat had other concerns. He sought to maintain his hegemony by adopting a divide-and-conquer strategy. By distributing power among several competing forces, he was able to keep potential rivals in check, foster enmity among them, and raise himself above the fray as the only authority recognized by all. Moreover, this multiplicity of forces resulted in a multiplicity of available positions, all of which Arafat staffed with his close associates and followers, despite their often doubtful qualifications. In any case, the turn-over rate among these officials was extremely high. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this deliberate confusion allowed Arafat and his deputies to keep the PA security forces in a dynamic and flexible state, midway between order and chaos. That way, a Palestinian police officer could easily become a terrorist, and vice versa.
This state of affairs served Arafat’s vision as well as his personality, but it also condemned the Palestinian Authority to atrophy and decay. Under the chairman’s watchful eye, the security forces engaged in an unending power struggle, while their officers devoted themselves to a variety of activities not usually described as “policing.”36 Palestinian policemen took part in terrorist attacks against Israel, extorted protection money, ran illegal businesses, hounded reporters and opposition members, kidnapped and murdered those suspected of cooperating with the Shin Bet (Israel’s domestic security service), and occasionally put on a show of seizing explosives and arresting wanted terrorists. The PA’s “revolving-door policy” of releasing murderers of Israelis shortly after their detention—or, at most, of bringing them to court on charges of disturbing the “public peace” or harming “Palestinian interests”—made it clear that the law-enforcement system established by Arafat was a charade that could not be expected to fight terrorism.
It should come as no surprise, then, that toward the end of Arafat’s reign and after his death, the Palestinian security forces lost all vestiges of authority in the eyes of Palestinians and Israelis alike. Hamas took over the Gaza Strip with ease and drove out the Presidential Guard and the Preventive Security Service, along with Fatah’s supporters. The Palestinian towns in the West Bank were left to the mercy of armed gangs—mainly Tanzim operatives and ex-policemen—who acted with a free hand. Nor did these gangs answer to the Palestinian Authority: For the most part, their loyalties were based on personal, political, or tribal affiliations. Only their traditional identification with Fatah and their hostility to Hamas connected them, albeit very loosely, to the camp of Abu Mazen.
If there is any positive aspect to this mess, it is that the Palestinians were spared the kind of oppressive tyranny that is commonplace in other Arab countries. They did not, however, succeed in establishing a functioning democracy. On paper, Arafat’s regime had all the virtues of a progressive and enlightened society: direct presidential elections; separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; civilian oversight of the armed forces; and a provisional constitution—the so-called Basic Law that came into effect in May 200237—which ensured lawful governance and the protection of basic human rights. But none of this was ever implemented in reality. While Arafat did not conduct himself as an all-powerful dictator along the lines of Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, his leadership style was nevertheless highly centralized and manipulative. He did everything in his power to neutralize the Palestinian legislative authority (with only partial success); he maintained a tight grip on the PA’s security forces and financial assets; he undermined the judicial system’s independence and forced it to bend to his will; and he cast a menacing shadow over the Palestinian media. Reporters and human rights activists who dared to criticize Arafat or his deputies were threatened, kidnapped, physically attacked, or subjected to assassination attempts.38
These strong-arm tactics did not, however, prevent outbursts of protest that eventually reached the point of violent attacks on PA representatives and institutions. The sense of public outrage was shared by Palestinians of all walks of life, from militant Tanzim operatives who have increasingly distanced themselves from the hedonist leadership to high-level officials such as Salim al-Zaanoun, speaker of the Palestinian National Council, and Muhammad Dahlan, the former senior security chief, who has spoken out against corruption.39 Palestinian politicians looking to win popular support came out publicly against senior PA officials and their corrupt conduct—despite the fact that these very politicians were often enjoying the spoils themselves. This mood of public discontent ensured, perhaps more than anything else, the Hamas victory over Fatah in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections of January 2006. In the end, it was not religious ideology, but rather a deep dissatisfaction with the PA’s institutional decay that gave the fundamentalist movement a front seat in Palestinian politics.
It is well known that a regime which is constantly forced to defend its own legitimacy will often attempt to redirect public fury toward an external enemy. And the Palestinians had such an enemy readily available. Even during periods of relative “calm” between the PA and Israel, the Palestinian media was involved in relentless incitement against the Jewish state. The “Zionist regime” was accused of all manner of crimes, plausible or obviously fantasized, and portrayed as the root of all evil. TV and radio stations controlled by the Palestinian Authority accumulated a sizable number of “two minutes’ hate” sessions—to employ an Orwellian term—and Palestinian newspapers did not shy away from vehement antisemitism.40 A typical example is an article recently published in al-Hayat al-Jadida, a mainstream Palestinian newspaper under the control of the PA, whichreported that the “occupation forces” were conducting cruel medical experiments on Palestinian prisoners. According to the piece,
There were… prisoners who lost their eyesight and the functionality of their nervous system, and others who lost their sanity, or whose mental condition is constantly deteriorating, and still others who suffer from infertility and are unable to bear children.41
This report was published in a newspaper that answers to Abu Mazen—a man whose Ph.D. thesis, incidentally, denies the Holocaust.42


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