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Rafi Dajani: How Abbas Can Stop the Violence

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[from the Daily Star (Lebanon) 10-25-05]


By Rafi Dajani, Executive Director of
The American Task Force on Palestine

It was significant that during Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington last week, the issue of disarming Hamas prior to Palestinian legislative elections next January was not brought up. This illustrated American recognition that Abbas must be given time to disarm militant groups; it also showed there is more to the process than just confiscating weapons.

Following Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, the focus shifted to the Palestinians in terms of establishing law and order and disarming militant groups. While the issue of Palestinian security is critical, primarily to the Palestinians themselves and their prospects for statehood, the issue cannot be isolated and addressed without recognizing that it is part of a larger political context.

The successful fulfillment of Palestinian security responsibilities, both internally and as regards Israel, and without a confrontation with militant groups, can certainly be accomplished in the short term. Sustaining such an effort, however, is not possible without prospects for a future state that fulfills the minimum aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Since the election of Abbas last January, the Palestinians have reduced the security agencies from 16 to three, appointed a new interior minister, retired all members of the security services over 60 years of age, and developed a communications plan better enabling the security services to work with people in the community. Most importantly, the
cease-fire Abbas secured from militant groups, though tested at times, is now approaching nine months, something Israel was never able to achieve. In addition, Abbas secured a recent pledge from militant groups to end mass public displays of weapons and all attacks against Israel from Gaza.

These steps, while incomplete, fulfill many Palestinian obligations under Phase 1 of the "road map," which include a cease-fire, "beginning" the dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure, and "commencing" confiscation of illegal weapons and consolidation of security authority. Phase 1 of the road map, in its opening sentence, also refers to Israel taking "reciprocal" measures, many of which such as stopping settlement expansion, removing settlement outposts and withdrawing the army to pre-intifada positions, have not been fulfilled.

Irrespective of Israeli compliance, the Palestinians can and must do more in the short term. According to an independent third-party study conducted in July 2005 by Strategic Assessments Initiative in coordination with U.S. General William Ward, these include streamlining and fully integrating the Palestinian security sector into the Interior Ministry; establishing an independent judiciary to sustain security sector reform; aggressively patrolling and preventing the launching of rockets by militants against Israel; establishing a visible security presence in Palestinian streets; and sealing the border with Egypt to the smuggling of weapons.

Recent surveys demonstrate Palestinian public support for these recommendations. A poll conducted by Al-Najah University in the West Bank shows that 62 percent of Palestinians oppose the launching of attacks against Israel from Gaza now that it has been evacuated. The same majority is in favor of collecting weapons from militant groups.

A just-published survey by two Swiss-based groups, the Geneva Center
for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces and the Graduate Institute for Development Studies at Geneva University, revealed the following about Palestinians: a majority perceive Israeli occupation as the main threat to their security, with the lack of socio-economic improvement ranking second; while a majority of Palestinians place high trust in militant groups, as opposed to faith in the Palestinian Authority (PA), they also support the dissolution of militant groups; almost 90 percent of Palestinians support security sector reform and the fight against corruption and nepotism.

Achieving long-term security is a different ballgame altogether, and this is where the importance of the political environment becomes apparent. Abbas' mandate rests on the premise that the political process and abstaining from violence will lead to a viable and independent Palestinian state. For Palestinians, this mandate has yet to bear fruit. On the contrary, unilateral Israeli actions on the ground in the West Bank, whether the confiscation of land, settlement expansion, the encirclement of East Jerusalem and the continued stranglehold over Palestinian movement of commerce and people, all serve to undermine both Abbas as a leader and his message of moderation.

These actions, combined with Israel's refusal to allow the rearmament of the Palestinian security services or the transit of donated European military equipment through Israeli ports, make it impossible for the PA to confront any of the better armed and organized militant groups should the need arise.

The importance of political hope for the Palestinians was underscored in the Israeli daily Haaretz recently, where the head of Israeli Military Intelligence warned of a return to violence and a Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections if Palestinians were not soon presented with a credible "political horizon" for statehood, and if unilateral Israeli actions continued in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Further complicating matters is Israel's warning that it will hinder Palestinian legislative elections if Hamas is allowed to participate. However, Israel might be retreating from this position due to its not being shared by the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that the Palestinians should be given "political breathing space" to sort out their elections, and has urged Israel to allow Palestinians to carry out their legislative elections without Israeli interference. While stressing the importance of disarming militants, Rice said this is something that must "ultimately" happen.

Palestinian elections are a vital stage in Abbas' plan to impose law and order. The first stage of his plan was the cease-fire agreement reached with militant groups; the second was the groups' consent to a ban on carrying weapons in public. Abbas believes these moves will enable Hamas members to run for office not as militia commanders, but as representatives of a political movement. The decisive stage in the process of disarming militant groups will follow the elections in January, where, in Abbas' view, even if Hamas does well, its participation in the PA's legislative and executive institutions will inevitably moderate its political positions and make it accountable to the Palestinian public.

The formula for the successful fulfillment of Palestinian security responsibilities and their sustenance in the long term is a complex issue tied into capability, political environment, upcoming elections and Israeli actions. By neglecting or ignoring one or more aspects, neither Palestinian nor Israeli security interests are served.

Rafi Dajani is executive director of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine.


The ATFP is a not-for-profit organization that aims to educate the American people about the national security interests of the United States in establishing a Palestinian state. Specifically, ATFP seeks to promote the awareness of the far-reaching benefits that Palestinian statehood will have for the United States in the following areas: (1) enhancing national security, (2) proliferation of American values of freedom and democracy, and (3) expansion of economic opportunities throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds

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