The elevator in the five story, first-rate looking office building, in Ramallah was not operational on Wednesday. So instead, I took the stairs. And suddenly I discover one of the many secrets that make this surreal situation in this Palestinian town. Almost the entire staircase, rarely used by people, was littered with sleeping materials-blankets, foam mattresses- and the like. A few members of the Palestinian security forces with their weapons were on the first floor but the remaining floors had the bedding stuff but not the people. Apparently the members of the Palestinian security have concluded that a business building like that was safer than any other ‘official’ location in the city.
Away from their offices, phones and central command and control structures, and hiding in office buildings, members of the Palestinian security forces have become rather helpless in doing their job. And while the Israelis and Americans want that these security forces’ job to be entirely focused on trying to stop future suicide bombers, a much more urgent issue is needed from them. Internal security.
The continuous Israeli aggressive policy against the Palestinian National Authority is having its toll in many ways, the most obvious form recently has been the near total absence of any semblance of internal security. A scuffle near the Qalandia checkpoint last week turned fatal when a Palestinian stabbed to death another. The case turned into a tribal rampage with armed mobs burning homes of the relatives of the killer and public places associated with his particular communal group.
In Jenin when the Palestinian security court tried to hold the trial of three young men accused of killing a member of the Palestinian security forces, the judge had no choice but to hold the session in the city’s chamber of commerce building because the court house, like many other PNA offices, was shelled by the Israelis. Unable to protect the new court premises, a mob of Palestinian descended on the make-shift court house and executed the three accused men because they were unhappy with the sentence. The case is yet another sign of the weakening power of the Palestinian Authority and its various branches.
Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with tacit backing from the US, thinks that squeezing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his authority a little more will produce results. To Sharon that result is nothing short of an obliteration of the various armed Palestinian groups whose popularity is growing day by day as that of the Palestinian authority is weakening. The idea that the Palestinian leader can just press a button and quickly produce this impossible result shows how little is known about the internal fabric of Palestinian society.
Too much has been said about the need for Israeli civilians to be protected from Palestinian violence and not enough has been said about the need to protect Palestinian civilians from both the officially sanctioned Israeli violence and the local gangs that are sprouting in Palestine as a result of the deterioration of the central Palestinian authority.
The judge in Jenin complained to the press that he wanted to have this trial in safer Jericho but was unable to make this move because the continued Israeli siege on the northern West Bank city and the rest of the Palestinian areas.
When Palestinians in Ramallah complained to President Arafat about the rampage that took place in their city by the gangsters from Qalandia he sent a few security men to guard some public places in the city in fear of further reprisals. In one case, the owners of a sports and cultural club weren’t sure that the guards will stay around when night fall comes, stayed behind unknowingly to the policemen. Later at night they caught the members of the security trying to steal from the club. These Palestinian guards, who probably have not been paid in a while and have been seeking office building staircases for shelter, will not be able to stand up to radical Palestinian groups who have the support of a considerable portion of society.
Israel and the international community must understand that instead of their continuous and selfish demands of security exclusively for Israelis at all costs, they must see the larger picture. A holistic approach is needed that takes into consideration both security needs of both sides as well as political needs. Security without attempting to meet political desires will fail. They have to go hand in hand.
For the present, what is needed is an end to the hemorrhage of the central Palestinian authority so that it can reestablish the rule of law and the sense of security to local Palestinians. No self respecting authority can be asked to protect and safe guard another people before looking out for their own.
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.