A new security reality has been developing in the West Bank in recent months, one that has been virtually ignored by the Israeli press. The chaos that once reigned in the West Bank's cities, villages and refugee camps has vanished, replaced by newly invigorated Palestinian security forces. In the 14 months since Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority has managed to revive a concept almost unknown to residents of the territories in recent years: law and order.
Critics who claim that law enforcement in the West Bank is only partial are right. The holy trinity of arrest, trial and punishment as known in the West is indeed not always adhered to. Still, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and veteran interior minister Abdul Razzaq al-Yahia may present several significant achievements at their next meeting with their American and Israeli counterparts.
Armed militias are no longer part of the landscape of West Bank cities, not only because they fear the Israel Defense Forces or the Shin Bet security service, but also for fear of being arrested by PA security. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades have been all but disbanded, and most of their members have joined the PA security apparatus. Palestinian police have declared war on unauthorized market stalls and stolen cars, long mainstays in cities such as Nablus, Jenin and Hebron.
Perhaps most impressive is the war on the Hamas and Islamic Jihad-run charities collectively known as the "Dawa." Shin Bet officials estimate that PA security has shut down or taken control of 45 such organizations. Last week, Palestinian police broke into mosques in the Hebron area and confiscated propaganda material distributed by Hamas. Printing facilities used by Islamist groups were closed, and their schools and hospitals are now being run under the PA's watchful eye.
These actions have won the praise even of the Israeli security establishment, who long viewed the Palestinian security services with disdain. For years, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other senior officials made statements to the effect that if the IDF were to withdraw completely from the West Bank, Hamas would gain control within 72 hours.
Such statements seem no longer to be valid. Hamas' military apparatus in the territories still exists, but it no longer presents an immediate threat to PA institutions. Israel and the PA have begun cooperating again on security matters, even if both sides tend to play down that cooperation publicly. The Hamas-run shopping center in Nablus, closed two months ago by the IDF, was recently re-opened with Israeli approval after the PA ousted its management in favor of its own people.
Meanwhile, Palestinian security has thwarted several suicide bombing attempts in recent months, confiscated hundreds of weapons and significant amounts of explosive materials. One major flaw in their operation remains, however, and has turned into a symbol of PA security itself: the "revolving door." Although dozens if not hundreds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members are currently being held in PA prisons, most are released within several days, much as they were in the late 1990s and during the second intifada. The PA has yet to formulate a convincing explanation for this, and its image problem is likely to persist until it does.
Nonetheless, the perennial "non-partner" has become a partner. The Palestinian Authority is relevant, at least regarding a future agreement in the West Bank. Abbas, long viewed as a toothless leader, is slowly emerging as a force for stable, reliable and incorruptible leadership, even compared with Israel's decision makers. Nowadays, an Israeli partner is harder to find - some are busy with police interrogations, others with primaries.
The media's failure to highlight the change is nothing less than astonishing. It could be that the Palestinian issue no longer interests the general public, that the greater strategic threat posed by Iran is pushing it off the public agenda. Should another wave of violence surge from the West Bank, however, the Palestinian issue is likely to float to the surface once more and again take a starring role in the various media outlets. But until then, who really cares?
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