The Palestinian security forces have been making enormous efforts to improve their reputation within Palestinian society. A number of news websites just reported that national security forces stopped Israeli soldiers from arresting a few minors who had thrown rocks at a military position in eastern El Bireh. All Palestinian media outlets publish the phone numbers of the Palestinian security liaison committee, in the event of assaults by or other problems with settlers — the incidence of which indeed increased over the long holiday weekend. And in certain cities, Palestinian security forces stopped forming a barrier between angry young Palestinians and Israel Defense Forces positions, and also stopped using the not-unreasonable excuse that they feared for their lives.
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In Bethlehem, where just two weeks ago security cameras captured Palestinian security personnel mercilessly beating young men trying to approach the separation barrier and an adjacent IDF post, they permitted the recent demonstrations — one of which resulted in the shooting death of a minor. In El Bireh, since the UN address by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week, the security forces have allowed young Palestinians to vent their anger on the nearby checkpoint of Israel’s District Coordination Offices (part of the Civil Administration) — the VIP crossing point.
Demonstrators gather in the nearby square, approach the checkpoint, burn tires and throw rocks. The army responds with bullets and tear gas, and the Palestinian officers look on as if to say, “See, we’re not cooperating with the occupation.”
Last Wednesday, the day of Abbas’ UN address, and Friday, the day of his return from the United States, masked gunmen who identified themselves as members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, raised their rifles and fired fusillades into the air, in frightening proximity to curious bystanders. They must be members of the security forces, said an acquaintance looking on.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which was founded during the early days of the second intifada by members of Fatah and the Palestinian security forces, no longer really exists. Anyone who could decipher what they were saying over the sound of gunfire heard them praising Abbas and his speech. On Sunday, a Fatah spokesman called on all the Palestinian organizations to rally around Abbas.
More than any other Palestinian organization, the security forces are still loyal to Abbas and his policy of opposition to both military and popular uprisings. Like him, they still hope to avoid military escalation. They allow young people to approach Israeli army positions not in order to step up the violence, but rather, as a way of allowing them to let off steam, hoping the latest round of violence will peter out. Fatah’s shaky political condition precludes the convention of regular conferences, let alone the conducting of a new intifada — especially without repeating the mistakes of the second intifada.
The Palestinian public seeks something that will shake up the status quo, the routine of the oppression. The events of recent days have affected behavior: Everything seems quieter; people are less likely to leave their homes without reason — not only in East Jerusalem, but also in the West Bank cities. City streets and West Bank roads are both less crowded, whether due to the new army checkpoints or out of fear of the settlers.
But there are signs that the population is not yet ready for a third intifada: a faculty strike at West Bank universities was held on Monday, as planned, over salary demands; it is expected to continue today and expand next week. By way of comparison, when the second intifada broke out, the teachers union opted to suspend a long-standing wage dispute.
The Palestinian security forces can let young protesters vent, or stop them. But they have no control over the main factor in determining the arc of the recent spate of violence — the IDF, Shin Bet security service and Israel Police. The protests in the West Bank — and not only Jerusalem — in the past few days flared because of the order to temporarily bar Palestinians from the Old City and the killing of Fadi Aloun, of Isawiyah: A video that went viral among Palestinians showed a police officer seemingly acceding to the demands of young ultra-Orthodox Jews and shooting Aloun as he fled from the group, after allegedly stabbing a Jew. That officer, or a different one, continues to shoot at Aloun as he lies on the ground, killing him. To the Palestinians, there is just one message: Their blood is free for the spilling.
In the first days of the second intifada, when the IDF used lethal measures to suppress mass demonstrations, killing many protesters, it only stirred up passions. Young Palestinians pushed their fathers and brothers in the security forces to use their weapons not only against their own people but also against the soldiers. Fatah began competing with Hamas over which organization was better at taking revenge. Fatah lost, of course.
Even though all the heads of the Palestinian security forces are today aware of the destructive results of the second intifada, if Israel persists in its policy of collective punishment and lethal escalation, Palestinian security forces will again face a very difficult moral, personal and professional dilemma. It is reason for them, together with Abbas, to pray for an end to the escalation.