The Palestinian Authority — the Fatah-dominated body that rules the West Bank, as distinct from Hamas-ruled Gaza — has been profoundly rocked by the events in Egypt. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has already asked Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to form a new cabinet and prepare for elections next September.
The PA, which had close ties with deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, fears a surge of popular discontent for much the same reasons. Like Mubarak’s regime or, for that matter, former President Ben Ali’s in Tunisia, the PA is perceived as corrupt, repressive, and an American puppet. Abbas’s government also lost what democratic legitimacy it had when it canceled elections that had been set for January 2010.
The problematic nature of the PA is exposed in a new report — “Will US, Canadian & EU Trained Palestinian Forces Turn on Israel?” — by Israeli journalist David Bedein. Even though the PA abuts Israel and has features similar to other regimes in the region, the West has been building up the PA militarily.
As Bedein notes, the West, with President Barack Obama at the helm, has assumed that the PA will attain statehood by 2012, and that its intensively Western-trained forces would play an internal security role in the new state. But with negotiations frozen and statehood looking unlikely, what, Bedein asks, can “prevent the [PA] from transforming its well-equipped and trained forces into a militia that will launch low-intensity attacks against Israel or even against neighboring Jordan?”
Apart from that prospective problem, a very real difficulty already exists. PA “security and intelligence forces continue to employ torture on a wide and systematic basis” despite the Western assistance. Their horrific techniques
have included beatings, hangings, suspending from the ceiling, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, sexual harassment, and the threat of rape. The result is that at least six Palestinians have died under torture in [PA] prisons and many former detainees have been scarred with permanent physical disabilities.
And yet, notwithstanding Obama’s sudden empathy for oppressed Egyptians, Bedein reports that
the United States has done nothing to address the human rights violations by [PA] security forces. Indeed, the opposite has been the case. In 2009, Washington significantly increased its budget for [PA] security forces to $80 million amid concern by other Western donors of torture and abuse in [PA] prisons.
Not surprisingly, the abuses haven’t endeared the security forces, or the PA itself, to the Palestinian population. And to make things even worse, “corruption among [PA] security officers remains rampant, with Palestinian businessmen still being threatened, whether in their stores or at checkpoints.”
In other words, conditions exist much like those that led to the Egyptian uprising — but, in this case, under particularly direct U.S. and Western cultivation. And not, as in Egypt’s case, with the realpolitik aim of propping up a geopolitically moderate regime despite its known shortcomings; but, as always, with the supposedly moral aim of delivering the Palestinians into independence — as if all that’s needed for happiness is to live under yet another corrupt Arab dictatorship.
Earlier warnings that the U.S. and its allies were building a Frankenstein in the PA — here and here, for instance — have gone unheeded. One wonders if, in the wake of the Egyptian upheaval and the general instability sweeping the region, the problems will get more focus.
After all, certain parallels between the Egyptian and Palestinian cases are striking. In both, Israel ceded land in return for peace agreements of sorts (the full-fledged Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979; the more provisional Oslo Accords of 1993). In both, the U.S. built up military/security forces on the Arab side as a quid pro quo for committing to peace.
In both cases, popular discontent in the respective Arab entities has been discounted — with recent dramatic consequences in Egypt’s case. And in both, Islamist movements wait in the wings — the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, its offspring Hamas among the Palestinians — to take the spoils of the disorder and failed hopes.
Bedein recommends that “the United States and the European Union […] conduct a major review of [the PA] security forces” and that “Western donors […] link future aid to [those] forces to a significant improvement in human rights.” Beyond those specific suggestions, the possible breakdown of Israel’s peace with Egypt, and the turmoil in the region generally, offer a good moment to ask some basic questions:
Does the West understand the Middle East well enough, and can it influence what happens in it sufficiently, that it should be building an armed statelet between Israel and Jordan despite the clear dangers this poses?
And might it be time to rethink the assumption that stable, democratic Israel and its unstable, authoritarian neighbors have the same values and aspirations, and are a perfect match for each other in “peace”?