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Building momentum for peace

By Ziad Asali, The Washington Times, 13.12.07

In the wake of the resuscitation of peace talks on the Middle East achieved at the Annapolis meeting, security issues will be among the most crucial to building on this momentum.
The development and expansion of Palestinian government security forces is a vital national interest for Palestinians, Israelis and Americans alike.
Palestinians face a double threat when it comes to their own security. First, they face the security threats inherent in an occupation by a foreign army and the abuses and confrontations that result in deaths of both combatants and innocents. Second, Palestinian society lacks a well-organized and -disciplined security service and its towns are plagued with political militias and criminal gangs, as well as ad hoc violence.The problem of militias was most clearly seen in June, when Hamas-controlled gunmen seized control of Gaza and expelled the Palestinian Authority from the entire territory.
Like any other society, Palestinians cannot afford to have private armies that parties use to consolidate power outside constitutional structures and to conduct their own independent foreign policies. In the name of "resistance against occupation" these militias launch attacks, including rockets aimed at Israeli towns, intentionally designed to undermine Palestinian diplomatic progress, which is theonly realistic prospect for securing an end to the occupation and creating a Palestinian state.
Therefore, these two security problems — occupation by the Israeli military on the one hand and militia violence that undermines diplomatic efforts on the other — require the same solution: the strengthening of the government's security forces and their monopolization of the use of force in Palestinian society and an eventual independent state.
Security forces associated with the Palestinian Authority were continuously targeted by Israel during the second Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000.
In the past Israel may have seen those forces as a threat or sought to promote rivalries among Palestinian parties in a divide-and-conquer strategy, but in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israel is dealing with a leadership that is committed to peace and to doing whatever it can to prevent violence.Their ability to act on this commitment must be strengthened to the point that extremist militias will no longer be able to sabotage the Palestinian diplomatic strategy and the interest of all parties in peace.
A major threshold has recently been crossed in Nablus, heretofore the most chaotic city in the West Bank, plagued by criminal gangs and radical militias. Israel agreed to allow Messrs. Abbas and Fayyad to send 300 Palestinian police officers into Nablus in an effort to bring order to an increasingly lawless town. However, Israel's continued incursions into Nablus after the police deployment had the effect of seriously undermining attempts by the Palestinian Authority to establish legitimacy in its efforts to police the city. For now, this problem appears to have been ameliorated.
The Nablus effort seems to be producing the desired effects, with ordinary Palestinians reaping the most direct benefits of no longer being at the mercy of armed thugs. As the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, Jake Walles, noted in mid-November, "The recent actions by the Palestinian Authority have resulted in significant improvements on the streets of Nablus."
Some object that this is the Palestinian Authority simply policing the occupation on behalf of Israel, but this ignores the need that Palestinians have for both freedom from occupation and freedom from crime and mayhem. Most Palestinians fully understand that their society cannot fester in a condition of lawlessness and anarchy.
Israel must recognize that it too needs a robust Palestinian security force that can prevent political violence aimed at derailing peace, and that security can only be ensured by a monitored agreement with an empowered and functional Palestinian government. Strengthening a disciplined Palestinian security force is therefore a win-win proposition.
The successful experiment in Nablus should be consolidated and expanded to other towns and villages throughout the West Bank and, ultimately, to Gaza as well. A good starting place for expanding the Palestinian government's authority in Gaza would be to transition control of key crossing points, now in the hands of Hamas, to Palestinian Authority security services. This would reduce the opportunities for smuggling, both for criminal and political extremist purposes. It would also be the first step to break the impasse created by the split between Gaza and the West Bank.
The United States has a crucial role to play in this process. Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, appointed to help develop disciplined Palestinian security forces, should be provided all the resources this mission requires. Gen. Jim Jones, appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the new special envoy for Middle East security, is in charge of Palestinian and Israeli compliance with all their obligations under the roadmap. This is a major concrete step that came out of Annapolis.
Law and order, enforced by a single, disciplined and well-trained police force, is the key to building a Palestinian state, ending the occupation and providing Palestinians with the security of independence. Security deliverables on the ground demanded by Israel, the United States and the roadmap for peace also depend on this. So too does the well-being of ordinary Palestinians and the reconstruction of a Palestinian society ravaged by decades of occupation and violence.
Nothing is more essential to creating the conditions for Palestinian statehood and building its most central institutions. This is clearly in the national interest of Palestine, Israel and the United States.
However, improvements in the security situation for both Palestinians and Israelis cannot be divorced from two other essential components of progress. First, it must be clear that the diplomatic process is leading inexorably to the establishment of a fully sovereign and viable Palestinian state. Second, security progress must be accompanied by improvements in the conditions of daily living for the Palestinian people, especially economic progress and opportunities, and easing of restrictions on the movements of goods and people.
All parties must act decisively to ensure that an effective government security force is developed, expanded and supported — at the same time the Palestinian people are given economic hope and an assurance of eventual independence and the creation of a viable Palestinian state to live alongside Israel in peace.
As official negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis resume, with the usual recriminations and disturbing moves on the ground, Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert must find ways to rebuild sustainable Palestinian security and economic institutions. Strategic threats to the survival of their people in their independent states are real and cannot be made to go away by talking about painful concessions in lieu of making them.
Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine and co-chairman of the U.S. Palestinian Public-Private Partnership.