Home inSight Is Mahmoud Abbas Facing a Revolution?

Is Mahmoud Abbas Facing a Revolution?

His crackdown on speech has stirred discontent.

Shoshana Bryen

In one of the lesser-reported stories from the Middle East, Palestinians are out in the streets ostensibly to protest the Palestinian Authority’s plan to meet with Israeli Minister Shaul Mofaz. However, Palestinian complaints are primarily focused on the PA’s increasingly authoritarian crackdown on internal Palestinian dissent, specifically on the internet and by journalists. Even the website Electronic Intifada (not typically a source of criticism of the PA) reported that police brutality began before the demonstration started.

Across the Arab world, corrupt security services and police have amassed power, money, and influence; the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF) under the dictatorship of Mahmoud Abbas is no different (Abbas has unilaterally extended his term in office since 2009.) A few months ago, an Arab poll listed the top concern of young Palestinians as PA corruption, rather like the original complaints of revolutionalry Arabs in Tunisia and Egypt. Palestinian bloggers and journalists have been reflecting unhappiness among the people for some time, and PA authorities have predictably responded with force.

The more surprising development: EUPOL COPPS — the EU mission that has been training Palestinian police since 2006 — pronounced itself “concerned” by reports of what it called “excessive force.” Per the EUPOL spokesman:

In its bilateral dialogue and cooperation with the Palestinian Authority the EU continually stresses the necessity to uphold international human rights standards and respect fundamental freedoms, in particular the right to peaceful protest and demonstration and freedom of expression and the media.

It is late in the process to wonder what the PSF thinks of Western human rights standards and fundamental freedoms, and definitely too late to ask whether it plans to use Western weapons and training against the targets the West had in mind. The U.S. pours more than $113 million per year into the PSF and has lent it the services of three different American generals, so it is worth reviewing the ramifications of transferring militarily useful skills to people for whom the existence of Israel remains unacceptable and for whom terrorism is a career path.

Under the Oslo Accords, nearly two decades ago the Palestinian Authority was supposed to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure” so Israelis would have fewer security concerns as they ceded additional land and responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority. The U.S. offered to train a “police force” to do it. No one, it seems, saw the irony of training Palestinians to kill other Palestinians on behalf of security for Israelis living on land the Palestinians claimed for themselves.

In late 2000, the so-called “second intifada” began with the killing of an Israeli policeman by his Palestinian “partner.”(This occurred before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s annual visit to the Temple Mount.) It turned out that a great many “police” were moonlighting as terrorists, and U.S. training only made them better at it. (U.S.-supplied radios were particularly coveted by groups of terrorists.) U.S. training and support was halted until 2005, after the IDF had re-established security control of the West Bank and ended what was, in fact, a Palestinian war against Israel in which U.S.-trained personnel were active enemies.

LTG William (Kip) Ward was the first American general to command the restored training mission, which naturally enough took on aspects of military rather than police training.

In July 2007, Hamas and Fatah turned their guns on each other. After a short and brutal war, Hamas threw Fatah out of Gaza and acquired the American arsenal that had belonged to Abbas. The loss of Gaza prompted the U.S. to double down on the PA, and in 2009 LTG Keith Dayton announced he would train three additional battalions of Palestinians loyal to Abbas. U.S security assistance rose from $75 million to $130 million per year.

Concerned about the rise of Hamas in the West Bank, Israel backed the program. The Palestinians ran daily police and security functions in the cities and the Israeli security services arrested targets at night — sometimes in cooperation with the PSF, sometimes not. “Cutting the grass,” the Israelis called it.

LTG Michael Moeller, USAF, replaced LTG Dayton in 2010.  LTG Moller came to the position from the U.S. Central Command, which has no dealings with Israel or the Palestinians, so his learning curve was steep. But with reasonable economic progress in the West Bank and reasonable cooperation between Israel and the PSF, he didn’t have to do much except continue to train, advise, and equip the Palestinian force.

However, the PSF was using its broad latitude in the West Bank (and the absence of objections from Israel, the U.S., or the EU) to amass power, influence, and money, rather like the Egyptian, Tunisian, Jordanian, and Syrian security services as well as Hezbollah and Hamas. And the Palestinian people reacted very much like the other Arabs in protest of dictatorial regimes, so much so that Abbas was forced to conduct a purge of his security services last month and to promise reforms.

But Abbas walks a fine line. He needs the PSF to survive both Hamas and his own people. Buoyed by the Obama administration’s support for Palestinian independence, he has been trying to placate the PSF by seeking an independent military force without international supervision and able to import weapons from Russia and Egypt.

Abbas is unlikely to receive any additional latitude from the Western powers (including Israel) in light of the protests he faces. But having built a police-force-cum-army with no reason to believe its officers and soldiers had assimilated anything like a Western appreciation for human rights and fundamental freedoms, the United States, Israel, and the EU find themselves in the now-familiar position of deciding whether to help the dictator they created survive a crisis of his own making. Even if they are so inclined, recent history suggests it would be a long shot.

Despite the American (and EU and Israeli) investment in his longevity, Abbas faces the possibility of being the next dictator to fall.