Nicholas Blincoe
The Guardian (Opinion)
July 8, 2009 - 12:00am

A small battalion of soldiers had taken control of the main junction in Bethlehem and my wife wanted to know how they got there. We had driven this way five minutes earlier and the road had been clear. Now soldiers were squatting in the crossroads while others aimed rifles at an empty parking lot. We soon learned it was a rehearsal by the new Palestinian security force, training in the event of a Hamas-backed coup. The security force had made discoveries of arms and explosives across the West Bank while president Mahmoud Abbas reported that he was the target of a Hamas assassination plot.

The next day, the security force was the talk of my barbers in Bethlehem's busy souk. Had I heard of Glubb Pasha, the English soldier in charge of the security forces when Jordan ruled the West Bank? I was asked. History was repeating itself, my barber argued. Instead of Glubb Pasha, we had General Dayton: an American for an Englishman. Dayton has overall responsibility for the Palestinian security forces, which are derisively referred to as the Dayton force (they are also often called the Greens to distinguish them from the EU-trained regular police, the Blues). The view in the barbershop was that this was proof no one would ever allow a force to be commanded by locals, although no one suggested it be disbanded or Dayton be sacked.

I have read, if not heard, such demands, and not only from Hamas. With poor timing, Electronic Intifada published an article calling for the dismissal of the force on the day Abbas revealed Hamas was plotting his murder. The argument is that the Dayton force stands in the way of a Palestinian unity government that would bring Fatah and Hamas together. The fact is, though, the Abbas-Fayyad administration is not going to risk the calm in the West Bank, let alone their lives, while Hamas continues to build its firepower. Dayton is likely to be around at least until the end of his current contract, in two years, if not quite as long as Glubb Pasha. The best reasons for retaining Dayton are practical and there are a number of them, some surprising. A recent speech (pdf) he gave in Washington argued the case for Palestine to an audience that few Palestinians could reach, and never with such enthusiasm.

There are problems with the new force; not least its own safety. The equipment used must be approved by Israel, leaving the force dangerously under-resourced. Israel's refusal to allow body armour, for instance, means recruits risk their lives in every operation: four young men were killed during an arrest in Qalqiliya. Yet, though under-resourced, the force is not underfunded. Critics have focused on the amount of aid it attracts compared with other sections of the Palestinian polity. There are good reasons to be concerned. A professional security service can rapidly become a liability when it is paired with a fragile, underfunded judicial system. Who wants order without law?

The creation of the Dayton force also raises broader questions about national security, an issue clearly presented in A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine by Hussein Agha and Ahmad S Khalidi (Chatham House, 2006). All governments are responsible for the security of their citizens, but how do they fulfil this role under occupation? If security ultimately rests upon a free and independent Palestinian state, then Hamas can argue that resistance is part of the job description of the security forces. Yet anyone who sides with Hamas should be aware of the gamble they are taking. A highly politicised, militant security force soon eats its own citizens. In the Iranian revolution, the secular parties lined up alongside Ayatollah Khomeini and ended up losing all freedom.

What does Fatah offer? By accepting Dayton, the current administration has opted to separate its security force from any resistance strategy. Some may paint this decision as defeatist or, worse, quisling – but it would be highly unfair. The Palestinian National Authority is locked into a series of bi-national and international agreements they cannot break and that offer distinct advantages. The Dayton force is creating the best possible security conditions in the West Bank, albeit continuously subject to Israeli whims and agendas. At a practical level, improved security offers a safer arena for civilian resistance. If Fatah is to regain widespread support in Palestine, it needs to develop a resistance strategy and there is no reason why the civilian ministries should not lead non-violent initiatives. Only by establishing a measure of security is it possible to develop new, political and judicial means of resistance. Dayton, one might say, is a necessary detour, demarcating the space where Palestinians can effect change.


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