September 20, 2020

For Palestinian Police, Much to Lose if Israel Annexes West Bank Land

JENIN, West Bank — What wounded Maj. Zahi Jamhour most, he said, wasn’t that the Palestinians he had sworn to protect threw stones at him. It wasn’t even the bullet shot through his leg by an Israeli soldier — “a mistake,” he was told later — after his Palestinian police squad had risked their lives to rescue a Jew from an attempted lynching.

No, what stings to this day is how the Arab doctors and nurses at an East Jerusalem hospital reacted when he told them how he had been shot.

“They laughed at me,” Major Jamhour, 50, recalled ruefully. “They said, ‘You deserved it.’”

The scorn heaped upon Palestinian Authority security officers for cooperating with Israel, some officers say, was the bitter price of jobs with significant benefits: salaries, pensions and, for some, cars, training abroad and proximity to power.

Neighbors called them collaborators, doing the dirty work for Israel’s occupation. Relatives questioned their self-respect. Israeli counterparts, they said, routinely treated them with highhandedness and disdain.

And yet, in their colorful uniforms, the security forces are a conspicuous embodiment of the incipient state they hoped they were building.

Now that Israel’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank has thrown that national project into doubt, many officers question whether the cost to them was worth it.

“It’s as if you’re building a house, and you see the whole thing collapse,” said a senior intelligence officer in Jenin, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be interviewed.

ImageIsraeli soldiers overlooking the Jordan Valley on the occupied West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has said he intends to annex the area.
Credit…Abir Sultan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a rare series of interviews, Palestinian officers in the West Bank candidly described a law enforcement system that is already fraying, inviting violence and chaos.

In protest of Israel’s planned annexation, the Palestinian Authority halted security cooperation with Israel, impairing police and intelligence work that benefited both sides. The authority also stopped accepting taxes collected on its behalf by Israel, and in the resulting budget crisis, most officers are receiving only partial pay; some are already skipping work.

Many of those still reporting for duty sip coffee in their stations rather than responding to calls and risking detention by Israeli forces, leaving large areas without police protection.

The security forces have long played a complicated role. They have become more professional in recent years, but remain an instrument of political control as well as security.

Scarred by losing Gaza to Hamas in a 2007 civil war, the forces have been crucial in keeping Fatah in power in the West Bank, aggressively quashing more militant factions. They have tortured some of the authority’s critics, human rights groups say.

Still, polls show that Palestinians trust the security forces more than the authority’s leaders. Buf if the dream of statehood is dashed, the officers who have risked their lives and reputations for it have much to lose.

“You say, ‘State, state, state,’ and now the other side is saying ‘you won’t get one,’” said Akram Rajoub, a longtime commander in Preventive Security, a domestic intelligence agency, who is now the governor of Jenin. “Where have all these state-building efforts gone? Where has all this investment gone? What are we going to tell our children?”

He was just a boy in the village of Al Qubeiba, Col. Saed Zahran said, when he first grasped how little Israelis cared about crime among Palestinians. Two children were killed. Israeli detectives arrived, scribbled a few notes and left. The crime remains unsolved.

He said the memory inspired him to join the police force when it was established in the 1990s, believing that Palestinians had to rely on themselves for law and order. Yet even as commander of the Nablus police district, Colonel Zahran, 51, has only limited ability to deliver protection and justice.

Security cooperation with Israel, Palestinians say, was not as mutual as the term suggests.

The West Bank is ruled under Israeli military law. And while Israeli forces go anywhere at will, Palestinian forces needed permission to enter places where Israel has jurisdiction. When Israeli forces entered a Palestinian area, Palestinian officers were warned to clear out — to avoid potential friction or the embarrassment of being seen alongside the Israelis.

Credit…Jaafar Ashtiyeh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Palestinian officers insist that they raced to comply with Israeli requests for assistance, while urgent Palestinian requests for help too often languished unanswered.

“We often have disputes between families,” Colonel Zahran said, in which the police are called to intervene. But these frequently occur in places the police cannot go without Israeli approval.

In a typical case last year, the police were called to defuse a violent dispute in the village of Haris, but waited hours for approval. Colonel Zahran said he gave up and drove there in civilian clothes, in an unmarked car, without his sidearm.

Nowhere is the asymmetry more frustrating, he said, than when his officers refer cases to Israel for prosecution, only to see them dropped.

Last August, an officer investigating the destruction of a shop in Azun Atma was run down by two Israelis accused of the crime. Video of the hit-and-run shows the officer thrown into the air. Colonel Zahran said he turned over “a complete file” to Israeli authorities, who arrested the two but released them days later without explanation.

“What about the Palestinian police officer who was almost killed?” he said.

Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

In April, he said, an Israeli citizen was caught in Qalqilya with 700 grams of hashish. Under the Oslo Accords, Israeli citizens must be turned over to Israel. But the Israeli authorities set the man free after an hour, sparking outrage in Qalqilya — at Colonel Zahran and his men.

“Honestly, how am I supposed to defend what we did?” he said.

Israeli officials did not respond to Colonel Zahran’s specific accusations. But they acknowledge that West Bank cases are often dropped when the victims are Palestinian. Broadly speaking, they say, Israel prioritizes counterterrorism over crime-fighting.

The Israeli police “prefer to deal with issues inside Israel,” and crimes involving Israeli victims, said Dov Sedaka, a former head of Israel’s civil administration of the West Bank. “The issue isn’t our ability to collect evidence. It’s how much effort do we want to put in?”

All of which leaves officials like Colonel Zahran feeling pained and powerless.

“Palestinian citizens feel I’m not able to protect them,” he said.

While the police are ridiculed for their subservient relationship with Israeli authorities, Palestinians can at least see some benefit in law enforcement. Intelligence officers, by contrast, have long been viewed with suspicion for working with Israel in cracking down on groups like Hamas.

Arrests of militants often trigger an avalanche of online vitriol aimed at the intelligence forces, said the senior officer in Jenin.

“Every officer needs to have the conversation with his kids,” he said, to justify his work. “I’d tell them that we were all under occupation, that we were officers serving our people first, and that if we were not there, our people would suffer.”

He said he assured his children that he was laying the groundwork for an eventual Palestinian state, which meant arresting militants who threatened to destabilize the West Bank.

Credit…Duby Tal/Alamy

Yet that work can suffer because of the power imbalance with Israel. When he was conducting a major arrest operation in Jenin, he said, he discovered Israeli forces there, too. The Palestinians had to withdraw.

“They say, ‘Our work is more important,’” he said.

“Sometimes they don’t tell us they’re coming,” he added. “Sometimes they only tell us when they arrive.”

Israeli officials say they prefer to cooperate, but their incursions are often prompted by the unwillingness of Palestinian intelligence to arrest militants aligned with Fatah.

“It’s a fact that we have more power, but we’ve tried to not make that explicit,” said Nitzan Alon, a retired major general who commanded Israeli forces in the West Bank.

With security coordination halted, Palestinian officers say they are holding their heads a bit higher. But the severing of ties sometimes forces them into dangerous workarounds.

Having stopped seeking clearance to cross Israeli checkpoints, Palestinian officers are changing the plates on their cars, traveling in plainclothes and unarmed, and inventing cover stories about their destinations.

Credit…Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA, via Shutterstock

In the town of Anata last month, unarmed officers who tried to arrest two people suspected of dealing drugs had to withdraw when a crowd gathered; they could not call in armed reinforcements.

But the greatest risk, the intelligence officer said, is what is happening in areas where he needed Israel’s approval to operate and it is too dangerous to do so unarmed. Arms smuggling there was already widespread, he said, and now it is unchecked.

“Those weapons will land in the hands of people who would destroy all that we’ve accomplished,” he added.

Everyone in Palestinian security seems to have at least a story or two of his own abasement.

For Col. Ahed Hasayen, a police spokesman in Ramallah, it came at a conference with the Israeli police in Jaffa. His Israeli counterpart asked to take a photograph with him. Colonel Hasayen demurred, but the Israeli insisted that it would only be a keepsake.

His phone rang 90 minutes later, on the drive back to Bethlehem.

“Shame on you,” he said a friend told him. The photo was circulating on social media.

“After that, how can you trust them again?” Colonel Hasayen said. “Hamas said I should’ve worn a suicide belt.”

Credit…Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For Major Jamhour, it was the night of Feb. 2, 2018, when a call came from headquarters: An Israeli motorist had made a wrong turn into the town of Abu Dis. An angry crowd had trapped him.

Major Jamhour and his men arrived in minutes. They surrounded the Israeli’s Toyota and a trailer it was pulling, plastered with Israeli flags, as young Palestinians pelted it with stones.

One officer was struck in the forehead. When someone threw a firebomb into the Toyota, Major Jamhour said, the officers hustled the Israeli into their own vehicle and the wounded officer climbed on top of him, shielding him with his body.

The crowd grew to around 200 people, yelling, “Give us this man!” Major Jamhour said.

The Palestinian officers kept them at bay for two hours before Israeli soldiers and border police arrived. Major Jamhour said he approached them with his hands up, announcing himself as a policeman in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

“I told them, ‘Your man is safe,’” he said, and led the soldiers to the motorist.

Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

But before the Israelis pulled out, Major Jamhour said, one of his men shouted at him to look out: An Israeli was aiming a rifle at him.

“I said, ‘Impossible,’” Major Jamhour said — right before a bullet ripped through his leg.

“They didn’t shoot the stone throwers,” he said. “They shot me, in a police uniform.”

The Israeli army confirmed that a soldier had shot Major Jamhour, chalking it up to confusion.

His family begged him to quit the police. He refused, but his attitude had changed.

Until that night, he said, he never hesitated to step in to protect vulnerable civilians — Jew and Arab alike. But he no longer feels obligated to act courageously in defense of Israelis.

“I went through coordination and they shot me,” he said. “Now, there’s no coordination. I will not go to die.”