As commander of the U.S.-funded, Jordanian-trained force now taking root in the West Bank, Maj. Gen. Diab el-Ali and the civilian leaders of the Palestinian Authority to whom he reports find themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
For most Palestinians and their international supporters, el-Ali commands a harbinger force of a future Palestinian state. As such, he says, the Palestinian National Security Forces (PNSF) need the funding, training and equipment required to sustain a disciplined, operationally ready force capable of "protecting people from any danger ... just like national security forces all over the world."
But in Israel, the force is seen as an expedient for countering Hamas and other militant groups - a vehicle to enable the Palestinian Authority to fight terror within its own cities so that Israel doesn't have to. Israeli supporters of the force - and there are many - oppose a significant broadening of its capabilities and scope, insisting that any prospective Palestinian state be demilitarized.
At some point, conflicting visions of the nascent force and its mission will have to be reconciled. But until then, el-Ali says he has a lot of work to do - in coordination with the Israelis - to preserve the unprecedented calm that has replaced the lawlessness and terror that once reigned west of the Jordan River.
Q. Next month marks two years of active security cooperation - managed by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton and his U.S. Security Coordinators Team - between the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Jordan. How many forces have been trained and equipped thus far?
A. We've deployed four battalions serving in the Palestinian cities from Hebron in the south to Jenin in the north. And next month, another battalion will return from training in Jordan to assume its duties here. Additionally, we've established one battalion with the Presidential Guard.
Q. After nearly three years in this top job, and a previous stint as commander in Jenin, how would you characterize the PNSF mission?
A. We're building a force to defend our people, and also to help the Palestinians build a nation. We must protect the people from any danger. Currently, the focus is on protecting people from internal clashes and fighting among themselves.
The main thing now is to enforce the law in Palestinian cities. By doing this, we generate security, which generates prosperity. And if the situation will improve, and if we have a state, we will need to expand our mission and improve our capabilities to be just like national security forces all over the world.
Q. Do you view the force merely as a gendarmerie, or something more?
A. The PNSF has three main forces according to Palestinian law: national security, internal security and intelligence. The PNSF coordinates with the Interior Ministry but falls under the command of Palestinian President Abu Mazen, supreme commander of our security forces.
Q. Over the past year or so, your force has conducted numerous operations, including violent clashes last summer with Hamas militants. How do you assess their performance to date?
A. In all these operations - including the lethal engagements in Qalqilya you mentioned, where we lost three of our people - we've learned important lessons that are helping us to improve. A key lesson is that the security forces work under a unified command.
The second lesson is that we must act quickly to take the power that was in the hands of Palestinian factions and control them. Our forces did not hesitate, when the mission required and when commanded to do so, to use force to remove weapons from these people.
Now, thank God, all the weapons are in the hands of the PNSF. There is no extrajudicial armed activity taking place. We have courts, we have judges, and we have safe borders between us and the Israelis. All this attests to significant achievements. But we are still learning.
Q. What type of equipment and technology do you need to improve performance and operational readiness?
A. We need the manpower. We need housing for our security forces. We need more training. We need medicine and doctors to take care of our forces. We need vehicles, communication gear, and most importantly, we need personal weapons for each soldier. Right now, we have one weapon for every five soldiers, and we sometimes have to fight with our hands.
Q. What happened to the tens of thousands of weapons given to the Palestinian Authority under the 1993 Oslo Accords?
A. After Oslo, we never thought the situation would be like this. We didn't think Hamas would take over our weapons. And don't forget, even before the Hamas insurrection, most of our weapons were taken by the Israelis in the second intifada.
Q. But since then, hasn't the PNSF been resupplied under the U.S.-led security coordination mission?
A. If you ask Gen. Dayton, he'll say he doesn't arm our security forces. Our forces go for training in Jordan, but the weapons are Jordanian and remain in Jordan. Our people come back empty-handed without the ability for refresher training.
And whatever weapons we do receive from Jordan, Egypt and other places must be approved by the Israelis, and they are not in a hurry to provide for our needs. For the past 18 months, about 800 American and Canadian radios have been stuck in the Ashdod port, and I don't know when I'll receive them.
Q. Considering the ease with which Hamas overran Fatah forces in Gaza back in 2007, can you blame the Israelis for being cautious? How can you ensure that weapons and the operational know-how you are acquiring won't again fall into the hands of Hamas?
A. If people want to think this way, we will have nothing. A good security force needs to be supplied with basic needs and also heavy equipment.
I am not afraid that anything will fall into the hands of Hamas. The most they might do is try to penetrate into our groups, but this is not a great threat, and I think we will find them out in the end.
Q. So you can't imagine Hamas taking over the West Bank the way they did in Gaza?
A. I can say that Gaza was a real tragic experience. But now, we're talking about different forces [in the PNSF]. They are much better trained, with better skills and even better motivation. Gaza was controlled by Hamas because of the carelessness of our security force. There was no money, and our security forces were going to Hamas to get food and supplements for their pitiful salaries.
Q. What are the chances of a reconciled national unity government rejoining the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?
A. Now, Hamas is talking the same as Fatah, about returning to the 1967 borders. So the problem is no longer about fighting or civil war, but about who is in power.
Q. Can there ever be peace with Israel, even if it withdraws, with minor adjustments, to the 1967 Green Line?
A. For sure. This is our vision for peace. If the Palestinian people can reclaim their land as it was before June 1967, there will be economic, social and political relations with Israel.
Q. What about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's preference for an economic peace, coupled with security cooperation, as a requisite toward a diplomatic deal?
A. This is childish talk, not befitting of adults. It is simply unreasonable.
Yes, we have good security cooperation now with the Israelis, our economy is recovering, and tourism has increased. But all this is still fragile and very much connected to a political solution. If there is no political horizon, we're all likely to suffer a serious regression.
We need to be safe from the [Israeli] settlers. They are the main obstacles preventing a peaceful solution. å
By Barbara Opall-Rome in Ramallah.
Training & Equipping the PNSF
å Managed by U.S. Security Coordinators Team.
å $261 million in U.S. funding approved through 2011.
å Training at Jordan International Police Training Center at al-Jaftlak, near Amman.
å DynCorp International, Falls Church, Va., provides U.S. training supervisors and equipment.
å Plans for 10 battalions, one for each of nine Palestinian Authority governates plus one strategic reserve battalion.
Source: Defense News research