Despite being in conflict with armed resistance factions in the West Bank, Palestinian Authority forces have also collaborated with them, posing a challenge to those who seek to divide Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has reportedly agreed to implement a controversial US proposal aimed at restoring its control over northern West Bank areas that are currently dominated by newly formed Palestinian resistance groups. However, the plan, lacking an understanding of the realities on the ground, may have unintended consequences.
During US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel in late January, reports allege that PA President Mahmoud Abbas was pressured to accept a new security plan drafted by US security coordinator Michael Fenzel. According to Israeli and American sources, the proposal involves the formation of a special PA force tasked with combatting armed groups in restive areas like Nablus and Jenin.
The PA is losing control
Since 2021, the formation of new resistance factions, including the Jenin Brigades and Lions’ Den, has challenged the authority of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) on the ground in the West Bank. These armed groups have gained public support and power, making it difficult for the PASF to maintain security control in the latter’s strongholds.
On 31 March, 2022, the Israeli government launched ‘Operation Break the Wave’, which led to frequent Israeli night raids on West Bank villages and communities. Despite the high death tolls among Palestinians in the West Bank, Israel has failed to curb the rising rate of resistance attacks and operations against its soldiers and illegal settlers. In fact, the armed struggle is only growing in size and scope.
In February, CIA director Bill Burns expressed concern that the situation in the West Bank today is beginning to resemble the climate of the Second Intifada of the early-to-mid 2000s. The loss of security control by the PA is a cause for concern for Washington, and the CIA has been working with both the PA and Israel in order to stabilize the situation.
While the PA has not officially commented on the plans for forming a special task force to deal with the armed movements, reports suggest that they have accepted the US’s “Fenzel Plan.” Although not publicly disclosed at the time, an official from the PA’s ruling Fatah party, Abbas Zaki, referenced a private security summit scheduled to take place in Aqaba, Jordan.
At this summit, delegations from Jordan, the US, Egypt, and Israel signed an agreement on implementing the Fenzel Plan and improving security ties between Israel and the PA. The Fatah official told Saudi media outlet Asharq that a recent violent raid on Nablus, resulting in the murder of 11 Palestinians, was “a stab in the back for the mediation efforts to reach calm and sign an agreement of de-escalation.”
The Aqaba meeting was highly controversial given that PA President Abbas had previously ordered an end to his security forces’ collaboration with Israeli military and intelligence, known as “security coordination.” This decision was made in response to the killing of 10 Palestinians in the Jenin Refugee camp in late January.
The decision by the PA to accept US assistance in combating armed resistance groups in the West bank is seen as a betrayal by many Palestinians, who expressed their support for these fighters in recent polls.
In fact, demonstrations condemning the PA’s attendance at the Aqaba security summit took place throughout the West Bank, with the Jenin Brigades armed group even calling a press briefing and urging the public to protest.
Ongoing attempts to contain the armed struggle
A source from within the PA’s Preventative Security Force (PSF) spoke to The Cradle under the condition of anonymity. According to the source, the PASF is already actively pursuing members of the Lions’ Den armed group, and any support from the US would only add to their efforts:
“We are doing our job and following orders to protect them [the Palestinian fighters] from being killed by the Israelis, we know that if the occupation army comes for them they won’t let them live and so it is better for us to capture them alive or to bargain with them to hand over their weapons.”
“There have been cases where our forces pursued fighters but failed to arrest them, and after this, the Israeli military murdered them. Our goal is not to harm them, just to capture them,” the source added.
Another source, who has detailed knowledge of the relationship between the PA’s security forces and the armed groups in both Jenin and Nablus, shed light on the complexities of the situation. According to the source, a significant number of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces’ (PASF) cadres are currently active in the Jenin Brigades, with some of them coming from families of high-ranking PASF members.
The Lions’ Den has reportedly received firearms training from Khaled Tbilah, a second lieutenant in the PA’s security forces, which video evidence appears to corroborate. The same source claimed that Oday al-Azizi, known to the Israeli intelligence as a member of the Lions’ Den, is actually one of the leaders of the group while currently serving as a PASF officer.
Azizi was arrested by the PA, but was allegedly allowed to leave their custody at any time, unlike other detainees held in PA detention, such as Musab Shtayyeh, who is a Hamas party member and is held against his will. This suggests that the PA is administering preferential treatment to Lions’ Den members based on political affiliation.
Azizi, the source claims, is married to a woman from a prominent family that is loyal to President Abbas and is affiliated with a group called the Fatah Tanzeem. The Tanzeem, although also connected to the Fatah Party, holds a completely different outlook than the more active Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which makes up the ranks of a number of the armed groups in the northern West Bank.
Popular resistance challenging the PA
Although multiple sources clarify that the PASF does not directly control the armed groups, it still maintains connections with them. The concern from the PA is that if the resistance factions gain too much power in an area like Nablus, it could spread to other cities like Ramallah.
The military parade in Jenin on 3 March showcased the strength of the resistance with hundreds of fighters present. Surprisingly, Mohammed Jabareen, a PA security force colonel, was seen posing for photos with fighters at the parade.
Additionally, a central and unifying figure who has voiced public support for the armed struggle in Jenin is Fathi Khazem, who held a position with the PA security forces during the Second Intifada. Khazem has urged members of the PASF to fight against the Israeli army – his commands carry an oversized authority that others making similar calls simply do not have.
On the flip side, the formation of a new Palestinian resistance group called the Tulkarem Battalion has led to direct intervention by the PASF in an attempt to stem its growth, which in turn has provoked further anti-PA demonstrations.
This highlights the fact that the PA is employing varying strategies in different areas to deter the rise of armed groups. Geography matters: Nablus city, for instance, is surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements that provide constant fodder for clashes, whereas in Jenin, a more isolated area, the groups pose less of an immediate threat.
An informed source from Nablus, who has contacts inside the armed groups, tells The Cradle that there is no real solution in sight for the PA:
“Other than convincing the armed groups to lay down their weapons through bribes of different kinds, there is no way to deal with the groups. Maybe they can try to make the groups look like criminals so that they lose some popular support.”
The Fenzel Plan seeks to train thousands of PASF members in US-owned facilities in Jordan to combat the Palestinian resistance. If implemented in a poorly-informed or ill-calculated manner, the project could lead to massive bloodshed in the West Bank and further inflame popular sentiments against the PA.
‘Peace Bands’ 2.0?
Israel has historically used a variety of local collaborator forces in order to maintain its dominance over the populations it occupies. Preceding Israel’s existence, however, during the 1930’s, the British mandate authorities also employed a strategy of using local collaborator forces in order to suppress the Palestinian resistance bands during the Arab Revolt (1936-9). This strategy is somewhat more relevant to today’s Fenzel Plan.
The Fasa’il al-Salam, or “Peace Bands” were formed with the aid of Britain’s Palestine mandate authorities; receiving arms, funds, and training in order to combat Palestinian militias that were largely under the command of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini.
During the latter stages of the Arab Revolt against British rule in Palestine – and despite having taken control over much of the country from the Palestinian resistance – the British military was unable to secure many of the mountainous and rural areas where the rebel leaders reigned. Like today, Jenin and Nablus were also strongholds for the Palestinian revolt back then.
As one of the many strategies employed by British authorities to crush the revolt, the establishment of pro-British bands did have its successes. In Mathew Hughes’ book Britain’s Pacification of Palestine, he writes:
“While the peace bands would never have grown as they did without British help, they never would have happened in the first place had Palestinians been united.”
During this period, when the strategy of dividing Palestinians to fight each other was employed, the divide between the Nashashibi family faction and those loyal to Hajj Amin al-Husseini was heavily utilized by the British to create its collaborator forces.
While the peace bands of the late 1930s were rooted in Palestinian societal-family structures, those kinds of familial rivalries do not exist for a PASF force to be based on today. The Jenin Brigades are instead rooted in the urban working class and refugee communities that were displaced to West Bank refugee camps during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.
The US-envisioned special tactical force PA units will have no roots inside Jenin or the Old City of Nablus, where Palestinian resistance fighters reside. Another advantage that the peace bands had in their formation was positive press; in 1938, Raghib Nashashibi requested a loan from the Jewish Agency to pay newspapers to provide favorable coverage that would gain them adherents. No such media environment exists in the occupied Palestinian territories today.
A crisis within the PA
The issues facing the PA go beyond its lack of control in the northern West Bank. Today, the much-weakened governing body faces a comprehensive crisis on the security, legitimacy, and economic fronts. At 88 years of age, Abbas is amongst the oldest leaders in the world, and many are anticipating his resignation or death in the near future.
Palestinian author and journalist Ramzy Baroud argues that “the Palestinian Authority has suffered a division crisis from the very beginning,” despite Abbas’ ability to somehow keep the PA together:
“Under Abbas, the disunity took on multiple dimensions, unlike under Yasser Arafat, who was able to maintain a nominal level of unity amongst Palestinians,” Baroud explains. He also demonstrates that Abbas widened divisions between the PA and Hamas, the socialist parties, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
“Even worse, he invested into the division of Fatah itself, with the party breaking into three main branches; there is the Marwan Barghouti branch, which is the more revolutionary branch and is more or less consistent with the ideas of Yasser Arafat; then you have the Mohammed Dahlan branch, which is the branch that is more clan-based and is the branch that more or less represented Gaza; there are also a number of sub-branches within the dominant Mahmoud Abbas branch.”
When Mahmoud Abbas’ reign ends, potential successors include Majid Farraj (head of PPS) and Hussein al-Sheikh (secretary general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization).
However, the transition of power will pose an immense challenge given the chaos and indecision facing the PA, and Fatah’s internal divisions could cause further issues. Now, this crisis becomes even more complicated by the massive rise of armed resistance groups and attempts to crack down on them.
Two anonymous sources have claimed that following the late January Israeli army raid on Jenin camp, which killed 10 Palestinians, a high-ranking PASF official intervened to order a halt to any PA pursuit of resistance fighters in the area.
If true, this suggests that there may be more than a few PA officials frustrated with the current approach towards the armed movements and that this issue is one that the PA cannot afford to miscalculate, especially as calls for a Third Intifada intensify.