Special Report

Building ‘Frankenstein’ in the Middle East?

U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority trains security forces who torture other Palestinians in the West Bank.

By 11.29.10

Send to Kindle

The Financial Times reported last week on a "sharp rise" in torture cases in the West Bank, which is governed by the Fatah-affiliated Palestinian Authority and thought to be a good deal more moderate than Hamas-ruled Gaza, as well as a peace partner for Israel.

The rise has, indeed, occurred since a Hamas terror attack in the West Bank in August that killed four Israelis. The PA, which saw the attack as implying a threat to its own rule, rounded up over 700 suspects -- "almost all," FT says, "without proper warrants and held…without the assent of civilian judges or prosecutors."

That, of course, was hardly the worst of it. Among others, FT notes the horrific case of Ahmad Salhab, a 42-year-old former mechanic who was first tortured by PA security officers in 2008, and then again in the latest wave, by a method called Shabeh, "in which detainees are handcuffed and bound in stress conditions for long periods."

The first time, in 2008, Salhab emerged from the ordeal with torn spinal discs. This time, in September and October, he was

held in solitary confinement, deprived of the medication he requires as a result of the earlier abuse and subjected again to Shabeh. His condition deteriorated so badly that he could neither walk nor stand upright…. [He] was released on October 16 but had to spend 10 days in Hebron hospital before he could return home. Now he walks on crutches and has little hope of ever making a full recovery.

FT also cites a more detailed report on PA torture posted by Human Rights Watch a month ago. It notes that "more than 100 allegations of torture [have been] registered so far this year," including one involving a man tortured for ten days; that "the PA has been extremely lax in prosecuting security officials for torture and ill-treatment of detainees"; and that eight detainees have allegedly died in custody since 2007.

Troubling here is that the PA security forces making the arrests, if not those actually carrying out the torture, are largely U.S.-funded and trained. As Israeli commentator Caroline Glick noted in a recent column, 

between 2007 and August 2010, U.S. assistance to the PA security services totaled $400 million.… This assistance has paid for the training and outfitting of 400 Presidential Guards and 2,700 soldiers in the National Security Forces. The U.S. plans to train five additional 500-man NSF battalions.

The 2007 starting-date of the program, which until recently was run by General Keith Dayton, was not arbitrary: that was when Hamas staged a bloody coup in Gaza against Fatah, with which it had been purportedly sharing rule. The U.S., fearing a repeat performance in the West Bank, set out to build a more capable PA force that would keep Hamas at bay.

But that wasn't the only aim. The creation of a modern, competent PA force is also supposed to enable the transition to Palestinian statehood -- a goal that has been pursued obsessively, if unavailingly so far, by the Obama administration.

From a cold realpolitik perspective, one could say that, if the PA force has succeeded so far in suppressing Hamas, one shouldn't quibble too much about the moral aspects. Relatively moderate Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan also crack down hard on their Islamists, and their methods are no prettier. Comme ci, comme ça.

But the situation is indeed problematic, and partly for moral reasons. If the point of Palestinian statehood is supposedly to free the Palestinians from Israeli occupation, then creating another Arab police state for them seems of dubious value at best. At least, it is hard to see why the U.S. should invest so much money and diplomacy -- including harsh pressures on Israel -- toward that goal.

And pragmatically speaking, the fact that PA forces fight Hamas hardly means they can be counted on to be moderate; such internecine conflict is rampant in the Arab world. Indeed, the PA continues to be an entity no less steeped in anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic incitement than Hamas-ruled Gaza.

So much so that Israeli security forces are quite worried about the growing PA capacity, with General Avi Mizrachi, head of Central Command, saying in a speech last May that "the IDF must be prepared for an escalation in fighting against Palestinian security personnel trained in Jordan by U.S. General Dayton."

He added:

This is a trained force, better equipped by an American mentor, and the upshot is that at the beginning of combat, the price we pay will be higher. Such a force can close down a built-up area with four snipers, it's deadly…. It is an infantry force standing in front of us and we must take that into consideration.

The U.S. has already gone far down the road of nurturing the Palestinians, and it is not easy to turn back. But with the U.S. slated to spend another $150 million on the Palestinian security services in 2011, it is not too late to consider whether building up both internal repression and a threat to Israel is a rational course to take.

Or, if too late, perhaps not by 2012.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel, blogging at PDavidHornik.typepad.com.