Political Violence, Military Conflict and Civil Unrest in Palestine: The Palestinian Police, the Fatah Tanzim and the “Al-Aqsa Intifada”

Nur Masalha, Political History of the Middle East, Saint Mary's University of Surrey

Research Grant, 2002, 2003

This research project was originally undertaken with the aim of examining the roles played by the military and civilian police forces of the Palestinian Authority, and the popular militias (in particular the Fatah Tanzim), during the current uprising (“Al-Aqsa Intifada”) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was particularly intended to focus on the likely future trajectories of these organizations, the factors determining the dynamics between them, and the various options for their future evolution. The project outlined a number of research objectives relating both to the Palestinian police and to the popular militias and raised a number of hypotheses about the relationship between these forces; between these forces and the Palestinian Authority; and between these forces and the local population.

The research began by examining the pre–Al-Aqsa Intifada period, focusing on the post-1993 state formation in Palestine and the roles played by the Palestinian Police and Security Forces in the pre-Intifada period between 1994 and September 2000. The work then proceeded to examine the causes for outbreak and subsequent militarization of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the rise of the Fatah Tanzim, and the emergence of the Palestinian popular militias in 2001 and 2002.

During the course of the research, the situation in Palestine changed dramatically. Throughout 2002 and 2003, the project continued to monitor ongoing developments on the ground as they affected the research, and to modify the goals accordingly. Despite the deteriorating security situation in Palestine, which made visits to many parts of the country difficult, field trips to Jerusalem, Ramallah. and Bethlehem were extremely useful in conducting interviews and collecting primary and secondary material in Arabic and Hebrew.

The police as an institution engaged in very little armed resistance. Most of the resistance put up by the Palestinian population was led by the militias (Fatah Tanzim, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad).

Of particular importance was the strategy demonstrated by the Israeli government under Ariel Sharon, of semipermanent military reoccupation of the West Bank, which seemed to be aimed at the very destruction of the Palestinian Authority itself. The research attempted to measure and assess the effect of the ongoing reoccupation on the ability to respond of the Palestinian security forces and the militias, and concluded that the Israeli assault on the official Palestine Police (the destruction of police stations and police facilities throughout the occupied territories), contributed to the rise of the popular militias and armed units, including those of the Fatah Tanzim, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and militant Islamic organizations (including Hamas and Islamic Jihad).

During its reoccupation of the West Bank, the Israeli army targeted the security organizations of the Palestinian Authority, particularly the police, and police posts and police stations were repeatedly destroyed and the police killed or arrested in very large numbers. The police as an institution engaged in very little armed resistance. Most of the resistance put up by the Palestinian population was led by the militias (Fatah Tanzim, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad).

The decreasing ability of the Palestinian Authority to function, on the security or any other level, resulted from the Sharon government’s underlying strategy of preventing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. This in turn led to the development of a degree of skepticism among the Palestinian population about the Palestinian Authority’s future and the future of the two-state solution in general.

Among the specific new factors which the research identified as key are the following:

a) the tendency of the popular Palestinian militias to look to the example of the Lebanese Hizbullah and its tactics in confronting the Israeli army in south Lebanon;
b) the rise in levels of support for the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade among the population;
c) the close collaboration and a certain degree of merging between Islamist and nationalist forces and between these groups and the official police;
d) the occasional adoption by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, which had a secular nationalist tendency, of the tactic of suicide attacks which had hitherto been confined to Islamic groups;
e) evidence of an increasing traumatization of Palestinian society (see points d and f.);
f) the participation of Palestinian women in armed attacks in both secular nationalist and Islamist armed groups, including in suicide attacks;
g) the serious implications of the Brigade’s activities in terms of undermining the Palestinian Authority.

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