Recent years have been unkind to the Fatah party. Its leader, Yasser Arafat, died in 2004; the organization was roundly defeated by Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, and in 2007, it was violently expelled from Gaza. Despite wide foreign support, Fatah largely finds itself on the defensive today against its Islamist rival.
Fatah's decline was in many ways inevitable given the party's sordid history of misrule, a large part of which involved the Palestinian security services, and particularly the police—which are the topic of two impressively researched new books by Lia, a research professor at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.
A Police Force without a State covers the pre-Oslo days of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) "self-policing" in the Middle East, including the presence of endemic levels of corruption, vigilantism, and collaborator killings in the West Bank and Gaza—problems that were central to the unraveling of Oslo. One of the early justifications for self-policing was the concern among Palestinians that the police "would be used to squelch the intifada." "By accepting that role for their police force," Lia writes, "the Palestinians would be acknowledging the end of the armed struggle." This was a step that many, apparently, were loathe to take.
The book includes extensive discussion of police recruitment, which included a "strong preference for Fatah paramilitaries and activists to the exclusion of other factions" and a focus on bringing Palestinian prisoners, jailed by Israel for security and political offenses, into the force. As Lia writes, the "deliberate use of police recruitment for repatriation purposes further undermined efforts at building a professional police force."
The companion volume, Building Arafat's Police, is another detail-packed study, this one describing the contributions of the donor community in getting the Palestinian Authority (PA) police up and running and some of the hesitations that the community had in contributing to what the PLO initially envisioned as a paramilitary force.
Lia's study provides a wealth of information on the nuts and bolts of fundraising, as well as some gems about the snags in securing donations, such as the humorous revelation that 9,000 new police uniforms provided by Japan were so tiny that they ended up being "handed out to children in Gaza." More problematic, however, were the donations of vehicles to the police force. Despite technical problems—Palestinians could not maintain the vehicles, many of which were cannibalized for parts—few of the automobiles were equipped with appropriate radios for patrolling. Palestinian financial accounting, not surprisingly, also proved less than satisfactory.
Help from Arab quarters was either insignificant or counterproductive. Arab funding for the PA was notoriously low, accounting for less than 9 percent of total donor spending between 1994 and 1998, and such aid was complicated by a lack of Arab enthusiasm for Oslo and by the routine channeling of funds by states such as Saudi Arabia through the PLO and other opaque organizations.
Building Arafat's Police also touches on the important question of how many police Arafat actually had. According to Lia, by September 1994, the number of policemen already exceeded the 9,000 stipulated in the Oslo accords. By 1995, some 17,000 police had been assembled. Lia notes correctly that Israel is hardly blameless for its handling of the Palestinian police. Indeed, Israel did not object to this gross violation of the agreement, especially, when it came to recruitment into the Preventive Security Agency (PSA), which was supposed to undertake counterterrorism initiatives.
It was the Israeli-backed PSA that later became a primary engine of PA corruption and the lead Palestinian agency hunting collaborators and, subsequently, the organization that generated much of the backlash against Fatah and fueled the rise of Hamas. Lia mentions that, as early as 1995, the Coordinating Committee for the International Assistance to the Police Force described the PSA as "illegal" and as "the most significant problem in the security field today."
The two volumes are important and comprehensive, but they have their problems. The author's uncritical sympathy for the Palestinian cause at times gets in the way. In A Police Force without a State, for example, Lia argues that Israel's arrest warrant for a Palestinian police chief "soured the atmosphere for joint police cooperation in car thefts." Only later do we learn that the officer was wanted for his role in coordinating police attacks against Israelis. Lia leaves the impression that the Palestinians were to blame neither for their frequent disregard for agreements with Israel nor for the corrupt, brutal, crony-filled, and inept security apparatus that evolved under PA auspices. To be sure, Lia's works are somber academic publications, but his detached tone is disconcerting. Given continued Palestinian and Israeli suffering—in large part due to the failure of the Palestinian security apparatus—he should have adopted a more critical view of Fatah's role.