The Media Line (Link) - Arieh O’Sullivan (July 20, 2010)
Israel is considering allowing Palestinian security forces to join Israeli troops at checkpoints and letting its Jewish citizens back into the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank for the first time in nearly a decade.
The move is seen not only as a show of confidence the Israeli defense establishment has in the improved Palestinian security forces, but also as a good-will gesture that could enhance the Palestinian economy and be a step toward direct negotiations.
The Israeli Army’s Central Command told The Media Line their staff is making necessary arrangements to allow Israelis back into cities under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
Israel barred its citizens from entering the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank at the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada uprising in 2000, due to attacks on Israelis, including lynchings. Three years ago, Israel eased the ban by allowing Israeli Arabs to enter Palestinian-controlled areas areas to shop and visit relatives, but non-Arab Israelis are still barred.
“This is more than just a headline,” an Israeli military official in the Central Command told The Media Line. “It is something that we are seriously looking into and is the result of requests we have had in meetings with the Palestinians.”
“It is a sign both of the immediate results of the security on the ground and the rule of law and stability we see in the Palestinian Authority,” the official said.
OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrachi has instructed his staff to prepare the necessary framework that could facilitate opening the gates to Israelis. The access would be gradual, starting first with the biblical cities of Bethlehem and Jericho and to later include Jenin in the northern West Bank. Other major cities like Nablus and Ramallah would follow later.
The move is a follow up on to the decision last month by Israel to allow Israeli tour guides back into Bethlehem and Jericho. There have also been periodic official visits by Israelis, including sportsmen and women, but the new regulations would no longer require written permission.
Despite the ban, the actual flow of Israelis entering the West Bank illegally has steadily grown, especially as terror attacks have declined. Most of these entries are for business purposes.
The once porous border has been firmly sealed by a 700-kilometer-long barrier, but the checkpoints are not strict when it comes to Israelis. In some cases, Palestinian police forces have removed the Jewish visitors in their areas and returned them to Israeli custody.
“We have seen Israelis wandering into the Palestinian areas ‘by mistake’ numerous times,” said the military official. “We understand that this was really no mistake, so the demand is there.”
Prior to the 2000 unrest, and in the wake of the 1994 Oslo peace accords, Israelis saw the markets in the Palestinian areas as an inexpensive alternative and spent over $2 billion in Palestinian areas annually. This income was virtually wiped out after the Intifada broke out and Palestinian GDP, while improving, has yet to bounce back to those levels.
A major factor in the decision is the renewed confidence Israel has in the law and order in the Palestinian Authority. This is mainly due to the five US-trained battalions of Palestinian National Security Forces (NSF), which have supplemented the large police presence in Palestinian cities.
“We were very impressed by their professionalism and leadership,” US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said following a visit the NSF earlier this month. “They have not only earned the praise of their fellow citizens, but the Israelis have also been very pleased. It has provided some stability for the people so that economic and social progress can be made.”
According to McCain, Israel and the Palestinians are “actively discussing” letting Palestinian security forces join Israeli troops at checkpoints.
“This is so the people going back and forth will see that there is a security presence from the Palestinian side as well as on the Israeli side,” McCain said. “I think that the Israelis wanting to discuss this is an expression of their confidence in the professionalism of this highly trained group” of Palestinian forces.
US Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who had accompanied McCain in his visit to Israel and the PA, noted that confidence-building measures such as these could pave the way for direct peace negotiations.
“It seems to me a good possibility that some of the discussion about confidence building steps between the Israelis and Palestinians that could bring back direct face-to-face negotiations might well revolve around the role of the national security forces in the Palestinian Authority and some of the responsibilities that they had,” Lieberman said.
A senior IDF officer told The Media Line that the level of coordination with his Palestinian counterparts was vastly improving. He noted this was mainly due to mutual interests of quelling terrorism and crushing Hamas, a shared enemy, than any love for each other.
“Because of the level of shared interest, we have good coordination,” he said, noting that intelligence was shared with PA forces on the location of terrorists hiding in Palestinian-controlled areas. “This mutual interest does help us because, frankly, we have no interest in travelling inside Nablus at night. If they can do the job, then why us? They are acting not because they are nice to us, but because it is in their interests too.”