ASSESSING THE VIABILITY OF A PALESTINIAN STATE

Chapter 9

THE SECURITY FACTOR


Palestinian state security is inextricably intertwined with Israeli security perceptions. It is not possible to consider the one without the other. Since its incorporation as a sovereign state, Israel has complained of the inherent lack of security caused by the immediate proximity of hostile territory to vital Israeli population centers. Only since the 1967 war has Israel been able to expand to what it considers "secure borders"--taken, nonetheless, from territory considered by much of the rest of the world to belong to the Arabs. The idea of secure borders is in fact one of the more prominent reasons for Israel's reluctance either to relinquish the occupied territories to Jordan, or to allow a Palestinian state to be established within those same boundaries. Indeed, Israeli attitudes toward security play an important role in justifying the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And for the forty-five years of the nation's existence, Israel's perpetual concerns about being overrun and driven into the sea by ruthless Arab armies seemed to be justified.

Over the first four decades, several violent wars were fought between the Jewish state and various combinations of Arab nations. Even after the Camp David agreement, real and perceived threats along the northern borders provided the impetus for the "Peace for Galilee" debacle in Lebanon. The Palestinians' and other Arabs' own bellicose rhetoric fueled Israel's fears, and the decades-long guerilla and terrorist campaign waged by various Palestinian groups served to prove the substance of the words.

Israelis often point out how easily the thin waist of the country could be cut by an invading force were they to pull back within its pre-1967 borders. They argue the necessity to retain the West Bank as a buffer zone, shortening Israel's borders and establishing a defensive line along the formidable mountains fronting the western edge of the Jordan Valley.

Many Israelis also fear having a nation of four million possibly hostile Palestinians right there on the doorstep, in territory strategically vital to Israel. After all, the closest Palestinians would be living within fifteen kilometers of the Mediterranean coast--and therefore even closer to Israel's main transportation links, industrial core, and population centers. What Israel fails to take into account, however, is that Palestine would be faced with many of these same problems.

MILITARY GEOGRAPHY

It is ironic that, should a Palestinian state be established, it could legitimately make the same complaints about security as does Israel. Sandwiched between Israel and Jordan, both of which are larger and certainly more powerful militarily than Palestine could hope to be, the proposed state would also have to live with the fact that, at its narrowest point, it would be just as vulnerable to being cut in half as would Israel. This observation is, however, somewhat of a moot point, since a determined enemy could cut the small state in two at just about any point. Yet it does serve to illustrate the geographical vulnerability from which Palestine would suffer.

To the west, south, and north--toward Israel--is the direction from which Palestine would most fear attack. Few defensible boundaries exist. In fact, there is little geographically to define where the frontier between the two countries begins and ends. Military forces could easily roll push on past the boundary to any strategic objective within the country. To the east, the terrain drops abruptly into the Jordan valley, making it significantly more defensible. Nevertheless, should some aggressor invade from that direction, once through this barrier Palestine has no more "strategic depth" than does Israel.

EXTERNAL THREATS

Being small and mostly land-locked has one advantage--it limits the number of potential threats coming from outside the nation. The primary perceived threat would be invasion and reoccupation by Israel. This threat might arise because of Israeli fears of a belligerent Palestinian regime developing, or of the Palestinian government being unable to keep radical Palestinian factions from making attacks against Israeli territory or citizens.

Full-scale Israeli invasion is not the only threat. Even more likely would be the same sort of punitive cross-border strikes as those practiced in the past by Israel against Jordan in retaliation for terrorist attacks against Israeli targets. Such attacks into Palestine would be politically damaging and destabilizing, since they would convey to the populace the impression that the government in power was weak, ineffective, and unable to protect its citizens. 1

Other Arab states could be as dangerous to Palestine as a provoked Israel. Jordan might well become alarmed if a radical government evolves in Palestine or is installed by a coup. Fearing the consequences if its own Palestinian population (about 60 percent of the Jordan's total) began to establish too close a rapport with the new state, the Jordanian regime might try to preempt the Palestinian threat by making the West Bank part of Jordan once more. Alternatively, a radicalized, post-Hussein Jordan might be tempted to expand its influence and economic base by occupying the West Bank and suppressing its government, at the same time becoming more confrontational toward Israel.

Of greater eventual danger to Palestine might be a more powerful and revitalized Iraq, moving westward with or without Jordanian acquiescence, through Palestine to challenge Israel. While such a scenario is at present purely hypothetical, it is within the realm of possibility, and certainly underlies some of Israel's security fears.

As the largest portion of Palestine, the West Bank usually figures most prominently in analyzing Palestinian security issues. But tiny Gaza, with no geographic obstacles at all except the Sea on the west to protect it, would be open to attack from Israel and Egypt. For the foreseeable future, of course, Egypt is a minimal threat, due to the demilitarization of the Sinai, Egypt's concern with its own internal problems, and the fact that Gaza has nothing Egypt wants. And Israel has found little of benefit in its years of administering Gaza's occupation. There are suggestions that the Israelis would be happy to be relieved of the burden, making it unlikely that they would willingly want to assume it again sometime in the future. 2

Another security issue Palestine may well have to cope with is both Jewish-originated and radical Arab terrorist or guerilla attacks. Ultra-conservative Jews may feel obliged to subvert the state of Palestine so that Israel can once again move to fulfill its "Biblical destiny." Others may resort to terrorism out of resentment for being displaced if Jewish settlements in the West Bank revert to Palestinian control. Still others might be motivated by anger or extremism to attack Palestinian institutions or individuals. Radical Arabs, distressed by Palestinian accommodation with Israel, might also attempt to disrupt and destabilize Palestinian society and government through terrorist acts or armed incursions.

INTERNAL THREATS

The problem of maintaining security against external threats would be further complicated by domestic security issues. Judging by present conditions, it would be logical to assume that some of the social and political divisions that now exist would continue among the Palestinian people. "Rejectionist" Palestinians or Islamic fundamentalists might insist fanatically on the right of the Arabs to all of historical Palestine and the elimination of Israel as a nation. These rejectionists might commit acts that would invite Israeli retaliation, or even convince Israelis that Palestine was becoming dangerously unstable, causing them to preemptively dismantle the Palestinian nation.

Even if Israel is not induced to intervene, the internal strife and disruption that could develop might feasibly tear the state apart, leading perhaps to a situation similar in substance, if not in degree, to Lebanon during its "civil war." Recent Lebanese history has shown that little can be done from the outside to keep a country from disintegrating if it seems bent on its own social immolation.

The solution to this lies partially with the Palestinian government, and partially with the Palestinian people itself. The government must decide at the outset what levels of behavior vis-a-vis Israel can be tolerated, and resolve to quash without hesitation any activity that might endanger the delicate balance of peace between the two countries. The government will have to establish a strong, professional internal security force dedicated to keeping the peace and preventing unauthorized armed confrontations within or without the national borders. 3

No government and no security force can on its own maintain order without the consent and cooperation of the population. The citizens of Palestine individually and as a whole will have to decide that good order internally and responsible behavior internationally are in their best interest and are important for the survival of Palestine as a nation. They must resolve not to aid disaffected groups aimed at stirring up trouble, and to assist the government in promoting domestic order. The extent to which these conditions are met will determine how secure and successful Palestine will be.

As will be briefly discussed below, there are indications that the majority of Palestinians, at least in the territories, might be inclined to embrace these conditions. After five years of intifada, and decades of war, struggle, and uncertainty, Palestinians are hungry for a normality that will allow them to pursue better living conditions and a future for their children. 4

PUBLIC SAFETY

To survive, Palestine will require a strong, well trained, and--most importantly--highly professional police force. There are resources available. Many Palestinians already have police and security experience. When Jordan administered the West Bank, many Palestinians worked in the police force. Later--at least until they resigned as an act of protest well into the intifada--Palestinians served as police in the territories. Afterwards, additional experience was gained when local communities often organized to assume many policing responsibilities. 5 Further, since skills learned in military training are in many cases useful in civilian security, the PLO's military organization could provide to the public safety sector experienced personnel requiring only moderate retraining.

During the peace talks, suggestions have surfaced that part of the transition involve establishment of a Palestinian police force in the territories. Though there is much opposition to the idea by conservative Israelis, there is merit to the notion, and if the talks are successful, such a force will inevitably be established. 6 It will be important that the police force be apolitical and professional, with no ambitions save to serve the duly chosen leaders of the people.

Police organizations are not the only organs of public safety that will be required. Fire companies will have to be established, border guards, immigration and customs officials recruited, and so forth. Equipment and trained personnel are what is primarily required to provide these services. Given the availability of fiscal resources, these are easy requirements to achieve. Meeting them will have the added advantage of providing employment for significant numbers of Palestinians.

MILITARY

As noted, the geographical situation alone makes the security issue problematic. The traditional solution to a lack of defensible borders--the development of a powerful military--will likely be out of the question for Palestine. Israel will almost certainly insist that Palestine be severely limited as to the size and composition of its armed forces. 7 Indeed, most plans and studies addressing creation of Palestine presume that the state will be demilitarized, having at best a paramilitary border guard, or perhaps a few light infantry units to provide government security and serve ceremonial functions. 8

Some Palestinians will likely object to such a situation. A formidable military is an important symbol of national sovereignty. It can also be an important factor in deterring aggressive military or economic moves by enemies or competitors. Not having a military can be like being the only one in Dodge City without a gun.

But there is another side to this issue. The reality is that Palestine lacks the resources to ever have a military capable of slugging it out toe-to-toe with any of its neighbors. In fact, the expense of attempting to construct such a military would drain the state's coffers and render it fiscally weak, or perhaps altogether insoluble.

Not having to fund an expensive military establishment can give a country a significant advantage in world economic competition, as demonstrated by Japan. Though Japan has a military, it is so small in proportion to the country's gross national product as to be insignificant. Japan is able to channel the money that otherwise would be spent on defense into other, more productive areas. And Japan has the added advantages of being a physically isolated island nation with the United States as its primary protector. Costa Rica is another example of a nation that does well without the expense of a military. In Costa Rica's case, of course, the nation has few natural enemies. Palestine does not enjoy either circumstance--it has both possible enemies and weak borders. Its only prospective defenses lie in prominent support from the international community and potential security partnerships.

SECURITY PARTNERSHIPS

Security partnerships at first seem an unlikely solution to Palestine's security dilemma. Israel would never tolerate Palestine allying itself with more powerful Arab states--the perceived threat to Israel would be simply too great. Conversely, a formal alliance with Israel would be politically very difficult, perhaps even dangerous, and would likely hamper Palestine's relationships with other Moslem nations.

It may prove possible for Palestine, however, to establish security relationships with other external entities--the United States, perhaps, or one or several of the European powers. Much as a parent might serve as a co-signer and provide collateral for a student's loan, a nation performing such a function would serve more as a security "guarantor" than an actual military ally. This arrangement would be less than ideal, since in event of a threat not only would reaction time from a far-away security partner be delayed and diminished by distance, but agreements requiring the guarantor to actually become militarily involved are less likely to be immediately honored. Additionally, Palestine would have little to offer in return. Nevertheless, such an arrangement would be a far better than nothing at all; and in today's world a guarantor can often accomplish the same goal as a security partner or ally, particularly if the guaranteeing nation commands respect and credibility in the international arena.

But there is another aspect to this issue that helps mitigate Palestine's external security problem--the probability of a tacit, unacknowledged security partnership developing between Israel and Palestine. The truth of the matter is that, for security purposes, they need each other.

To feel secure, Israel needs strategic depth, while Palestine needs a strong military power to neutralize significant external threats. Just because Palestine becomes a state doesn't mean that Israel necessarily surrenders strategic depth. Indeed, Palestine can serve as an adequate buffer zone for the state of Israel. Any Arab force attacking from the east would have to pass through Palestine first. The Palestinians would be unlikely to attempt to resist such an incursion, but it is highly unlikely that they would invite or facilitate it, either.

Even if the express purpose of an invasion were to destroy Israel, Palestine would likely not welcome it, since (1) there would be no guarantee that once in, the invading army would ever leave (which in the case of Iraq would be a real worry), and (2) because of the consequences if Israel ended up victorious in the end--a possibility that could never be discounted.

It is also in Israel's best interest to guarantee the sovereignty of the Palestinian state. Should Palestine ever be occupied by a hostile power, its value as a buffer zone not only disappears, but it becomes a major security liability. In a sense, a symbiotic security relation could develop between the two nations--Palestine never doing anything to threaten Israeli security, and Israel meanwhile tacitly protecting Palestine from external threats.

Given the modern early-warning capabilities available to Israel, either in its own inventory or arranged as part of the peace settlement, there is little likelihood that any significant force could even get within striking distance of the Palestinian border. Once detected, Israel certainly has the capability to interdict any likely military assault mounted by a regional power. It is quite likely that Palestine would silently welcome Israel's protective umbrella. Several proposals for the establishment of Palestine include possible stipulations allowing Israel access through Palestine territory to meet military threats to either Palestine or Israel. Such provisions would greatly enhance Israel's capability to respond in a timely and effective manner. Always in the backs of Palestinian minds, of course, is that beyond whatever protection a long-distance security relationship might afford, there will be nothing to protect Palestine from Israel. 9 But then, that is no different from how things already are in the occupied territories.

Though we can hope it will not be so forever, for the foreseeable future a Palestinian state would exist in a tense environment, both internally and externally. From the very outset, therefore, Palestine would be hostage to the good will and trustworthiness of its neighbors. Unfortunately, one of the greatest obstacles to Palestine's becoming a state in the first place, and maintaining its autonomy once statehood is achieved, is the security concerns of the Israelis.

However, most of Israel's fears are unfounded. For one, Palestine will never be a serious threat to Israeli existence. Four million people, even equipped with small arms, would be no match for the Israeli military. The possibility of Palestine breaking a disarmament agreement and smuggling in heavy weapons like tanks, artillery, or high performance aircraft is nonexistent. Not only does modern reconnaissance technology make it inevitable that Israel would detect the importation of even a few such weapons, but there is no place for Palestine to train military units on them--an essential process for anyone who expects to successfully challenge the battle-hardened Israeli army. 10

There is also evidence that most Palestinians are willing to acknowledge Israel's right to exist. 11 One survey reported that a majority of the Gazans interviewed not only recognized Israel's right to exist, but had resigned themselves to the fact that they would not be able to return to their homes inside Israel. None of them spoke of "reclaiming" all of historical Palestine. 12

Further, dramatic recent changes in the world make unlikely even the possibility of a massive conventional attack from larger, more powerful Arab states in support of a radicalized Palestinian. Even if led by an extremist regime, Egypt is in no position to engage Israel. If an Egyptian attack were attempted, Israel would have extensive warning, since Egypt would have to marshal its forces in unmistakable and open movements, and then would have the entire Sinai to cross, alerting in the process the trip-wire peace-keeping contingents and early-warning sites. Finally, the Egyptian military is no longer as effective a fighting force vis-a-vis Israel as it was in 1973. It has received newer but still mostly obsolescent equipment from the United States, but still relies primarily on antiquated Soviet-era weapons for most of its combat capability.

Syria is a more convincing threat since it has a more credible military and has never completely disengaged from its confrontation with Israel. Nonetheless, it could not successfully attack Israel on its own. It is outmatched and outclassed by Israeli combat power, and no longer has access to Soviet support in event things went badly. With the demise of the Soviet Union, Syria has lost most of its access to reliable and affordable sources of updated equipment and training. And over the Golan heights issue, even Syria is making motions towards negotiating with Israel.

Iraq is the only other significant danger to Israel. In the aftermath of Desert Storm, Iraq has neither the weapons nor the logistics to launch a successful attack against Israel. Presuming, however, that it eventually has such resources, such an attack would still almost certainly fail. Not only would forces massing on the Iraq-Jordanian border be immediately and painfully obvious, but the long, exposed march necessary to cross Jordan would make easy targets of the invading units.

Ultimately, Palestine is no real threat to Israel even if the Israelis have yet to recognize it, and could even be a security asset. Israel would no longer need to maintain an occupation force in the territories, with the increasingly higher costs and penalties in mobilization resources, military morale, domestic discord, and loss of international public image. One of the major burrs under the saddle of Middle East peace will have gone away as well. If the Palestinians have their own state, the whole Palestinian issue--long a major flashpoint for the Israeli-Arab conflict--will be defuzed, or at least dampened significantly. Though they will continue to need to maintain military readiness and vigilance, the Israelis will nevertheless still be able to reduce defense expenditures, providing welcome relief for their hard-pressed economy.

ASSESSMENT

Military Geography

2 on a scale of 10

Relatively long vulnerable borders on three sides, slightly more defensible terrain to the east. Some internal terrain suited to defense.

External Threats

5 on a scale of 10

Potential enemies all around, but to some extent they balance each other out, though primary defense would be world opinion.

Internal Threats

5 on a scale of 10

Given history of political division, some potential for internal strife. Indications are that majority of Palestinians want stability and calm; once state is established, there will be pressure not to upset the status quo.

Public Safety

7 on a scale of 10

A body of individuals trained in police duties exists, along with a history of experience in police and public safety.

Military

5 on a scale of 10

Palestine will necessarily be demilitarized; this is negative for defense, but positive economically and for internal security.

Security Partnerships

7 on a scale of 10

Not only would Palestine likely enjoy considerable diplomatic and some degree of security support from the world community, but a mutual, tacit security relationship will likely develop with Israel.

2 + 5 + 5 + 7 + 5 + 7 = 31 6 =
5.2 on a scale of 10


NOTES

  1. Lesch, 93.
  2. Jerome M. Segal, "Try This in Gaza: A 'Trial' Palestine," Washington Post, 23 May 1993, sec. C4.
  3. Jerome M. Segal, "A Foreign Policy for the State of Palestine," The Journal of Palestine Studies, 18, no. 2 (Winter 1989): 25-26.
  4. Hoffman, 7 December 1992, A28.
  5. Peretz, 1990, 90.
  6. Clyde Haberman, "A Hawkish Shadow in Israel's Political Wings," The New York Times International, 6 May 1993, sec. A11.
  7. Heller, 137-140.
  8. Segal, 1989, 22-24; Lesch, 94.
  9. Lesch,
  10. Emile Sahliyeh, "Palestinian Security Fears," in Security Perspectives and Policies: Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and the Palestinians, ed. Steven R. Dorr and LT Neyesa M. Slater, (Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence College, May 1991), 37-38.
  11. Peretz, 22-24.
  12. Sara Roy, "Changing Political Attitudes Among Gaza Refugees," The Journal of Palestine Studies, 19, no. 1 (Autumn 1989): 79-80.


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