Building law and order in the West Bank
An EU police mission aims to develop a civil police force in Palestine
Palestinian riot police officers scuffle with protesters during a demonstration in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty
The blocks are hurled at the police, bounce off their shields and fall to the ground. The young Palestinian men keep advancing towards the police, but one by one they get isolated, surrounded by officers using the shields in a way so as to not injure them. They are then handcuffed on the ground and arrested.
This is not an example of civil disturbance in a region used to conflict but a drill staged in Ramallah in the West Bank with fake rioters showing how the Palestinian special police force is being trained to use international standards of minimum force when dealing with violence.
Many of the new methods come via an EU police mission, set up in 2006 at an annual cost of just under €10 million, which helps train Palestinian police and advises the Palestinian institutions on the rule of law.
“Previously rioters might have been shot, but now they are using incremental force to deal with these situations,” says Belfast-born Kenneth Deane, who has headed up the EU mission since July 2012.
Co-operation with Israel
Diplomats on the ground say the mission has achieved progress, even enabling pioneering co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian forces, including workshops for officers from both forces on traffic, arson and drugs. Last week a workshop was held on the culturally sensitive area of domestic violence and juvenile justice, with the EU mission again acting as a go-between.
“Slowly the co-operation is extending,” says Deane. “It is difficult for them to meet together but when you get someone else here it allows these people to do business.”
In a country ravaged by conflict, the wider political context gets in the way of policing on the ground. The threat of Israeli incursions into Palestinian-held territory undermines the role of the local police.
Nothing is more difficult for the police, however, than the consequences of the 1993 Oslo peace talks, which divided the West Bank into three zones: one controlled by the Palestinians; one by both the Palestinians and Israelis; and a larger area controlled by the Israelis.
“Criminals are very good at using these divisions to hide. This is destroying efforts by the Palestinian civilian police,” says Maj Gen Hazem Atallah, head of the Palestinian civil police.
The force is also hampered by the refusal by Israel at times to allow entry for weapons and equipment.
The lack of a functioning parliament means reform cannot be carried out on the laws governing justice. These include laws from the Ottoman empire, the period under British control after 1917, military orders and presidential decrees.
“Each has its own spirit and velocity. We need to bring in a uniform law,” says Palestinian justice minister Ali Muhanna.
The fledgling police force is not without its detractors. It has been accused of heavy-handed tactics at recent demonstrations. In July Human Rights Watch demanded an investigation after reports of protesters being beaten at a demonstration against the resumption of peace talks.
Some accuse it – and the EU mission by extension – of helping the Israeli occupation by keeping Palestinians in line, and there is little doubt that Israel benefits from the presence of a well-trained police presence. But Palestinian officials say they are simply preparing for when Palestine becomes a fully functioning state. “Peace is not only for Palestine but for Israel and the whole region,” says Palestinian interior minister Said Abu-Ali.
The looming question is whether the current round of peace talks – kick-started in July by the US and scheduled to last only nine months – will achieve that independent state.
Many on the ground are pessimistic, arguing Israel has nothing to gain by doing any kind of a deal. Security checkpoints, a huge barrier and military invasions have brought “peace” to the region.
But the consequences of failed talks could be devastating, not least for the Palestinian attempts to police their territory. “If the peace process fails we are going to face a big problem. All the efforts will collapse,” warns Muhanna.
This risk of another failed round of peace talks is a key motivation behind controversial new EU rules stating that funding will not be given to Israeli research projects in the occupied territories. A potential follow- up to this is a ban on EU companies from getting involved in building illegal settlements.
While the thinking behind the new rules is to put financial pressure on Israel to negotiate, the bloc is also keen to get some return for its citizens after decades of pumping money and human resources into resolving the conflict.
“Europe is looking more closely at where its money is going. It needs to see some progress on the peace process,” says one diplomat.
The last thing Brussels wants to see is money it has spent on tangible efforts such as training and support to the Palestinian police wasted. High hopes are therefore being pinned on the talks. “The EU’s view is that there should be a two-state solution and security is an important part of that,” says Deane.