The US is touting Monday's visit by CIA director George Tenet as an effort to reach out and help Palestinians put their jumbled security forces back in order.
But some Palestinian advocates of reform see the visit as more evidence that the Bush administration is focused much more on security as defined by Israelis than democracy as defined by Palestinians.
Mr. Tenet's security-related visit comes after a trip this weekend by William Burns, the assistant secretary of state. Though Mr. Burns's mandate is to focus on diplomacy and PA institution-building, he did not, according to US diplomats, take a public stand on the central demand of the Palestinian reformers: elections to give new legitimacy to the legislative council elected more than six years ago.
"Bush is beginning with the security services to safeguard Israel security," says Ziad Abu Amr, chair of the politics committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "The US motives and targets for reform are different than ours. We are very skeptical about Bush's intentions, we think the administration is seeing eye to eye with [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's idea of reform, restructuring the PA in a way receptive to Israel's political and security needs."
Israel, for its part, has been defining reform as meaning the neutralization of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "With Arafat there can be no reforms, and if there are any, they will not be credible or acceptable to us," Mr. Sharon was quoted as telling Burns.
Mr. Abu Amr says Palestinian reformers have three central goals: forcing Arafat to join in establishing the rule of law, obtaining a separation of powers, and ensuring that the Palestinian cabinet is accountable to the Palestinian legislative council.
"Elections [are] the ultimate form of reform, but this does not mean the process of reform should be frozen until elections are held," he says. Changing the security forces, he says, should come only as part of that broader context.
Should Arafat not respond to the demands for reform, or carry out security reforms simply to please the United States and Israel, "he will lose a great deal," Abu Amr says.
Forces may be consolidated
Arafat will discuss with Tenet a plan that would cut the number of security forces from about a dozen to four, according to a recent report in al-Quds newspaper. The four would be: internal security, external security, police, and national security. There is also talk of appointing Mohammed Dahlan, the Gaza security chief, as a type of overseer of the four forces. He would be supervised by Arafat.
The idea of making changes under American pressure is not popular with some of Mr. Arafat's supporters. "The problem with all of this American and Israeli talk about reform is that even if we were able to come up with the biggest genius to lead the security apparatus, who would be able to control the very breathing of the people and to prevent even birds from crossing into Israel, would this last without Palestinian independence and freedom?" asks Mohammed Madani, governor of Bethlehem, seated beneath a huge poster of Yasser Arafat. "It will only lead to more terror in the long run," he says.
Capt. Mohammed Sayfi, chief of the naval police in Bethlehem, which since the fighting started in Sept. 2000 also guards checkpoints and presidential sites, says that the security forces need to be reformed in the interest of the Palestinians themselves. Sometimes they pull in opposite directions and act not as institutions but as personal fiefdoms, he says.
"But to reform, we need international protection so that we know we will not be harmed by the Israeli army," he says in his drab office behind a junkyard. At present, he says, security forces sometimes do not even staff their positions out of fear they will be killed by raiding Israeli troops.
Sipping coffee in civilian clothes, Captain Sayfi explained his uniform and those of his men had been seized by the Israeli army during the occupation of Bethlehem in April, along with their television set. "Without Israel's cooperation, reform won't work," he says. Israeli troops will have to withdraw in a fashion that enables police districts to communicate with one another and be under one central authority. "They should not be cantons ruled by warlords." he adds.
But Sayfi says that ultimately economics will hold the key to halting suicide attacks. "Usually, a person who is well fed, who is doing fine, won't kill himself," he says. "Most of the bombers in our area come from the refugee camps, where the economic conditions are the harshest."
The Israeli view the security forces themselves, starting with Arafat, as the foremost cause of violence. "The first reform is that they should not be involved in terror, that has to come to an end," says Dore Gold, an adviser to Mr. Sharon. He says he doubts this could be accomplished during Mr. Arafat's tenure.
Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, wrote recently in the Bitterlemons newsletter that he edits: "Palestinians have not forgotten the previous decades of occupation in which the Israeli government tried to impose an alternative, collaborative leadership against the will of the Palestinian public. The means of judging demands for reform, whether they emanate from Washington or Tel Aviv or come from Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza, is how they incorporate the Palestinian demand for comprehensive and free elections."