Security

Security

Security is fundamental to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until security for both Israelis and Palestinians is addressed and demonstrated, leaders will not have the political capital required to resolve the other core issues of the conflict. Moreover, in a regional dynamic of shared interests and common threats, the security of Israelis and Palestinians can affect the entire Middle East, and vice-versa.

Introduction to security

QUESTION

Can an agreement satisfy Israel’s security requirements and Palestinian demands for a viable, contiguous and sovereign state?

President Bill Clinton Parameters map (2000)

ISRAELI PERSPECTIVE

In its early years, Israel confronted conventional ground invasions from neighboring Arab states, as well as Palestinian fedayeen militia who rejected Israel’s right to exist and threatened to “drive the Jews into the sea.” Israelis were encircled by enemies, and felt exposed by the country’s limited territory, especially at its “narrow waist” in the country’s center, north of Tel Aviv.

Israel’s ”narrow waste”, Koret Communications (BICOM)

Threats to Israeli population centers (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs)

Left: Israel’s ”narrow waste”, Koret Communications (BICOM)

Right: Threats to Israeli population centers (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs)

Since then, a number of factors have all but eliminated the threat of invasion and conventional military attacks: Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) (guaranteed by the U.S.), land buffers in the West Bank and Golan Heights, peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 (and those countries’ alliances with the U.S.), and Iraq’s military defeat and its diminished capability to threaten its neighbors.

Defense systems and threats

Bombed Israeli bus (Wikimedia Commons)

Left: Defense systems and threats

Right: Bombed Israeli bus (Wikimedia Commons)

In the 21st century, conventional threats to Israel have largely been replaced by asymmetrical ones, including aerial attacks — rockets, short-range missiles, and aircraft, including drones. Israelis are threatened in the south by rocket fire from terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, and in the north, by Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in Lebanon and Syria, many backed by Iran. Technological advancements have also put Israel within striking distances of medium and long-range ballistic missiles, with Iran posing the most serious threat. To confront these threats, Israel and the United States have jointly developed cutting-edge missile defense systems: Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow 3.

An Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system, right, and an American Patriot missile defense system during a joint U.S.-Israeli military exercise (Jack Guez/AFP, 2018)

Another asymmetrical threat is terrorism, not a new phenomenon for Israelis, but one that increased dramatically in the mid-1990s, and again during the second Intifada (2000-2005), when Israelis faced waves of mass-casualty suicide bombings. Although these have been largely eliminated since 2005, the threat of smaller-scale “lone-wolf” Palestinian attacks has increased. The impact of these individual attacks is still significant across Israeli society.

There is also a risk of terrorist infiltration into Israel through tunnels and from the sea. Terrorism can be fueled by ongoing regional instability, and supported by other violent extremist groups and regional powers that threaten Israel, like Iran.

Despite all of Israel’s advantages in the security realm, Israelis still feel vulnerable, all the more so given the instability across the Middle East brought about by the turbulent Arab Spring. Therefore, many are hesitant to accept a Palestinian state next door.

From an Israeli perspective, a peace agreement must not diminish Israel’s ability to protect itself, by itself — and ideally should strengthen Israel’s capabilities and the population’s sense of security.

A picture of a destroyed Palestinian Islamic Jihad tunnel, leading from Gaza into Israel, near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Kissufim (Jack Guez/AFP/Pool, 2018)

PALESTINIAN PERSPECTIVE

Though security is often framed as an Israeli concern, a future state of Palestine would be affected by many of the same threats, and would have a shared interest in countering them. However, many Palestinians have become convinced that Israeli security comes at their expense. In the West Bank and Jerusalem, Palestinians perceive that they are often subjected to wrongful arrests, and at times, violence, by Israeli forces. In addition, many Palestinians fear Israeli settlers and numerous instances of settler violence and vigilantism against innocent Palestinians have occurred.

Palestinians lined up at an Israeli checkpoint (Shutterstock)

Israeli soldiers check Palestinian cars at a checkpoint near the West Bank (Reuters, 2015)

Left: Palestinians lined up at an Israeli checkpoint (Shutterstock)

Right: Israeli soldiers check Palestinian cars at a checkpoint near the West Bank (Reuters, 2015)

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians fall victim to air and drone strikes aimed at terror groups. In light of the Israeli and Egyptian closures and restrictions, Gazans also feel a particularly acute sense of isolation and insecurity. In the West Bank, Palestinians feel their dignity and livelihoods are damaged by security checkpoints, military zones and the security barrier and feel helpless against Israeli authorities and settlers.

Having experienced the peace process drag on indefinitely, Palestinians seek a rapid Israeli disentanglement from their daily lives. Thus, from a Palestinian perspective, accommodating Israeli security in a peace agreement must meet Palestinian security needs and not compromise a genuine sense of Palestinian sovereignty and statehood.

Weighing Israeli security vs Palestinian sovereignty

ASSESSING THE STATUS QUO

One perspective of Israeli security is the strategy of “territorial strategic depth.” Victory in the 1967 War gave Israel full control of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai providing a territorial buffer against conventional attacks from neighbor states.

From 1967 until 1993, the Israeli military oversaw the administration of Palestinian life in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem and built a security apparatus to safeguard Israelis and the new settlements established in the territories. These measures included roadblocks, checkpoints and intervention into Palestinian villages which diminished the Palestinians’ sense of security.

In 1993, the Oslo Accords created a framework for limited Palestinian governance under a new Palestinian Authority (PA). This was intended to be temporary, with final-status talks to follow. To combat terrorism and other threats, the Accords established Israeli-Palestinian intelligence sharing and security coordination, and since then, PA forces have maintained internal security over most Palestinian cities. Still, Israeli forces continue some limited operations into Palestinian population centers, which the Palestinians call “incursions.”

Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces enter the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Kafr Aqab (Twitter, 2021)

Oslo Accords Map (1993)

Left: Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces enter the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Kafr Aqab (Twitter, 2021)

Right: Oslo Accords Map (1993)

This overall arrangement is assisted by an international security training mission led by the United States. With support from Congress, this mission acts as a liaison to security chiefs on all sides, and conducts professional training programs for Palestinians.

The Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three areas:

Area A (18%): PA civil and security control in Palestinian cities;
Area B (22%): PA civil control and Israeli security control; and
Area C (60%): Israeli control over remaining Palestinian areas, as well as settlements, major roads, national parks, military zones, and the border with Jordan.

Israel hands Jericho over to Palestinian security forces (1993)

Most Palestinians reject the territorial approach to security because they feel that Israel’s presence in the West Bank threatens their own security and inhibits the establishment of a viable, contiguous, and sovereign Palestinian state.

Many Israelis continue to support the territorial approach, arguing that it gives Israel maximum flexibility to combat terrorism, guard the Jordanian border, and provide security for settlements. They contend that Israel’s borders without most of the West Bank would be “indefensible”.

However, some of the fiercest arguments against the territorial approach come from Israel’s security establishment. Defense experts note that Israel won two wars in 1949 and 1967 without a West Bank land buffer, and since then, Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) has increased, and the strategic advantages of holding territory have decreased. Experts argue that control of the West Bank harms counterterror efforts more than it helps — fueling Palestinian hostility, and undermining the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian moderates. In the long-run, this delicate balance could prove unsustainable, forcing Israel to retake financial and security responsibility for West Bank Palestinians.

Moreover, Israel’s control of the West Bank complicates its relations with its Western allies and is used as an excuse by extremists around the world to incite hostility against Israel.

Israeli forces in the West Bank (Reuters)

Lastly, many Israeli defense experts argue that in addition to the security costs of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank, there is an even greater cost from its civilian presence, the expanding Israeli settlement enterprise. One major study by Molad—the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy—concluded that settlements, especially the many outposts deep in the West Bank, stretch out the military’s lines of defense, requiring a disproportionate investment in settlement protection. Although settlers make up only five percent of Israel’s population, nearly half of Israeli forces are tasked with their defense.

HELPFUL REALITIES

In a major concession to Israel, Palestinian President Abbas has publicly agreed to a “non-militarized” Palestinian state. The new state could maintain internal security through a police force trained and equipped by the U.S., without possessing an army, navy or air force that could pose a potential threat to Israel.

Abbas has also agreed to restrictions on military alliances with countries or groups hostile to Israel, and on allowing outside armed forces to secure a foothold in a future Palestinian state.

Security proposal by the Center for New American Security (CNAS)

Perhaps most importantly, making progress on the Palestinian issue could transform Israel’s regional security position by further warming relations with its Arab neighbor states. Through the Arab Peace Initiative, all 22 members of the Arab League, and 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, have committed to normalizing relations with Israel following an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Regional normalization could cement the growing security ties between Israel and the Gulf states, and present many new opportunities, including joint missile-defense, intelligence sharing, joint military training and operations, and cooperation against Iran, Islamic extremism and other common threats.

The Abraham Accords signing ceremony (Alex Brandon/AP, 2020)

El Al flight departs from the UAE (El Al spokesperson’s office, 2020)

Left: The Abraham Accords signing ceremony (Alex Brandon/AP, 2020)

Right: El Al flight departs from the UAE (El Al spokesperson’s office, 2020)

To be sure, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the principal driver of instability in the Middle East. That said, progress towards its resolution would likely weaken extremists, strengthen moderates throughout the region, and advance U.S. strategic interests as well.

Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, .and King Mohammed VI of Morocco (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO, 2020)

CHALLENGES

How quickly would Israeli troops withdraw from the West Bank?

In past negotiations, Palestinians have stressed that Israeli withdrawal should have a set timeframe, and they have argued for a transition of no more than two to five years.

Israel insists on a lengthier transition, perhaps lasting decades, dependent on Palestinian security effectiveness. PM Netanyahu has promoted the idea of an indefinite presence in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere in the West Bank.

The West Bank settlement of Ganim in 2005, the land where Ganim once stood in (Emil Salman/Getty, 2017)

How would Israel counter threats within the West Bank in an emergency?

Israel demands the right of unilateral intervention, should the security situation warrant it.

The Palestinians have opposed an open-ended allowance for such contingencies, which they consider to be an incursion on their sovereignty.

Israeli security forces at the entrance to the village of Qabatiya in Jenin (Haytham Shtayeh/FLASH90, 2016)

What would prevent invasion or infiltration from the Palestinian border with Jordan?

The Palestinians have opposed a long-term Israeli force, seeing it as undermining Palestinian sovereignty. However, they have been open to a multinational force in the Jordan Valley.

Israel has little confidence in the effectiveness of a multinational force, and insists on maintaining its own long-term presence in the Jordan Valley.

The Allenby Bridge border crossing between Jordan and Israel (Shay Levy/FLASH90, 2020)

Who would guard Palestinian coastline and airspace?

Israel has pushed for control of both to prevent infiltration by terrorists or hostile forces. The Palestinians have strongly disagreed.

Palestinians prepare incendiary balloons near the city of Jabalia in the Gaza Strip (Hassan Jedi/FLASH90, 2019)

NARROWING THE CONFLICT

Instead of the territorial approach, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have explored how a multi-layered security approach could better address the Israeli need for security and the Palestinian need for sovereignty.

The Washington-based, bipartisan Center for New American Security (CNAS) published a 2016 report titled, “Security System for a Two-State Solution,” based on still classified efforts of the 2013- 2014 U.S.-led initiative under the command of Gen. John Allen. This multi-layered approach provided the following security details:

How quickly would Israeli troops withdraw from the West Bank?

A phased process over 10 – 15 years, based on performance benchmarks for the Palestinian forces. Disputes would be resolved by a task force of Americans, Israelis and Palestinians.

How would Israel counter threats within the West Bank in an emergency?

Intelligence cooperation between Israel, the Palestinians, the U.S., Jordan, and Egypt would identify threats and coordinate a response from the Palestinian counter-terror force, with the option of Israeli counter-terror and air support. Suspects would be detained and prosecuted by a joint Israeli-Palestinian counter-terror mechanism.

If Israeli and Palestinian officials disagree on the proper response, a side agreement with the U.S. would guarantee American support for Israeli unilateral intervention under certain criteria.

What would prevent invasion or infiltration from the Palestinian border with Jordan?

Initially, Israelis would control the border, but with a less visible presence. Later, a U.S.-led multinational force could guard the border, bolstered by Palestinian security forces with Israeli remote monitoring and early warning stations and sensors in the West Bank. A limited, independent Israeli force could also be possible.

Who would guard Palestinian coastline and airspace?

Palestinians would have airspace sovereignty up to 10,000 feet in altitude, so that Israel could defend both states from aerial attacks without interfering with Palestinian aviation.

In the Mediterranean, the Palestinians could have a seaport —potentially on a man-made island several miles from the mainland — overseen by Palestinian and multinational forces, with coordination with Israel. Security would be augmented by a “sea fence” and an outer layer of Israeli security.

Visual representation of the CNAS security plan

Visual representation of the CNAS security plan

Left: Visual representation of the CNAS security plan

Right: Visual representation of the CNAS security plan

Additionally, pursuant to a negotiated agreement, Israel could continue to exercise a number of options for protecting itself, by itself. Israel would still have its elite security apparatus operating at full capacity — including military, intelligence agencies, and police forces. Israel’s security barrier has been effective in helping to prevent terrorist infiltration but remains unfinished. Israel could complete the barrier to defend its new internationally-recognized borders. Anti-tunneling technology would also enable Israel to prevent infiltration. On the Gaza and Lebanese borders, Israel has already constructed miles of an underground wall to detect and destroy tunnels.

Diagram of a tunnel aimed toward the Israeli village of Ein HaShlosha discovered and intercepted by Israeli forces (RAND, 2013)

What the Parties Gain from an Agreement

Both Parties

  1. Expanded security cooperation with upgraded internal and border security systems
  2. Enhanced regional political and security cooperation
  3. Long term U.S. and international aid and commitments
  4. End or reduction of the conflict and claims

Israel

  1. Right to defend itself, by itself, with U.S. support
  2. Gradual redeployment based on Palestinian performance
  3. Permanent West Bank security presence, through early-warning stations, remote monitoring and potential limited force in Jordan Valley
  4. IDF redeployed from outlying settlements to focus on national defense

Palestinians

  1. Recognition of Palestinian statehood and sovereignty
  2. Reduction of Israeli intrusions into Palestinian life
  3. Clear timetable for Israeli withdrawal
  4. Multiparty mechanism for resolving disputes to ensure adherence to timeline