EU police mission complicit in Israeli, PA rights abuses

Palestinian police officers attend an EU police training course organized in the West Bank city of Qalqiliya, October 2009. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

A bizarre public relations exercise is now underway in the West Bank. Doubtlessly inspired by the enduring popularity of TV drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the European Union has been trying to glamorize a forensic science course it has been running for Palestinian police since mid-September. As well as being tutored on fingerprinting techniques and the use of chemicals following a murder or armed robbery, officers completing the six-week program will be given CSI vans of their own, “updates” promoting the course tell us.

It is not difficult to see why EU officials are eager to obtain favorable publicity for their police support “mission,” headquartered in Ramallah. For all of its five-year life, the mission has been something of a poor relation to the other major international policing initiative in the occupied West Bank: that run by United States security coordinator US Army Lieutenant General Keith Dayton (replaced by US Air Force General Michael Moeller earlier this month). At a time when the EU’s 27 governments are nominally striving to make a greater collective impact on the world stage, it is logical that they should be highlighting foreign policy work that at first glance appears laudable.

The reality is far from glamorous. Rather than helping to nurture institutions that could prove essential in a future Palestinian state, both the EU and US are acting as proxies for the Israeli occupation. Moreover, they are acquiescent in human rights abuses perpetrated by Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces against the Palestinian people.

Contrary to the impression frequently created by news stories, the PA does not have a police force that can justifiably be viewed as independent of Israel. Under the Oslo accords from the 1990s, the PA was given full responsibility for security in a region dubbed “Area A.” This comprises six West Bank cities — Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Tulkarem and Bethlehem — and part of Hebron. In Area B — other towns and villages, where 68 percent of Palestinian inhabitants in the West Bank lived — the authority was tasked with maintaining public order but Israel was allowed “overriding” responsibility for security. Then in Area C — 62 percent of the West Bank, including Jewish-only settlements and other areas deemed of “strategic importance” to Israel — total control over security remained in Israeli hands. Moreover, under the Oslo accords, the PA police forces only have jurisdiction over the Palestinian population, not over territory; they have no powers to arrest, or intervene with Israeli settlers or other Israeli citizens even when they are present in areas ostensibly under PA control.

For the Palestinians, it has proven impossible to operate a police service that could comply with international norms. Regular incursions by Israeli troops throughout the West Bank has meant that patrols by Palestinian officers cannot be undertaken in any city, apart from Ramallah, between midnight and six o’clock in the morning.

The response from the EU mission (its proper name is the Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support or COPPS) to Israel’s everyday acts of aggression and intimidation has been timid, to say the least. The strongest words that Hendrik Malmquist, the Swedish officer heading the mission, has used on the record to criticize the Israeli incursions is to call them a “public embarrassment” for the Palestinian Authority.

Maybe his nonchalance is best explained by how COPPS is part of what Israeli human rights campaigner Jeff Halper calls the “matrix of control” imposed by Israel on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Visiting Brussels in May, Malmquist said that Israel is “happy we are there in order to contribute to better security in the [occupied] territories.” Probably the main reason for Israeli satisfaction with his work is that his eighty-strong staff has been assisting the forces of occupation to strengthen their grip over most aspects of Palestinian life.

When I contacted EU officials in Ramallah recently, they sought to downplay the significance of their role in fostering cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces. The officials pointed, for example, to how they have organized joint Israeli-Palestinian training seminars on apparently uncontroversial issues such as traffic management. “We are not in the political game,” one official insisted.

A document published by the Israeli foreign ministry in April however indicates that the cooperation goes deeper. Titled “Measures Taken by Israel in Support of Developing the Palestinian Economy,” it says that COPPS has played a “central role” in encouraging and implementing “capacity-building” in the West Bank. The purpose of this “capacity-building,” the paper makes clear to anyone who reads between its lines, is to stress that the Palestinian Authority forces are subservient to Israel. Last year, the ministry gloats, was a record one for “coordinated actions” between Israeli and PA security forces, with almost 1,300 taking place, a 72 percent rise over 2008.

In its monthly newsletters, COPPS promotes the training offered by its human rights specialist Diane Halley to Palestinian police. This propaganda cannot be allowed to mask how the EU has enabled a situation to develop where gross abuses occur within a culture of impunity. Whereas COPPS’s original mandate allowed it to support police in both the West Bank and Gaza, the European Union’s refusal to engage with the de facto Hamas administration in Gaza has meant that it has been encouraging disunity among Palestinians.

Worse again, the EU has connived in the creation of what an alliance of Palestinian human rights groups recently called “a police state” within the occupied territories. While these groups — including the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Al-Haq and the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counselling — stress that most violations committed by the Palestinian Authority are a “direct result” of tensions between Fatah and Hamas, the EU has been largely silent about the abuses.

During a press briefing in May, Malmquist stated that COPPS wishes to “export core European Union values” such as respect for fundamental rights. A few minutes later, Palestinian police spokesman Yossef Ozreil insisted that there is “no more torture” by his colleagues against political rivals.

Malmquist did not contradict this assurance, yet evidence amassed by the Arab Organization for Human Rights suggests that Ozreil was dishonest. Mohammed Jamil, a spokesman for the organization, said that there is an average of seven arrests in the West Bank each day, with between 700 and 800 rounded up in the Hebron area last month after Hamas gunmen killed four Israeli settlers. Torture of detainees is widespread, he added. Methods found to have been used include tying people to the ceiling and suspending them, aping crucifixions by tying people to doors with their arms and legs outstretched and beatings by sticks. One man was tortured by having a boiled egg placed on his backside, Jamil told me. “They [the security forces] made jokes about him — that he was like a chicken giving birth to eggs.”

On paper, the main distinction between COPPS and the US security coordinator in the West Bank is that the former interacts with the Palestinian Authority civil police and the latter with the more militarized National Security Force. In practice, there is extensive overlap between the two international operations; Dayton has said that one of his objectives was to eliminate any duplication of efforts between aid donors to the Palestinian Authority. As well as employing several British members of staff in his team, Dayton enjoyed close contacts with the two Britons who headed COPPS before Malmquist took up his post in January this year: Colin Smith and Paul Kernaghan.

The extent to which Dayton may have advised forces loyal to Fatah to resort to brutal means in attacking Hamas supporters has not yet been revealed. One thing that is clear, however, is Dayton’s understanding that his job was to underscore the Palestinian Authority’s subordination to Israel. “We don’t provide anything to the Palestinians unless it has been thoroughly coordinated with the state of Israel and they agree to it,” he has said.

Daud Abdullah, director of Middle East Monitor, a research institute in London, says it is inconceivable that Dayton was unaware of the abuses conducted by Palestinian security forces. “There has been no let-up in abuses as far as we know,” Abdullah added. “The fact that money is still flowing and [international] officials are still on the ground makes them culpable for what is happening.”

COPPS has a budget of nearly 7 million euros ($9.7 million) for this year. This sum appears small on its own. Yet it cannot be separated from the wider support that the EU gives to the Palestinian Authority, which amounts to 947 million euros since 2008.

Europe’s representatives rarely miss an opportunity to trumpet their generosity to the Palestinians. Although donors are undoubtedly financing the provision of many essential services in the occupied territories, tough questions need to be asked about a great deal of this aid and how it is being tailored to serve Israel’s interests. Few taxpayers would be pleased to know that their hard-earned euros are subsidizing an illegal occupation and the systematic human rights abuses that go with it.

David Cronin’s book Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation, to be published on 20 November, can be pre-ordered from