Recent violence in the holy city finds roots in Israel’s policy of ‘collective punishment’, critics say.
Abu Dis, occupied West Bank – For the first time in more than a decade, the Palestinian Authority has been allowed to deploy police forces in Palestinian villages in areas controlled by Israel.
Years under occupation and a lack of proper law enforcement have transformed these once-thriving suburbs of Jerusalem into hubs for car thieves and drug and weapons dealers. Many residents are happy to see the police officers, even if their presence, so far, has been mainly symbolic.
On a recent afternoon, the sound of a police whistle in the centre of the Palestinian village of Abu Dis made people in the streets stop and turn, and store owners came out from their shops to see where the unusual sound came from. They were met with an unfamiliar sight: uniformed and armed Palestinian police officers directing the hectic midday traffic.
“Police are a good thing,” 34-year-old Ashraf Mohtasseb told Al Jazeera while surveying the situation from his falafel shop. “We need security; there is no security in this area. Thieves go into people’s houses at night to steal, drugs are rampant – even among boys as young as 15 – and most of the cars are illegal. People are scared. We just want to feel safe.”
Located only a few kilometres from Jerusalem, Abu Dis was cut in half by the separation barrier built by Israel beginning in 2002. Those on the West Bank side of the wall are cut off from their jobs and livelihoods in Jerusalem. As unemployment has risen, so has the crime rate. Though Israel has annexed the area into its Jerusalem Municipality, residents complain that Israel does not provide any public services, including policing. And because this section of Abu Dis is located in Area C of the West Bank, Palestinian police are not allowed access.
We can arrest them, prepare their files with their offences, and hand them over. But then the rest is up to Israel - there is nothing more we can do.
The second Oslo Agreement divided the occupied West Bank into three administrative zones, and gave Israel full administrative and security control of Area C, which makes up 60 percent of the occupied territory. The Palestinian Authority, including Palestinian police, has no jurisdiction in these areas and must obtain approval from Israel to operate.
“We have had no systematic deployment in Abu Dis since the early 2000s. That means there have been no uniformed and armed police officers in the streets,” Major Loay Irziqat from the Palestinian Police Directorate of Bethlehem told Al Jazeera at a makeshift police station in Abu Dis. He explained that officers used to work in civilian clothes, risking jail if the Israeli military caught them. “If we wanted to arrest anyone, we would need to coordinate with the Israelis to get a permission for maybe three to four hours to conduct the arrest. That is not an efficient way of doing policing.”
According to Irziqat, the lack of police made Abu Dis a centre for drugs and a hiding place for fugitives. “Criminals and thugs found a safe haven here. It has been a ‘no man’s land’ with no law and order,” he said.
In addition to Abu Dis, the Palestinian Authority has also been allowed to deploy police in other crime-ridden Jerusalem suburbs, including Aizaria, Ar-Ram and Bidu. Abdallah Abdallah, the chairman of the political committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, is pleased that Palestinian police will have easier access to these areas. Still, he is critical of the motives behind the sudden Israeli move.
“We don’t give too much importance to this step – it is likely used to beautify the Israeli occupation on the international scene by showing that they are easing the restrictions and control of Palestinian life,” he said, explaining that Israel has also recently allowed Palestinians above the age of 65 to enter Israel without a permit and for Palestinian doctors to enter Israel in their private cars for work purposes.
Abdallah believes these moves are related to the recent elections in Israel, which were a victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who controversially said during the election campaign that “there will no Palestinian state on [his] watch” – a stance that contradicts long-standing European and US policies favouring a two-state solution.
“Israel is seeing increased criticism and isolation, and they want to try to ease the pressure from the international community,” Abdallah said. “We believe they will take more similar steps. But in the end, occupation is occupation.”
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the office of the Israeli army’s spokesperson declined to specify the reasons behind the change in policy or its timing. The office said the move had been recently coordinated and was intended only “to maintain public order”.
Many, also ordinary people, sell drugs or are involved in illegal businesses because of the high unemployment level.
“As part of the ongoing security coordination between the [Israeli army] and Palestinian security forces, measures are being taken on the ground in order to maintain public order, as was the case here,” the statement read.
In Abu Dis, Irziqat said he assumed the motives behind the policy change were political, but did not elaborate. He emphasised that a main priority for the police forces will be to crack down on local drug rings and start rounding up wanted suspects.
So far, though, no arrests have been made. Irziqat explained that police officers first want to gain the trust of the community.
As people in Abu Dis looked at the unfamiliar sight of officers in dark-blue Palestinian uniforms and berets directing traffic, most expressed great satisfaction – though some dreaded a backlash from gangs and criminal groups who fear that the police presence will ruin their businesses.
“Many, also ordinary people, sell drugs or are involved in illegal businesses because of the high unemployment level,” said Ayman Psese, a 44-year-old janitor. “Some are organising meetings and asking that the Palestinian Authority come up with alternatives if they want them to abandon the illegal jobs.”
Many Abu Dis residents have Israeli IDs, so despite the fact that Palestinian police will now be allowed to operate, much will still depend on Israel.
“We can arrest them, prepare their files with their offences, and hand them over,” explained Irziqat. “But then the rest is up to Israel – there is nothing more we can do.”