MIDDLE EAST: Reorganizing the Palestinian Security Forces

MIDDLE EAST: Reorganizing the Palestinian Security Forces

Last updated October 4, 2005 8:00 am (EST)

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What is the status of Palestinian security service reform?

The top priority for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is consolidating the Palestinian Security Services, and bringing their many and disparate elements under his control. He has struggled to accomplish this, fighting entrenched resistance on his own side and facing Israeli accusations that he is not doing enough. Abbas has taken several steps—including firing top security chiefs, imposing an age limit on service, forcing some 1,000 ineffective members of the security forces to retire, sealing some tunnels used to smuggle arms from Egypt, and shutting down Palestinian facilities that manufactured mortars—but critics say the steps are too few and ineffective. In April, Abbas and his then-interior minister, Nasser Yusuf, demanded detailed lists of all security force members, both active and inactive, and streamlined communications and the chain of command.

How are the Palestinian security forces organized?

Poorly, if at all. Before Abbas’ recent reforms, the Palestinian security forces consisted of twelve divisions employing some 40,000 people. Abbas’ April order consolidated these into three general branches: National Security, Interior, and Intelligence. Each branch includes several of the former divisions. Because the reorganization is ongoing, experts say it is difficult to determine precisely which of the previously existing divisions fall into each of the new branches. A rough breakdown follows:

National Security:

  • National Security Forces. This is the closest thing the PA has to an army. Its duties include patrolling the borders of areas under Palestinian control, guarding checkpoints, and providing manpower for joint patrols with Israel. Experts say the NSF is effectively a heavily armed police force that deals with both crime and national security. It is made up of a mix of leftover forces from the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA) and local recruits from the Palestinian territories. It has about 15,000 members.
  • Coast Guard. Based in Gaza , the PA’s only seacoast, the Coast Guard has about 1,000 officers and is intended to prevent arms and drug smuggling from Egypt . Its entire fleet consists of five motorboats equipped with machine guns. Most of the Coast Guard officers are members of Fatah and trained with its overseas naval unit in Yemen, experts say. They have also received special commando training.
  • Air Guard or Aerial Police. A small group that operates the PA’s five helicopters, which transport dignitaries between Gaza and the West Bank. It grew out of Force 14, the aerial unit of Fatah.


  • Civil Police. Also called the Blue Police (the color of its uniforms), this lightly armed force of about 10,000 officers conducts day-to-day policing: arresting criminals, controlling traffic, and keeping order. It includes a special 700-man rapid deployment unit trained to deal with complex situations like riots or counterterrorism operations.
  • Civil Defense. This group includes emergency rescue and fire department services. In times of calm, it teaches first aid and rescue training to civilians.
  • County Guard or Governorate Security. A small force that provides security for county governors and their offices and helps resolve local disputes.
  • Preventive Security Force (PSF). The PA’s largest intelligence service, it has 5,000 plainclothes members in separate units in the West Bank and Gaza . The PSF is responsible for counterterrorism, monitoring opposition groups, and conducting reconnaissance and intelligence operations in Israel . Both branches of the PSF have been accused of human-rights violations for abducting and torturing suspects. The PSF and its sister agency, the Mukhabarat, alternately compete and work together on intelligence cases. The PSF was formerly commanded by Jibreel Rajoub in the West Bank and Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza . Both men are well-known leaders of the first intifada, which began in 1987. Rajoub is now national security adviser to the PA, and Dahlan is the civil-affairs minister in Abbas’ government.
  • Presidential Security. Arafat’s former personal-security force, a highly trained group of some 3,000 officers, now guards Abbas. Most of these men were members of Force 17, an armed unit whose duties included guarding VIPs and securing important locations. It has two divisions: an intelligence unit that gathers information about domestic opposition and threats, and the Presidential Guard, which had been Arafat’s most trusted inner circle.


  • General Intelligence. Also known as the Mukhabarat, this is the official PA intelligence agency. Its 3,000 officers gather intelligence both inside and outside the territories. It also performs counterespionage and is the Palestinian liaison with other countries’ spy agencies. Many Mukhabarat agents work in plainclothes; experts say this allowed Yasir Arafat to hide the true number of security personnel in the PA without openly violating quotas set by international accords.
  • Military Intelligence. A smaller intelligence agency known as the Istikhbarat, this group deals mostly with the arrest and interrogation of opposition activists considered a threat to the PA regime. The PA under Arafat, experts say, constantly monitored groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad in an attempt to control their popularity and diminish the political threat they posed to Fatah. The Istikhbarat also investigates illegal actions by other PA intelligence and security agencies.
  • Military Police. A division of Military Intelligence, this body specializes in riot control, arrests, guarding VIPs, prison maintenance, and keeping order among the security bodies. Experts say it’s not entirely clear whether this division will ultimately be considered an interior ministry or intelligence force.

What is the history of the security services?

The forces, including intelligence units, grew out of the military wing of the PLO and militias that served as Arafat’s bodyguards during the decades he was in exile. The PLO was founded in 1964, and the PLA was established a year later. PLA forces, including a small air force and navy, trained with sympathetic Arab militaries. The 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace deal known as the Oslo Accords and subsequent pacts, including the 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement, known as the Cairo agreement, officially established the General Security Services (GSS), the umbrella organization for the various units.

Why were there so many branches?

They were a legacy of Arafat. The late PA president deliberately set up a labyrinthine system to pit the security units against each other, ensure the military would never grow strong enough to depose him, and make himself the sole official in control of the various forces. The Palestinian security forces continue to be a haphazard collection of units with varying levels of armament, says Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, a Washington-based nonprofit organization focusing on energy security, and author of Palestinian Security Forces: Between Police and Army.

Who was in charge of the many branches?

Most were headed by Arafat’s former loyalists, many of whom ran their branches as personal fiefs during Arafat’s 1994-2004 presidency. The forces were often used to facilitate criminal enterprises such as levying illegal fees for border crossings, taking a cut of cross-border trade, and collecting taxes for their personal use, according to a January 2005 paper, Evaluating Palestinian Reform, by Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What is the counterterrorism record of the Palestinian security forces?

Generally very poor, most experts agree. The security forces have been unable or unwilling to prevent terror attacks against Israel , despite many promises from Palestinian leaders that the violence would stop. Israeli security officials have a low opinion of the Palestinian forces, with whom they work on joint patrols and security issues. Some of the Palestinian commanders are so incompetent they “can’t move a soldier from here to there,” says Michael Herzog, a brigadier general in the Israeli Defense Forces and visiting military fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Will Abbas be able to successfully reorganize the security forces?

It’s a difficult job, but and experts say Abbas have struggled. “[Reform] is a test of Abbas’ leadership,” Luft says. Abbas has introduced bank deposits of police salaries; Arafat paid his officers in cash and used money to win loyalty and stoke rivalries. But critical shortages of arms and equipment have sapped police morale; angry officers stormed Gaza’s parliament October 3 to protest the killing of a police chief by Hamas, and demand more ammunition and weapons with which to fight militants. World leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S.Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have repeatedly pledged their support for Abbas’ reforms.

What is their anti-crime record?

Also poor, experts say. While Israeli and American leaders focus on the ability of the Palestinian security forces to prevent attacks on Israel , Brown says that for most Palestinians, the priorities of security-service reform should be ensuring law and order and fighting corruption in local government. Both these goals are difficult to achieve because most members of the security forces are poorly trained and got their positions due to political connections. Corruption and crime among the forces are also key problems. Many Palestinians worry that their security services are “a series of competing protection rackets,” Brown wrote in his report.

What level of training have the Palestinian security forces had?

It varies widely. Former members of the PLA have military training; other members have police training; others’ experience is limited to their participation in the two intifadas protesting Israeli control over the Gaza and the West Bank. (The first intifada lasted from 1987-93; the second began in 2000.) There is no centralized training program for the security forces; each branch recruits and trains its own members.

Can members of various militias join the security services?

Yes. In April, Abbas stated that he intends to bring members of armed militias—including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and Hezbollah—into the security forces, pay them salaries, and ensure their livelihood provided they forswear terrorism. Many of these young fighters, experts say, feel ignored and unrewarded for their suffering during the two intifadas. Abbas hopes that giving them steady paychecks will deter them from further attacks against Israel.

Is there public support for anti-corruption measures?

Experts say yes. “In the past, the forces were so corrupt and intimidating that the public wants to see them go,” Luft says. Many experts, including Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, say Palestinians are tired of the intifada, see few gains from the four years of violence, and are willing to try something new. “There are very high public expectations on Abbas” to tackle corruption and effectively reform the security services, Herzog says. “But Abbas has been in office for eight months, and he’s done very little. The pace of reform is very, very slow.”

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