The Lawless West Bank: The Next Powder Keg?

The breakdown of the rule of law in the occupied West Bank threatens to unleash a new wave of violen

The Israeli soldiers guarding the Kiryat Arba settlement are demob happy. "Its our last day so lets talk freely", the senior officer says. "Our tactics are not working, security and co-ordination is weak and the violence is getting worse."

Kiryat Arba sits on the edge of Hebron, the West Bank's southernmost city. On August 31 it became the crime scene for one of this year's most brutal terror attacks, when four settlers, including a pregnant woman, were shot to death in their car.

Their killers have as yet evaded justice, in large part down to geography. The murders took place in Area C, which since the 1993 Oslo accords has been controlled by the Israeli military (IDF). C areas account for 60% of the total West Bank and the army have been unable or unwilling to provide security for them. Palestinian police require special dispensation to operate here. It has been a recipe for disaster; drug-dealers, car thieves and armed gangs are taking advantage of the luxurious freedom afforded by the absence of a recognised police force.

Jari Kinnunen, lead police adviser for EUPOL COPPS, the European Union's special agency for assisting the Palestinian police, is a worried man. "We fear that C areas will become safe havens for criminals because these havens already exist. Without police there is a vacuum and vacuums are being filled by criminals."

In H2, the C area of Hebron city, Palestinian residents claim they have no protection from the IDF. "They are not interested in Palestinian problems, they see crimes and don't care," says Zadem Al-Jabiri, patriarch of one of Hebron's oldest and most powerful families. He describes gun battles in the streets, watched passively by Israeli soldiers. 40% of H2's Palestinian residents have relocated since Oslo.

Former soldiers stationed in Hebron have themselves given testimonies describing their orders as 'protect the settlers'. Such a policy violates the fourth Geneva Convention, which stipulates an occupying power must provide security for the occupied population, but in Hebron justice comes from closer to home.

The security vacuum has elevated the importance of families like the Al-Jabiris, who have been based in the city for 600 years. Feuding clans, victims of crime or anyone with a grievance can come to Zadem, who plays the role of judge. "If there is violence between families I ask for an Atwa (ceasefire), and if someone is injured the other family must pay their hospital costs. If the injury is so bad the person is handicapped the one who caused the injury must stay off the streets for many years."

Traditional family values do not reflect modern law. In the case of pre-marital sex Al-Jabiri maintains that a father has the right to kill his daughter's lover, which happens "all the time". 'Honour crimes' beget harsh penalties - even insults deemed to be unbearable can carry a death sentence. Neither do his adjudications guarantee an end to family feuds. A war between the Rayf and Rajabi families has claimed 10 lives over the past five years, the most recent victim, Rayfat Al-Ajloony was killed in January, shot in the head in a busy street.

Palestinian security forces, have a severely limited role in these cases. Occasionally they investigate a criminal after the families are done with him, or take someone implicated in an honour crime into protective custody, but they know their place. Al-Jabari is tired of his responsibilities and wishes the police could take over. "I want the Palestinian Authority (PA) to have the power. Criminals are stronger and braver now, the PA would give rights to everybody."

The IDF do co-ordinate with the Palestinian Civil Police (PCP) on a case-by-case basis but criminals benefit from gaps between them. If the Palestinian police want to pursue a suspect in Area C they must send a request to the Israeli District Command Office (DCO), who process and pass it to the IDF. It is a time consuming system, hamstrung by language issues and poor management. In some cases answers never arrive.

The PCP feel they are often deliberately prevented from pursuing criminals. It is a running joke that thieves who steal a car in A areas need only get across the line to be safe, while the police go through hours of negotiation and beaurocracy. If the IDF are conducting an operation at the same time, the risk of two armed forces entering the same area practically ensure that the criminal will escape. The PCP also complain that Israeli informants are given protection against the law.

Since 2007, Palestinian security have been authorised to operate in H2 under the guise of municipality inspectors. While the measure has given them more of a presence, it is with severe limitations. Inspectors have the same duties as policemen but must perform them without police uniforms or any weapons, including sticks. "It is impossible to catch dangerous criminals like this", says Inspector Amar Abu Suneineh, "I cannot even protect myself".

The Area Captain, who refused to give his name, feels their attempts to establish authority in the city are being deliberately undermined. "This year the IDF closed our offices for six weeks and would not allow half of our new recruits to begin work because of security reasons. Sometimes they slap and insult our policeman in front of the people, so that we look very weak to them." He feels the best they can do is surveillance, so that when a criminal enters an A area, they can provide information leading to his arrest.

The Israelis say they are looking at ways to give Palestinians more security responsibilities for Area C and there are some signs of progress. This year the PCP were able to open a police station in a C area near Tulkarem. Joint seminars are regularly held to encourage better co-ordination in fields like forensics and car crime, but progress has been painfully slow.

There is little doubt that PA forces today are capable of policing the entire West Bank effectively. When they were given control of Nablus in 2007, a city notorious for kidnappings and violence swiftly became safe enough that today it is a popular destination for tourists and hosts the national stock exchange. The PA have emphatically fulfilled their obligations under the 2003 road map to prevent terrorism in the areas they control, spending a third of the national budget on security. Two decades of training and funding from elite US and European security agencies has given them one of the most modern, best-resourced forces in the middle-east. "They should be in charge", says Jari Kinnunen, "there is no reason why not. They have more than enough training and manpower to police the whole country."

The consequences of allowing C Areas to remain effectively lawless could quickly become more severe. With the end of the moratorium, settlements are expanding and encroaching on Palestinian communities. Tensions are escalating and in the areas where tribal law reigns supreme and weapons are widely available, incitement against Israelis is gaining new traction. Many feel the next uprising is a case of when rather than if.

The Kiryat Arba killings should have been a wake-up call that Israeli security in C areas is not working. By neglecting the Palestinian areas and handicapping their police forces, they have given security only to the outlaws. Beyond their moral and legal obligation to provide security for the occupied population, the threat has now expanded toward the settlers. The Palestinian police are ready and able to restore order in powder keg areas like H2. Israel must show the foresight to allow them.

Kieron Monks is a freelance reporter and editor of Palestine Monitor.