One of the most important challenges for the new president of the Palestinian Authority who will emerge from Sunday's election will be to curb widespread corruption and ineffectiveness plaguing the Palestinian security and justice systems. The task will be difficult but vital to the creation of a viable and democratic Palestinian entity.
The death of Yassir Arafat and the election of a new president have created an opportunity for badly needed reform of the Palestinian Authority. The World Bank in its governance indicators ranks the Authority in the bottom 16 per cent of governments around the world in its ability to control corruption and halfway down the scale in terms of effective rule of law.
An opinion poll regularly conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent body, shows the percentage of Palestinians who believe there is significant corruption in Palestinian Authority institutions jumped from about 50 per cent in 1996 to more than 85 per cent last year. This explains the frenzied demonstrations by Palestinian crowds against corruption in the authority last year.
The first step after Sunday's election to create a better security and justice system for Palestinians is to restructure their “Balkanised” security services. There a re roughly nine Palestinian security services in the West Bank and Gaza each. They range from civil police to the General Intelligence service, or Mukhabarat Salamah. Arafat retained power and control over these services with few checks and balances. They were organised under the rule of political leaders rather than the rule of law. The restructuring should include decreasing the number of services, eliminating direct executive control over them and separating law- enforcement functions from intelligence and other security aspects by placing them in different ministries.
The second needed step is to ensure that the Palestinian Authority has a viable, independent administration of justice. The elements that underpin the rule of law — such as prisons, courts, the legal sector and security services — should be regarded as linked and interdependent.
Most democratic countries exert some combination of executive and legislative oversight over internal security forces, and the judicial branch holds these forces accountable if they break laws or violate constitutional protections of individual rights. Given the problems with executive control in Palestinian areas, a model of strong legislative and judicial oversight is appropriate. This model is particularly necessary for the police. Structural reform and financial assistance will be required to develop two major elements of democratic policing — responsiveness and accountability — now missing from Palestinian policing. Responsiveness is required so the police can take their cues from the public rather than the state or an individual. Accountability, meanwhile, would come from acceptance by the police of outside authority and supervision. Viable courts, legislatures, local governments and a complaint process allowing people to register grievances against the police are all forms of accountability.
Restructuring the justice system should include several objectives. One is encouraging capital investment in Palestinian court buildings, university law departments, detention facilities and prisons. A second is providing necessary equipment such as legal texts and computers. Yet another is unifying the myriad laws in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and creating an integrated body of laws.
The US, Europe and neighbouring states such as Jordan have provided assistance to the Palestinian security and justice systems over the past decade. The CIA has trained members of the Palestinian security services since the 1990s, when Frank Anderson, the agency's Middle East operations chief, resurrected US contacts with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
The difference now, however, is that Arafat's death has created the opportunity to reform structures and systems. The term “police state” is synonymous with dictatorships. In democracies, police are servants of the people, not the other way around. Elected government and independent judiciaries act to protect individual rights and ensure that law-enforcement agencies themselves obey the law. The Palestinian Authority now has the opportunity to embrace democratic values and lay the foundation for an independent state that does at least that.
Seth Jones is an associate political scientist at the Rand Corporation and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on January 6, 2005.