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The Palestinian Security Forces:
Capabilities and Effects on
the Arab-Israeli Military Balance

Gal Luft
Policy Paper No. 131, 2001


Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, under the guise of an innocent police force, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has created a military organization with noteworthy fighting capabilities which could pose a significant military challenge to Israel in the event of a full-scale military confrontation. The army of the PA is presently a complex, multifaceted apparatus consisting of at least a dozen different branches with overlapping responsibilities. The proliferation of security apparatuses was a manifestation of Yasser Arafatís style of leadership during the peace process period, but with the outbreak of the second intifada, the PA has confronted many problems in the application of military force due to the cumbersome nature of its security apparatus.

The intifada has also created a false perception in Israel and the world about the PAís real military capabilities, since the forefront units of the Palestinian military, the National Security Forces have, so far, been excluded from the fighting. These units, the most capable part of the PAís military apparatus, should be counted on to confront Israel if the conflict escalates.

This paper examines the milestones in the buildup of the Palestinian armed forces, their structure and organization, weapons, capabilities and tactics. It describes the peculiar nature of the relations between Arafat and his lieutenants and the complex relations between the Palestinian security services and the plethora of paramilitary forces that have emerged during the second intifada such as Tanzim, the Popular Resistance Committees and the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has met the Palestinian security services in battle in at least three major rounds of violence since 1994. In all of these engagements, the PAís security services, despite their rudimentary image, proved that they have sufficient capacity to become one of Israelís most challenging adversaries. What remains unclear is what would be their role in the context of a wider regional conflict between Israel and an Arab coalition. The paper concludes that in such an event, the presence of a Palestinian army west of the Jordan River would change the existing Arab-Israeli military balance and introduce new operational as well as psychological challenges which deserve serious care.

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