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date: 13 June 2024

The Palestinian Military: Two Militaries, Not Onefree

The Palestinian Military: Two Militaries, Not Onefree

  • Hillel FrischHillel FrischDepartment of Political Science, Bar-Ilan University


The considerable variation in the way national security agencies are structured is a function of two basic factors: the state’s political and social heterogeneity and the possibility of allying with a strong external state, usually the United States. The problem, however, with fragmenting the military and security forces to achieve “coup-proofing” is that a tradeoff exists between fragmentation and assuring internal security on the one hand, and ensuring offensive capabilities to ward off external enemies, on the other. According to this model, centralized homogenous entities enjoying U.S. protection will tend to fragment their security systems most. States that duplicate their security forces least are plural societies that cannot command U.S. interest and commitment to meet their external security threats. The Palestinian Authority (PA) under Yasser Arafat was emblematic of political entities that were homogenous and enjoyed the protection of the United States and Israel, and it could therefore fragment its security forces into 12 or more security agencies compared to Eritrea, which achieved independence a year before the establishment of the PA, and maintained a very unified security apparatus to meet the threat of a vastly larger enemy—Ethiopia.

As long as Israel (and the United States and its allies) supported the PA, Arafat made do with a fragmented inefficient security structure that was nevertheless efficient enough, with Israeli security backing, to meet the major external threat—Hamas and the Jihad al-Islami in both the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and Gaza. Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza in December 2003 and to complete its withdrawal from Gaza by September 2005 forced the fragmented PA to face these enemies alone, leading to the loss of Gaza to Hamas. By contrast, in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria, the more fragmented PA security structure prevailed as a result of considerable security cooperation with Israel. Hamas, bereft of a close external ally, challenges a superior Israeli military and therefore has a unified security structure much like Eritrea in the 1990s.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • Groups and Identities
  • World Politics

Why Some Security Forces Are Unified and Others Fragmented

An article published in 2002 argued that the considerable variation in the way national security agencies are structured in Third World states is a function of two basic factors: the state’s political and social heterogeneity and the possibility of allying with a strong external state, usually the United States (Frisch, 2002). Authoritarian one-party and centralizing states prevailing over relatively homogeneous societies tend to fragment their security forces more than states that cultivate social or political pluralism as a form of “coup-proofing.”

Fragmenting the internal security forces and the army to assure internal security reduces offensive capabilities to ward off centralizing neighbors, thus becoming prey to their expansionary goals. Coup-proofing states, such as the Middle East monarchies, faced with the dilemma between being prey to the internal opposition or prey to outside forces find the solution, if available, in deepening domestic fragmentation and, to protect their external flank, cultivating the protection of a strong foreign ally—preferably the United States and its allies.

This basic model leads to four basic types of security structures in the Third World: centralized homogeneous states enjoying U.S. protection will tend to fragment or bifurcate their security systems most, followed by homogeneous states in regions without strong external alliances (see Figure 1, Quadrant II). The third group are those states that enjoy the U.S. umbrella that can allow themselves the luxury of fragmented security forces but do not have a pressing domestic need to fragment the security forces because of pluralizing policies and a heterogeneous society (Quadrant III). States that duplicate their security forces least are plural societies that cannot command U.S. interest and commitment to meet their external security threats (Quadrant IV). This is because society is already divided and such a state needs centralized armed forces to cope with a stronger hostile state.

Figure 1. Relationship between saliency to foreign power interests and heterogeneity and the proliferation of security forces in Third World states.

The aim of this article is to demonstrate the robustness of this basic model in dynamic terms, that is to say, in explaining over time what happened to the security structures among the Palestinians in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria (WB/JS). The basic argument is as follows: As long as Israel (and the United States and its allies) supported the Palestinian Authority (PA), Arafat made do with a fragmented inefficient security structure that was nevertheless efficient enough, with Israeli security backing, to meet the major external threat—Hamas and the Jihad al-Islami in both the WB/JS and Gaza. Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza in December 2003 and to complete its withdrawal from Gaza by September 2005 forced the fragmented PA to face these enemies alone, leading to the loss of Gaza to Hamas.

By contrast, in the WB/JS, Israeli-PA security cooperation under Mahmud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, deepened to contain the Hamas threat leading to a reality where the Palestinians, divided into two rival entities, produced two militaries, the PA’s that continues to be fragmented though less so than under Arafat, and Hamas, which does not enjoy the support of a close powerful ally and therefore is characterized by a unified security structure.

Chronological order forms the guiding principle behind the structure of the article and its division into four parts. The first part deals with the evolution and development of the Palestinian security structure during the Oslo process from 1993 to the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. How the second intifada and decreasing Israeli commitment to Arafat in Gaza impacted on the internal array of forces, particularly in Gaza, is analyzed in the second part. Part three is devoted to events leading to the PA’s downfall of Gaza, with part four analyzing the emergence of the two militaries in the WB/JS and Gaza, respectively. In all, there is reference and testing of the robustness of the model already introduced.

The Security Forces Under the Palestinian Authority

Three distinguishing aspects characterized the emergence of the PA in the summer of 1994 in most of Gaza and in Jericho in the WB/JS and its expansion to the major towns and their environs after the September accords, widely known as the Oslo II agreements in September 1996. The first was the prominence of militarism—the arrival of the diaspora Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership was characterized by photos and newsreels of convoy after convoy of 1,500 armed troops described as policemen in the interim agreement of May 1994. PLO insistence on staging displays of liberation seemed to have had its effect. A Norwegian diplomat who had arrived in Gaza with one of them compared what he saw to the liberation day in May 1945 after the end of German occupation (Lia, 2006, p. 242). Israel’s decision to withdraw its troops unexpectedly under the cover of night, particularly from problematic areas such as the Jabaliyya refugee camp, in order to avoid firefights with the militias, reinforced the impression of “liberation.”

The second was the waving of banners featuring one man alone, Yasser Arafat, dressed perennially in military uniform and bedecked with a kafiyyah (that symbolized that the struggle for national liberation was hardly over), and the third was the rapid proliferation of security agencies within the PA in an area smaller than Long Island.

The uniformity of the troops, mostly members of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), suggested that Arafat, despite operating in a highly dispersed and diverse diaspora, had succeeded in maintaining a relatively unified armed force. The uniform banners suggested not only that the forces were relatively uniform, but that he commanded their loyalty as well. Indeed, for the next 11 years until his death in November 2004, the troops from the diaspora, known as the “outside,” to distinguish them from the local Fatah fighters responsible for the prolongation of the intifada that broke out in November 1987, remained loyal to their leader.

Arafat was not only the indisputable master of his security forces, by 1995 he was in control of a state apparatus in anything but name. Economically, the PA emerged as the dominant force in the territories. In 1995 it had a budget of $440 million, approximately one-third of the GNP of the area it controlled at the time. It was the largest employer in Gaza and the source of most new jobs as the state bureaucracy and security apparatus rapidly expanded. The international aid regime originally set up to aid the Palestinians had conceived of a much smaller Authority (Garg & El-Khouri, 1994, pp. 7–9). The number of salaried civil employees grew in the course of 10 months from 20,000 to 27,000 and security personnel from 6,000 to 17,000.

Yet neither formal organizational charts of the PA nor numerical indicators of its imposing presence in society could hide the PA’s neopatrimonial nature. Like many autocrats in the Arab world and elsewhere, Arafat created multiple agencies to perform similar tasks and did not delegate specific powers to institutions. His management style regarding the security structure reflected it best, as he quickly adopted a “securitate” model, highly developed in autocracies in which the special forces were far better equipped and more mobile than conventional forces, so that what they lacked in numbers, they made up in quality (Picard, 1988, pp. 155–157).

The PA’s Initial Security Structure: An Anatomy

Arafat’s attempt to balance between “the outside,” the PLO and PLA, and the “inside,” composed of Fatah activists from within the Territories, offers a key to understanding both the anatomy and proliferation of the PA’s security forces between the establishment of the PA in 1994 and the outbreak of the intensive round of violence 6 years later. Basic geographical and political facts, the physical separation between the West Bank and Gaza, and the failure to reach an agreement over the free passage between the two entities during the negotiations facilitated division both between and within agencies.

These factors played an especially important role in the evolution of the two largest security agencies, the National Security Forces (NSF) and the Preventive Security (PS). The 12,000 or so returnees, mostly PLA veterans, constituted the overwhelming majority of the NSF, the PA’s unofficial army (Usher, 1996, p. 23). Aging PLA veterans who entered into Gaza and the West Bank in 1994 stood at the apex of its command structure: Nasr Yusuf as overall commander of all Palestinian forces, ‘Abd al-Razzak al-Majaideh as commander of the NSF’s Gaza units, and Ziyad al-Atrash as representative to the Liaison Security Committee between the Palestinian security forces and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In general, the officers and the soldiers were considerably older than those who both led and had participated in the Palestinian intifada. This resulted in a loss of credibility, which subsequent local recruitment partially corrected.

Despite these differences, NSF personnel received more formal training than other forces, with a minimum of 3 months basic training. The NSF wore brown or camouflaged uniforms and bore semiautomatic weapons, mostly Soviet-made AK-47s. The battalion also included heavier weapons, including 30 BRDM-2 Russian-made armored personnel carriers (Luft, 2001, p. 12). The NSF were clearly symbols of quasi-sovereignty as they manned outposts along the perimeters of areas “A” in which the PA enjoyed de facto exclusive civilian and military jurisdiction. Israel, despite the formal right of hot pursuit specified in both the Cairo and Taba Accords, refrained from entering areas “A” well after the outbreak of hostilities in 2000. At the same time, the NSF compromised their standing by participating in the joint patrols with Israel border guard units with the outbreak of hostilities in October 2000 (Luft, 2001, p. 12). The NSF was reported to have consisted of an estimated 14,000–16,500 troops in 2000 (Lia, 2006, p. 317; Luft, 1998, pp. 2–3). The NSF was the major Palestinian force in the weeklong firefights that broke out between the Palestinians and the IDF over the opening of the Hasmoneon tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City, although other forces, such as Force-17, participated as well (Rodan, 1996).

To balance against PLA stalwarts like Yusuf and al-Majaideh and their troops, Arafat promoted “inside” leaders Jibril Rajoub and Muhammad Dahlan to head PS in the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. Rajoub, who came from a large family in the Hebron district, spent a total of 16 years in Israeli prisons. Dahlan, 10 years his junior, was arrested 11 times by the Israeli security forces since he founded the Fatah Shabiba (youth) movement and headed its student bloc in the Muslim Brotherhood–dominated Islamic University in the early 1980s. Israel deported both in 1988, after they founded the United National Command in the West Bank and Gaza that coordinated violence against Israeli rule during the first intifada.

Allowed to return in early 1993, Rajoub and Dahlan subsequently established two separate branches; Rajoub drew almost exclusively from Fatah militias such as the Black Panther in Judea and Samaria, and Dahlan from the Hawks in Gaza. Though exposing informers was its official mandate, the force was involved in quelling internal dissension, which often fueled tensions as well (Rodan, 1996).

Tensions between PS and the NSF as well as wider fissures between the “inside” and “outside” over the security forces emerged almost simultaneously with the establishment of the PA. In June 1994, Yusuf confirmed in a London-based newspaper that he ordered Isma’il Jabr, police commander in Jericho, to investigate Rajoub’s movements. At the same time, Rajoub’s supporters, Feisal al-Husseini, the unofficial head of Fatah in the West Bank, and Jamil al-Tarifi, a fellow Fatah politician, both from the “inside,” accused Yusuf of misappropriating funds earmarked for the soldiers (Palestinian Police Commander, 1994).

Two other security services, the Special Security Force and the 3,000-strong Presidential Guard Security (PGS) Force 17 reported directly to Yasser Arafat (Luft, 2001, p. 4). Like the NSF, they were commanded by PLA veterans. Brigadier Faysal Abu Sharakh, who had fled from Israeli pursuit to Cyprus from Beirut in 1985, and Colonel Fatahi Furyhat, Sharakh’s deputy in Jericho, headed the PGS-Force 17. Force 17 was responsible for the protection of the PLO chairman before Arafat relocated to Gaza. Sharakh was later replaced by Muhammad Damra, another former officer (Lia, 2006, p. 315). Primarily concerned with providing protection to the chairman and other senior PLO and PA officials, the PGS-Force 17 was also engaged in arresting opposition activists and suspects for collaboration with Israel (Luft, 1998, pp. 6–7). This collaboration with Israel brought the force into conflict with Rajoub’s PS, particularly in Nablus, where the PGS-Force 17 sided with the richer families and the PS with the refugee camps from which many of their members emanated (Usher, 1996, p. 29). Class differences reinforced tensions already prevailing between the “inside”-dominated PS and the NSF and Force-17 controlled by veterans from the outside.

The Special Security Force, headed by yet another PLA veteran, General Abu Yusuf al-Wahidi, supplemented PGS-Force 17. Established in January 1995, its “official” main objective was to collate information about the activities of opposition groups in foreign countries, especially Arab ones. More probably, it monitored data on the PA’s other security services as well as on illegal actions committed by PA officials.

An array of security agencies officered by “outside” Fatah members (as opposed to either PLA veterans or from Fatah in the territories), constituted a third cluster of security bodies. These included, in order of importance, General Intelligence (GI), the Military Intelligence Apparatus (MI), the Military Police, the Coast Guard, the Aerial Police, Civil Defense, and the Provincial Guard. Thus, GI was headed by Brigadier General Amin al-Hindi, head of the Mukhabbarat, who had “disappeared” after his involvement in the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. He established headquarters in Gaza. Another Fatah veteran from the “outside,” Tawfiq al-Tirawi, took over GI in the West Bank. As the official PA intelligence agency delineated in the Cairo Agreement, it was mandated with the task of intelligence gathering inside and outside the territories, counterespionage operations, and developing relations with other foreign intelligence bodies. An estimated 3,000 officers were involved in these activities in the late 1990s. Similarly, Musa Arafat, an outside Fatah veteran and relative of the PLO chairman, headed MI with headquarters in Ramallah.

Yet, even after the entire array of security forces has been listed, the list could only be considered complete in the formal sense. The Fatah militia, also known as the Hawks during the intifada and the Tanzim after 1996, played an important auxiliary role in protecting the PA, particularly in meeting the challenge posed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad (Al-Jihad al-Islamiyya [JI]). After having marginalized the Fatah inside, Arafat came to realize their importance. After PA forces shot and killed 13 demonstrators outside a Hamas-dominated mosque in Gaza on November 18, 1994, Arafat understood Fatah’s role in dealing with the Islamic opposition, not only for their ability to suppress Hamas, but also for their ability to engage Hamas by other means, stemming from shared prison experiences (Shikaki, 1996, p. 9). As a force composed exclusively of Palestinians from the territories with an estimated 35,000–50,000 members, the Tanzim was also a useful tool to counter the growing strength of the PS, only one-quarter of the members of which were actually involved in crime prevention and control.

Why relatively homogeneous states fragment their security forces and counterbalance one against the other may explain why the PA, whose exclusive jurisdiction hardly exceeded an area larger than Long Island, established 12 or 14 security forces (Luft, 1998, p. 4) while newly established Eritrea, which controlled 100 times more space (121,144 square km) and a slightly larger population, made do with a highly centralized army.

The Eritrean leaders did not have to fragment the army to defend themselves on the home front due to the country’s pluralism, characterized by at least nine language groups, religious division between Christians and Muslims, and an even sharper division between two dominant “nations,” the Coptic Tigranis, the dominant ethnic group who mainly inhabit the highlands, and the Muslim Tigres, who reside mainly in the lowlands. Nor did the Eritrean leadership have the luxury to do so. Eritrean forces were almost immediately involved in clashes against both Sudanese and Djibouti forces, and in late 1997 hostilities broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia, leading to the outbreak of a full-scale war in May 1998 (Tedessi, 1999, p. 90).

By contrast, Arafat faced a society in which at least 96% of Palestinians are Sunni Muslims. With the spread of vehicle transport, the steep rise in literacy and education, and the expansion of a more modern service economy and work opportunities in Israel, differences were reduced considerably between urban and rural inhabitants. A study reported that by 1979, only 8% of rural households depended exclusively on agriculture as a source of income (Tamari, 1981, p. 36).

Arafat could afford to duplicate and multiply his security forces at the expense of these forces’ offensive capabilities because both Israel and the PA were firmly linked to a United States–led peace process. The extent of this protection was clearly demonstrated during the incidents surrounding the opening of the Temple Mount tunnel by the Israeli authorities in September 1996. Despite incurring unusually high losses, Israel refrained from penetrating areas under sole control of the Palestinians, with the notable exception of Nablus. Israel had the military wherewithal to carry out such operations but refrained for fear of an American response. Even after low-intensity conflict broke out in October 2000, Israel refrained from entering these areas until April 2001, due to U.S. pressure (Esposito, 2005, pp. 87, 89).

Arafat’s counterbalancing tactics seemed to have paid off, as they did indeed in many Arab states. But there were problems ahead. The proliferation of security agencies encouraged illicit behavior that in the long term compromised the legitimacy of the PA in the face of an Islamist opposition, which tried on the domestic front, at least, showing a more “civic” face.

Losing Ground: The Effects of the Second Intifada on the Palestinian Security Forces

The Loss of Israeli Support

Support for the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) was replaced by hostility and confrontation with the outbreak of the second intifada at the end of September 2000 and its continuation as a result of several serious incidents in which the PASF were heavily involved.

Long before the outbreak of widespread violence, both Israel and the Palestinians realized that the small edifice in the middle of Nablus, what Jewish tradition attributed to be the Patriarch Joseph’s burial chamber, would be a very vulnerable and likely target, particularly since it housed a small group of Jewish seminary students, protected by a small force of Israeli Border Guards. Husam Khader, a Fatah leader in the nearby Balata refugee camp and member of the Legislative Council, described the site from the Palestinian perspective as “[A] piece of cake to reach out and eat it” (Harel et al., 2005, p. 30). The appetite came in the third day of the violence when Palestinians began shooting and firebombing the compound. Violence increased the following day in reaction to the killing of Palestinians in the southern part of the city. Fortunately, the hundreds of Israelis who came to pray at the site over the Jewish New Year were evacuated before the attacks began. As the violence increased, an Israeli Druze soldier, Madhat Yusuf, was badly wounded, initiating an intense round of talks with the Palestinian security services to evacuate him. Unfortunately, the rivalry between Tawfiq Tirawi, head of general intelligence in the West Bank, who sent an ambulance to attempt to evacuate the soldier, and Jibril Rajoub’s PS, backed up by the local PA’s “intervention force,” might have prevented a united front with sufficient force and resolve to overcome the attackers and save the soldier, who died that evening (The Palestinian Authority Employs, 2003).

Israeli perceptions of the PASF changed even more radically with the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah on July 12. The two reserve soldiers, who served as drivers in the local Israeli regiment in the Ramallah area, erred and found themselves on the outskirts of the city. Before the outbreak of large-scale violence, such an event would have probably ended with the soldiers being escorted to the joint Israeli-Palestinian District Coordinating Office. Instead, they were taken to al-Bireh (Ramallah’s twin city). Rumors spread that two soldiers from undercover forces were interned. Hundreds of Palestinians descended on the station, attacking the entrance and climbing the walls. Eventually, they were allowed in and the soldiers were brutally murdered. Two pictures electrified Israeli consciousness—the casting of the body of one of the soldiers out of the window and the appearance in a second story window of a man waving his bloody hands in triumph toward the crowd. Even though all this took place close to the “Muqata’a,” the headquarters of Arafat and GI, its head, Tirawi, and other officers only intervened hours after the second soldier lay dying (Harel et al., 2005, pp. 37–38).

Examples of those heading terrorist cells implicated in the killing of Israelis or suspected of collaboration included Ra’id Karmi, an officer in GI, operating out of Tulkarem; Hussein ‘Ubayyat, an officer in GI ranks from Bethlehem; and three Gaza-based cell leaders, Jihad ‘Amarin, a police officer; Samir Al-Masharawi, an officer in the PS; and Jamal Abu Judian, a colonel in Force 17. The latter three were from Gaza (Harel et al., 2005, pp. 37–38, 80–82, 97).

Over the long term, ‘Abd al-Karim Oweis was by far the most important security officer involved in terrorism. Oweis, who had been arrested in the June 2002 offensive in Nablus, was convicted of 14 counts of murder in May 2003. He was acknowledged by Palestinians as one of the founders of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB), the armed wing of the Fatah party (Prosecution, 2003). Oweis had been deported in 1992 to Jordan in the first intifada, where he met Marwan Barghuthi, the head of the AMB, himself deported 4 years earlier. Oweis had remained steadfastly loyal to him and to Barhguthi’s political ally, Husam Khader, as commander of the AMB in Nablus (Harel et al., 2005, p. 80). Barghouthi was later tried and convicted to four life imprisonments.

Terrorism’s excessive cost—in the month of March 2002 alone, 135 Israelis were killed, most of them civilians within the Green Line—led to massive offenses: Desert Shield in March and its sequel, Determined Path, in June in WB/JS. In Operation Desert Shield Israel amassed 20,000 troops, mostly reservists, the largest order of battle since the 1982 Lebanese war. The purpose of this operation was to temporarily reoccupy the cities in the West Bank, root out terrorist infrastructure within the cities, and set up semi-permanent bases just outside them from which to lead nightly raids to root out terrorism, which continue to this day.

Operation Desert Shield’s effectiveness in weakening Palestinian resistance was attested by the second campaign, Operation Determined Path. In late June all the major towns in the West Bank were reoccupied, but this time Israel met little resistance and suffered few fatalities. An example of the second operation’s relative ease, it took more than an entire brigade to enter Jenin in March–April at the cost of 23 lives and 75 wounded (Eiland, 2010, p. 26). In June, a battalion sufficed to take over Jenin and its refugee camp without casualties.

A major target in these offensives was the PASF. The first and major casualty was the multimillion-dollar security center of PS in Bitunia, which harbored major terrorists under “preventive arrest,” including Barghouthi. He was evacuated just before the attack, but other wanted terrorists were apprehended (Harel et al., 2005, pp. 242–245).

The Loss of U.S. Support—The “Karin-A” Affair

Israeli efforts to harm Arafat and PA institutions in an effort to force them to rein in Palestinian violence hardly received U.S. or European support. On the contrary, Israeli attacks were often condemned for being ineffective if not actually being at cross purposes to the objective Israel sought to achieve. This changed on January 2, 2002, after the Israeli seizure of the “Karin-A,” a ship loaded with 50 tons of weapons worth $15 million and financed by the Iranian “Export Committee of the Islamic Revolution” (Kirill, 2002). The ship was manned by security force personnel from the PA destined for the PA and the Fatah terrorist infrastructure. By that time, Iran was firmly identified with the axis of evil, itself a development linked to the mega-terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and President George W. Bush’s subsequent War on Terror. A previous boat intercepted in May 2001, also originating from Iran, belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command, a Palestinian faction hostile to Arafat and the PA, and therefore hardly implicated the PA (Kirill, 2002).

Relations between the United States and the PA, in particular between President Bush and Arafat, who previously denied to U.S. officials any relationship with Iran or international terror, declined precipitously. It is fair to say that from that point on, the United States in addition to adopting a stick and carrot approach toward the Palestinians was determined to replace Arafat as leader of the Palestinian Authority. Notably, the United States turned a blind eye to Israel’s unofficial policy of imprisoning Arafat in the Muqata’a in Ramallah after IDF forces reoccupied Ramallah for the second time in June 2002 (Rynhold, 2005).

The Military Rise of Hamas

One could hardly deny that in the course of the intifada the creation of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, created a strong Islamic opposition. Nevertheless, as the subsequent establishment of the PA proved, the nationalists still enjoyed hegemony. Any doubts on that score were dispelled in the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 1996. The massive turnout, particularly in the Gaza Strip (90%), where Arafat’s PA had governed longest, was a sharp slap in the face to both the Islamic and left-wing opposition (Tamari, 2002).

The hegemony, the PA, its Fatah militia (which quickly degenerated into militias), and the security forces enjoyed over Hamas dissolved. Israeli punitive measures against the PA for its involvement in terrorism weakened the PA, while Hamas gained support from playing a lead role in fighting Israel. For the first time in the history of the resurgence of the Palestinian movement in the 1960s, Hamas took the lead over Fatah in acts of violence, principally suicide bombings, and the toll such violence imposed on the Israeli enemy. According to the Israeli General Security Services, Hamas was responsible for 40% of the 142 suicide acts between September 2000 and March 2005, compared to 27% for the al-Jihad al-Islami and only 23% for the nationalist Fatah militia (Suicide Bombing, 2006, p. 13).

Hamas’s rising stature led to increasing tensions between the nationalist camp and Hamas and soon degenerated into modes of violence that challenged the legitimacy and preeminence of the PA, especially in Gaza, the home base of Hamas. In October 2002, members of Hamas killed in the Gaza Strip the head of the anti-riot unit, termed by the Hamas “the death squad,” to avenge the death of a relative killed by members of the unit a year previously during Hamas demonstrations against the PA (PA Security Men, 2003). Hamas publicly afforded protection to the killers, who publicized their action (Schanzer, 2003). This was the first of dozens of assassinations of senior security force personnel and counterassassinations of Hamas and Jihad al-Islami supporters against members by the security forces and Fatah in the succeeding years.

Contributing to the rise of Hamas was the descent of the various Palestinian security forces, the Tanzim, and the AMB into internecine violence and assassinations. From 2003 onward, hardly a week passed without violent confrontations between these various security forces or in protest against PA policies not to their liking. So prevalent was the phenomenon (in glaring contrast to Hamas, which maintained discipline and unity), that a special term in Arabic, “al-infilat al-amni” (the erosion of security), came to describe it (Frisch, 2008, pp. 108–112, 141–143).

The Rise of Hamas to Power in Gaza

This contrast between a deeply riveted PA and nationalist camp, whose seeds may be found in the divide and rule practices of Arafat in the early years of the PA and the unity exhibited by Hamas, largely explain the decisive electoral victory Hamas achieved in the second elections to the Palestinians Legislative Council in January 2006 after Hamas contested the elections for the first time.

After Fatah’s defeat, the question of whether control of the security agencies would be in the hands of the popularly elected president, Abbas, elected in the presidential elections that took place less than a year previously, or the newly formed Hamas government, loomed large. For Hamas, the answer was indisputable. The security forces were to be under the control of the Hamas prime minister, Isma’il Haniya, and more specifically, under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior. Indeed, a little over a month after the Hamas government was formed, Muhammad Siyam, the Hamas minister of interior, announced the establishment of the Al-Quwwa al-Tanfidhiyya (the Executive Force) on April 20, 2006. This force was to be composed of men recruited “from all the forces composing the resistance” and reporting exclusively to the Ministry of Interior. Siyam, hardly by coincidence, publicized his intention to set up the new force in a meeting with the public that took place in the ‘Umri mosque in Gaza, a well-known bastion of support for Hamas. Abbas retaliated with a presidential decree outlawing the Executive Force (Abu Khudayr, 2006).

As had often occurred in the past, the violence between the security forces and the newly installed government began on more peripheral turf before escalating to confrontation between the principal actors, Fatah and the Hamas. The killing of ‘Abd al-Karim al-Qoqa, the general commander of the al-Nasir Salah al-Din Brigade—the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, allied to Hamas—on March 31, 2006, was one of the first of a string of flare-ups related to the battle over control of the security forces. Al-Qoqa was killed by a bomb placed in a car 50 meters away from his home as he was walking along the street rather than by missiles fired from Israeli helicopters or unmanned drones—the more typical form of targeted attack in Gaza. Sources close to Hamas alleged that the assassination was the handiwork of local collaborators judged to have purchased the car, driven it to the site and placed the bomb in it, and that security forces loyal to Abbas might have had been involved (Fi Tafjir, 2006).

These and other suspicions served as the background for at least five rounds of increasingly escalating violence between the PA forces in Gaza and Hamas irregulars from April 2006 until the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007. The downfall began in May 2007, when Hamas attacks on the PA “security rectangle,” in which the headquarters of most of the security agencies and the presidential residence were located. Hamas’s military preparations were dramatically vindicated by the complete collapse of Abbas’s security forces despite their quantitative edge (Frisch, 2008) The defeat was so overwhelming that Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was convinced that Abbas consciously abandoned Gaza as part of a long-term plan to establish a provisional state in the West Bank alone (Indyk, 2007).

However, the most important reason behind the PA’s loss of Gaza has to do with the total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005 and the exercise of a policy of containment from outside of Gaza rather than penetration and policing as in the West Bank/JS. This left the divided PASF to face a united Hamas military force alone until the final showdown. Had the Jewish settlement continued to exist, the IDF would have most probably gone in to change the balance of power between the two sides.

The Emergence of Two Parallel Security Forces—The PA and Hamas

Security Reform Under Abbas in the PA

As early as April 2003, the United States, Russia, Britain, and the European Union had drafted a road map that, among many matters, demanded security reform within the PA—a task designated to Mahmoud Abbas, as the PA’s first prime minister. The position itself was the creation of the “Quartet” foisted on Arafat, who bitterly opposed it. With even greater determination did he resist the efforts of Abbas in implementing security reform until his death in November 2004 (Frisch, 2008, pp. 104–107).

Yet, even after Abbas inherited Arafat’s positions and was elected president of the PA in 2005, he showed lack of both resolve and skills in dealing effectively with the lawlessness of his security forces, let alone reforming and unifying them. In two rounds of appointments, he replaced the head of the police in Gaza twice within 2 months (Jabr, 2005).

How well the new appointments met expectations can be gauged by the demand of the Legislative Council in a report it produced in September 2005 that the heads of the security agencies and their deputies be dismissed for failing in their duties (PICCR, 2005, 118). The report pointed out that the number of foreigners abducted more than doubled (from 13 to 34) in the first year of Abbas’s presidency compared to Arafat’s last year of rule, which was also characterized by a deterioration in public security (Harel et al., 2005, pp. 28–29). None of the abductors were arrested (Harel et al., 2005, p. 32). Homicides almost doubled from 93 by the end of 2004, at which point Abbas took over the government, to 176 by the end of September 2005. Most of the violence took place in Gaza.

The violence was also political. The murder of Brigadier General Mussa Arafat in open daylight, and the kidnapping of his son Namir (subsequently released) on September 7, was by far the most serious event (Bennet, 2006, p. 17). Notably, all of these incidents took place in Gaza.

It was only after the loss of Gaza that Abbas, with the considerable help of Lieutenant General Keith W. Dayton, the second U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the PA, and his team that security reform struck firm roots. Hitherto, Dayton was almost exclusively focused on training troops at the Rafah crossing point as part of the ill-fated November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access that was frequently closed before the Hamas takeover of Gaza.

By far the greatest of Dayton’s achievements after the Hamas takeover of Gaza was to establish and train by early 2009 three NSF battalions of 500 men aged 20–22 years) in Jordan, mostly by Jordanian officers with U.S. military personnel as advisers (Dayton, 2009). The number of battalions doubled to six by 2011 and to nine battalions and a Rapid Deployment Force by 2017, over half of whom had already been trained since 2012 in Jericho, the central base of the NSF (U.S. Department of State, n.d.; Zilber & Omari, 2018, p. 48).

Even more important than the sheer numbers trained is the loyalty these troops have exhibited to the PA in the face of considerable security challenges posed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the political liability associated with working in tandem with the IDF. Dayton in his 2009 address to a Washington-based think tank proved right when he stated: “They [the recruits] believe that their mission is to build a Palestinian state, and upon returning to the West Bank, they have demonstrated motivation, discipline, and professionalism” (Dayton, 2009). Their relative abstention from involvement in terrorism compared to the second intifada can be seen in the most intense wave of terrorism in winter 2015–spring 2016 since the second intifada; six PASF members were involved in separate terrorist attacks up to February 2016. Nevertheless, they accounted for only 3 percent of terrorists killed or captured during that period.

The PA’s Security Structure Since Arafat

Security reform also brought about a considerable reduction in the number of security agencies to five, including the “blue police” and the overwhelming dominance of the major force, the NSF. Seconding it in terms of firepower, though hardly in numbers, is the 2,700 Presidential Guard, which as its name suggests, protects the presidential compound, the Muqata, and PA institutions and forms the honor guard in events involving foreign dignitaries (Zilber & Omari, 2018, pp. 48–49).

The two most visible security agencies, and responsible for most of the security and political arrests, are PS and GI. Preventive Security’s 3,400-strong force are mainly undercover agents responsible for the arrest and investigation of terrorists and political opponents in 11 detention centers throughout the PA. Its chief, Major General Ziad Hab al-Riah, emerged from local Fatah ranks, presumably because the job requires intimate knowledge of local society (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The fragmented PA security structure.

He shares this characteristic, compared to the security chiefs of the NSF and the Presidential Guard, with the head of GI, Major-General Majid al-Faraj, who also spent time in Israeli prisons as a Fatah activist. He heads a force of almost similar size as the PS and carries out similar operations, with a special focus on luring Palestinians in Israeli-controlled areas, accused mainly of land sales to Jews (Zilber & Omari, 2018, p. 51).

The third “inside” official heads MI, the smallest of the security agencies. Its main task is to weed out “infiltrators” in PASF ranks whose loyalty might reside elsewhere, especially in Hamas and JI. The importance of this role stems from the period between Israel’s withdrawal and the Hamas takeover of Gaza during which Hamas claims it infiltrated PASF ranks during its expansion at the time.

Despite the considerable professionalization of the PASF, one element of “coup-proofing” remains. The two security agencies mandated with protecting the PA leadership, the NSF and the PG, are headed by persons from the “outside,” while the security agencies responsible for suppressing domestic forces are headed by former “inside” activists.

Israel-PA Security Cooperation

The internal partition between the PA led by Abbas and an inimical Hamas government as a result of the PA’s loss of control of Gaza formed the basis for the effective security cooperation between the PA and the Israel security services against their common enemy—the Hamas in the West Bank. A division of labor emerged in which the Palestinian Authority uprooted the civil infrastructure of the group by day, while the Israeli security forces apprehended Hamas terrorist suspects at night. The names of the suspects nabbed by both the PA security forces and the Israeli army in 24-hours/7-days-a-week operations, is a daily feature derided in the Hama-controlled media in Gaza (al-Hams 2016). The number of those arrested is staggering. In 2015, albeit in the most violent year in a decade, Israel arrested 6,900 and the PA arrested 1,659 and called in for questioning (usually former Hamas terrorists released from Israeli jails), 1,558 more (see Table 1).

Table 1. Arrests made by Israel and the PA 2009–2015.


Israeli Arrests

PA Arrests

Tried by Israel

























Source: Palestine behind bars, Hasad Filastin (2016), Palestinian Harvest.

More important than the sheer number of arrests, overwhelmingly against Hamas and JI suspects, is the breakdown between those arrested by the IDF and the relative share of arrests made by the PA’s security forces. As an analysis, shown in Table 1, demonstrates, in no year between 2011 and 2015 did the PA’s contribution amount to more than 30% of the arrests made in WB/JS and most often considerably less. This means that essentially the PA survives with the help of Israeli bayonets (Frisch, 2017).

The PA, despite its deep political differences with the Jewish state and its bitter contestation against Israel in international forums, maintains unparalleled cooperation to meet the threat of common enemy—Hamas. The number and frequency of arrests indeed attests to the breadth of support Hamas enjoys in the PA and the threat it poses to the PA. So deep was Abbas’s fear of a Hamas takeover of Judea and Samaria that Abbas suppressed local protests during the Cast Lead operation in winter 2008–2009 and once again during the 50-day-long Israeli offensive in Gaza in the summer of 2014 aimed at Hamas in Gaza in retaliation against rocket launchings at Israeli civilian targets (Dayton, 2009; PA Security Forces, 2014).

The Hamas Military

Whereas the PA under Yasser Arafat, which enjoyed the protection of the United States, could fragment its security forces, the Hamas security forces are a unified body much like Eritrea and for much the same reason. Just as Eritrea faced a far superior Ethiopian military force without the support of an effective patron and therefore unified its fighting force, so Hamas faced a superior Israeli military basically on its own by unifying its forces rather than fragmenting them.

The unity of Hamas security forces is due to two overriding features, (a) Hamas political control over the security sector it created and (b) the considerable impermeability between the security arms responsible for internal control and the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades responsible for waging the struggle against Israel and its military.

Long before the partition between the PA and Hamas-controlled Gaza in 2007, the newly formed Ministry of Interior and Public Security became an exclusive Hamas domain. The ministry hired over the course of the following 7 years approximately 18,000–30,000 to security personnel that drew almost exclusively from the ranks of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades, the terrorist arm of Hamas (Bsisu, 2014; Al-Malia, 2014; Miller, 2014). However, Rami Nasrallah, the former PA prime minister, cited higher numbers: 54,000, of which 31,400 were “military” (al-Hamadallah, 2015).

Officially, those hired are usually designated as civil police, but clearly, given the low crime rates in religious and conservative Gaza society, most are Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade members who either belong to the Internal Security Apparatus that operates against domestic opposition, or man the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades in their war against Israel.

How permeable are the lines between “official” classifications of this military personnel can be seen in a terrorist attack, probably carried out by a radical Salafist cell, that killed three “blue police” personnel on August 27, 2019. A memorial poster publicized by the Ministry of Interior and Public Security featured the three in their police uniforms. Almost simultaneously, the “combat information” unit of Hamas’s military wing displayed pictures of two of them as fighters in the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades (News of Terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict [August 28–September 3, 2019], p. 1). A year previously a chief of Security and Operations in the Bomb Disposal General Department of the Palestinian Police killed in an explosion had doubled as a Hamas military wing field commander (Further Proof, 2018, p. 1).

This permeability extends to the broad range of activities in which Hamas security personnel take part. In a study of the 112 killed between March 31 and May 15 as part of the “Great Return March” campaigns against the security fence separating Gaza and Israel, 34 were Hamas military operatives or other security personnel (Findings of the ITIC’s, 2018).

It is equally difficult to distinguish between internal security forces and the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades in suppressing internal dissent as well. This can be clearly seen in the largest single incident of internal repression under Hamas rule so far—the attack in August 2009 on the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque in Khan Yunis, the stronghold of Sheikh Abd al-Latif Musa Khaled Banath, the military commander of Jund Ansar Allah, a Salafi group. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 28 people were killed, including Musa and Banath, and more than 100 wounded and detained (including some of the wounded). Izz al-Din Qassam fighters attacked with RPGs and automatic rifles, destroying partially the mosque and the sheikh’s home in its entirety (Pictures and Recordings, 2009).

Hamas Security Force Structure and Capabilities

The Hamas security forces, unlike the PASF, are committed both to offensive operations against Israel and to internal policing and suppression. The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades are mandated with the former, and the security forces linked to the Ministry of Interior and Public Security, the police and the national security forces, with the latter. In the Ministry of Interior and National Security portal, reference to the police and the national security forces is used interchangeably in addition to unclear references to the “popular army” (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The Hamas political–military nexus.

Source: Adapted from Cohen and White (2009).

The Offensive Fighting Force—The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades

At least one source states that the military structure, despite the name of the organization, is 30,000 strong. Thus, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades (Brigades) reported a large-scale 2-day period (March 25–26, 2018) in which 30,000 military wing operatives from various units (sea, land, air) participated (Hamas’s Military Wing, 2018).

The highest military body is called the general military council of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Its members include the regimental commanders (qa’id al-liwa’a) and others called simply “commanders,” who are strategic experts without specific functional roles (Kata’ib, 2014). The regimental commander is often subordinate to the “commander,” as the official obituary announcement of the targeted killing of three commanders in Rafah during the 2014 conflict demonstrates. Two were members of the council, a “commander” without designation and the commander of the Rafah regiment. All three were veteran Brigade fighters. Yet, the name of the nondesignated commander, who had escaped previously Israeli targeting, appeared before the Rafah regimental commander as a sign of deference.

Not only is the composition of the council in its entirety unknown, it is not clear whether a single individual sits at its apex. After the targeted killing of Ahmad Jabari during the 2012 standoff between Israel, Hamas, and other organizations, Jabari was described in the media as “Hamas military chief,” but by IDF as having “served in the upper echelon of the Hamas command and was directly responsible for executing terror attacks against the State of Israel in the past number of years” (Israel Launches, 2012). In Arabic-language sources known for their strong ties to Hamas, he is sometimes referred to as the “chief of staff,” or the assistant chief of staff, but not consistently, since there is often reference to Muhammad Deif, severely wounded in a targeted killing in 2006, as the “chief of staff.” The latter presumably replaced a previous “chief of staff,” Salah Shahada, who was killed in a targeted killing in 2003 (Ahmed Ja`abari, 2017).

There are four ranks employed in the Brigades—regimental commanders, military commanders (usually of battalions, special units, and technical units), field commanders (al-qa’id al-maidani), and the “soldier,” who is also called “al-mujahid” (a fighter for Jihad). The ranks reflect hierarchy and subordination. Thus, in the site devoted to the martyrs, the former three appear separately from the ordinary soldiers. From the extensive obituaries, it is clear that promotion is a result of courage, experience, expertise, and qualities of command rather than age. There are many examples of “mujahidin” in their late 30s and early 40s who had been members of the Brigades for many years, as the obituary for 47-year-old `Abd al-`Aziz `Ali al-Hijazi, who died of a heart attack, indicates.

The fighting forces are divided on the regimental level into six districts, with each regiment consisting of 2,000–3,500 troops (Ben-David, n.d.). However, from the battle accounts of senior Israeli officers involved in the last round of fighting in 2014, which lasted 50 days, there is little evidence that the Hamas military operates as a fighting force on anything more than at the battalion level. In fact, most of the fighting took place between small groups of Hamas fighters employing relatively effective guerrilla tactics consisting of surprise attacks from underground tunnels and quick dispersion in the face of a clearly stronger and superior opponent. A brief description of one of the most intense fighting episodes that took place in the Gaza city neighborhood of Shuja’iya over 3 days from July 20 to 23, 2014, by the regimental commander of the IDF Golani Brigade, Colonel Rasan `Aliyan, sums it up well:

There were anti-tank ambushes by the enemy that were carried out well in terms of precision and the necessary ordinance. Another factor were the fire fights at close range with terrorists who emerged from the tunnel holes; terrorists who booby trap homes. There was a moment when [an IDF] fighter identified a terrorist activating a gas cylinder. The force pulled back at the last moment and the house imploded. It’s an enemy that you don’t see. He appears for a few seconds and then disappears into the dense area. On the other hand, if you place yourself in his area of operations he’s in trouble . . . When they understood that they were in short range and were being killed, they turned to fighting from afar.

(Bohbot, 2014)

It is also known that force structure includes specialized units: the special unit (al-nukhba), military engineering, the military industry unit (al-Tasn` al-`Askari), air defense, the Naval Commando, and the combat information unit, the Brigades’ propaganda arm (Display of Force, 2015; The “Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades,” 2014).

Though the Brigades might still be described as a militia rather than an army in terms of structure, chain of command, and tactics, there are aspects in its performance more typical of armies than militias. One of them is the militarized border between Gaza and Israel on both sides of the fence. The Brigades maintain guard posts and monitoring and surveillance activities alongside Israel’s 50-km security fence on the eastern and northern sides of Gaza. These are frequently targets of Israeli retaliation as a result of the fence protests and incursions, armed and unarmed, that Hamas and other organizations carry out to penetrate the security fence. The border is militarized on the Israeli side as well.

Similarly, Hamas’s development, manufacture, and launching of missiles, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades’ major offensive weapons, are more typical of militaries than most terrorist and guerrilla organizations. Over 20,000 missiles have hit Israeli territory since 2001, most of them, according to Israeli sources, launched by Hamas. These are launched by what the Hamas calls the Artillery Unit and include Qassam 1, 2, and 3 missiles, locally manufactured M-75 rockets with which in the 2014 campaign Hamas struck Tel Aviv, the R-160 rockets that struck the city of Haifa that are based on the Russian Grad and Lebanese Katyusha rockets. This unit is also responsible for firing thousands of mortars.

Internal Security Order—The Security Forces Belonging to the Ministry of Interior and National Security (MINS)

Despite the difficulty of drawing a strict division between the Brigades and the security forces belonging to the MINS, the overwhelming focus of these forces is clearly domestic policing and internal security, despite the frequent use of the term “`askari,” the military, to describe them.

MINS oversees two major forces—the civil or “blue” police, as they are known for the color of their uniform, and the National Security Forces (not to be confused with the PA’s NSF), whose major task is to monitor the border area to ensure that activities surrounding the security fence between Israel and Gaza are only those authorized by the Hamas government (officially, the shadow government since, formally, from 2014 onward, a unity government between the PA and Hamas prevails).

Like most civil police everywhere, fighting crime, mainly theft and drug trafficking, is its major pursuit. A special, heavily armed unit, “The Forces of Intervention and Maintenance of Order” (Quwwat al-Taddakhul wa-Hifz al-Nizam) is charged with the responsibility of suppressing dissent and maintaining public order in large-scale events, such as major soccer matches. Both are officered by men of clear military rank, from the commander of the National Security Forces, who holds the rank of major general, to the brigadier generals who head the various units of the Ministry down to the level of lieutenants. The commander and his assistants are mostly veteran fighters in the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

Several units in MINS service both these forces and possibly the Izz al-Din al-Qassam units as well. These include the Military Law Directorate (Hay’at a-Qada’a al-`Askari); the Directorate for Political and Moral Guidance (Hay’at al-Tawjih al-Siyasi wa’l-Ma`nawi), which is based on the input of parliamentarians, educators, and preachers who are exclusively drawn from Hamas ranks; and the Directorate of Organization and Administration (Hay’at al-Tanzim wal-Idara), which is responsible for conscription into the security forces.


Instead of the hoped for partition between Israel and the Palestinians, the Oslo process and its aftermath resulted in an inter-Palestinian partition between two governments, the PA and Hamas, inimical to each other that produced two separate security apparatuses. Arafat’s divide-and-rule tactics of coup-proofing worked well enough in the WB Bank/JS due to Israel’s political goal of securing overall security in the area. It floundered in Gaza against Hamas once Israel decided to withdraw from Gaza, demonstrating that segmented security forces are good at keeping internal opponents at bay only as long as an external power is willing to help the local government suppress external enemies by preventing Israeli assault against the PA to root out Palestinian terrorism. By contrast, Hamas, once it took over power in Gaza, formed a unified security structure controlled by the Hamas political leadership at its apex with considerable impermeability at its base between the security force responsible for domestic security and the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades responsible for waging the struggle against Israel. The Palestinians are then not only divided between two “semistates” and two militaries, they are mirror-images of each other, one fragmented, the other unified.


The author would like to thank the Journal of Strategic Studies for permitting the republication of a table that appeared in Hillel Frisch (2002), and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy for an adaptation of an organizational chart that appeared in Cohen and White (2009).

Further Reading


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