A crowd gathers every time the white police van turns into a village road. Teenagers crane their neck and jostle for a good view as they make their way to school. Younger children point excitedly at the vehicle and call out to their mothers. As the police van makes its way around this rural area on the southern outskirts of Bethlehem, it soon becomes clear that the sight of a Palestinian police unit is quite a special occasion.
That morning, Zahra Sukkar gathered her team at Bethlehem district police station: seven male officers and two female officers – including Sukkar herself, who commands the Bethlehem District Mobile Police Station. There is now a dedicated mobile station for each of the eleven districts that make up the West Bank with its population of nearly three million. The mobile police stations are just one example of GIZ’s work on behalf of the German Federal Foreign Office in the Palestinian territories. The objective of this particular project is to strengthen local police structures and the rule of law.
‘Yallah – let’s go!’ says Sukkar. Accompanied by traffic officers, an anti-narcotics officer, a cybercrime specialist and an environmental protection officer, she heads off in the direction of Beit Fajjar, a small town right down at the southern end of her district. She is holding a permit issued by the Israeli authorities. Without this document, she is not allowed to pass through any part of Area C, where the Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction of any kind.
The team climb into the large white police vehicle. With a blue stripe running along the side, it vaguely resembles a campervan. There is a good reason for that. The vehicle was designed by the police officers themselves with the help of GIZ experts. Unlike other police vehicles, it is not fitted with window guards. Inside there is a table with benches. On the outside, the van has an extendable awning so that the team can set up chairs in the open air. As a result, whenever they stop in one of the villages, the van can be quickly transformed into a miniature police station with an inviting outdoor area. The message – that police officers are approachable and there to serve the people – is intended to create a greater sense of community and trust.
The Palestinian Civil Police force struggles with a limited presence and the fact that its officers are not seen often enough in remote areas. In part, this is due to the political situation. The West Bank resembles a patchwork quilt of jurisdictions. A mere 18 per cent of the land (Area A) is controlled by the Palestinians. If there is a crime or a car accident in Area B or C, the Palestinian Civil Police must first ask Israeli military authorities for permission before it can access the area and start investigating. The official term for this is ‘coordination’. Sometimes this can take hours or days. They even have to request permission if they need to use an Area C road in order to reach an incident in Area A. For this reason, the police are keen to widen their presence on the ground.
THE WEST BANK ABC
In 1995, following the Oslo II Interim Agreement, the West Bank was divided into several areas of control.
Area A: This makes up around 18 per cent of the entire West Bank. Larger cities such as Ramallah and Bethlehem were placed under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Around half of the West Bank’s three million people live in Area A. Access is controlled by the Israeli army.
Area B: 20 per cent of the West Bank is classed as Area B. This consists mainly of rural communities. While administrative control rests with the Palestinian Authority, Israel has control over security.
Area C: This covers 62 per cent of the West Bank and consists mainly of sparsely populated areas of undeveloped land, Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements. Area C is exclusively controlled by Israel. It is home to around 300,000 Palestinians and some 400,000 Israeli settlers.
Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA oPt)
Community focus and expertise
‘We want to reach out to people in remote areas. That’s why we adopted a new community-based approach to policing,’ explains Major General Hazem Atallah, Chief of Palestinian Police in the West Bank. ‘When it comes to achieving that objective, the mobile police stations are a big help. They allow us to reach places we’ve never been to before.’ The equipment and know-how were just not available in the past. This lack of resources was raised at the 2008 Middle East Conference in Berlin, and the German Government pledged its support. Quite a lot has been achieved in the intervening decade. The mobile police units are just the most recent sign of progress. One of the earlier projects involved designing and building a model police station: open-plan, all the rooms fitted with windows to let in the light, and no cells or other areas hidden from view. The prototype was followed by eleven more new stations. A special police station for simulations and training was built at the Palestinian Police College in Jericho – without a ceiling so that the instructors could monitor and evaluate their trainees from above without disrupting training sessions. The College works with the German Police University in Münster to assist in compliance with international police training standards.
Zahra Sukkar is one of around 1,400 Palestinian police officers to gain additional skills and qualifications through training courses run by GIZ. She joined the police as a young woman and now – in her mid-40s – holds a middle-management position with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Her career path is unusual for a woman given the traditional nature of Palestinian society. Twenty years ago, she was encouraged by her father, even though he had never learned to read. ‘He believed in justice and the law and in a future with our own separate state,’ she recalls. Lieutenant-Colonel Sukkar has a clear zest for life and a natural air of authority. Even so, it was a challenge for her to assert command over the men in her unit as the highest-ranking officer. ‘In our society, it’s usually the men who tell the women what to do,’ she says. ‘Still, good communication is the key, and sometimes I resort to compromise and avoid taking such a confrontational line with my colleagues,’ she adds, laughing.
The mobile station stops at the girls’ secondary school in Beit Fajjar. Seventy teenagers are waiting in the main hall for her and the unit’s anti-narcotics officer, who has swapped his uniform for civilian clothes to make the audience feel more at ease and to help establish a rapport. While he talks to the young women about the dangers of drugs, Sukkar meets the school’s headteacher. This is the mobile unit’s second visit to the school in the space of a year. The headteacher holds out a faxed letter she has received from the Ministry of Interior in Ramallah. The note, which includes Sukkar’s contact details and those of the mobile unit, has been sent to all schools in the district. ‘That’s great,’ says the police officer. Together with her team, she wants to maintain that contact over the long term, so that they can take appropriate action before things happen – especially when young people are involved.
Signs of change
Young people and women are particularly at risk from domestic violence, cybercrime and drug abuse, observes Colonel Wafa Muamar, who leads the Family and Juvenile Protection Unit operated by the Palestinian Police in Ramallah. The unit was set up in the West Bank ten years ago with a team of just three people. Today, it consists of 112 officers, 40 per cent of whom are women. ‘We are still a conservative society, and problems are usually settled within families,’ explains the Colonel. ‘What’s more, many of our laws are obsolete,’ she continues, describing the challenges. However, things appear to be changing. A specialist officer from her unit is now assigned to each mobile police station to deal with cases of domestic violence. More of these incidents are being reported overall. Awareness of the issue seems to be increasing. One example is the recent killing of a young woman, which set off street protests in Palestinian towns. The 21-year-old had posted a video with her future fiancé on social media. Investigations are still ongoing, but there are indications that the fact that she had shown herself with her partner online before her official engagement might have triggered violence by male relatives that caused her death.
‘One of our main goals is prevention. We want to build up trust in the police service so that people know they can turn to us even if they have problems,’ says Sukkar. The mobile unit has now moved on to a primary school. Their task here is to train young members of the school crossing patrol. Wearing high-vis yellow jackets, the girls listen attentively to the traffic officers. Together they practice how to control the traffic and learn how to exert authority. The atmosphere is relaxed. Everyone is smiling or laughing, and after a while the children seem to lose any nervousness they may have had in the presence of the police officers. The girls confidently hold up the red sign ordering drivers to stop.
JOACHIM VON BONIN
Programme Manager, Strengthening of Police Structures
in the Palestinian territories
Working in the Palestinian territories, how do you manage to keep a sense of direction and distinguish between right and wrong?
That’s a question I think a lot about – especially as a German citizen. I work for GIZ so I am guided by the policies of the German Government, which continues to support the two-state solution. A vision in which a viable Palestinian state and an Israeli state coexist in peace and security. This is the foundation for all activities in our police programme. As programme manager, I am also committed to the values enshrined in the German Constitution and the UN Convention on Human Rights. That’s not always easy in the Palestinian territories, but we have established a trustful and open dialogue with our Palestinian partners on these issues.
What is the key to successful cooperation?
First and foremost, in such a difficult and volatile situation you need a great deal of patience in your work. I was involved in setting up the first phase of the police programme ten years ago. Since then, my predecessors have achieved an incredible amount of progress. It is this kind of continuity that explains why we are highly valued as a partner in the area of policing. Another important factor is the strong mutual trust we have built up over that time. That allows us to address difficult issues and work on them together as partners. Finally, I have been deeply impressed by the tremendous motivation and strong qualifications of our national staff in the Palestinian territories. They are the real backbone of our work here.
How do you see the future of the region?
The first thing you realise when you come to work in the Middle East is: there are no easy solutions to this conflict. Still, I remain an optimistic person so I concentrate on taking one step at a time. I believe it makes absolute sense to help improve human security for the people who live in the West Bank. Perhaps, in a small way, that will contribute to a bigger solution later on. And besides the political context: for me personally it’s a great honour and privilege to live and work in this region with its wonderful people and such a diversity of cultures and religions.
published in akzente 3/19