|It was the fall of 2000 and Palestinian militants were rioting in the streets, attacking Israeli Army posts, and resuming their campaign of suicide bombings. The burgeoning intifada, however, had yet to go mainstream. Jibril Rajoub, the powerful Palestinian chief of preventive security in the West Bank, who had been working with Israeli security agencies to fight terrorism, remained warily on the sidelines. Privately, he assured then senior U.S. diplomat Edward Walker that he could still restrain the militants and stop the violence. All he needed, he said, were orders from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The command never came.
Today, it"s hard to imagine Rajoub cracking down on much of anything. After Israel"s assault on the West Bank last month, his elaborate headquarters-nicknamed the Pentagon because it was built with U.S. money-is in shambles. His forces are scattered. And he is on the run from Israeli guns as well as militant Palestinian groups who accuse him of betraying their cause.
This was not always the case. For a time, his several-thousand-strong Preventive Security Force effectively muzzled groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad-and he was the CIA"s go-to guy on the West Bank. Many U.S. officials still believe he is one of the best hopes for reining in the terrorists on the West Bank. As unlikely as it may seem, resuming security cooperation, they insist, might be the only way to break the cycle of violence, punctuated last week by the deadly suicide bombing of a pool hall in Israel. President Bush is dispatching CIA Director George Tenet to the region as early as this week to meet with officials like Rajoub and assess what remains of the Palestinian security forces.
After last week"s bombing, the Palestinians claimed to have arrested 16 Hamas members as part of a new crackdown. But the move seemed more about trying to stave off an imminent Israeli invasion of Gaza than about resuming full-scale security cooperation. On the West Bank, Rajoub was still picking up the pieces of his bombed-out headquarters. Many jails and police stations also lie in ruins. For now, Rajoub is too angry to work with Israel. "Sharon has destroyed everything," he said during a recent inspection of his shattered Pentagon. "Security coordination is now impossible."
Enforcer. Rajoub had, in many ways, the perfect rйsumй for someone taking on Palestinian terrorists. He spent 17 years in Israeli jails for trying to throw a grenade at a convoy of Israeli soldiers. While in jail, he became a student of the Hebrew language and Israeli people in general. When he returned to the West Bank from exile with Arafat, he recruited local activists to create an effective, if brutal, police force. (Many Palestinians complain of being tortured by Rajoub"s men, and at least eight have died in his interrogation cells. His forces are rumored to specialize in pushing empty bottles up the rectums of detainees.)
As the peace process advanced, Rajoub drew the ire of the militant groups with his ability to mount an efficient crackdown on their activities in the West Bank. He was accused of being a collaborator, a charge that often brings an unofficial death sentence. Their suspicion was only heightened by his visits to expensive Chinese and French restaurants in Jerusalem with American and Israeli security officials, and by his ties to the CIA, which trained dozens of his men. (On a visit to Washington, he proudly showed friends the armor-plated limo that he said the CIA had provided him during his stay.) Rumors of corruption also tarnished him-in particular, he allegedly controlled the gasoline market in the West Bank, according to Eran Lerman, a former Israeli military intelligence official.
Many Israelis, however, were grudgingly impressed by Rajoub. "He was a man we could talk to and achieve things with," says an Israeli security source. But after the intifada began, everything began to change, as Rajoub"s forces did little to restrain the militants. Then, a year ago, an Israeli missile slammed into Rajoub"s West Bank home. He escaped uninjured, but he was furious at Israel for an attack he called deliberate and the Israelis termed an accident. From there, relations went sharply downhill. When Israel launched its recent incursions, little in Rajoub"s organization was spared.
Gunpoint. Now, he is in a very tough spot. Many Palestinians still see him as an Israeli collaborator. Some of his men have left his force, charging that Rajoub handed over to Israel a group of gunmen who had been holed up in his compound. His relations with Arafat are rocky as well; the Palestinian leader reportedly drew his pistol on Rajoub earlier this year.
In Washington, Rajoub remains one of the bright spots in the PA. "Nobody here believes any of the leadership are choirboys," says one U.S. official. "You have to deal with people who have some hope of achieving what you want to achieve." As the United States tries to encourage a unified Palestinian security agency (to replace the dozen overlapping forces), officials will be looking to Rajoub and his Gaza counterpart, Mohammed Dahlan-who are rivals in the jockeying for post-Arafat leadership.
Even Israel is leaving the door slightly ajar, portraying Rajoub as the lesser of evils. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been busy waging political war on Arafat and the PA as well by releasing documents said to show their complicity in terrorist attacks. Israeli forces found yarmulkes (perhaps used for disguises) in a search of Rajoub"s headquarters, but Rajoub"s name appears only once, as an aside, in a 120-page report released by Sharon"s office last week outlining the case against top Palestinians. Admits one Israeli security source, "No Palestinian leader is completely kosher."
With Khaled Abu Toameh and Larry Derfner in Jerusalem