The Impact of Self-Organized Security Zones in the Middle East
Human security is a universal value. It refers to the security of human beings in terms of freedom from want and freedom from fear.1 To bring about human security, we need politics. However, politics provides human security on its own terms. That is to say, human beings can strive for freedom from fear and want only as long as they obey the rules of the game, as they are laid down by the ruler (state). And that state might not always be liberal and democratic, but can be rather nasty and oppressive. Indeed, the level of human security very much depends on the political actors in charge. Many governments provide security for human beings at a very high price, e.g., by spreading fear instead of safeguarding against it. Authoritarian regimes, dictatorships in particular, care more about their own state security than about the human security of their citizens.

Since Thomas Hobbes wrote his famous work Leviathan,2 we have all become aware of the importance of the state as the needed constitutional framework for citizens to live together in peace. The natural state of man ¯ described by Hobbes as "a war of all against all" ¯ has been pacified through a metaphorical social contract (voluntary or not) between the citizens and the Leviathan (sovereign, state), where the former give up part of their freedom so the latter is able to rule and uphold law and order for the sake of a sustainable stability. Conversely, the state guarantees its citizens a certain degree of freedom; however, this freedom should not undermine the necessary security and ability of the state to uphold law and order. In other words, state security and individual freedom are inversely proportional to each other; more security for the state implies less freedom for the individual, and vice versa. In the case of both extreme situations: a very high level of state security (dictatorship) and ultimate individual freedom (collapsed state), the human security of individual citizens is at risk. On the freedom-security scale, introduced by Dekker and Faber, it is possible to identify the optimal balance between individual freedoms, in particular freedom from fear, and state security.3

If the balance between state security and individual freedom has been upset and the situation slides towards one of the above-mentioned extremes, then self-organized security zones could come into existence, sometimes in the form of pseudo-states.4 In terms of security control, one or more parts of the state separate from the rest. Where self-organized security zones emerge, the sovereign state loses control of "its territory, is not perceived as legitimate by a significant portion of its population, does not provide domestic security or basic public services to its citizens, and lacks a monopoly on the use of force" and is, therefore, qualified as a failed state.5 Due to circumstances, the new self-organized security zones will be able to provide only a limited degree of human security to the people living inside those zones. In line with Hobbes, we maintain that all states, sub-states, pseudo-states and security zones have the duty to provide human security for the people under their control, as this responsibility is handed over to them through the social contract. Whether this gets actually and carefully carried out is a different matter, and is beyond the scope of this article. The article will focus exclusively on the interaction between states and self-organized security zones, which has mostly negative consequences.

In every liberal-democratic country people are responsible up to a certain point for their own security, but always under the rule of law, which determines the limits of private security initiatives. Laws differ in time and space. In some countries, like in the United States, citizens are still allowed to possess guns, while in others, like the Netherlands, private possession of guns has been outlawed since time immemorial. In self-organized security zones, the private possession of guns is generally not restricted. When a self-organized security zone emerges, the state's monopoly on the use of force is contested and so are the previously prevalent laws and regulations. Obviously, self-organized security zones do not emerge out of the blue; their appearance is usually linked to internal conflicts and wars. There are numerous forms of security zones: No-go areas, like the shantytowns in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, are self-organized security zones. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the secessionist regions of the Republic of Georgia, are also self-organized security zones; in fact, they are even pseudo-states, as they have their own government institutions.

In war situations countries often disintegrate into various security zones. Where the state is unable to provide security for its own people, other actors, mostly locals, try to fill the "security gap."6 Refugee communities create their own self-organized security zones (camps), assisted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or other humanitarian organizations that are often dominated by clans (Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo). Srebrenica, an isolated Muslim enclave in Bosnia surrounded by a hostile Serb environment, was protected and ruled by local fighters (militias) from 1992 until 1995, although it was also declared a UN safe area. Baghdad and the Somali capital, Mogadishu, are both illustrations of cities (temporarily) partitioned in various self-organized security zones. Under extreme circumstances, even mosques and churches may form a self-declared security zone, i.e., a chain of sanctuaries throughout a country where protection is provided to people under the threat of a dictator (Saddam), an occupier (Israel) or a genocide campaign (Rwanda).


In both Iraq and Israel/Palestine, self-organized security zones compete with one another as well as with the state in charge, although the dynamics of security zones in Iraq are less complex than those in Israel/Palestine. Thirteen out of 18 provinces of Iraq are now under sub-state rule. In theory, the remaining five provinces are still under the control of the U.S.-led Multinational Force (MNF-I). In reality, the MNF-I is competing there with various self-organized security zones. Nevertheless, National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie predicted already in July 2008 that all provinces would be under government control by year's end.7 If so, Iraq would no longer be considered a failed state. Whether Iraq will become a unitary state, a federation or a union, is still to be decided. But if Kurdistan (made up of three provinces) sets the norm, then the Iraqi state will, in the near future, share its mandate over security issues with government institutions that operate on the provincial and regional levels.8 Indeed, the ongoing handover of security responsibilities is an act between the MNF-I and the Provincial Civil Authorities, many of them coalitions of self-organized security zones.9

Kurdistan had already adopted its own security mandate in 1991 when it became a UN-designated Kurdish safe haven. After the removal in 2003 of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath regime, the Kurdish security structures de facto retained their independence from the newly established Iraqi national state, although some cosmetic changes were made, e.g., the uniforms of the Kurdish forces are now similar to those of the Iraqi forces. At the end of the day, however, it is the Kurdish authorities that decide whether or not Kurdish forces will be deployed anywhere else in Iraq. In other words Kurdistan is, nowadays, an officially recognized security zone, a sub-state inside Iraq. If the Kurdish model is followed in other regions, then Iraq's future status will probably become a mixture of a union and a federation.10

Today, the MNF-I is often playing a broker's role. After a problematic period when it was considered by many to be the occupier of Iraq, it is steadily transferring its power to the newly built Iraqi institutions. Moreover, it has adopted a new policy of making alliances with various self-organized security zones ¯ often former MNF-I enemies ¯ in order to integrate them into the overarching security zone: the newly established state of Iraq. Of course, serious problems still lie ahead. What if the cooperation between self-organized security zones and the national security forces does not hold?11 And how to involve the main grassroots movement in Iraq, the Sadrists, run by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr?

Muqtada is the son and the son-in-law of the two most revered Shia martyrs12 in Iraq. In 1992, his father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr became the religious leader of the Shia community after striking a deal of convenience with Saddam. Sadiq al-Sadr was primarily interested in reviving the faith among the Shia masses, addressing the problems of their daily lives, while subtly undermining the propaganda of the regime. The devastating impact of international sanctions does explain why Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr's open hostility to the U.S. and covert opposition to Saddam spoke to the hearts of millions of Iraqi Shia.

Sadiq al-Sadr's movement emerged in 1992 and was, from the beginning, a popular mass movement which gathered in a long chain of mosques and religious schools, thereby creating its own self-organized security zone. On February 19, 1999, Sadiq al-Sadr was murdered by agents of the regime in order to suppress mounting Shia tensions and opposition, and the movement was silenced for a while.13 Immediately after Saddam's removal in 2003, the main stronghold of Sadiq al-Sadr in Baghdad, a poor neighborhood of almost 3 million people ¯ Saddam City ¯ was renamed Sadr City and soon became a self-organized security zone for the Sadrist movement in occupied Iraq. Sadiq's son, Muqtada, followed in his father's footsteps and took over all the responsibilities and mobilized the masses, making use of the same chain of mosques and religious schools. But, unlike his father, he also became directly involved in politics and expanded his influence by establishing security zones in other Shia cities as well. The U.S. was and still is his main enemy.


The parallels between the Sadrist movement in Iraq and the Hamas movement in Palestine are striking. Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan, later Hamas), headed by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, concentrated its activities almost exclusively on social issues and religious education, just as the Sadrist movement did in Iraq. The Israeli government had even licensed Hamas for these activities because Ahmad Yassin was not considered a threat. Almost half of the mosques in the occupied territories became Hamas strongholds.14 During the first intifada (1987-1993) members of Hamas participated actively in many, mostly non-violent, actions, often initiated, and always intensely discussed, in the mosques. In the end, the Israeli authorities understood that they had facilitated a wolf in sheep's clothing. Several thousand Hamas members were arrested during the course of the intifada.

In the 1990s, Hamas distanced itself from the Oslo Accords signed in 1993. It criticized the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Yasser Arafat's Fateh movement for collaborating with Israel, and denounced the widespread corruption among the leading figures. Hamas's decision to start a suicide or "martyrdom" campaign against Israel was heavily influenced by the Lebanese attacks against Israelis and international forces during the first Lebanon War, and was taken after the massacre perpetrated on February 25, 1994 by an American-born Jew, Baruch Goldstein, in the al-Haram al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, killing 29 worshippers and wounding scores of others.15 The campaign was both religiously and politically motivated. A suicide attack was the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of Allah, but at the same time, was an instrument of deterrence against the Israeli enemy.16

On March 22, 2004, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin was assassinated on the orders of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. A month later, on April 17, Yassin's successor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, was assassinated as well. Obviously, Sharon wanted to be sure that his premeditated unilateral withdrawal of all Jewish settlements from Gaza would not be followed by a Hamas takeover.

In 2005 Israel dismantled all its settlements in Gaza. Hamas and the Palestinian community in Gaza cried victory, and in January 2006, Hamas began to seek legitimate power. It participated in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and won a decisive majority ¯ a big step forward in the direction of an Islamic state in statu nascendi (in status of birth), Yassin's ultimate dream. In June 2007, after an international boycott of the Hamas government and a successful Saudi initiative to form a national unity government, Hamas attempted to stop the obstructive policies of the old preventive security forces of Fateh, and carried out a coup to establish a pseudo-state in the Gaza Strip. Reacting to this act, Fateh took control of the West Bank. In Gaza, numerous Fateh members were arrested; similarly, in the West Bank, thousands of Hamas members were also put in Palestinian jails. Hamas and Fateh effectively divided the Palestinian territories into two self-organized security zones, but of quite different types. Meanwhile, the elected president of all Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), continues to negotiate a two-state solution with the Israelis.

Israel is an officially recognized state without fixed borders and a disputed capital ¯ in a way, a contradictio in terminis17 (a contradiction in terms). After the peace agreements with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), the borders between Israel and its direct neighbors were formally fixed. Only the Golan Heights remains an issue to be settled with Syria. Implicitly, through the signing of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians were promised a state inside a rather well-defined area. For the time being, the Palestinians have accepted ¯ nolens volens (willing or not) ¯ a qualified autonomy in a large number of demilitarized enclaves, isolated from one another.18 Consequently, the West Bank now consists more or less of two security chains: one of isolated Jewish settlements, the other of isolated Palestinian cities. They are, however, both Israeli creations and, obviously, sworn enemies. For people living in one chain, the other chain consists of no-go areas. The Israeli army is all around in order to prevent clashes between the chains.

After so many years of entrenchment, disentangling them appears very difficult. In theory, there are three ways to do so. One option is to dismantle to a large extent the Jewish chain. A second option is to delineate the borders in such a way that most of the Jewish chain becomes part of Israel proper. A third option is to create a bi-national federal state19 comprising Israel, the West Bank and Jerusalem. All other options will probably result in "new" wars where the main targets are civilians ¯ i.e., ethnic cleansing, genocide.20

Today, Israel is adjusting to a new reality of having to deal with two separate (self-organized) security zones. With Gaza it concluded in June 2008 a temporary Egyptian-mediated truce or hudna/tahdi'a. And with Abu Mazen, the president of all Palestinians whose power is restricted to the West Bank chain, it tries to conclude a two-state solution, a mixture of the first two options mentioned above, with Gaza included only on paper.


In conflict or war situations, a state, including an occupying state, often loses control over part of its territory. Almost automatically, self-organized security zones will emerge. They claim or try to provide security to the people inside the zone, but in most cases do not match the standards of human security. Freedom from want remains a problem and, quite often, it is not freedom from fear but fear that dominates among the people. These self-organized security zones play a crucial role in the course of the conflict, despite the fact that they are mostly considered spoilers, until such a time when both states and security zones come to the realization that a solution without one another is non-achievable. The interaction between these two levels predicts, to a large degree, the outcome of the conflict.

Israel is dealing with two security zones of different types. Gaza is a contiguous territory under the full control of Hamas, while the West Bank is more like a chain of isolated cities and spots under the limited authority of the PA. This leads to two different policies with different outcomes, at least as long as the present situation continues.

Five years after the intervention in Iraq, the country is finally reaching the point where a balance of internal forces, the majority self-organized security zones, will result in a new state. The U.S. and its allies should be blamed for the chaos they created after the removal of Saddam, but also complimented for the role they have played in uniting the self-organized security zones and the newly established national state. In the end, after a lot of lessons learned the hard way, they understood rather well the dynamics that were present in the chaos they themselves had created.
1 The concept of human security was introduced in the UNDP-Human Development Report, 1994.
2 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), Ed. C.B. Macpershon, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd.), 1968.
3 Martijn Dekker & Mient Jan Faber, "Human Security from Below in a Hobbesian Environment," Security and Human Rights, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2008, pp. 27-45.
4 A pseudo-state is a state that has many of the formal trappings of an independent state but has no real independence.
5 This definition of a "failed state" comes from Foreign Policy Journal, The Failed State Index 2006, p.52.
6 Not only local people fill the security gap. It can also be done by outsiders and/or occupiers. A no-go area is often ruled by a criminal gang, providing some kind of security to the locals insofar they adjust to the criminal's way of life.
7 Voice of America, "Multinational Force Transfers 10th Province to Iraqi Control," Suzanne Presto, Irbil, Iraq, July 16, 2008.
8 Article 9, Sub-section A of the constitution reads that the Iraqi army is composed of the components of the Iraqi people.
9 Operation Iraqi Freedom, official website MNF-I, Provincial Iraq Control web page.
10 A Federation is a Union with a strong central state.
11 "Iraq Takes Aim at Leaders of U.S.-Tied Sunni Group," The New York Times, August 22, 2008.
12 Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr was hanged in 1979 and Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr was murdered in 1999.
13 Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada. (New York: Scribner.), 2008.
14 Azzam Tamini, Hamas, a History from Within (Massachusetts, USA :Olive Branch Press), 2007.
15 Ibid.
16 OpenDemocracy website, "Talking to Terrorists in Gaza," February 14, 2005.
17 The main features of a state are territory (borders) and a capital (institutions).
18 The Palestinian territories were divided into Area A (self rule), Area B (self rule under Israeli security), and Area C (full Israeli control) zones.
19 A bi-national federal state may be based along the Green Line. Israeli's and Palestinians run their own state while Jews in Palestine remain Israeli citizens and Palestinians/Arabs in Israel will become Palestinian citizens. The federation is a union based on the principle of subsidiarity.
20 Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Cambridge Polity Press), 1999.