JENIN, WEST BANK — In a dramatic turnaround, the Palestinian city that served as the heart of the second intifada now boasts a new shopping mall. A return of Israeli Jewish shoppers after nearly a decade appears imminent and – as of today – the city boasts its first cinema.
Jenin served as the launching ground for more bombing attacks than any other Palestinian city during the intifada, or uprising, that began in 2000. And it became synonymous for many with Israel’s disproportionate use of force after the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) razed its hardscrabble refugee neighborhood during a controversial counteroffensive eight years ago.
But today, both Israelis and Palestinians see Jenin as a model of cooperation between their respective security forces, which is paving the way for progress in the stalled peace talks and is building up the kind of self-government that Palestinian leaders see as a prerequisite to an eventual state of their own.
“There’s real cooperation on a daily basis, from the command level to the field level. And there’s cooperation in the field of counter terrorism intelligence’’ says Gershon Baskin, codirector of the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information. “The logic is that Palestinians need to provide security for Palestinians” rather than for Israelis.
Israel’s top general for the West Bank and the head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service last month toured shops in Jenin’s new mall. And now Israeli security officials are mulling lifting a security ban on Jews entering West Bank cities, a move that could boost business through an influx of Israeli shoppers.
US-supervised training to combat terrorism
Amid the upheaval early in the last decade, the town was ruled by militant gangs who stepped into a vacuum of rule left by a weak Palestinian Authority. But now Palestinian security services throughout the West Bank are winning praise from Israel after US-supervised training in Jordan helped improve antiterrorism and anticrime activities.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has said that reestablishing the authority of the Palestinian government on the ground is a prerequisite for a political agreement.
“Coordination is better … there is an improvement,” says Palestinian General Radi Assidi, who refers to Israeli army officers responsible for the Jenin region as “my counterparts.”
Cooperation proceeding gradually
That said, the cooperation is proceeding gradually and both sides realize the renewed relationship is fraught with potential pitfalls.
The joint patrols have not been reinstated. And old disputes persist: the Palestinian security chiefs want the Israeli military to stay out of their cities altogether so as not to embarrass them in front of their public. Israel says they’re not ready to take full control.
But Israeli commanders have sought to lower troops’ profile when they enter Palestinian towns to pursue militants. The number of incursions into the city has declined by 90 percent.
A senior Israeli military officer responsible for the region of Jenin acknowledged that the relationship is delicate, and said Israel’s security establishment is proceeding “with eyes wide open.”
“But it’s not as fragile as the relationship between the politicians,’’ he said, referring to Gen. Assidi by the nickname Abu Tarek, a sign of friendship. “On the ground level, things are clearer because we are professionals.’’
An extra $3 million in revenue every weekend?
The Israeli general said one reason the Jenin is a success story is that during the years of the intifada, the army either arrested or killed most of the militants in the city. Other gunmen signed on to a program to get amnesty from Israel in return for a promise to turn in their weapons.
That’s helped the army lift movement restrictions and encourage Israeli Arabs to visit – some 40,000 every month. According to Israeli civil administration figures on the Jenin economy, unemployment has decreased by 20 to 25 percent.
The idea to allow Israelis back into Palestinian cities would reverse a 9-year-old policy that made it illegal to enter after several Israelis were killed in cities like Ramallah at the beginning of the intifada. Gen. Assidi said it could mean an extra $3 million in income every weekend.
Jenin shopkeepers say they don’t mind visits by Israeli security officials as long as they are for peaceful purposes.
“As people we welcome them. As an army we do not,” says Faadi Khalaf, a convenience store shopkeeper who keeps a postcard size picture of a Palesitnian militant relative next to the cash register. “The people do not care for the chaos. The people were never consulted about the uprising.”
‘They killed our children’
Outside of Jenin, cooperation gets a more negative reception. An editorial in the London based Al Quds Al Arabi expressed dismay at the visit of the security officers. “The visit of [Shin Bet director] Yuval Diskin constitutes a great insult to every Palestinian person. How can a national movement become a tool of the Israeli occupation?’’
In the refugee camp which Israel flattened in 2002, there was more ambivalence about the return of Israeli Jewish civilians. “If Israeli Jews come here we will have a third intifada,’’ says Umm Takwah, a mother. “They killed our children, so how can we allow them to come in our town again?’’
The refugee neigbhorhood has been rebuilt. Shopkeeper Ahmed Abu Heiijeh said that while he would welcome Israeli Jews, he doubts the government will ever allow it. “I know they won’t come.’’
Who’s a terrorist?
Reflecting Al Quds’ concerns, Assidi insists that the relationship with Israel is still very one-sided. The Palestinian security forces must still request permission from Israel to move troops outside of the cities to rural villages and that undermines their credibility.
“Leave the Palestinians to perform their security duties alone,” says the Palestinian general. “If there are terrorists like Hamas or Islamic Jihad that must be controlled, I say let us deal with it.’’
The Israeli military officer says he understands Assidi’s position, but in his view the Palestinian security services are still not capable of fighting militants on their own. Thus, if the Israeli army stayed out of the cities it would risk the growth of a new militant infrastructure. In addition to lacking the necessary training, the Palestinian security forces’ concept of who’s a “terrorist” is lacking, he adds.
“I don’t think the Palestinians today will fight terror in the same way that we fight terror,’’ says the officer. “Will they go into a refugee camp despite the political risks?’’
But on the question of whether Jews would eventually would be allowed back into Palestinian cities, the officer was upbeat. “I think it’s going to happen. Maybe not in the next six months, but afterward.’’