JENIN, Northern Samaria — Life is returning to normal here in the city once known as the suicide-bombing capital of the West Bank. The economy is picking up, services are being restored and local leaders describe a new optimism.
The reason, Israeli military officials say, is the nearly completed security fence separating this sector of the West Bank from Israel. A 50-mile stretch — from the Jordan River to just north of Netanya — is three months from completion. Already the barrier has virtually eliminated terrorist incidents, as well as car thefts and illegal infiltration, inside nearby parts of Israel. In response, the army has sharply curtailed the hated roadblocks and closures that had disrupted life for local Palestinians. Workers can now reach their jobs. Farmers can bring their crops to market, reviving Jenin’s business district.
The Jenin area is a test case for life after the fence is completed and separation becomes a reality, says Colonel Oren Avman, the regional brigade commander. The results are more successful than anyone on the ground, Israeli or Palestinian, had predicted. Life for Palestinian residents has improved vastly, thanks to the lifting of closures. And because the Palestinians here actually have something to lose now, life has improved for neighboring Israelis as well.
Avman’s view isn’t necessarily shared by his superiors. Prime Minister Sharon, in a series of nearly identical pre-holiday interviews to Israel’s major newspapers this week, described his separation plan as “a mortal blow” to the Palestinians.
“My plan is hard for the Palestinians,” Sharon told the daily Yediot Aharonot. “A mortal blow. In the unilateral process there is no Palestinian state. This situation could continue for many years.”
Sharon was dismissive of statements by Palestinian leaders, including Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, welcoming Israeli disengagement as a first step toward a broader agreement. He said his plan is intended not to advance other peace plans but to head them off.
Qurei and other Palestinian leaders have been involved in talks with Egypt in recent weeks to assemble a new Palestinian security team to take over once Israel leaves. But Sharon declined this week, as he has in the past, to speculate on what form Palestinian life would or should take on the other side of the fence once Israel withdraws, except to say the Palestinians would no longer have any excuse for failing to fight terrorism.
This is where the lessons of Jenin become crucial.
From the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000, Jenin was the de-facto capital of terrorist activity. Its proximity to the border, particularly to major Israeli-Arab towns such as Umm El Fahm, made it easy for suicide bombers to slip into Israel and blend in quickly, then continue on to nearby Hadera, Netanya or Haifa. This caused the army and the Shin Bet security service to put the town under constant, strict closure, surrounding it with roadblocks.
As a result, Jenin could no longer serve as the provincial capital for close to 250,000 Palestinians in Northern Samaria. The economic results were devastating. That led to frustration and anger, which in turn created fertile ground for the recruitment of more would-be suicide bombers.
Avman, despite the doubts of his superiors and fierce opposition from the Shin Bet, was determined to break this vicious cycle. The fence, begun last year, provided him a starting point.
Last January 1, when the first stretch of fence was completed, Avman met with the mayor of Jenin at brigade headquarters. “On the way back home,” he promised the disbelieving mayor, “you will not see a single Israeli tank.”
The town has not been closed off for more than four months. This had major effects on both sides of the fence. In Jenin, life is closer to normal — which, as Avman is quick to point out, creates an incentive to avoid terrorism, as people have more to lose. On the Israeli side, people seem to feel much safer. Three weeks ago, more than 30,000 Israelis turned out for a hike along the Gilboa ridge near here organized annually by local authorities. A year ago, the number of hikers was less than 6,000, and security expenses were five times higher.
The army’s work is easier, too. Avman said he deploys just two battalions along the fence, and one more operating inside the West Bank, mostly in intelligence-driven operations to arrest or eliminate known terrorists.
One major question mark remains. The fence as a whole is less than 50% completed, and will not be fully erect by the end of this year. In the interim, all the problems — particularly attempts by suicide bombers to enter Israel — have migrated southward to the unprotected areas. Only once the whole West Bank is fenced in, including the very problematic areas around Jerusalem, will Israelis know whether or not this is a real solution.
There is another major distinction between Northern Samaria and other areas: The fence here largely follows the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. There are few Israeli settlements in this sector, and so there are few deviations eastward to appease the settlers, few Palestinians separated from their fields and orchards, and no enclaves of Palestinians forced to pass a gate every time they go to school, to work or to see a doctor. In several other regions under construction, this is not the case. The pressure around the fence in those spots is expected to be much greater, leading to more security problems and more pressure on the army.
Moreover, it’s increasingly unclear whether any of this will actually come to pass. Most of the questions Sharon was asked in his pre-holiday interviews concerned his shaky political and legal situation. Just before Passover, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz announced that he will not press charges against Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his alleged supporting role in the so-called Greek Island affair, the scandal at the center of Sharon’s current troubles. But sources in Mazuz’s office indicated that the charges against Sharon were much more serious and that it would be wrong to conclude that Mazuz’s decision regarding the prime minister will necessarily be similar.
“I think there will be no indictment,” the prime minister said confidently when asked of his own legal future. But many others are much less confident. The prime minister’s future continues to hang in the balance, and with it the future of his government, his disengagement plan and Jenin’s hesitant economic revival.