Jenin, once a stronghold of suicide bombers, is the quietest town in the West Bank these days. After four attempted terror attacks at the nearby Jalamah checkpoint, the people there understood their economic prosperity could be endangered and immediately took action to calm things down.
It's a quiet morning hour at the entrance gate leading into Jenin. Palestinian workers are standing on the other side of the Gilboa-Jalamah checkpoint, waiting for the contractors to pick them up. Some light up a morning hookah and smoke while sitting on one of the nearby benches in the checkpoint's well-taken-care-of entrance. A few Palestinian businessmen, wearing nice suits, are quickly making their way from one side to the other. An outsider passing by wouldn't be able to tell that Israel and the Palestinian Authority were in the midst of the worst escalation of violence since the second intifada.
But the guards at the checkpoint are wound up like a spring and adopt a solemn expression. Their gaze is focused on the line of cars asking to enter Israel, their weapons are at the ready, and their fingers are very near the trigger guard. They've learned from experience. In each of the four attempted attacks that happened here between late October and early November, the terrorists came out of the long line of vehicles. All four were children or teenagers, all wielding knives, they were all from the Jenin-district town of Qabatiya – they even all went to the same school.
One of them, Muhammad Zakarna, was captured on security cameras when he posed as a krembo seller (a
whipped-cream topped biscuit, covered in a thin layer of chocolate), and then proceeded to run towards the guards with a knife in his hand.
But no kids have been seen on the Palestinian side of the checkpoint for the past month. In fact, nobody walks there, stands there, or sells krembos there. The reason is that 100 meters away from the checkpoint, plain-clothed Palestinian policemen are stationed, wearing black caps that broadcast their identity to all Palestinians. Some check some of the cars that want to go through the checkpoint, others look around, trying to spot potential suspicious activity. Someone told us that there are also more policemen there, whose job is to see and not be seen. The efforts have borne fruit: The guards have already managed to stop three different women who each wanted to perpetrate a stabbing attack.
"The Palestinian security forces are indeed on the Palestinian side of the checkpoint and they prevent kids from coming to it, since we don't want these kids to die," says Jenin Governor Ibrahim Ramadan. "They've been there for 30 days, in several places, taking care of the Palestinians' security."
Ramadan, a large man with an impressive presence, was born in the Bethlehem refugee camp of Dheisheh and was a central activist there in the days of the first intifada, during which he was arrested six times. After it ended, he joined the Palestinian security forces and climbed the ranks until he was the equivalent of a major general in the Palestine Preventive Security – the Palestinian equivalent of the Shin Bet.
"I made a decision that we can't drag the kids to the Jalamah checkpoint, which we already call the 'death checkpoint,'" he says. "We have instructions from the Rais (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) to preserve the security and lives of Palestinians. That doesn't mean we won't still oppose the occupation peacefully. We will go on with this war of popular resistance until our land is freed."
Hebron took up the torch
In the last decade, Jenin was the focal point of the second intifada. This town was home to the terrorists who perpetrated the largest attacks, which claimed the lives of dozens of victims: The attack in the Matza restaurant in Haifa, the 823 bus line attack in Wadi Ara, the Megiddo junction attack, and the attack at the Maxim restaurant. The Jenin refugee camp, which is in the city's western part, became the symbol of Palestinian resistance. Much has changed since then, and Jenin has been the most quiet town in the West Bank during this current escalation of violence.
The magic word here is money, or more accurately – Jenin's financial growth, which is mostly due to the many Israeli Arabs who enter it every day, especially on weekends, to do their shopping. In a normal weekday, 2,500 cars will enter Jenin through the Jalamah checkpoint. On weekends it's double that amount.
That economic engine supports business owners and service providers in the city, from clothing and footwear providers, through restaurants and toy stores, to dentists. Israeli Arabs prefer to go to the professional doctors in the city, whose prices are much lower. Teeth implants, for instance, cost about 20 percent of what they would in Israel. The prices in restaurants are about 40-60 percent lower, and all this is a 15-minute drive away from Nazareth.
The main person to credit with this economic development is former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, the man who came up with the "Jenin model" last decade, a model that helped the town and the district to rise back up from the lows of the second intifada. Fayyad reached the conclusion that economic prosperity is ultimately what leads to calm on the security front, and decided to implement this model particularly in the city that took the hardest blows during the second intifada.
With generous financial backing from the United States and European countries, large economic projects were established in Jenin, plans meant to increase employment were drafted, and the prospect of allowing more Palestinian workers into Israel was discussed with the Israeli authorities, as was the idea of replacing checkpoints with a large presence of Palestinian security forces, which began to return order to a city that for years had only known anarchy.
The results were soon apparent. The city's American university, the only Palestinian university whose degrees are recognized in Israel, currently has 3,500 registered Israeli Arab students. Next year, a new and advanced private hospital is set to open in the city, named Ibn Sina, which will work in cooperation with HaEmek Medical Center in the neighboring Israeli city of Afula. In addition, construction is set to start on Jenin's industrial area, which will take in 30 factories and employ 25,000 people.
All of this is now threatened by the escalation in the security situation. After the four attempted attacks, Israel announced, in a strange move, that the Jalamah checkpoint would be closed completely until further notice. It ended up being just one day.
"People told me that Jenin was like a wilted tree in those 24 hours," says Lt.-Col. Samir Kayouf, head of Israel's District Coordination and Liaison office in Jenin. "The city understands that it shouldn't return to those days. The price is too high, and most people don't want an escalation."
"When they closed the checkpoint, Jenin became a depressed city," says Hisham Massad, a prominent businessman in Jenin. "There was no commercial movement and many business owners just closed their stores."
People in Jenin understand all too well the meaning of closing down the checkpoint, and that's why they took the meaningful step of establishing a sterile zone on the Palestinian side and increasing inspections. But it didn't end there. In a short brainstorming session held in the district, it was decided that another problem needed to be handled: The fact that all of the attempted terrorists came from the same place.
"People here realized that there's a problem," Massad says, "and that's why a delegation of senior government members and respected community members visited the schools in Qabatiya to speak with the students and their parents about the sensitive issue. The goal was to lower the tensions and take a strong stance against the terrorist attacks."
In addition, a meeting with the Qabatiya community leaders took place, led by Governor Ramadan. 400 people participated, and different sources say that it was the people of Qabatiya who asked the governor to take steps that would prevent the youths from reaching the checkpoint and perpetrating attacks.
Such a public move by the Palestinian Authority to aid the defense of an Israeli checkpoint is not a trivial thing in these chaotic times, and might lead to serious backlash and accusations of "cooperating with the Zionist enemy," mostly from Hamas officials, who are always looking for such opportunities.
But the governor of Jenin, who had no qualms about cutting off the head of the Hamas snake in the city, is not really worried.
"We don't have any problem with being called a 'Daytoni' for our efforts to protect our children ('Daytoni' is an insult used by Hamas against the Palestinian security forces which implies the PA is cooperating with Israel. The insult comes from the name of American general Keith Dayton, who was the US Security Coordinator in the PA and oversaw the formation and training of the Palestinian security forces - E.L.). That's fine, I'm a 'Daytoni.' I take care of our children, and the people of Qabatiya stood by me on this matter."
But Qabatiya is not the Jenin governor's only problem. Another big problem is one of the city's symbols, the Jenin refugee camp - a former Palestinian territory with some 50,000 residents. Almost every time the Palestinian security forces enter the camp, they exchange fire with the armed militants. The Palestinian Authority has no real control over the camp. Every few weeks, IDF troops enter the camp and normally these raids are met with armed fire exchanges, arrests of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, and the seizure of weapons.
So far, the Jenin refugee camp has not joined the recent wave of violence, among other reasons because of an ongoing dialogue between the governor and the Islamic Jihad leadership in the camp. Ramadan says that there is mutual respect between him and the dominant groups in the refugee camp.
In recent days, there has been talk in the camp on whether to join the wave of violence, and opinions on the matter go both ways. Those in favor of joining the wave of violence are claiming that Hebron stole the spotlight by becoming the torchbearer of the resistance.
Hisham Massad says that in Jenin there's a saying that there is always a balance between the refugee camp and Qabatiya - when the flames are burning in Qabatiya, the camp is calm, and vice versa. And, indeed, over the past few weeks the flames in Qabatiya have been burning high, while the Jenin camp has been relatively quieter.
Even the vegetables are better
The authorities in Jenin may have been successful in restoring calm to the city, but it is probably not enough for Israeli Arabs, and they have yet to return.
"Ever since the first attempted attack in Jalamah, I stopped going into Jenin," admits Jaber Hamadan from Acre. "I'm a cautious man and I'm afraid to go there. I won't return to Jenin until the situation calms down.
"We love the atmosphere in Jenin. Everything is very cheap, and even the vegetables there, which are watered with deep well water, have a different taste. You sit at a restaurant with the entire family and each a good meal, including meat and salads, and pay NIS 100. But these bastard terrorists ruined everything. I was on a tour with a big group of people on the bus and I suggested we went to one of the restaurants in Jenin through a side road. They would absolutely not do it."
Ibrahim Haddad, a Palestinian entrepreneur, has really felt the brunt of the security situation. Haddad opened the biggest theme park in the West Bank in Jenin, 'Kafr Haddad.' The resort has a water park, a Luna Park, a petting zoo, a wax museum, an audiovisual performance, and massive models of dinosaurs scattered around the park. During weekends, thousands of people, most of them Israeli Arabs, would normally visit the park. The entry is free, and the average price of each attraction is NIS 3.
But this week, the park was completely deserted, and Haddad - who is normally all smiles - welcomes us with a long face.
"Jenin is a city made for calm times, not for wartime," he says. "The summer season was really successful, but since all of the chaos began, the Israeli Arabs won't come into Jenin. They are afraid that if there is a terror attack, they and their children will be exposed to gunfire from the IDF, or that Israel simply closes the checkpoint and they'll be stuck in Jenin."
Haddad says that if the situation persists, he will not be able to keep employing the 120 workers at the park. "I can only survive for a few more months. In the past two months, I lost NIS 600,000. One child who commits an attack at the checkpoint causes grief to tens of thousands of residents here. It disrupts our lives and takes us back. A terror attack at the checkpoint is not an attack against Israelis, but an attack against us."
The Jenin governor, meanwhile, is trying to remain optimistic. "We have yet to reach the point in which this can be called an intifada," Ramadan says. "The previous intifadas were much harder than the current situation."
Hisham Massad, on his part, decided to go ahead with his grandiose plan to build a five-star hotel in Jenin with a water park and a mall to attract the Israeli Arabs.
But for now, the long line of Israeli cars seeking to enter Jenin through the Jalamah checkpoint has disappeared. The residents of Jenin, which was once dubbed "The City of Suicide Bombers," are wishing - some in private and others in public - for the end of this wave of violence.