A busload full of tourists, diplomats and reporters visited Jenin on Wednesday in a pilot of a new joint tourism project between the Gilboa Regional Council and the Palestinian Authority's Jenin Governorate.
The project aims to take advantage of the relative security calm to boost tourism on both sides of the Green Line. The test subjects were a group of German women who were visiting Israel as guests of the council, participating in an international jeep race to promote coexistence.
At the height of the second intifada, Jenin was the prime point of departure for Palestinian suicide bombers targeting Israel, and became known as the West Bank "suicide-bomber capital." Today, while the security situation has improved considerably, and PA forces trained under US supervision are deployed in the city, there is still evidence of extremist support. Murals and posters of "martyrs" are present all over the city and anti-Israel graffiti covers many of the walls.
The visit to Jenin was hosted by Abdallah Baracat, the governorate's director-general, who welcomed the visitors to Jenin on behalf of Gov. Musa Kadura and the people of Jenin.
"The gates of Jenin are open to every person in the world. This may be your first visit, but I hope it's not your last," Kadura said at a reception in his office near the city entrance.
He did, however, limit the invitation by saying that settlers were not welcome, and concluded the meeting by calling on the foreign visitors to spread the message that Jenin is open for tourism and that it wants to get rid of the occupation.
Following the reception, the bus set off for the first of the day's attractions, a 2,000-year-old church in the western suburb of Burkin, commemorating a place where Jesus was said to have healed a group of lepers.
"This is the fourth oldest church in existence, but nobody really knows about it," Baracat said.
He gave a brief historical survey of the site and called on the Christian world to come to pray in the place where Jesus performed a miracle. The church has been renovated and is being used by a small congregation.
The next stop was a new olive oil manufacturing plant. The factory is situated in a large olive plantation and buys its olives from local growers. The factory is owned by the Canaan Fair Trade company and offers certified fair trade and certified organic products. In addition to premium olive oil, the company produces organic spices, honey, sun-dried tomatoes and pickles. Manager Ahmed Abu Farha said the plant employs 12 permanent and 20 seasonal workers and buys its olives from 1,700 farmers from all across the West Bank.
He said that some of the farmers had problems working their lands because of IDF checkpoints and the security barrier and that sometimes they encountered problems with settlers who sought to disrupt their harvest.
Jenin also has an archeological attraction. On a hilltop in one of the old sections of town there is a hand-carved tunnel, which hundreds of years ago was used to convey water into the walled city. The tunnel, which was only partially excavated, runs for 50 meters underground.
Lunch was held at the region's largest hotel, a new recreation complex owned by the Haddad family, a local family that made their fortune in Lebanon. The hotel features luxury rooms and is decorated with hand-carved statues and stone columns. It also has a swimming pool and nearby there is an amusement park and an auditorium under construction.
The final part of the tour was a visit to the city market. The market, spread over a large portion of downtown Jenin, features a wide variety of products at prices far cheaper than in Israel.
At the end of the day, the tourists said they enjoyed the visit and felt safe throughout the tour. With the help of the Spanish government that has committed a â‚¬1 million toward improving tourist infrastructure, training tour guides and marketing, a two-day visit to Jenin may become a serious option for the foreign tourist who wants to take part in advancing economic peace, organizers said.
"The economic peace that is so often talked about must begin with these sorts of projects," said Danny Atar, Gilboa Regional Council chairman. "We will continue to do whatever we can to promote these enterprises, because that is our worldview - the job of leaders is to create hope and battle despair. I believe that today we have an amazing opportunity to bring about change.
"In a place like Jenin, where there is forward looking leadership and a good security situation, we are able to make the ultimate change from focusing on violence, which is the ugly side of life, to focusing on things like tourism and recreation, which are life's nice sides," Atar said.
The joint tourism project enjoys the support of two key figures in the government, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has agreed to relax restrictions and open the crossings for Arab Israelis and foreign tourists, and Regional Cooperation Minister Silvan Shalom, who has taken a personal interest in promoting this and other cooperative projects.