There was a moment of tension on the bus as the yellow metal gate of the Jalame Crossing closed behind us. None of us was really sure what to expect of the day ahead. After an hour delay waiting for security clearance, we were ready to continue, a mixed group of diplomats, tourists and journalists on our way to visit the West Bank city of Jenin - most of us for the first time.
Wednesday's tour was a pilot project to test the waters for a new joint tourism project, partnering the Gilboa Regional Council with the governorate of Jenin. The test subjects were a group of German women tourists who were in the Gilboa to participate in an international jeep race to help promote coexistence.
The city of Jenin, including the refugee camp that rests at its heart, is home to roughly 150,000 people. It is located in a fertile northern valley, 15 kilometers south of Afula and 35 kilometers east of Hadera. On the 10-minute drive from the border crossing to the city, we passed large expanses of fields and greenhouses.
Once on the Palestinian side we were greeted by Abdallah Baracat, the governorate's director-general, who welcomed us to Jenin on behalf of the governor and the people of the city. We were also greeted by a police escort. The escort consisted of two uniformed officers with plate-sized shoulder tags, reading "Police of Tourism," and they were with us during the whole day.
Jenin used to be known as the "suicide bomber capital," and for years was considered a stronghold of the Islamic Jihad and an active hotbed of terrorist activity, but in recent years things there have been quiet. The appointed governor, Musa Kadura, is said to have brought law and order to the city, and with the help of foreign donations, aims to bring prosperity too.
Much of the work is being funded by foreign donations. An example of the effect these contributions have already had is the road we arrived on, which was built using funds provided by the German government.
THE FIRST stop on the tour was a reception with Kadura in his offices, located in a residential neighborhood near the entrance to the city. Kadura greeted us in a large conference room where he gave us a brief overview of the city, its institutions and its people. "Jenin opens its doors to every person in the world and I am sure this is only the first of many visits," he said.
Kadura spoke about a trip he once made to the German city of Cologne. He said that like Cologne, Jenin was also a city that had recovered after being destroyed, and that the Palestinians had learned a lot about state building from the German government. The governor added that Jenin was a peaceful place, and that the Palestinian Authority had done everything to ensure compliance with the roadmap agreement. The roadmap agreement, brokered by former president George W. Bush, had committed Israelis and Palestinians to a number of steps on the ground which were meant to help facilitate the peace process on a diplomatic level.
Kadura said he welcomed foreign visitors because they could spread the word that Jenin was a welcoming place, and should therefore be independent of Israeli rule.
When asked if Jenin would also welcome Jewish Israelis, Kadura responded that Israelis were welcome, but not settlers.
After the meeting with the governor, we took the bus through the winding streets toward the first tourist attraction of the day. Before reaching our destination, we were dropped off in the middle of Burqin, a small hilltop suburb of Jenin. The bus could take us no further as the roads had become too narrow for it to drive through.
A short walk through the neighborhood brought us to St. George's Church, an ancient place of worship that dates back to biblical times. At the church we were met by the local caretaker who told us about its history.
According to Christian tradition, Jesus passed through Burqin as he traveled from the Galilee to Jerusalem. On his way, he heard cries for help coming out of a hole in the ground. Upon investigation, he found a group of ten lepers quarantined inside an old cistern. The Gospel of Luke states that Jesus felt compassion for their plight, and cured the lepers.
The church itself is made up of two sections: the original cave in which the lepers lived and a hall that was constructed around it hundreds of years later. Both sections are covered with paintings depicting Jesus' healing of the lepers, as well as colorful pictures of martyrs and saints. The Greek Orthodox Church is currently attended and cared for by roughly 20 Christian families who live in the suburb.
St. George's Church is considered the fourth oldest church in existence, and Jenin officials hope it will become a major draw for Christian tourism to the region.
Like the church, the neighborhood, too, featured pictures of martyrs, but the ones in the street were far different than those in the church. Instead of the placid, halo surrounded faces of religious devout, the posters in the streets showed angry, young Palestinian men holding machine-guns and wearing explosive vests. The modern day martyrs were locals who sacrificed their lives to launch terror attacks against Israel.
After Burqin, we were taken to a half-completed building in the middle of a
large olive grove, on the outskirts of the city. The building is the new home of Canaan Fair Trade, an organic olive oil manufacturing company.
Though there were still a few weeks to go before the harvest begins, and the machines were not yet operating, Ahmed Abu Farha showed us around the factory, pointing out the different stages in the production process and telling us about the company and its values.
Ahmed is the son of the company's owner Nasser Abu Farha. The owner returned to Jenin after living in the United States for 23 years. In 2004, upon his return, he established Canaan Fair Trade, as well as the Palestine Fair Trade Association, a cooperative for local growers.
Abu Farha explained that the company buys its olives from a group of 1,700 small-scale farmers located throughout the West Bank. The company has organic certification from the United States, the European Union and Japan, and is a pioneer in Fair Trade certification. According to the company's website, "Canaan typically pays farmers a 10% Fair Trade premium and 10% Organic premium above the market price. Canaan also requires that farm workers and workers at processing points such as presses and mills are paid fairly and afforded healthy and safe working conditions." Abu Farha said that Canaan provided full-time employment for 12 workers and seasonal work for 20 more.
The tour of the plant ended at the company's gift shop. In the rustically designed store, we saw that aside from olive oil, the company also offered a wide range of other local organic products. Honey, sun-dried tomatoes, spices and couscous were all on display on the shelves, all in attractive packaging and surrounded by sheaves of wheat and olive branches.
Across the street from the building, a Palestinian family was picking the season's first yield. The older family members beat the trees so that the ripe olives would shake off, while the children picked up the fallen olives from a large tarp that was laid down on the ground.
Abu Farha said that some of the farmers had problems working their lands because of Israeli checkpoints and the security barrier that separated their places of residence from their olive groves. He also said that harvest time usually saw sporadic fighting break out between Palestinians and settlers in the West Bank.
The next stop was Jenin's version of Jerusalem's Hezekiah's Tunnel. The 50-meter-long hand-carved underground passage leading from the bottom of a hill to what was once the heart of an ancient village has unearthed artifacts from the Roman Byzantine period and Crusader times.
Compared to archeological sites in Israel, Khirbet Belame is rather underdeveloped. The site has only been partially excavated, and the tunnel features renovated stairs and modern lighting, but employs no tour guides. Baracat explained that additional digs were being planned, and that the currently empty information signs spread out across the site would soon be filled.
Yet the site is a dramatic improvement over its recent use. According to one photographer on the tour who fought in Operation Defensive Shield, which was launched in Jenin in 2002 to combat terrorism, the hill surrounding the tunnel was used as an ambush point against IDF troops.
THE GROUP stopped for lunch at a new hotel on the outskirts of Jenin. Ibrahim Haddad, a local entrepreneur who made his fortune manufacturing and selling agricultural equipment and machinery, recently opened the luxury facility in a recreation complex east of the city.
The 40-room hotel augments the vacation cabins already in place, and offers local and international tourists an exclusive getaway from daily life. Aside from the hotel, the complex also has a swimming pool and a small lake where people can swim, as well as an amusement park, which Haddad constructed himself. Haddad is also currently building an auditorium.
When we were there the hotel was vacant, but Haddad said that during the weekends it fills up with guests from other cities in the West Bank, as well as with Arab Israelis, who have begun arriving in the city at a greater rate since passage restrictions were eased by Israel.
Prices at the Haddad Hotel are very cheap in comparison to Israeli hotels and a family can expect to pay $200 for a weekend stay. We were served excellent dishes of local fare and traditional coffee, which some of the tourists found a bit too strong for their liking.
The final stop on the tour was a walk through Jenin's large marketplace. The market is the commercial center of town, and in it you can find anything from locally grown fruits and vegetables, to imported electronic goods and clothes.
THE WALK through the market was the first time we were out of a controlled environment, and although we were still accompanied by Baracat and the tourism police, we were able to interact more freely with residents on the street.
The market seemed to be populated by more merchants than shoppers, and the people we spoke to complained that the poor economy has translated to fewer customers.
"Tourism projects would be welcome here, any project would be welcome here. Jenin is desperately short of jobs, and young people have few prospects. Those who can, leave Jenin and go to Europe or North America to study and find jobs," said 26-year-old Muhammad from Burquin.
"Things have improved since the Israelis removed some of the checkpoints, but you still have to cross three of them to get from Jenin to Ramallah," said the proprietor of a small convenience store in the Jenin indoor mall.
Our walk through the market drew lively attention by the locals, and people approached us to practice their English in friendly conversation. Before the second intifada broke out, Jenin was teeming with Israelis who came to the market to purchase cheap goods, and many of its residents have spent time in Israel and have family members living there.
Here and there we saw reminders that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had left its mark. Ruined buildings recalled Israel's use of bulldozers which cleared the explosives and mines planted by terrorists during the fighting that took place in 2002. Posters and murals glorifying suicide bombers were a constant reminder of the political leanings of at least some of the residents.
On the way back to the bus I had a chance to speak to Juan Gonzales Barba, the deputy head of the Spanish diplomatic mission to Israel. The Spanish Foreign Ministry is one of the main financial backers of the joint tourism project.
"It's important that this pilot project is taking place, because while many times you receive bad news from this part of the world, this is a very good piece of news. If you can build on it, that could really be a vision of the future," he said.
"It is important that Gilboa and Jenin, [Gilboa Regional Council chairman] Danny Atar and Musa Kadura, have decided to engage in cross-border cooperation and convince their constituencies that it is in their own interests," Barba continued, adding quickly the process was only at its start, and that time would tell whether the project would be a success.
Barba added that while economic development could not replace political progress, it was an important step in the right direction. "This is the correct way to proceed. You cannot just wait for a final political situation, you have to start cooperating on ground level," he said.
According to Barba, the Spanish government planned to help build up tourism in the city by marketing a tour of the city which would include guides, interpreters, and meetings with notable residents. The goal, he said, was to bring 10,000 tourists a year, primarily from North America and Europe.
IF THE security situation continues to improve, other joint projects are likely to follow. Atar is optimistic about continued cooperation between the regions, the success of which he credits to the strong connection between Arabs and Jews within his own council area. The population in the Gilboa area is 40% Arab.
Although the partnership began hesitantly, it quickly grew into a real friendship, Atar said.
"Mutual trust, personal recognition and joint goal orientation have set us on the right track," said Atar. "We have proved that even without state involvement, we can form good relations with our neighbors.
Atar gives much of the credit of the early success to his Palestinian counterpart. "The govorner of Jenin has been able to convince his people that it is worthwhile to maintain public order, that a rule of law will lead to improved quality of life. If we aren't able to infuse hope into the residents of Jenin that their lives will truly improve, then we will find ourselves in a new round of conflict."
He also gives credit to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, who have taken an active interest in developing the projects, and have made great efforts to remove security and bureaucratic impediments.
In addition to the tourism project, the two regions are also promoting the construction of a joint industrial zone bridging the border. The idea is for the Palestinians to produce locally-made handicrafts and transfer them through Gilboa to the rest of the world. Another project in the works is a jointly operated language center, where Israelis and Palestinians would teach each other Arabic and Hebrew, as well as aspects of their cultural heritage.
AT THE MOMENT, Jenin is still not ready to absorb a vast influx of tourists. The city's tourism infrastructure is underdeveloped, and as far as attractions go, there is room for more creative thinking. But if the leadership can remain stable and the economy continues to improve, there is hope that residents there will embrace the model and encourage it to be repeated elsewhere. For the time being, Jenin is a great destination for people who want to witness first-hand the transformation of an area infamous for its bloody newspaper headlines.
For years politicians have been talking about the virtues of economic peace. In the now quiet Jenin, the theories are finally being put to the test.