Cinéma Vérité

What is so special about the northern West Bank?

cinema jenin311 (photo credit: mohammed ballas / AP)
cinema jenin311
(photo credit: mohammed ballas / AP)
WHO SAYS ECONOMIC peace hasn’t arrived, just like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised it would in his election campaign over a year ago? True, I’m not talking about the scope or the impact that Netanyahu promised. Nor does it have much to do with Netanyahu’s policies. I’m talking about something much smaller and much more modest, in the northern West Bank, that is based almost solely on the relationship between the governor of the Jenin district of the Palestinian Authority, Qadura Mussa, and the head of the Gilboa Regional Council, Danny Attar.
During his most recent visit to the region, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, who has years of experience dealing with the Middle East, met with Netanyahu and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It would be hard to say that he left those meetings in a particularly optimistic frame of mind. But when he arrived in Jenin and the Gilboa regions, his mood changed.
Turning to Mussa and Attar, Moratinos declared, “You’ve done more than make economic peace. Politicians should be taking a lesson from the two of you.”
At a dinner with the two local leaders, after releasing doves in a festive ceremony, Moratinos tells The Jerusalem Report, “When I see these two together, I feel hopeful. There are Attar and Mussa, talking together, praising each other, and making joint plans for the future.”
“It looks like the messiah has arrived; you have to rub your eyes to believe that Israelis and Palestinians can sit together like this,” said a member of the group accompanying Moratinos.
There’s no cooperation like this anywhere else – not in Jerusalem, not in Ramallah, not in any of the other districts in Judea and Samaria.
So what is so special about the northern West Bank? DURING THE YEARS OF THE second intifada, which broke out in November 2000, the city of Jenin and its rural surroundings was known in Israel as “the capital of terrorism,” the most turbulent region in the West Bank. The situation was so bad that in 2002, the IDF stormed the city, leading to the battle in the Jenin refugee camp, in which dozens of Palestinians and Israelis died.
The area has certainly calmed down since then. Today, Jenin has one of the highest levels of security in the West Bank – the Palestinian security forces work in cooperation with Israeli intelligence and the American advisors. Their success is obvious. While the districts of Nablus and Hebron still are plagued with often violent scuffles between settlers and Palestinians, the district of Jenin, in contrast, remains calm.
Perhaps all this is possible because in this region, the security barrier hasn’t touched Palestinian farmlands. What is clear is that the separation barrier that crosses through this area is on the line of the 1967 border that once divided the State of Israel from the Kingdom of Jordan. In other areas, near Modi’in, Ramallah and Jerusalem, the security barrier juts into the West Bank in order to guarantee the security of the settlements. This is the context for the weekly Friday demonstrations in villages such as Wallaje, Na’alin, and Bil’in. These demonstrations are often violent, while in Jenin there aren’t any demonstrations at all.
In other words, in the district of Jenin, there’s no conflict over the border. And in the absence of a border conflict, the relationship between Mussa and Attar could grow into full cooperation for the good of the region, and enable the leaders to concentrate on common problems such as environment, sewerage and water.
Attar was brought up in nearby Moshav Devora. His constituency includes the Israeli- Arab villages of Mukaibla and Sandala. It was the residents of these villages who made the connections with Mussa. Attar, strongly identified with the Labor Party, was a protégé of Yitzhak Rabin.
ON ONE DAY IN LATE JULY, THE young Israeli security guard at the Gilboa crossing from Israel into the district of Jenin, who checked my ID card as I was crossing into Jenin, asked in surprise, “You’re Jewish?” She explained that only Arab Israelis are allowed to cross into the West Bank, and only in their cars. As I noted in a previous Jerusalem Report article, there is an IDF military order forbidding Israeli citizens entry into Palestinian territories. In reality, that military order applies to Jews only (and it’s doubtful that it would hold up if it were challenged in the courts). This arrangement, which the Israeli authorities came to a few months ago, is an attempt to bolster the Palestinian economy.
(What finally tipped the scale in my favor and convinced her to let me cross was the document that I held in my hand, signed by me and addressed to the military authorities, confirming my absolute and irrevocable waiver of any claim to IDF or the State of Israel for any harm that might befall me in the territories.) Without a doubt, the efforts to improve the economy have been successful. I’ve seen entire convoys of Israeli cars, all of them belonging to Arabs from Nazareth and the Galilee, passing into the West Bank. According to Israeli officials, some 700 cars cross into Jenin every weekday, and more than 2,000, totaling some 10,000 people, on a Saturday. Crowds of Israelis travel to Jenin to sell their wares and buy goods that are some 30 percent cheaper than they are in Israel.
Israeli Arabs go to Jenin to see family and to have a good time. Entrepreneur Ibrahim Khadad, who in the past had a metal factory and also manufactured plows, has recently moved over to the tourist business. Near Jenin, he has built a resort that includes a hotel, a motel and a restaurant, sports facilities, an amusement park and an amphitheater. Visiting the lovely place, it’s easy to see that most of the visitors in the hotel (some 70 percent, according to the hotel management) are Israeli Arabs.
In early August, Jenin’s old movie theater, Cinema Jenin, reopened for the first time in 23 years. Guests from every corner of the West Bank and celebrities from abroad, including human rights activist Bianca Jagger (the former wife of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger), attended the opening ceremony.
The Arabs from the Galilee – who are, of course, full citizens of Israel – send some 500 of their sons and daughters to study at the American University, located in the Christian town of Zbabde, near Jenin. It’s a small university, but it’s considered to be excellent, especially for the paramedical professions. The Israeli students live in the towns near the college and in Jenin, and go home on weekends.
Some time ago, Governor Mussa and Council Head Attar arranged a meeting with Moratinos, who was so excited about their activities that he enlisted the Spanish government and the European Union to fund their joint initiatives. These include the establishment of a joint hospital, which has already passed the planning stage, as well as a school for languages, both of which will be on the border and will be open to Jewish and Arab students. Moratinos will find the funding.
Attar and Mussa are also planning an industrial area and a free trade zone, close to the border closing.
Soon, Spanish tourists will be spending several days at the sites in the Galilee and the Gilboa and then several days at the sites surrounding Jenin, as part of joint tourism projects that are ready for implementation. The Gilboa Regional Council is also supporting the establishment of a new recreational site near Kibbutz Yizreel; its main attraction will be a “ski” path along the slopes of Mt. Gilboa to the valley below. Instead of snow – cold temperatures and snow are not exactly common occurrences in this region – the slopes will be covered with a newly-developed special substance that feels just like snow.
THE JENIN DISTRICT IN THE Palestinian Authority and the Gilboa Regional Council are not equal partners.
This imbalance is obviously reinforced by the fact that the Gilboa Regional Council is part of a sovereign state whereas the Jenin district is part of an autonomous authority, legally still under occupation.
And they are not equal partners even in terms of the size of their communities and populations.
The Jenin district is made up of some 250,000 residents, living in six cities and towns and 42 local and rural councils. The Gilboa Regional Council, in contrast, has only 25,000 residents who live in 33 moshavim, kibbutzim, communal settlements and five Arab villages.
But when it comes to joint planning, it turns out that size doesn’t matter.
The northern West Bank and the Gilboa region straddle an important east-west route, from the port of Haifa and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the Kingdom of Jordan and on to the Arab States and the Persian Gulf.
Even now, the main border crossing between Israel and Jordan is still located along the slopes of the Gilboa, near Beit She’an.
More than 100 years ago, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire built an extension of the famous Hijaz line, intended to transport Muslim pilgrims to Mecca, through this region.
Until 1948, that line, with its center in Afula, known as “the Valley Train,” extended to Haifa and transported people and goods to Jenin and from there on to Nablus and the central regions.
When the British mandate came to an end in 1948, the trains ceased operation. Now there is talk of rebuilding the tracks and renewing the lines.
Meanwhile, I’ve taken a good look at the Gilboa border crossing. It primarily serves to bring agricultural produce from the West Bank into Israel; every day, some 200 trucks pass through, most of them carrying seasonal produce, such as cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, okra and squash. Palestinian trucks are not allowed to enter Israel, so the produce is transferred onto Israeli trucks. The joint industrial center planned for this area will primarily include factories for the processing of agricultural produce, as well as plants for the processing of olive oil, which is a specialty of the region among both Jews and Palestinians.
In the past, some 35,000 workers from Jenin used to cross into Israel every day. But the bloody intifada put an end to this, and today, only some 3,000 Palestinians from this area work in Israel. Holding special permits, they present themselves at the border crossing early in the morning and return home in the evening.
At one of the many joint meetings between Mussa and Attar, which I attended, I heard numerous complaints from the Palestinians about the difficulties that the Israeli Defense Ministry imposes on Palestinians entering into Israel. The relationship between the two is crucial, since the residents of Jenin turn to Attar through Mussa for many of their economic and humanitarian problems; Attar then writes to Ehud Barak, Minister of Defense, and co-Laborite, in their name.
Given the poor relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, and the prevailing pessimism regarding the peace process, the Jenin and Gilboa regions really do present an unusual case.