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From intifada hub to model Palestinian city: How Jenin turned around

Once the heart of the intifada, Jenin is today lauded as a model of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Israeli Jews may soon be allowed to shop here again, bringing $3 million per weekend.

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"But it's not as fragile as the relationship between the politicians,’’ he said, referring to General Assidi by the nickname Abu Tarek, a sign of friendship. "On the ground level, things are clearer because we are professionals.’’

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An extra $3 million in revenue every weekend?

The Israeli general said one reason that Jenin is a success story is that during the years of the intifada, the army either arrested or killed most of the militants in the city. Other gunmen signed on to a program to get amnesty from Israel in return for a promise to turn in their weapons.

That’s helped the army lift movement restrictions and encourage Israeli Arabs to visit – some 40,000 every month. According to Israeli civil administration figures on the Jenin economy, unemployment has decreased by 20 to 25 percent.

The idea to allow Israelis back into Palestinian cities would reverse a nine-year-old policy that made it illegal to enter after several Israelis were killed in cities like Ramallah at the beginning of the intifada. General Assidi said it could mean an extra $3 million in income every weekend.

Jenin shopkeepers say they don't mind visits by Israeli security officials as long as they are for peaceful purposes.

"As people, we welcome them. As an army, we do not," says Faadi Khalaf, a convenience store shopkeeper who keeps a postcard-size picture of a Palesitnian militant relative next to the cash register. "The people do not care for the chaos. The people were never consulted about the uprising."

'They killed our children – how can we allow them to return?'

Outside Jenin, cooperation gets a more negative reception. An editorial in the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi expressed dismay at the visit of the security officers. "The visit of [Shin Bet director] Yuval Diskin constitutes a great insult to every Palestinian person. How can a national movement become a tool of the Israeli occupation?’’

In the refugee camp which Israel flattened in 2002, there was more ambivalence about the return of Israeli Jewish civilians. "If Israeli Jews come here we will have a third intifada,’’ says Mrs. Takwah, a mother who declined to give her first name. "They killed our children, so how can we allow them to come in our town again?’’

The refugee neigbhorhood has been rebuilt. Shopkeeper Ahmed Abu Heiijeh said that while he would welcome Israeli Jews, he doubts the government will ever allow it. "I know they won’t come.’’

Who's a terrorist?

Reflecting Al Quds' concerns, Assidi insists that the relationship with Israel is still very one-sided. The Palestinian security forces must still request permission from Israel to move troops outside the cities to rural villages and that undermines their credibility.

"Leave the Palestinians to perform their security duties alone," says the Palestinian general. "If there are terrorists like Hamas or Islamic Jihad that must be controlled, I say let us deal with it.’’

The Israeli military officer says he understands Assidi's position, but in his view the Palestinian security services are still not capable of fighting militants on their own. Thus, if the Israeli army stayed out of the cities it would risk the growth of a new militant infrastructure. In addition to lacking the necessary training, the Palestinian security forces' concept of who’s a "terrorist" is lacking, he adds.

"I don’t think the Palestinians today will fight terror in the same way that we fight terror,’’ says the officer. "Will they go into a refugee camp despite the political risks?’’

But on the question of whether Jews would eventually be allowed back into Palestinian cities, the officer was upbeat. "I think it's going to happen. Maybe not in the next six months, but afterward.’’