Isolated Jenin opens to some cross-barrier traffic

Once a militant bastion, the West Bank city is now open to visits from Israeli Arabs. The move could help bolster the peace process and provide a much-needed economic boost.

Mohamad Torokman/REUTERS
Free to go to the Market: Arab Israelis passed shops in Jenin on Monday, when Israel began to allow its Arab citizens to visit relatives for the first time in six years.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

Once reputed as the cradle of suicide bombers, this northern West Bank city was the first Palestinian region that Israel sealed off by building its controversial separation barrier.

But now, with militant gangs subdued and local police units fighting crime, for the first time in years Israeli Arabs like Iyad and Munah Sbeihad are being allowed to make day trips to Jenin to shop and visit relatives after years of separation.

Prodded by the United States, the Israeli army and a reinforced Palestinian security force have tightened their security cooperation, attracting a stream of foreign dignitaries who are directing millions of dollars of aid to stoke renewed economic prosperity in the region.

The goal is to shore up the Palestinian Authority from the kind of chaos that gave way to Hamas's takeover last year in Gaza.

"It's a pretty big deal," says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. "Jenin was the archetype during the uprising as the place that was the most dangerous. Now, ironically, it is the most quiet area. It's kind of a symbol: if you make it there you can make it anywhere."

Though they live only a mile from their cousin Shukri Sbeihad in the West Bank village of Rumeiney, Iyad and Munah never saw their relative for six years, as their villages are on opposite sides of Israel's separation barrier.

But on Thursday, as Munah browsed hair clips and dresses in the Jenin market, Shukri and Iyad caught up on each other's lives. "We hugged," says Iyad, describing the reunion over barbecued chicken at Jenin's Al Kuds restaurant. "It was a really long hug."

In addition to partially lifting a six-year ban on citizens visiting West Bank cities (Israeli Jews are still restricted), Israel has boosted permits for Palestinian day workers and businesspeople to cross into Israel to bring more money home for families.

Palestinian villages are being hooked up to water systems and electricity grids, and an industrial park is planned for the next few years.

Israeli security officials say the improvement has been made possible through a sustained effort by the Palestinian police to arrest car thieves and prevent vigilante violence and extortion. And while Palestinians say that only a full withdrawal of Israeli forces, combined with an breakthrough in peace negotiations, will promise sustainable prosperity, they acknowledge progress.

"The siege has been broken partially. It plants hope in the hearts of Palestinian people," says Qaddoura Moussa, the Palestinian Authority's governor of Jenin. "Suddenly our priorities have changed. We're getting back to serving the people."

This week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited. His government is helping to fund the industrial park. Mr. Steinmeier called the state of the city "miraculous." Recently, diplomats from Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia have toured the region. A British visit is scheduled for next week.

"Just last week, Tony Blair was in the center of Jenin eating falafel and sipping juice!'' says Moussa, referring to the former British prime minister, who is now pushing economic development projects as the representative of the Quartet of international peace process mediators. "This means Jenin has improved on security."

In recent weeks, about 700 Palestinian officers reinforced the 400 policemen in the region after months of training in Jordan that was overseen by US Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton. The forces have begun arresting and jailing militants from Islamic Jihad.

"The security work in Jenin is promising," says a senior Western official. "And where it counts, in improving the lives of the average citizen and the government of Jenin, the operation is making very strong progress."

At the height of the second Palestinian intifada, Jenin was the launchpad for a series of bombings in Israeli shopping malls and commuter buses that prompted the military to reoccupy all towns in the West Bank. Going after the command centers of the militant groups, Israel's army razed a swath of residential areas in the Jenin refugee camp, prompting allegations of war crimes.

For nearly a year, the local branch of the Aqsa Martyr's Brigades has complied with a program that gives them amnesty from arrest in return for a promise to give up their weapons. Jenin is the second Palestinian town after Nablus where the Palestinian police have been given a degree of freedom to reestablish law and order.

Israeli military officials said that the improvement in the region has allowed groups like the US Agency for International Development to hook up villages to drinking water and sewage systems. It's also helped them allow more civilian and commercial traffic across the Jalameh border crossing at the northern tip of the West Bank. "There's a huge dependence of the Palestinians on the Israeli side,'' said Lt. Col. Fares Ateela, who estimated that Palestinian cucumber exports to Israel would increase slightly, to $30 million this year.

Family ties across the border will also be strengthened. "These will be gifts for my daughters," said Munah, as she paid for clothes at a Jenin store. "A souvenir from Palestine."

There are still restrictions. Entry is prohibited for children under the age of 18, and the Arab Israelis can only stay for eight hours during the day. At the Jalameh checkpoint, they are watched by M-16 toting guards above while subjected to security checks.

Before bidding his cousin farewell, Shukri said that while Jenin residents feel the improvement in security, that the fruits of economic incentives are still imperceptible. "I feel like I'm thirsty, and I've been given some water," he says. "But I can hardly drink any drops."

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