In Jenin, once the ‘suicide bomber capital,’ a fragile transformation
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Analysis'Yes, Abu Mazen has given in on the refugees even though he denies it. So really, there’s not much left to do except make peace'

In Jenin, once the ‘suicide bomber capital,’ a fragile transformation

Locals in the notorious West Bank city are focused on making a living, not intifada violence; for now, people don't talk about 'the war with the Jews'

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian vendor displays decorations at a market ahead of Ramadan in the West Bank city of Jenin, June 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Mohammed Ballas)
A Palestinian vendor displays decorations at a market ahead of Ramadan in the West Bank city of Jenin, June 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Mohammed Ballas)

JENIN — It takes some time to accustom our ears to the loud, incessant soundtrack of voices and shouts. There are crowds of people and close to 180 market stalls, all of them loaded with the choicest fruits and vegetables. The new shopping center that opened just a few days ago has already become one of the most popular for the inhabitants of Jenin and for Arab citizens of Israel, particularly those from Wadi Ara.

The locals call the new center, which was built by the municipality, Al-Mujma. All the illegal market stalls that had operated in Jenin’s market were moved here in an orderly fashion, and vendors who received licenses can sell their wares here. One vendor shouts, “Three for ten, three for ten” — meaning three kilograms of cucumbers for ten shekels — almost right in my ear. “Tomatoes are seven shekels per kilo,” he adds, helpfully. At the other stalls, prices are lower still.

A young Palestinian man approaches us and asks me to write down his name. “Mohammed Za’eir,” he says. “I am from the city of Jenin. I want to open a market stall but the municipality isn’t letting me. Why did all the people here get permits? Because they get preferential treatment. All the people who bought from me know that I sell good merchandise, that I give customers respect. I have four children and I just want to feed them.”

This is, perhaps, the story of the “new” Jenin summed up in a few lines. It is no longer the city that Israelis feared from the second intifada, and has not been for some time. It used to be known as “the capital of the suicide bombers,” the most dangerous place in the West Bank, where the toughest battles of 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield took place.

But no one here talks about the intifada or “the war with the Jews” anymore. Everybody talks about salaries and money. The armed men are gone and more and more shopping centers are being opened in an effort to attract the (Arab) Israeli customers who come to visit.

Jenin, street scene (photo credit: Almonroth, Wikipedia)
Jenin, street scene (photo credit: Almonroth, Wikipedia)

‘Jeningrad’

Traffic starts getting heavy as far back as the road leading to the Jalma checkpoint as a great many Israeli cars converge on Jenin. The security inspectors make sure that only Israeli Arabs get through — no Jews, Heaven forbid — and within seconds, the cars stream their way into the city limits.

Almost everyone has come to shop. Some have come for visits too. It is especially busy on Saturdays, when thousands of visitors come from Israel to Jenin — or “Jeningrad,” as Yasser Arafat once called it because of the famous battle that took place in its refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield. Those terrible battles, which ended with the destruction of much of the refugee camp by the Israeli army’s bulldozers, claimed the lives of 23 Israelis and 58 Palestinians.

Family members of Avner Yaskov cry over his grave during a funeral ceremony in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, April 10, 2002. Yaskov was killed, along with 12 other Israeli soldiers, during operations in the West Bank town of Jenin. (photo credit:A P Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Family members of Avner Yaskov cry over his grave during a funeral ceremony in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, April 10, 2002. Yaskov was killed, along with 12 other Israeli soldiers, during operations in the West Bank town of Jenin. (photo credit:A P Photo/David Guttenfelder)

The camp’s inhabitants dedicated a special section of the cemetery to the shahids, or martyrs, of 2002. But due to the shortage of graves in the camp, the section became open to the public, and “ordinary” people were buried there as well. Next to the name of the deceased, the name of the group to which he belonged and the incident in which he was killed is etched on each tombstone. The battle in which the armed men lay in ambush for the IDF 5th Brigade’s reservists, killing 13 of them, took place in the Al-Hawashin neighborhood fairly close by.

Palestinian gunmen at a ceremony to mark the 12th anniversary of the Israeli army's "Defensive Shield" operation in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, Monday, April 7, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)
Palestinian gunmen at a ceremony to mark the 12th anniversary of the Israeli army’s “Defensive Shield” operation in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, Monday, April 7, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)

Fatna Salah, 46, remembers almost every moment of that time. “We were at home when the battle started,” she recalls. “All the neighbors’ families, from the Rashida and Ayesha sections, came to us, and 37 of us lived under one roof. There was gunfire around us all the time, the bulldozers demolished buildings and people were killed. My sister gave birth inside the house. After 11 days we went outside, holding white flags, and gave ourselves up.”

Those difficult days of Operation Defensive Shield — when the IDF moved to destroy the terrorist infrastructure training and dispatching waves of suicide bombers into Israel — are still a painful memory for many people. But the buildings that were demolished were rebuilt years ago, even if some of them still bear the marks of the bullets that struck the walls.

Photographs of the shahids decorate almost every wall in the camp. Some are from Al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, Fatah’s military wing; others are from Hamas, and most are from Islamic Jihad, of which Jenin is considered the West Bank stronghold. One prominent poster extols the shahid Mohammed Tawalbeh, a member of Islamic Jihad who was the most wanted man in Jenin for years. His family runs a business at the small intersection here — a kind of convenience store, called Tawalbeh 2, for the camp’s residents. A mosque in the camp is also named after him.

An aerial view of the Jenin refugee camp. (photo credit: AP Photo/David Silverman, Pool)
An aerial view of the Jenin refugee camp. (photo credit: AP Photo/David Silverman, Pool)

But the battles of that era are fading from public memory. On Tuesday at noon, the once-notorious camp seems bored. Two children quarrel with one another, disturbing the quiet. The well-known poster of the former Iraqi dictator over one of the camp’s streets says something, not in words, about the new atmosphere. The sign that read “Neighborhood of Saddam Hussein, commander and martyr” years ago has faded completely, and Saddam’s image can no longer be discerned in the silhouette that remains.

Most of the 17,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the area even though few would risk giving an actual number. The general rate of unemployment in the Jenin sector is about 20 percent. In the refugee camp, it could well be twice that.

In another section of the camp, several meters away from Fatna’s home, is the Freedom Theatre, which was founded by Juliano Mer-Khamis, the well-known Israeli actor who moved to Jenin and lived there until he was murdered in April 2011. His murder remains unsolved to this day.

Juliano Mer Khamis is seen at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi / FLASH90)
Juliano Mer Khamis is seen at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi / FLASH90)

The theater is producing a show called “Siege,” which is touring all over the West Bank. “Siege” tells the story of the Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002.

Zakaria Zubeidi, the theater’s second manager and a close friend of Mer-Khamis, was considered the commander of Al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades and perhaps as a sort of local sheriff at the time. Today he lives under a kind of protective custody in a complex of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force in Ramallah as part of an agreement with Israel — an arrangement whose purpose is to keep him from engaging in hostile activity and to shield him from assassination attempts.

Mohammed Sabar’s outlook

Inside the refugee camp’s services office we meet Mohammed Sabar, 41, whose brother Ala was considered Zubeidi’s commanding officer in Al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades until he was killed in 2002. Sabar spent 23 years in Israeli prison. “I killed a police officer in 1990 when I was just sixteen and a half,” he says. “Since then I was in prison, until I was released in the second phase of the agreements between Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas) and Israel.”

Tell us, does the new generation in the camp speak the language that you and your brother spoke then — resistance, violence, intifada?

“My generation in the years of the first intifada, and my brother’s in the second, are not like today’s new generation. Their language is not the language of intifada. Two young students were here just before you arrived. We talked about what the people here in the camp want. You would be surprised to learn that they don’t talk about conflicts or escalation. It’s not in their consciousness now. Nobody wants to go back to 2002. Everybody wants to help himself individually.

“Here in my office, we think about projects for improving the conditions in the camp, but nothing more. In the current situation, one thinks about jobs and social-welfare projects, without seeking to change the situation as a whole. Even the Palestinian organizations have remained passive; they’re not trying to initiate anything.

Palestinian security officers slide down a building next to a banner of President Mahmoud Abbas with Yasser Arafat, in the West Bank town of Jenin on Wednesday. Arabic on the left reads "our hero prisoners, the covenant is the covenant and the section is the section, your liberty will stay our first priority," and right, "all your people (are) with you."(photo credit: AP/Mohammed Ballas)
Palestinian security officers slide down a building next to a banner of PA President Mahmoud Abbas with Yasser Arafat, in the West Bank town of Jenin in 2012. Arabic on the left reads “our hero prisoners, the covenant is the covenant and the section is the section, your liberty will stay our first priority,” and right, “all your people (are) with you.”(photo credit: AP/Mohammed Ballas)

“And I have to say that I feel we succeeded in getting more than we did during all the years of war. We have international recognition and status. We want more — we want a state — but for now it seems to me that the current situation, this calm, will last, at least as long as Abu Mazen is in power.

But we’re headed toward the unknown. You ask me: ‘What is going to happen?’ and I don’t know what to tell you. Nobody can make any promises. But no one here, including the poorest people, wants problems.”

‘Yes, Abu Mazen has given in on the refugees even though he denies it. So really, there’s not much left to do except make peace’

Sabar speaks in the clear Hebrew of the Israeli prison. “Our leadership makes the policy. Not everyone takes the law into his own hands,” he says. “Today it’s not acceptable to be armed in the camp or anywhere else. I believe that we will not be going back to the situation of 2002 anytime soon. People’s basic attitude right now is that they want to live in dignity. They don’t want a revolution or violence.

“When our leader, the president, said, ‘Anything but violence,’ it trickled down. In the end, the nation is influenced by the position of the president and the leadership because, among other reasons, he is consistent about it. He repeats the same sentences all the time, and the public gets the message. We don’t want to go back to that cycle.

“Of course, there are things that don’t depend only on us, and you need to remember that, too. There are various groups here, and all that has to happen for everything to go wrong is for them to do something. Hamas, for example. We heard recently that some of its cells were arrested for planning terror attacks. That could have ruined everything despite the strong desire not to return to violence.

“My hope is that even though Israel has a right-wing government, something in your society, and in ours too, will change for the better. After all, everybody knows how a peace agreement is going to look, more or less. The borders, Jerusalem, the refugees. Yes, Abu Mazen has given in about the refugees even though he denies it. So really, I think there’s not much left to do except make peace.”

But do your young people respect the Palestinian Authority?

“No, not at all. And I will tell you why. The Palestinian Authority does not assist anyone here in the camp. Only the agency [UNRWA] does that. The rates of unemployment and poverty are high here. The economic situation is bad. People can’t make ends meet. Some of them have no money for bread, and we try to help where we can. And the Palestinian Authority doesn’t help because as far as UNRWA is concerned, UNRWA alone is supposed to provide assistance. In the Palestinian Authority’s definition, we are a refugee camp that the UN, not the PA, is supposed to help.

“Don’t get me wrong; the PA couldn’t help even if it wanted to because the money from the donor countries cannot be given to the refugees because the donor countries give money to UNRWA separately. How is it that UNRWA doesn’t have enough? When I wanted assistance for a specific school recently, the PA told me that it was UNRWA’s job. But UNRWA said, ‘I have no money.’ So there’s no one to help them. And in many situations like this I see the refugees — ourselves — getting lost, losing out from both sides.

“You try, with your reduced capabilities, to survive. And still, the problems here are too big. To tell the truth, the problems of the refugee camps are too big for the Palestinian Authority, too.”

Do you see that as discrimination? Do you feel short-changed?

“That’s not how I see it, but the people who live here feel like second-class citizens, that we aren’t being helped and treated like the rest. Of course, it has to do with politics. The PA cannot solve the problems in the camps. They can hardly do anything to solve the unemployment problem. Entire families here live on 750 shekels for three months (less than $200) because that is the unemployment payment they receive from UNRWA. I run a day camp here that costs 25 shekels — a one-time payment — and people can’t pay even that.

“The economic situation creates tension toward the PA, with quite a few ups and downs. In the end, the leadership’s general direction — calm — is what everybody wants.”

A Palestinian vendor sells dates for Ramadan at a market in Jenin, June 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Mohammed Ballas)
A Palestinian vendor sells dates for Ramadan at a market in Jenin, June 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Mohammed Ballas)

Quiet — renovations in progress

In the downtown area of Jenin, opposite the entrance to the Old City, a Palestinian man is painting the dome of a mosque. The stalls have been removed from the old market and the streets have been cleaned.

Ibrahim Shwabneh of Silat al-Harithiya, who owns a shop in the market, sounds pleased. “Everybody wants order,” he says. “It’s good that we have the law and the Palestinian Authority here and there’s no fauda [chaos] or armed men. That’s over and done with. I can go to sleep in peace, knowing that there are no burglaries and robberies here every night, like there used to be. The Palestinian Authority needs to be strong, and anyone who breaks the law needs to be punished.”

The Sibat Festival, which is named for Jenin’s Old City, was held over the past three days in the city’s famous cinematheque. Those who attended say that one could hardly move for the crowds. There were many shows featuring dance, poetry and Palestinian art, activities for children and much more.

The Sibat area itself — the Old City — was renovated at the initiative of the Palestinian governor, Ibrahim Ramadan (Abu Iyad). One can find old-fashioned shops here. We hear an oud being played inside one of them. The musician, Shadi Ilari, comes out to greet us.

“I work in the aluminum factory, but my hobby is the oud,” he says. “Why the oud? Because it has a different sound, which I love. I’ve been playing since I was 15, mostly for myself.”

A single man of 28, he lives in the village of Massilia. “I like the village better,” he says. “It’s quiet.”

Palestinians enjoy a ride in an amusement park during the Eid al-Adha holiday, in the West Bank city of Jenin, Oct. 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)
Palestinians enjoy a ride in an amusement park during the Eid al-Adha holiday, in the West Bank city of Jenin, Oct. 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)

While the economic situation here is fairly reasonable compared with the other West Bank cities, it is still not so simple, to put it mildly. The taxi drivers who assemble at the city’s central bus station sound bitter (just like in other places) because they earn so little, but they do not criticize the Palestinian Authority. They remember very well the years when Jenin was under closure, with no way out at all.

Today, a taxi driver who leaves Jenin in the northern West Bank can drive as far as Hebron in the south without encountering checkpoints (except surprise ones).

Mazen Salameh, a taxi driver from the village of Jab’a, says that his average income is about 70 shekels per day. “The economic situation has not been very good in recent months because the salaries of Palestinian Authority officials were not paid in full,” he says. “Now (with Israel and the PA having resolved that dispute), we’ll see whether that changes.”

So how do you live on 70 shekels?

“Who said I live? I have six people at home. I’m not getting any help. And people here want to make a living. Do you think that we want blood or violence? We certainly don’t. The Palestinian nation wants calm and stability and a livelihood, just like you do. And unlike the situation in 2000, the nation has sense today. What good will an intifada do us now? What will we gain from it? An intifada will not serve us, and we don’t want it.

“The problem is that since 1993 you, the Israelis, made us promises of peace. And what did we get? Imagine telling your child: ‘I will give you a piece of candy in a week,’ and then telling him, ‘Actually, it’s going to be next week,’ and you keep on stringing him along. Obviously, he’s going to have an outburst in the end.”

‘The people here want to eat, to make a living. That’s what everyone here cares about. If there should be a bad security incident, it’s obvious to us that the whole economic situation will crash once again’

Others are earning less. Subhi Atara cleans the restrooms at the taxi station. He is disabled in his legs, and he earns an average of 50 shekels per day.

Ayman Mutahana, the falafel shop owner, earns double that amount — 100 shekels per day — and his two employees earn 50 shekels each. “A falafel costs three shekels, and everybody is in a difficult financial situation,” he says. “The Palestinian Authority provides security and stability, and the situation is definitely better than it was ten years ago. We don’t want a third intifada. Period. Absolutely not. The people here want to eat, to make a living. That’s what everyone here cares about. If there should be a bad security incident, it’s obvious to us that the whole economic situation will crash once again.”

Nur a-Din, a fish-seller, sounds less enthusiastic about the Palestinian Authority. He gets his wares twice a week straight from Jaffa: an abundance of fish, including mullet and sea bream. His thick beard arouses a suspicion that he supports Hamas. “Everybody has reservations about the Palestinian Authority,” he says, “but all things considered, the situation is all right.”

What about Hamas and Islamic Jihad? “Honestly, I don’t know,” he says. “We just want to live in quiet.”

Hamas, and mainly Islamic Jihad, exist in this city, as they do in every other city in the West Bank. But like in other places, they have learned to keep a low profile and stay out of the public’s awareness. Only flags that are put up from time to time above homes or buildings, mainly in the refugee camp, reveal their presence.

Meet the governor

“Hamas or Islamic Jihad — it doesn’t matter,” says Ibrahim Ramadan, Jenin’s governor. “As far as I’m concerned, anyone who breaks the law will be punished.”

In his office in Jenin, Ramadan says that the Palestinian Authority has enacted a zero-tolerance policy toward lawbreakers. But on occasion the PA’s activities, particularly in the refugee camps, have reached the point of actual conflict and even exchanges of gunfire.

“There are no more guns on the street in Jenin, and people here appreciate the Palestinian Authority. Yes, even in the refugee camps,” he says. “There was friction in the past, and we arrested 14 people, but they were people who had broken the law. I visited the camp and the inhabitants’ homes, and they gave me a lovely reception.

“I tell you: The camp is full of people who want to keep the state of calm and don’t want problems. Our goal is to make the people happy, make them smile, support the poor and the students. The shooting incidents have been handled, and there is no more friction between the PA and the residents of the camp.”

Ramadan, who began his term as governor about ten months ago, has watched Jenin for many years from the security angle, which he got to know when he served as the commander of the Preventive Security Force in the area. “The security situation was not good in the past,” he says. “Today it’s very good. But there is no such thing as 100 percent, just like there is no 100 percent in Israel. Otherwise we wouldn’t need a police force.

“Look at what we did with the marketplace. We tried to organize the marketplace for 29 years and failed each time. Now we’ve succeeded. Thousands of Israeli Arabs come here. Some of them continue on to Nablus, but most of them do their shopping here, and now, with the new marketplace, I think the numbers will increase.”

How is the security coordination (with Israel)?

“The coordination is continuing. The problem is that Israel’s general direction is causing difficulties. If Israel makes an arrest tomorrow and kills somebody, everything will go down the drain. If Israel had any intention of reaching peace, that would be welcomed here. I can tell you that the coordinator of government activities in the territories, the head of the Civil Administration and the head of the General Command were here. They walked around the city and were very impressed by the order and the calm.”

IDF reservists outside Jenin (Photo credit: Matanya Tausig / Flash 90)
IDF reservists outside Jenin (Photo credit: Matanya Tausig / Flash 90)

Can you assure the safety of Jews who come here in the future?

“Why in the future? I can do that already. Businessmen came here, and Jews come here all the time. I myself visited Israel two days ago, and I am talking with a group of senior Israeli businessmen about establishing a free-trade area next to Jenin’s industrial zone. The public here is happy with the stability of the situation, which is completely different from what there used to be.

“But on the political level we are in a different place, one that is more problematic for Palestinians. On the one hand, the public has confidence in the PA, but on the other, the European Union, the United States and Arab countries are all talking about Iran and Islamic State, and that’s what the world cares about. The Palestinian issue has become a lower priority thanks to the Arab Spring. And your government, led by Bibi [Netanyahu], is taking advantage of that. He does not want a peaceful solution, unfortunately.

“I tell you: If there is a political solution here, that will affect the entire region. It will bring investors here. So while the Israeli side has made some things easier, the economic situation will change significantly only once peace is made.”

On the way back to the Jalma checkpoint, Ziv Koren, a photographer traveling with me, notices a paintball training center tucked among the many restaurants and stalls all over Nazareth Street.

Who would have believed it? They’re shooting in Jenin — but paintballs, not bullets.

** This is the second in a series of articles by The Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff from major West bank cities.

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