Saturday, October 4, 2008

Israel/Palestine: some signs of hope?

A friend drew my attention a while back to Ethan Bronner's Sept. 12 NYT article about what's been happening in Jenin, the West Bank city that was the site of fierce fighting in 2002, during the second intifada, when, as a center of militant activity, it was partly razed by Israeli tanks and occupied by IDF soldiers.

Now, Bronner reports:

"newly trained and equipped Palestinian security officials have restored order. Israeli soldiers have pulled back from bases and are in close touch with their Palestinian colleagues. Civilians are planning economic cooperation — an industrial zone to provide thousands of jobs, mostly to Palestinians, and another involving organic produce grown by Palestinians and marketed in Europe by Israelis. Ministers from both governments [Israel and the Palestinian Authority] have been visiting regularly, often joined by top international officials. Israeli Arabs are playing a key role."
Moreover, the neighboring Israeli area of Gilboa is something of a model of cooperation between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, Bronner writes, with the local high school staging a Bible/Koran contest featuring teams of two, a Jewish student and an Arab student, answering questions in Hebrew and Arabic.

"The head of the Gilboa regional council, Daniel Atar, is a Jew and his deputy, Eid Salem, is an Arab. Together they have built a warm relationship with the Palestinian governor of the Jenin area, Qadoura Moussa....

"One result of the discussions among the three leaders is a decision by the Israeli authorities to allow some Israeli Arabs into Jenin on a daily basis for the first time since the intifada. It has been a delicate move made with little fanfare because in principle it is illegal to allow certain Israeli citizens to do something others may not and also because movement across the boundary invites the possibility of security breaches.

"It is delicate for another reason. In recent years, Israeli Jews have grown worried that among the 1.3 million Arabs who are Israeli citizens, there is a growing radicalization and identification with the Palestinian national cause and militant Islam. Increasing their contact with the West Bank could add to those concerns.

"But Israeli Arabs have relatives here and want to do business here, and the Israeli authorities say they want to encourage that as a means of helping the Palestinian economy. If Israeli Arabs are permitted to do that in large numbers, that could represent an important change in their status in the eyes of Israeli Jews — from potential fifth column to bridge builder."

However, the situation is still a far cry from what it was in 2000, before the second intifada.
"Today the main crossing point, then the site of a sprawling market, is a maze of security towers and checkpoints. Israeli soldiers refrain from cruising Jenin by day but still carry out occasional night raids and maintain overall security control of the region. And while Israeli Arabs are now being let in, they may not yet bring cars, greatly limiting the appeal of the trip and the shopping.

"There are other concerns. The Palestinians have asked to base their newly trained battalion for Jenin in an abandoned Israeli settlement, a good spot in terms of location and infrastructure. But Israeli officials are worried about how it will play in Israel and have so far said no.

"Israeli security officials say their Palestinian colleagues are good at law and order but not at stopping terrorist groups. They say that Islamic Jihad used to be strong here and is no longer because Israel spent years destroying its infrastructure and killing its militants, setting the stage for the Palestinian security takeover. But if they relax their vigilance, the Israelis say, the situation will deteriorate. Early on Wednesday morning [Sept. 10], for example, Israeli soldiers and security men raided a home in Jenin and detonated a 30-pound pipe bomb.

"The Palestinians complain that they are often urged to arrest someone just because he wears a beard. They add that as long as they are seen as puppets of the Israelis, the project is doomed. The key is for Palestinian security officials to be seen as agents of state building. Then the population will cooperate. This requires the kind of discretion that the Israeli Army has not been known for [my italics--LFC]."

So, many problems remain, and the conditions that have enabled what progress there has been in this part of the West Bank, such as Hamas's weakness and the removal of Israeli settlements in 2005, as well as an absence of territorial disputes aggravated elsewhere by the barrier wall (this last factor is mentioned in a passing and not entirely clear way by Bronner) are not necessarily replicable. Still, this is on balance a hopeful article, as is the piece that Bronner wrote on Sept. 30 about his interview with Ehud Olmert. More on that later, perhaps (or those who are interested can look it up themselves).

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