Amoss Harel, Avi Issacharoff
September 18, 2008 - 8:00pm

All military camps are similar, and in the Middle East they also occasionally change hands, without their external appearance undergoing any significant changes. As such, Israel handed Jenin's Muqata compound over to the Palestinian security forces in 1996. Although part of it was bombed in 2001, today the compound once again serves as an active Palestinian Authority headquarters. Even the mirror next to the exit gate, a familiar sight from every Israel Defense Forces base, has remained in place. Only the slogan, "Soldier, Improve Your Appearance," has been removed by the Palestinians. All the rest is still there.

In the base's main square - once visible from the offices of the Israeli brigade commander in charge, occupied by officers the likes of Amos Malka and Yoav Galant - a sluggish Palestinian roll call was held on Monday morning. A mustachioed sergeant bombarded his policemen with orders as they marched together in three columns, still rubbing the sleep from their eyes. The whole thing was reminiscent of an IDF roll call: a mixture of uniforms and berets, uncoordinated marching and a blatant lack of enthusiasm. One policeman even answered his cell phone during the exercises.

Jenin is now the great hope of everyone who is trying to breathe new life into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In Washington, the Bush administration is nearing the end of its term; in Gaza, Hamas is consolidating its power (and in the process this week massacred several members of the extremist Durmush clan); in Jerusalem and Ramallah, officials are gradually beginning to understand that the hope of formulating a "shelf agreement" by the end of 2008 has itself been shelved - effectively making Jenin the only source of positive news in the neighborhood. The project in question began in May: Jenin has become the testing ground for the PA to restore its complete control, something it hasn't had since 2001.

The plan enjoys the substantial support of the Middle East Quartet - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - and is being implemented under the close supervision of the Americans. Israel, for its part, has significantly reduced its military activity in Jenin and its environs, eased the traffic restrictions to and from the city and is assisting in the effort to revitalize the northern West Bank's economy, by allowing Israeli Arabs to visit Jenin, among other things.

Change from the bottom up

Four and a half months after the Jenin project began, it is proving a big success. The Shin Bet security service has received very few intelligence warnings about attempts at terror attacks emanating from the region, and clashes with the IDF have almost subsided. Commerce and industry have improved slightly, and - what is most important, from the Palestinian perspective - order has returned to the streets.

In Israel, too, the realization is slowly dawning that something positive is happening here. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi recently praised the changes taking place in Jenin. The city that once saw itself as the spearhead of the intifada, from which dozens of deadly suicide terrorists emerged, who carried out murderous attacks in Israel, is now a source of relatively good news.

There is no mistaking the fact that this is a different Jenin. Visiting the city this week, it was markedly apparent that there were no armed gangs prowling the streets. Instead, one could sense the overwhelming presence of the Palestinian security forces. Three vehicles of the various security services were deployed at a central junction on the southern approach to the city, containing a total of 12 policemen. Their commander, Sgt. Ibrahim Habas of the Palestinian National Security force, explains that his men's main job is to maintain order. "We operate both against car thieves and against what you refer to as terror organizations. If we see someone walking around with a Kalashnikov without a permit, we will arrest him and confiscate the weapon."

His men look alert and disciplined, but their equipment and uniforms are still a motley mix. The instructions regarding the bearing of arms are also flexible (the safety catches of some rifles are released whereas others are closed). Even in the Jenin refugee camp, sight of the bloody battle during Operation Defense Shield in April 2002, there is no trace of armed wanted men. Zacharia Zubeidi is retired and his successors are nowhere to be found. It is impossible to compare the way the camp looks today with how it looked from an Israeli armed personnel carrier the day after the 2002 battle. At what was then "ground zero," where Israeli bulldozers demolished dozens of houses, new houses have been built, gleaming white in comparison with the battered facade of the older houses.

The changes can largely be accredited to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is proving to be the most impressive politician we have seen on the Palestinian side for years (and who is more successful at delivering results than even many of his Israeli counterparts). But there is another important patron of Jenin's success: the U.S. administration, and mainly its two senior security envoys to the region, Gen. James Jones and Gen. Keith Dayton. Israel, which initially treated the American ideas with suspicion and even disdain, is gradually being forced to admit that it is the Americans who have helped bring about the impressive change.

This initial skepticism stemmed, among other things, from Dayton's failure in Gaza, where he relied on the PA forces until the last moment, a few days before they were battered by Hamas in June 2007. But the West Bank, at least for now, is not Gaza, and this time the process is far more organized and calculated.

It turns out that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holds Jones in high regard. His staff includes a regular presence representing all of the administration's strong elements, from the vice president to the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the CIA. He also regularly updates the headquarters on the two presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama. As the Annapolis process seems to have reached a dead end, the Americans have switched to the idea of fomenting change from the grass roots up. In order to augment the achievement, which will be credited to Bush once his term ends, the U.S. is now looking for a way to apply the program to additional West Bank locales. Fayyad suggested Hebron, but Israel and the U.S. have reservations, fearing that friction with the settlers could cause the project to flop. Another possibility, which is being examined more seriously, is Tul Karm.

The commander of Beaufort

The close relations with the Americans have brought about a change in the status of the Palestinian National Security forces: They are more professional, less corrupt and accorded respect by other groups. This week, members of the force's fourth division embarked on a U.S.-led training exercise in Jordan.

Suleiman Umran is the force's Jenin brigade commander. During a conversation in his office in Jenin's Muqata, he says the friction with the armed men was less serious than one would have thought. A first test came when armed men shot and killed a Force 17 (presidential guard) officer. Umran used the crisis to stage a show of force, removing the wanted men from the municipal hospital, which they had forcibly turned into their headquarters by removing the medical staff from one of its wings. "Any resident you ask will tell you: We have restored security to the city," he boasts.

Umran, a veteran member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was born in the village of Dir Hateb, near Nablus, but spent many years in exile, following then-PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. In 1981 he served as the commander of the Beaufort outpost in South Lebanon, but he was transferred after a few months, before the fortress was captured by the Golani Brigade in the first Lebanon war. He has heard of the film "Beaufort," but he hasn't seen it yet. "I'm working hard here," he explains.

Talking about Israel, Umran has many complaints: IDF forces deliberately enter Tubas to demonstrate a presence there; the IDF still carries out many overnight arrests in Jenin; the Israeli army is slow in responding to requests for assistance in improving the mobility of the Palestinian forces, and also delays issuing permits for equipment for scattering demonstrations. The entry of cars into the city via the Jalameh crossing is being delayed, "because you still haven't installed electric gates. How long is that supposed to take? Is that the way you want to attack Iran, too?"

While some of these claims are certainly valid, it seems the Palestinians have also become accustomed to blaming Israel for everything that happens in the territories. The IDF has made several counter-claims, including that the collection of weapons is being carried out at a snail's pace: Since the beginning of the year, the PA has collected only about 800 weapons, about 80 of them rifles from Jenin. That's a drop in the bucket, relative to the amounts still hidden, which will undoubtedly be pulled out of the caches in case of a renewed conflagration with Israel or (a more likely scenario at the moment) between Fatah and Hamas.

Then of course there is the question of the prisoners. The revolving-door policy of arrests and releases continues. The Palestinians say they are forced to use these means because of a lack of detention facilities (Israel did, in fact, destroy a substantial percentage of the prisons in the territories in recent years, as part of its raids on PA facilities). An Israeli brigade commander in one sector of the West Bank explains that the level of mutual suspicion remains high. "We understand that times have changed, and we can see the improvement. But after Palestinian policemen have fired at you more than once or twice, it's hard to regain confidence in them," he says.

The main Achilles' heel remains the economy: Most West Bank citizens have yet to feel a genuine change. Although the IDF talks of an improvement, a World Bank report published this week indicates that the rate of annual growth, 0.8 percent, is very low, especially compared to the rate of population growth. Nor does the number of checkpoints removed by the IDF change the overall picture of an economy that relies mainly on the public sector and has a hard time developing an effective commercial life.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017