Thursday, June 24, 2004

JENIN, West Bank — The Israeli army reports a sharp drop in fatalities from Palestinian terror attacks in the first half of this year, giving much of the credit to the partially completed West Bank security barrier.

Palestinians, who are reluctant to find any good in the barrier, also are benefiting from a reduction in Israeli military operations into their neighborhoods and have begun to rebuild damaged streets and buildings.

Israeli fatalities since Jan. 1 are down by 33 percent compared with the first half of 2003 and by more than 80 percent compared with the first half of 2002, according to Israeli security officials.

The northern section of the West Bank barrier — a matrix of fences, trenches and concrete wall — was completed a little less than a year ago.

Although Palestinians see the barrier’s deviation from the West Bank border as a de facto land grab, the fence has made it infinitely more difficult for suicide bombers to reach Israeli cities just a few minutes away by car.

The last major suicide bombing involving civilians was in mid-March, and it has been almost seven weeks since an Israeli civilian died in a Palestinian attack.

After the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, residents in the rural hills of northern Israel’s Gilboa region grew accustomed to living on constant alert.

Just a few miles away is Jenin, a stronghold of Palestinian terrorists who exploited the foothills along the open border to avoid military blockades and carry out suicide bombings in nearby cities such as Afula and Netanya.

Haunted by the specter of militants who passed within a few feet of their homes, the communities canceled cultural events and kept their children indoors.

In the past year, however, all that has become a distant memory.

“We would have 600 security incidents in a year. Since the fence has been completed, there have been zero,” said Danny Atar, chairman of the Gilboa Regional Council. “A routine has returned to the region. There’s a feeling that we’ve returned to life.”

About three months have passed since the last bombing inside Israel, marking one of the longest periods between attacks since the uprising began.

Although not a week goes by without the Israeli military announcing the foiling of a bombing attempt — on Tuesday, Israeli security officials said they picked up a terrorist mastermind on the Gaza Strip border — the volume of attacks has thinned, according to analysts.

Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations and the military’s frequent incursions into Palestinian cities also have turned the tables, but the barrier is getting much of the credit.

“The fence is complicating their efforts. Afula was a piece of cake until the fence was erected,” said Uzi Arad, a counterterrorism expert at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Institute.

“This does not mean that they’ve decided to stop. They’re continuing, but their effectiveness has been somewhat reduced relative to the high levels.”

Running along the northern border of the West Bank, the Gilboa is a rural range of fertile slopes where Arab and Jewish Israelis live in almost equal numbers.

The open border allowed thousands of Palestinian workers from the Jenin area to cross illegally into Israel. The Palestinian city once encouraged coexistence projects, but after the outbreak of the uprising, the city became infamous as the launching pad for dozens of terrorist attacks.

When Israel’s military retook Palestinian cities in the West Bank, a weeklong standoff with extremists holed up in Jenin’s refugee camp turned the city into a symbol of heroic resistance for Palestinians.

Israel’s army often held Jenin under curfew for weeks at a time to clamp down on militant movements — initially with limited success.

Terrorists used the hills for cover to move from Jenin to attack Haifa. In a little more than a year, about 10 bombings were carried out in the nearby city of Afula and the Gilboa region.

The relentless Israeli army actions left Jenin in a shambles, with lampposts tilting at treacherous angles and building rubble littering the streets. But in recent months, the curfews have been lifted, and military action has been limited to occasional nighttime incursions.

That, in turn, has allowed Jenin residents to come out into the streets and even to linger in cafes late at night in areas previously occupied by the army. Enough optimism has been stirred that the municipality has started to repair the roads and plant young trees along the boulevard leading into the city.

Taking a break from mixing cement for a refurbished curbside, Samer Hassan credited the barrier with creating “partial” stability.

“The situation is better than before. In the days, it’s absolutely normal. Only at night are the people worried that the special forces will come for an assassination,” Mr. Hassan said.

Asked about his roadside work, he said municipal leaders were “trying to create a positive atmosphere for the people. When they see plants and trees, they will be more optimistic.”

Other Palestinians working with Mr. Hassan said resistance in the city has been virtually ended by the Israeli army. There was little remorse, though.

Jenin residents seem desperate to move on with their lives. For the first time in years, the craving for a shred of normalcy seems to be replacing the thirst for vengeance.

“People are reassessing their situation. I am 24 and not married. I have a monthly salary of [$166]. What can I do with that?” asked Mr. Hassan, who has had a brother killed by the Israelis.

“I’m always thinking of my marriage and my daily life, but revenge is always in the back of my mind.”

At the regional council offices in the Gilboa, Mr. Atar shied away from the word “victory” when asked about the effectiveness of the security barrier.

The council chairman already is looking to the next stage of the fence. If a permanent sense of security does take hold, a large part will depend on improving the standard of living in the West Bank and that means keeping the border as open as possible, Mr. Atar explained.

With that in mind, the council has pushed for construction of a border-crossing complex north of Jenin that will function in the same way that the Erez checkpoint controls traffic into the northern Gaza Strip.

The new crossing is expected to process 1,000 to 2,000 Palestinian workers an hour as they travel to jobs in Israel and in a closed industrial zone — far higher numbers than at Erez.

“The meaning is that people shouldn’t find themselves waiting for hours feeling like they’re being humiliated,” Mr. Atar said.

“The fence needs to breathe. We can’t disengage. There’s no such thing as good neighbors when one is full and the other is hungry.”

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