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Sarah Helm: Search for Jenin

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    My search for the West Bank s invisible town Sarah Helm Sunday June 3, 2007 The Observer http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2094145,00.html Sarah
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 5, 2007
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      My search for the West Bank's 'invisible' town
      Sarah Helm
      Sunday June 3, 2007
      The Observer
      http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2094145,00.html


      Sarah Helm set off by car to see Palestinians in Jenin but soon found
      that her road map was of no use. In the four decades after the Six-Day
      War, a labyrinth of walls, unmarked roads and checkpoints has arisen,
      hiding whole towns from Israeli eyes


      'Jenin? you want to go to Jenin?', asked a Palestinian villager,
      standing near an unmanned Israeli roadblock somewhere in the northern
      West Bank. The villager scratched his head as if surprised to hear the
      city's name, although we could not have been more than five miles away
      as the crow flies. 'It's a problem', he said.

      'Where exactly is it? Which direction?' I asked anxiously. Having
      circled the area for so long, I had lost my bearings. I was last in
      Jenin - due north of Jerusalem beyond the Palestinian cities of
      Ramallah and Nablus - five years ago to write about a suicide bomber
      who killed himself and 15 Israelis, including a family of five, in a
      Jerusalem pizzeria. Back then Jenin was still on the map.

      Article continues
      But now this city of nearly 36,000 Palestinians seemed to have
      disappeared. In fact, apart from my villager friend, I had hardly seen
      a Palestinian since entering the West Bank.

      I first came to the West Bank as a correspondent in the early 1990s,
      during the upsurge of hope after the Oslo accords that promised an end
      to the Israeli occupation in exchange for Arab peace. Today as Israel
      celebrates the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War which saw the
      occupation begin with Israeli troops taking Gaza and the West Bank
      (then under Jordanian control), hopes of withdrawal from the West Bank
      seem fanciful.

      The Oslo deal spelled hope, albeit briefly, because it allowed
      Israelis to 'see' ordinary Palestinians for the first time and to
      consider living alongside them as neighbours instead of occupying
      their territory. But as Oslo foundered, Israel's construction across
      large swaths of the West Bank accelerated at a disorientating pace.
      The rise in Palestinian violence and a spate of suicide bombings has
      hastened what is now Israel's de facto annexation of large areas. Now
      the 1.8 million Palestinians living in the West Bank are separated
      into enclaves by checkpoints, and, more recently, encircled by an
      8m-high wall and fence.

      Not only can Israelis nowadays not 'see' Palestinians any more, but to
      all intents and purposes whole Palestinian cities have disappeared.
      Journeying through the West Bank my own disorientation began from the
      moment I set out from Jerusalem. At first I tried to leave the city by
      one of my old routes, but just before the Arab suburb of Abu Dis I ran
      into the Wall. 'Warsaw ghetto/Abu Dis ghetto' was emblazoned on the
      wall at this point and my friends were quite unreachable on the other
      side.

      Turning away from the Wall, a network of Israeli roads, built for
      Jewish settlers, appeared to offer a swift alternative and I was soon
      being whisked through a new tunnel under the Mount of Olives, finding
      my way out towards the West Bank, where Jewish settlements now ring
      Jerusalem, crowding hilltops as far as the eye can see. These new
      settler roads were once viewed - like the settlements themselves - as
      'obstacles to peace', not only because they carve into Arab land but
      also because, with their 50m buffer zones on either side, they divide
      the West Bank into separate Palestinian cantons. Today, however,
      nobody uses such outdated language as 'obstacles to peace'. The
      Jerusalem 'settlements' are 'new neighbourhoods'.

      Firmly part of the West Bank landscape, the settler roads are now used
      by Israelis and foreigners alike, as they are fast and safe,
      connecting to the Israeli hub of Tel Aviv. Residents of Ariel, a new
      town of pink roofs and green lawns, no longer drive through parched
      Arab lands behind wire mesh but speed instead in bright saloons,
      reaching Ben Gurion airport in under an hour. And why should they know
      anything about what happens in Palestinian towns and villages around
      them? They could be forgiven for wondering if they were in West Bank
      at all.

      Even foreign diplomats, who lost their 'road map' to peace long ago,
      now favour these new roads, as they make it easier to get about. To
      even talk of a 'peace process' is now outmoded; instead the diplomats
      talk about 'the situation' and 'the narrative'. A US diplomat in
      Jerusalem had told me confidently before I left for Jenin that 'the
      narrative' of 'the situation' today was 'quite clear to all sides'.

      Somewhere on the road north, however, I completely lost the plot. I
      turned to my new UN map of the West Bank, which meticulously traced
      even the roughest of Palestinian roads and marked every boundary,
      including the 1967 old Green Line, separating Israel from the West
      Bank. The UN map also marked the new Israeli barrier, but none of this
      was any help because it showed not a single West Bank settler road, so
      it was impossible to see how or where the two networks might
      intersect. I tried holding the UN map next to an Israeli map, but the
      two would not join.

      Suddenly I realised that I didn't even know if I was in the West Bank
      or Israel proper. A mile or so away I had seen a stretch of the
      Israeli barrier, here an electric fence with trenches, running through
      a fertile valley. But I knew that the fence did not follow the old
      1967 Green Line but encroached far into the West Bank. So was I in
      some kind of eerie no man's land in between the new fence and the
      Green Line?

      So I tried to get into Jenin another way. An Israeli army spokesman in
      Jerusalem had spoken of another checkpoint at a place called Rehan,
      but that too seemed to be unmarked on any map. Reached by phone, the
      same spokesman now offered to find out where this checkpoint was but
      called back to say that even army HQ did not have a clue. I turned
      round and headed southeast towards where I hoped Jenin might be.
      Another checkpoint suddenly loomed ahead of me.

      'Jenin?' asked an Israeli soldier. It was somewhere 'over there', he
      thought, though he seemed unsure. But taking in a car could be a
      problem. I knew it was impossible to drive into Gaza nowadays, but
      then, already separated from the West Bank by Israel proper, it is now
      severed from the outside world.

      'You shouldn't be going in there at all, you know,' continued the
      Israeli soldier, apparently with my safety in mind. 'It's tough in
      there. There have been a lot of operations lately.' I knew about the
      'operations', I said. In one an ambulance driver had been beaten up at
      a checkpoint like this, and in another a Palestinian taxi driver had
      been shot dead by Israeli undercover soldiers in broad daylight. I had
      an appointment to see the families but was now running very late. Then
      suddenly the soldier changed his mind. His shift was over, he said,
      and smiling broadly added: 'I'm out of here.' Before leaving, he waved
      me on through the barrier and clambered into an APC, which headed off
      the other way.

      'Welcome, welcome,' said Fahima Mansour, 67, mother of the Jenin
      ambulance driver I had come to see. I had finally entered the city in
      late afternoon to find that the people of Jenin had not, after all,
      been spirited away. Everything was as it had ever been - the jostling
      crowds and traffic jams - and I began to get my bearings again.

      Rebuilt since the Israeli assault of 2002, the Jenin refugee camp
      walls were plastered with posters of suicide bombers and other
      'martyrs'. I just recognised Izzidin al-Masri, the 2001 Jerusalem
      pizzeria bomber, whose story had last brought me here. But his poster
      was now overlaid with many more. Underneath these posters, boys were
      sitting talking or staring with empty eyes into mobile phones. Some
      were watching videos of the latest Jenin martyr's death. 'Today we are
      in a prison,' Fahima said, now allowing her son to describe how he had
      been beaten up at a checkpoint while driving doctors and nurses to a
      village.

      I then set off to the Kabatia road where Ashraf Haneishe, a Jenin taxi
      driver, was recently shot dead by Israeli soldiers disguised as Arabs.
      Mohammed Nazzal, 42, owner of a nearby garage and Ashraf's cousin,
      said he had heard shots and ran out to see Ashraf being dragged from
      his taxi and pumped with bullets in the knees, as his two passengers
      watched in shock. Then Ashraf was dragged to cypress trees by the road
      where, still alive, he was shot again and killed.

      Mohammed picked up his mobile phone, flicked opened the screen and
      thrust it in front of me. I found myself peering at a video of
      Ashraf's bloodstained body lolling around in a moving car as he was
      rushed to Jenin hospital.

      The Israelis later said Ashraf was a 'terrorist' in the al-Aqsa
      Brigades but Mohammed said al-Aqsa claims these people after the event
      'for the propaganda'. Mohammed let Ashraf drive his young family
      around, which he would not have done if his cousin was 'wanted'. In
      any event, why not arrest him after blasting his knees? Instead the
      25-year-old was finished off in a ditch. 'But these killings are
      normal,' said Mohammed.

      At Ashraf's home, his brother, Maher, cradled Ashraf's daughter
      Yasmin, aged two. Was Ashraf in the al-Aqsa Brigades, I asked? On the
      door was an al-Aqsa martyr's poster claiming him as theirs. The poster
      had superimposed Ashraf's boyish face on one of their standard
      martyr's posters. It didn't seem to me to fit.

      His brother glanced at the poster and shrugged as if to disown it. 'We
      all know now how those posters are made,' he said with a look of utter
      despair. 'This was an execution, and that is all.' He said 'lies' had
      been printed in the Israeli press, claiming Ashraf had pulled a gun.
      At my side another mobile phone was flicked open. Maher had used still
      photographs of his brother's body as a screen saver.

      It was getting dark and the checkpoint was about to close for the
      night. An hour later I was speeding back past the lights of Tel Aviv,
      wondering if Jenin, like Gaza, could ever be entirely cut off.



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      But now this city of nearly 36,000 Palestinians seemed to have
      disappeared. In fact, apart from my villager friend, I had hardly seen
      a Palestinian since entering the West Bank.

      I first came to the West Bank as a correspondent in the early 1990s,
      during the upsurge of hope after the Oslo accords that promised an end
      to the Israeli occupation in exchange for Arab peace. Today as Israel
      celebrates the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War which saw the
      occupation begin with Israeli troops taking Gaza and the West Bank
      (then under Jordanian control), hopes of withdrawal from the West Bank
      seem fanciful.

      The Oslo deal spelled hope, albeit briefly, because it allowed
      Israelis to 'see' ordinary Palestinians for the first time and to
      consider living alongside them as neighbours instead of occupying
      their territory. But as Oslo foundered, Israel's construction across
      large swaths of the West Bank accelerated at a disorientating pace.
      The rise in Palestinian violence and a spate of suicide bombings has
      hastened what is now Israel's de facto annexation of large areas. Now
      the 1.8 million Palestinians living in the West Bank are separated
      into enclaves by checkpoints, and, more recently, encircled by an
      8m-high wall and fence.

      Not only can Israelis nowadays not 'see' Palestinians any more, but to
      all intents and purposes whole Palestinian cities have disappeared.
      Journeying through the West Bank my own disorientation began from the
      moment I set out from Jerusalem. At first I tried to leave the city by
      one of my old routes, but just before the Arab suburb of Abu Dis I ran
      into the Wall. 'Warsaw ghetto/Abu Dis ghetto' was emblazoned on the
      wall at this point and my friends were quite unreachable on the other
      side.

      Turning away from the Wall, a network of Israeli roads, built for
      Jewish settlers, appeared to offer a swift alternative and I was soon
      being whisked through a new tunnel under the Mount of Olives, finding
      my way out towards the West Bank, where Jewish settlements now ring
      Jerusalem, crowding hilltops as far as the eye can see. These new
      settler roads were once viewed - like the settlements themselves - as
      'obstacles to peace', not only because they carve into Arab land but
      also because, with their 50m buffer zones on either side, they divide
      the West Bank into separate Palestinian cantons. Today, however,
      nobody uses such outdated language as 'obstacles to peace'. The
      Jerusalem 'settlements' are 'new neighbourhoods'.

      Firmly part of the West Bank landscape, the settler roads are now used
      by Israelis and foreigners alike, as they are fast and safe,
      connecting to the Israeli hub of Tel Aviv. Residents of Ariel, a new
      town of pink roofs and green lawns, no longer drive through parched
      Arab lands behind wire mesh but speed instead in bright saloons,
      reaching Ben Gurion airport in under an hour. And why should they know
      anything about what happens in Palestinian towns and villages around
      them? They could be forgiven for wondering if they were in West Bank
      at all.

      Even foreign diplomats, who lost their 'road map' to peace long ago,
      now favour these new roads, as they make it easier to get about. To
      even talk of a 'peace process' is now outmoded; instead the diplomats
      talk about 'the situation' and 'the narrative'. A US diplomat in
      Jerusalem had told me confidently before I left for Jenin that 'the
      narrative' of 'the situation' today was 'quite clear to all sides'.

      Somewhere on the road north, however, I completely lost the plot. I
      turned to my new UN map of the West Bank, which meticulously traced
      even the roughest of Palestinian roads and marked every boundary,
      including the 1967 old Green Line, separating Israel from the West
      Bank. The UN map also marked the new Israeli barrier, but none of this
      was any help because it showed not a single West Bank settler road, so
      it was impossible to see how or where the two networks might
      intersect. I tried holding the UN map next to an Israeli map, but the
      two would not join.

      Suddenly I realised that I didn't even know if I was in the West Bank
      or Israel proper. A mile or so away I had seen a stretch of the
      Israeli barrier, here an electric fence with trenches, running through
      a fertile valley. But I knew that the fence did not follow the old
      1967 Green Line but encroached far into the West Bank. So was I in
      some kind of eerie no man's land in between the new fence and the
      Green Line?

      So I tried to get into Jenin another way. An Israeli army spokesman in
      Jerusalem had spoken of another checkpoint at a place called Rehan,
      but that too seemed to be unmarked on any map. Reached by phone, the
      same spokesman now offered to find out where this checkpoint was but
      called back to say that even army HQ did not have a clue. I turned
      round and headed southeast towards where I hoped Jenin might be.
      Another checkpoint suddenly loomed ahead of me.

      'Jenin?' asked an Israeli soldier. It was somewhere 'over there', he
      thought, though he seemed unsure. But taking in a car could be a
      problem. I knew it was impossible to drive into Gaza nowadays, but
      then, already separated from the West Bank by Israel proper, it is now
      severed from the outside world.

      'You shouldn't be going in there at all, you know,' continued the
      Israeli soldier, apparently with my safety in mind. 'It's tough in
      there. There have been a lot of operations lately.' I knew about the
      'operations', I said. In one an ambulance driver had been beaten up at
      a checkpoint like this, and in another a Palestinian taxi driver had
      been shot dead by Israeli undercover soldiers in broad daylight. I had
      an appointment to see the families but was now running very late. Then
      suddenly the soldier changed his mind. His shift was over, he said,
      and smiling broadly added: 'I'm out of here.' Before leaving, he waved
      me on through the barrier and clambered into an APC, which headed off
      the other way.

      'Welcome, welcome,' said Fahima Mansour, 67, mother of the Jenin
      ambulance driver I had come to see. I had finally entered the city in
      late afternoon to find that the people of Jenin had not, after all,
      been spirited away. Everything was as it had ever been - the jostling
      crowds and traffic jams - and I began to get my bearings again.

      Rebuilt since the Israeli assault of 2002, the Jenin refugee camp
      walls were plastered with posters of suicide bombers and other
      'martyrs'. I just recognised Izzidin al-Masri, the 2001 Jerusalem
      pizzeria bomber, whose story had last brought me here. But his poster
      was now overlaid with many more. Underneath these posters, boys were
      sitting talking or staring with empty eyes into mobile phones. Some
      were watching videos of the latest Jenin martyr's death. 'Today we are
      in a prison,' Fahima said, now allowing her son to describe how he had
      been beaten up at a checkpoint while driving doctors and nurses to a
      village.

      I then set off to the Kabatia road where Ashraf Haneishe, a Jenin taxi
      driver, was recently shot dead by Israeli soldiers disguised as Arabs.
      Mohammed Nazzal, 42, owner of a nearby garage and Ashraf's cousin,
      said he had heard shots and ran out to see Ashraf being dragged from
      his taxi and pumped with bullets in the knees, as his two passengers
      watched in shock. Then Ashraf was dragged to cypress trees by the road
      where, still alive, he was shot again and killed.

      Mohammed picked up his mobile phone, flicked opened the screen and
      thrust it in front of me. I found myself peering at a video of
      Ashraf's bloodstained body lolling around in a moving car as he was
      rushed to Jenin hospital.

      The Israelis later said Ashraf was a 'terrorist' in the al-Aqsa
      Brigades but Mohammed said al-Aqsa claims these people after the event
      'for the propaganda'. Mohammed let Ashraf drive his young family
      around, which he would not have done if his cousin was 'wanted'. In
      any event, why not arrest him after blasting his knees? Instead the
      25-year-old was finished off in a ditch. 'But these killings are
      normal,' said Mohammed.

      At Ashraf's home, his brother, Maher, cradled Ashraf's daughter
      Yasmin, aged two. Was Ashraf in the al-Aqsa Brigades, I asked? On the
      door was an al-Aqsa martyr's poster claiming him as theirs. The poster
      had superimposed Ashraf's boyish face on one of their standard
      martyr's posters. It didn't seem to me to fit.

      His brother glanced at the poster and shrugged as if to disown it. 'We
      all know now how those posters are made,' he said with a look of utter
      despair. 'This was an execution, and that is all.' He said 'lies' had
      been printed in the Israeli press, claiming Ashraf had pulled a gun.
      At my side another mobile phone was flicked open. Maher had used still
      photographs of his brother's body as a screen saver.

      It was getting dark and the checkpoint was about to close for the
      night. An hour later I was speeding back past the lights of Tel Aviv,
      wondering if Jenin, like Gaza, could ever be entirely cut off.

      *********************************************************************

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