Middle East

BEYOND THE FENCE

Among Palestinians in Jenin, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU finds despair, defiance and a society in disarray

May 24 2004
Middle East

BEYOND THE FENCE

Among Palestinians in Jenin, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU finds despair, defiance and a society in disarray

May 24 2004

BEYOND THE FENCE

Middle East

Among Palestinians in Jenin, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU finds despair, defiance and a society in disarray

Earlier this year, Maclean’s Contributing Editor Alexandre Trudeau travelled to the Middle East to assess how people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are coping with the enduring hostilities. This week’s report, the third in a four-part series, is from the Palestinian city of Jenin.

A SHORT walk from the Atars’ farm, where I stayed for a month and a half, is Israel’s new security barrier. Beyond the fence is Jenin, the Palestinian city at the northern tip of the West Bank where I would subsequently live with a Palestinian family.

The fence looks like a gash, visible at great distance as it runs over the hills and plains of the region. It’s a new variation on an old idea: the one used by the Chinese Emperors to try to keep the Mongol hordes out, or by the Communist bloc to keep its subjects in. On the Israeli side, a paved service road runs beside the fence, which is metal mesh that rises about 10 feet. It is, of course, electrified with enough current to be deadly. Razor-wire coils are splayed out on the Palestinian side to bar any approach. At regular intervals along its length, the fence is fitted with cameras. The Palestinians do not mess with the fence.

Overlooking Jenin from the city’s refugee camp, site of a major siege

Crossing is done at checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers. I have passed through many times, and am treated as something of an anomaly by the young conscripts. For them, I am entering the lion’s den, and they need to make an effort to remember that everyone is not locked into hatred, and that I can in fact casually glide into places that for them are just short of hell.

The soldiers are by no means a politically homogeneous bunch.

Sometimes my nonchalant crossing makes them smile sadly and shake their heads, as if saying, “This may seem absurd, but we are stuck in this mess.” Other times, they react aggressively, telling me that I “should visit other nice places like Gaza.” That, essentially, means that I can go to hell.

For most Israelis, Jenin is a rough, bad place: a lair of extremists. On the slopes of the southern edge of the Yizreel Valley, Jenin is close to Israeli towns such as Afula and Beit Shean, and not too far from Haifa. It has been the source of numerous suicide bomb attacks on these centres. For Israelis, most West Bank population centres are out of sight: over the hills and far away. Jenin is just across the plain, and thus that much scarier.

The fence is the latest attempt to contain Jenin. Two years ago, Israel resorted to much more violent means. After a particularly brutal suicide bombing, the military sent tanks and helicopter gunships to lay siege to the town and annihilate any resistance. The battle lasted almost two weeks. When it ended, a large area at the centre of the Jenin refugee camp had been flattened.

I happen to be in Jenin on the second anniversary of the attack. It is also a mere 10 days after the assassination of Hamas’s spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. The mood is one of defiance and anger. Amid the narrow streets and ramshackle housing of the camp, an open space strewn with piles of rubble marks ground zero of the attack. Surrounding buildings are strung with banners featuring the faces of those killed. People gather to hear inflamed speeches about martyrdom and holy war. To the beating of drums, brigades of hooded men carrying assault rifles erupt into the square. The guns are fired into the air. Figures cloaked in white appear on the makeshift podium. Fake sticks of dynamite strapped to their bodies, they stand silently in front of the cheering crowd, demonstrating their readiness to die. And to kill.

One dapper middle-aged gentleman in the crowd tells me he spent 17 years in Edmonton. He returned to Jenin to take care of his ailing father and run the family’s appliance shop. “In the past month,” he says with a fatalistic smile, “I have sold $5 worth of merchandise.” He then turns to the grim spectacle before us, shaking his head. “You put us in a cage, so we will be like animals.”

A young man introduces himself. He is named Wissam, and is eager to practise his English. “In the camp, we are all refugees,” he explains. “We ran from our land in 1948. My family had many acres near Haifa. We didn’t think we would be here for so long. Now they attack us here. Where are we supposed to run?” He takes me to see his small house and meet his family and neighbours. In the tenement next door, a man named Youssuf and his wife occupy a small room with their six children. The family previously lived in a building that came under attack. They fled to a friend’s house. When the battle was over, they returned to find their home had been demolished along with everything they owned. Since then, they have occupied this room of an already overcrowded building. Youssuf now supports his family by picking wild herbs in the hills above Jenin and selling them at the market. He has caged off a small area of his minuscule habitation to make room for songbirds. Youssuf invites me to dinner, which turns out to be tea and popcorn.

At first sight, Jenin looks extremely ominous. Even outside of the camp, in the city proper, the streets and buildings are damaged. Every wall has political posters of young martyrs wearing Islamic headbands and carrying rifles. Behind them in the pictures looms the al-Aqsa Mosque of Jerusalem. After a few days, Jenin no longer appears so ominous, just desperate. There are no restaurants, cinemas or clubs—not much to do.

But the Internet café is an obvious hangout. That’s where I meet Areen al-Souqi. “I started my teenage years with the first intifada,” he tells me.” I started my 20s with the second. I am alive only because I am not dead.” After I’ve had a few dinners at their house, Areen’s family responds to my desire to experience daily life in Jenin and offers me a place in their home. They live in a nice villa on the north side of town. Areen’s father’s garden is the lushest around. He grows pomegranates, quince, guava, artichokes, olives and bananas.

AFTER a few days, Jenin no longer appears so ominous, just desperate. There is virtually no economy.

Areen’s father is an optometrist who has a small eyeglass shop in downtown Jenin. “Before the troubles, evenjews used to come to buy glasses from us,” Areen explains. “But now local people cannot afford glasses anymore. My father is like everyone else in Jenin, he goes to work just to pass the day.” In such a small region, a healthy economy requires the free flow of trade between population centres. Now, Jenin is not only sealed off from Israel by the fence, but bad roads and numerous checkpoints make travel to other Palestinian towns difficult. There is virtually no economy as such in Jenin anymore.

There is also no law and order. “I am lucky,” Areen tells me. “I can move about freely in Jenin. The al-Souqis are a big and old family here. No one messes with us because if push comes to shove we out-man just about every other family here. Plus I can walk about in the camp, which most people cannot do. The people in the camp hate the regular townspeople because they did not help the camp when it was attacked. I volunteered to dig people out of the rubble afterwards—more bodies than people, really. But I am known there now.”

Areen explains that the policemen from the Palestinian Authority are only for show. “The real power here are the boys of the alAqsa Brigade,” he says. “They have guns and aren’t afraid to use them. My family sold some land a few years ago. The buyers didn’t pay up in full. First we tried to settle this with a lawyer in court, but the buyers just ignored us. Now we have gone to see al-Aqsa. They will settle it the hard way.”

In truth, the al-Souqis are the moderate bourgeoisie of Jenin. They have land, history and once had some wealth. But Jenin’s social mores have become so eroded that even the al-Souqis need to re-adhere to tribal customs and the law of the jungle.

A more subtle effect of the social regression is the shift toward religious conservatism. The al-Souqis’ wedding pictures depict women in low-cut blouses with permed hair and fashionable jewellery. Now the al-Souqi daughters, Hazar and Nowar, wear headscarves and cultivate the most extreme modesty. Though both in their early 20s, they are too timid to talk to me for days after my arrival. Once, unaware that I have returned to the house, one of them emerges from her room without her headscarf. She frantically dashes back in and, overcome by shame, does not come out again for hours.

All three al-Souqi children are students at the Arab American University of Jenin. The campus is in the hills about six kilometres south of Jenin: a series of sandstone buildings connected by stone walkways. It’s a private university where the classes are taught in English. The studies are mostly in practical fields such as business administration, computer sciences and dentistry. It is bright and hopeful, one of the few places where young men and women can be together, where young people can fruitfully pass the time. But this summer’s graduates will emerge to confront the question of what they can do with their education.

Attendance has also been a problem. Some days, students simply cannot reach the campus because of Israeli roadblocks. Last year, Israeli soldiers suddenly detained 500 students on the school’s access road. They were kept standing for five hours without explanation, then released.

We are watching television one night at the al-Souqis when a news flash tells us there has been an attack in Gaza. We switch to alJazeera. There has been an Israeli missile strike on a car carrying Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who succeeded Yassin as leader of Hamas and who promised a hundred reprisals for Yassin’s death. On TV, we see a mob surrounding the overturned vehicle. Men flip the car over and begin to extract its occupants. The passengers cannot be seen, but the men working to free them are soon covered in blood. Stretchers are finally brought in. Bloodied remains are frantically loaded onto them and carried off. Rantisi has been killed.

The images are beyond gruesome. I am shocked and terrified, knowing the effect they will have on millions of people in the Arab world. The feeling among the al-Souqis is one of extreme powerlessness. The daughters and the father weep quietly. Rantisi was a hard man, an extremist, but he was a Palestinian, one of theirs brutally struck down. The cycle of violence goes on, they know, and Palestinians, in lost livelihood and lost lives, always pay the heavier price. Violence begets violence. Hate upon hate upon hate.

Outside on the balcony, Areen is worked up. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he says. “There is no life here.” The call to prayer sounds from the mosque. “What about a life of prayer?” I muse. Areen gets angry: “God has given me a mind, has given me energy. These are not only for prayer but to build something. If I don’t find a way to make good, I will fight!” He growls. “I will get out, or I will die, or I will be in prison!” Iffl