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Abandoned to whose devices? (JERUSALEM POST) By MATTHEW GUTMAN 03/03/05)Source: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1109820000174 JERUSALEM POST JERUSALEM POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
A senior Fatah official scribbles something resembling a Rorschach test onto a yellow notepad. M., as the official asks to be called, is a delegate of the Palestinian team negotiating unofficial talks with IDF officers over the withdrawal from the northern quarter of the West Bank later in summer. A lump of cigarette ash teeters and then drops onto the picture´s central inkblot - the city of Nablus. He flicks it off.

"You see, this could actually make life much harder for us," he says of the disengagement. He has just scratched out a remarkably accurate diagram of the northern chunk of the West Bank Israel intends to abandon along with the Gaza Strip.

Four months from the disengagement both Palestinians and Israelis fret that it might send this region of spiraling into chaos and warlordism. The only known quantity is the removal of the settlements of Ganim, Kadim, Sa-Nur and Homesh, their 500 settlers and a handful of military bases. The rest remains alarmingly vague.

Will Israel cede security control to the PA in the northern West Bank - an area two and half times the size of Gaza - or can it afford a power vacuum facilitating quick strikes into Palestinian territory? Can the PA´s security apparatus, in its current state, assume control of this area? Will all of the area´s military bases be removed?

"If this pullback goes wrong," says a reserve officer involved in the semi-official negotiations with the PA, "it will delay by years any diplomatic solution. If it goes right, it will set a precedent and send a clear message to all parties involved that this can be done." In this regard, the West Bank pullback is arguably thornier than its counterpart in Gaza. For it is here that a prospective Palestinian state is likely to emerge.

Like many Fatah leaders, M. is a veteran of Israeli prisons. He is fluent in Hebrew and English and considers himself a moderate. But pessimism has burrowed deeply into his views on Israel and the Palestinians. Yes, he says he wants peace; he wants to tear down the refugee camps and in their stead build decent housing; he wants to see a crackdown on the terrorist groups. But M. does not want security responsibility for the northern part of the West Bank and its 300,000 Palestinian residents. At least not yet.

"I won´t be a partner to something so ugly," he exclaims, pointing at the map of the future Palestinian autonomous zone - which resembles a pair of smoker´s lungs. Not when the IDF retains the right to charge in to apprehend a terrorist, and not when the disengagement leaves the north cut off from every major West Bank city, he says.

FOR THEIR part, IDF officers maintain - with the tacit agreement of their Palestinian counterparts - that almost everything rides on the so-called "Zubeidi factor." If the PA can absorb the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades gunmen and other local terrorists into its bureaucratic fold - and Abbas recently ordered a wage hike as an incentive - then Israel will remain behind the security fence and the Palestinians will see the tendrils of autonomy take hold.

If Zakariya Zubeidi, the Jenin-area Al-Aksa chief, and those like him - intelligence sources believe that no more than five to six cells operate regionally at a time - continue to run the show, then Israel might as well permanently set up shop at the governor´s house in downtown Jenin.

But Zubeidi, crows a senior West Bank IDF officer in an interview Tuesday, "jumps into hiding every time we so much as sneeze in his direction. He and his men are tired, they want legitimacy."

For once Israel and the militants seem to agree. In an interview in the Jenin Refugee Camp last Friday, the Al-Aksa chief states that "We support any sort of withdrawal from any part of Palestinian land, even if only from military posts."

Zubeidi considers Ganim and Kadim - which overlook Jenin - military encampments. It has been a while since he last saw a settlement from the inside.

Behind Zubeidi´s mask of steel-shaded scars - the legacy of an explosion during the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin - is a pragmatic, if cocksure local leader. Zubeidi still refers to himself in the third person: He knows much depends on his brand name, or the brand he has come to represent. He professes to have abided by Abbas´s cease-fire, and to continue to abide by it.

He then notes offhandedly that he upgrades his cellphone as often as possible. While it is a precaution against assassination, it is also a function of his fondness for gadgetry. The sleek Nokia he pulls in and out of his jeans during a conversation has both the contour and hue of a large clam. Like the customized M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder, the Smith and Wesson at his hip, and the four-wheeler with Israel license plates he drove in on, the Nokias are smuggled in from Israel.

Characteristically, Zubeidi then zigzags, and skewers Israel (he is actually one of the few militants to use the term, most others prefer the term "the Jews") for failing to embark on "a real withdrawal." How can Israel call this a withdrawal, he rasps, when it leaves two settlements (Mevo Dotan and Hermesh) smack in the middle of the West Bank? How can this be a withdrawal when the "wall" - as he calls Israel´s security barrier - incorporates into Israel the Shakked- Hinanit settlement bloc along the northern rim of the West Bank?

"Will I be able to go to Yabad if I want to? If permission is required, does that mean I´ll have to sign up at the Israeli Authorities? Will Yabad villagers be able to get to us without trouble?" asks the man with the gun.

Zubeidi sidesteps the question of whether he considers himself responsible for the IDF´s incursions into Jenin. He blames only the occupation.

THIS REGION is no stranger to the concept. Ancient Samaria, built by King Omri, served as the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel in the early ninth century BCE. It was sacked several times during the following millennium - with a large deportation of Jews under the Assyrian occupation - until King Herod reconstructed it and dedicated it to Rome´s Augustus Caesar. The name in hellenized Palestine was then Sebastos. Herod´s seat, the cradle of the modern settlement movement: Sebastia.

Christian rulers, Samaritans, Muslim Arabians, Ottomans, the British, the Jordanians and finally Israel, among others, conquered it. Until the first intifada the Jenin area thrived owing to commercial activity with Israel. But the first intifada saw the advent of Jenin´s Black Panthers, a militant Fatah-related group and an antecedent to the Al-Aksa Martyrs´s Brigades. Until October 2003 some 80 percent of the suicide bombers who struck Israel emanated from the Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Fatah cells in Jenin. Since October 2003, not a single suicide bomber has managed to penetrate Israel from the area.

Israel´s apparent schizophrenia in offering the Palestinians security control of the evacuated zone derives from the influence of three main bodies in disengagement policy: the IDF, the Shin Bet and the Prime Minister´s Office.

While the Shin Bet pushes for tougher restrictions, the IDF advocates giving the Palestinians a chance, in effect pulling the Prime Minister´s Office in different directions. The Shin Bet would rather retain immediate access into the West Bank and its many invaluable agents there, whenever it or the IDF need to strike; this would require either total PA compliance or a power vacuum.

If the Palestinian security services, under PA Interior Minister Nasser Yousef - the first Palestinian minister with the spine to fire incompetent subordinates on the spot - can prove their mettle, senior IDF officers in the northern West Bank have indicated they are more than willing to give them a chance.

A top IDF officer says reassuringly that "we are not changing the color or designation of the place, we are just removing certain settlements, that´s all."

It should be noted that even throughout the intifada´s bloodiest days, military links between IDF and Palestinians at the level of colonel were never severed. In fact, for almost a year, they amounted to the highest official Israel-Palestinian contact.

Israel continually stresses that the disengagement is just that: a plan designed to minimize friction between Israel and the Palestinians, nothing more.

THE POWER of local terrorist leaders drives the PA security services to distraction. This concern was capped in January when Zubeidi welcomed then-PA chairman candidate Mahmoud Abbas´s campaign stop in Jenin with his version of the 21-gun salute. Zubeidi made sure that his men, and not those of Jenin District Governor Kadura Musa, provided Abbas´s security. He shooed PA police from the "Martyrs Cemetery," where the putative leader and the renegade were to rendezvous, and then carried Abbas away on his shoulders.

He then took over Abbas´s political rally and with his men fired off hundreds of rounds - literally over Abbas´s head. As the soon-to-be- chairman´s men bundled the leader into his bullet-proof car, it became clear who was the sheriff of this town.

Then this Tuesday, the PA´s new sheriff, a tough old general and Abbas´s hatchet man, Nasser Yousef rode into town. Offended that they had not received an invite to Yousef´s meeting with local officials, Zubeidi and his men arrived at the governor´s office, scuffled with Yousef´s security detail and fired in the air demanding that he leave.

To the cameras Zubeidi said: "Every city has its own gate, and Nasser Yousef did not come through the proper gate of Jenin."

A flushed Yousef growled: "We are not leaving Jenin before we have arrested this bunch of criminals," according to a Jenin-based official.

With the establishment of security paramount in the northern West Bank, one of the many plans tabled, and then shelved, for securing the area originated from across the Jordan River. Last month, King Abdullah II´s administration offered to deploy the "rehabilitated" Palestinian Badr Brigade to the northern part of the West Bank. The Brigade´s 2,000 troops and officers, arriving with families in tow, would ensure peace in the north, said the palace.

A top Israeli officer responds to the reports of the Badr´s action first with a chuckle. His smile evaporating, he adds, "Not a chance."

Yet not all is rotten in the putative State of Palestine. The Palestinian Special Forces, under the command of the Bashir Nafeh - also a member of the unofficial "disengagement talks" - have logged a number of key arrests lately, some in coordination with the IDF and the Shin Bet. They have made arrests and neutralized bombs and suicide kits.

THREE OBJECTS adorn the faux-mahogany shelf behind Chief of General Staff Moshe "Boogie" Ya´alon´s desk in his sparkling offices at the recently constructed Staff Headquarters in Tel Aviv. There is a gilded menora, its branches gnarled like an old olive tree, and beside it, the IDF´s Infantry flag and a Torah scroll.

The Jewish paraphernalia decorating his office is arguably more becoming of a national religious leader than a general. And so it is fitting that Ya´alon - who is a member of a kibbutz - confesses that he has faith that no problems will arise before or after the West Bank evacuation.

"What problems?" he shrugged, raising a hand to adjust his spectacles in a recent meeting.

Those involved in the fledgling negotiations between the two sides worry that Israel is too focused on the Gaza withdrawal.

It is telling that often when high-ranking officials speak of the disengagement plan, they say "the withdrawal from Gaza." Yet behind closed doors, the General Staff is concerned over what some call "the political decision" to keep the two settlements of Mevo Dotan and Hermesh, home to about 70 families. The two settlements were given the nod for evacuation in early versions of the disengagement plan, but were later deleted from the plan, some say inexplicably. They will stay in what will otherwise be a semi-autonomous Palestinian zone. The cost to protect them in terms of manpower and taxpayers´ shekels could be enormous.

The residents of these hilltop hamlets are terrified. If only they had the money to leave, they would, says Mevo Dotan committee chairman and the community´s liaison to the government and the army, Arieh Sintronovich. He knows that the IDF´s range of scenarios ranges from total quiet to inserting an entire brigade in downtown Jenin.

Indeed, it seems that no one is ready for the disengagement. M. is convinced the Palestinians should beg off taking control of an arbitrarily apportioned chunk of land. Worse yet, says the Palestinian Planning Ministry, this chunk of land is not really the northern part of the West Bank. It incorporates all Areas A and B with slight adjustments, but leaves out Area C, which will remain under Israeli civilian and military control. This gives Israel a buffer of at least a kilometer between the evacuated zone and the Green Line border. Along the Jordan Valley it leaves a buffer of almost 15 kilometers. So, in order to drive a lorry from Jenin to Tulkarm, a Palestinian driver will still pass an IDF security checkpoint.

DEPUTY DIRECTOR of the Palestinian Planning Ministry and the man largely responsible for planning "the day after" for the Palestinians, Samih al-Abed, is admittedly befuddled.

"We have no idea what their [the Israelis´] plan is, what the northern West Bank will look like and how it is going to be," he said Monday. The Palestinians, says Abed, fret over the southern boundary of the evacuated zone. Will the three checkpoints in the Nablus area create a new Kalandia [the often clogged checkpoint into Ramallah]? Will the remaining two settlements divide the evacuated zone, he wonders?

But none of this has stopped the Palestinians from dreaming. Abed´s office has produced detailed plans that would convert settlements such as Ganim and Kadim into a technical college or others into resorts. On Monday, his ministry hosted Jenin governor Kadura Musa for a briefing on attracting commerce and even tourists to the north.

"It sounds great," says Jenin´s city manager on the ride from Ramallah back to Jenin Monday evening. "It is a lovely place."

The Israeli liaisons are now also working to lobby the Shin Bet and the IDF to produce higher numbers of work licenses and entry permits for Palestinians.

The movement of Arab Israelis into the newly autonomous zone - which has already begun as a trickle in the town of Tulkarm - is also a precondition to making life livable once Israel pulls out. Many of the area´s 300,000 residents are felaheen (farmers) or local producers. Many of them have lived in peace with Israel and the local Israeli settlers for years.

Even Zubeidi says he wants a return to those days.

Danny Attar, the head of the Gilboa Regional Council and one of the chief proponents of the security fence in the north, claims that gaining more permits for Palestinians is essential to his community. He has therefore crusaded to compel the Jalame crossing just north of Jenin to operate for more hours at higher efficiency.

Palestinian officials have been meeting semi-official Israelis, including former senior officers, on and off for almost a year. The IDF and other agencies are aware of the meetings and are informally briefed on them, but have made no official contact. Still, official Israel gives them little to go by. "Unilateral means unilateral," says Abed.

Abed is not alone in his frustration.

IN ITS work to liaise between Israel and the Palestinians over the transfer of assets, including settlements, the World Bank has also come up empty-handed.

"We have also been unable to get the relevant information from the Government of Israel, though we have been asking for it for nine months now," said the agency´s country director for the West Bank and Gaza, Nigel Roberts. There is "little more we can do than most outside observers," he added in a telephone conversation from London Monday.

Both Israel and the Palestinians must "act quickly" in preparation for the withdrawal, observed Roberts.

For its part, the IDF Planning Division has compiled more exit strategies and alternate plans than it could ever need.

But until the appointment of the Palestinian cabinet last week, the PA had never officially assigned a minister to the task of planning for "the day after." The seemingly glaring omission can be chalked up to posturing ahead of final status negotiation, or disorder within the PA. Or it could be something else. Abed, a civil engineer by training, seems offended by Israel´s seemingly supercilious rejection of the Palestinians´ offers for a coordinated withdrawal. After all, he adds, "we are talking about a period of peace, a period of changing attitudes."

One of the IDF reserve officers involved in talks with the Palestinians shakes his head.

"That´s the problem. The Palestinians don´t really understand how much the mindset of official Israel has changed since the intifada. We can´t simply go back to square one [as they ask], especially when we see that the Palestinian intelligence services are so weak."

WILE E. COYOTE and the Road Runner duke it out on a senior West Bank officer´s computer. The chaser and the chased, of Looney Tunes fame, are part of a screensaver program.

"It´s not what you think," says the somewhat embarrassed officer explaining that the military for some reason puts this screensaver on many of its computers.

The Jenin area happens to be a Wile. E. Coyote paradise. It is where for the past 18 months the chaser, always hapless in the cartoons, nabs his prey. Thirty-five terrorists, a full one-third of all those killed in the West Bank in the past year, perished in this area - without the death of a single child, a local commander adds.

The senior West Bank officer says pragmatism among his former and current adversaries increased following the death of former PA chairman Yasser Arafat.

"They are sick of being chased."

The West Bank officer is a soldier´s soldier, with a finger-crushing handshake and a quick mind. The officer, who fought in the refugee camps of Tulkarm, Ramallah and battle of Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield, is no stranger to the area. Those fights only engendered in him a degree of respect for his foes.

Asked to look into his crystal ball, the officer, who has spent the past three years as a commander in the area, conjures up three scenarios. The first is that the PA assumes security control, either incorporates or crushes the Zubeidis and starts a mini-state in the area.

The second is that terror continues, attempts to breach Israel´s security barrier or lob rockets over it spark a massive retaliation: Israel is back in the Jenin refugee camp.

The third scenario is the most likely: The PA works to rehabilitate its security services, does a fair job, while Israel manages its relations with the Palestinians along two unrelated tracks, the political and the anti-terrorist.

While confident that without the burden of posting entire companies of soldiers at settlements the local brigade will function more efficiently, the IDF brass is concerned about the two settlements that will remain.

One gets the impression that if this ship springs one leak, the whole thing will go down. The relative quiet of late has jacked up the value of each Palestinian attack in Israel´s heartland.

"Each attack, even if only ´minor´ relative to what we saw in the past, could be a policy-changing event." The officer just hopes the chased stay at home.

For now, a brittle calm seems to prevail in Jenin, and Zubeidi, at least, doesn´t seem to mind. A year ago, Zubeidi´s second-in-command, Abu Khalifa, had just been assassinated by Israel. Then, he granted a reporter an interview in an airless room seemingly marinated in body odor and cigarette smoke. His men were edgy. An assortment of rifles were stacked in the corner. A "martyr´s" baby was being bounced around on a militant´s knee.

On Friday, Zubeidi, a great fan of dramatic entrances, performed to a queue and roared to the appointed site of the rendezvous with this journalist on a four-wheeler, M-16 slung across his back and a train of children jogging cheerfully behind him.

He holds the interview under a sallow February sun, with residents of the refugee camp curiously watching the proceedings.

A stack of plastic chairs appears, Zubeidi takes one and sits on it and places his custom-built M-16 on his lap. The refugee camp´s bored boys, shabab in Arabic, are only too delighted to take up a position behind him.

For a wanted man who claims that Israel continues its military operations unchecked, he is exceptionally exposed.

We need Israel Blackened by a lifetime of turning wood into charcoal, the swollen fingers gingerly dig into a pants pocket and extract a creased entry permit into Israel. Miraculously, the paper, which grants charcoal producer Muhammad Abadi a three-month work permit into Israel, is free of the black dust that coats his entire body.

Abadi holds the document, which expired over two weeks ago, with the tender hands of a man holding his newborn. Indeed, for men like Abadi, one of the dozens of charcoal producers in and around the northern West Bank town of Yabad, documents like this one released by the Jenin District Coordination Office are precious.

When asked how his Hebrew is so good, he responds: "We need Israel, it is our lifeline to the outside world."

Abadi buys the wood from Israel and incinerates it into chunks of charcoal on the mounds that dot this charcoal pit. He then sells it back to Israeli merchants as fuel for Israelis´ ubiquitous mangalim, or outdoor grills.

For the roughly 100,000-person workforce in the northern West Bank, the disengagement plan is daunting. Trucking wood from the Palestinian border town of Jalame or from the closer Arab Israeli villages of Bartaa or Baka al-Gharbiya, once cost Abadi NIS 400 per truckload.

"Now we have to import it from Jerusalem. The ride back and forth takes over 10 hours."

At NIS 2,000, the new costs, with trucking, gas, and bribes along the way, are breaking his back. People like Abadi fear that disengagement means that the door to Israel - already made impenetrable by the security barrier - could slam shut permanently.

Yabad, a hotspot during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and the locus of dozens of attacks in the second round of violence, has produced charcoal for generations. After all, the Arab Israeli town just across the Green Line border is not called Umm el- Fahm, or "Mother of coal," for nothing.

For most of his life, Abadi has toiled in one of the series of smoky pits that gives the road connecting the settlement of Mevo Dotan to the rest of Israel a mysterious - some say ominous - quality. Now he is the chief procurer for one of the pits, but his new job does not exempt him from working with the rest of the men.

He notes that when the fence crossing terminal at Jalame - a multi- colored pastel monstrosity that seemingly combines prison design with finger-painting - just north of Jenin is open, things go smoothly. But locals in Yabad say that lately, it is mostly closed.

Gilboa Regional Council head Danny Attar, who dotes on Jalame as he would his own child, insists that the number of Palestinians entering Israel must be increased. During a tour of the site, he fluently rattles off the crossing´s statistics: Jalame can funnel into Israel 2,500 Palestinian workers an hour; and more than a dozen trucks can simultaneously be loaded and unloaded at the site´s truck bays.

"The gap in the standard of living between us and the Palestinians is a ticking bomb," says Attar, one of Israel´s most vociferous proponents of the security fence. He has managed to pique the interest of international groups by dusting off a plan proposed before the intifada to construct a joint industrial zone on the Green Line, an area now divided by the fence.

While Abadi sulks, Attar is optimistic for the first time in years.

"The disengagement," he said last week, "is a result of the construction of the fence. The combination of both will enable us to resume cooperation."

Meantime, sipping sage tea and watching his merchandise smolder, Abadi beckons his son, Akram, whom he introduces as "the stellar student." He hopes Akram´s path will lead him away from the smoke- choked pits and the pastoral hills of his homeland: "Ha, maybe he will study in America one day."

Drawing the battle lines Mevo Dotan´s hard-smoking former Local Committee chairwoman Yael Bar Yaacov rang me on Sunday. She skewered me for portraying hers as a community in flight, after the current committee chairman, her successor, confessed last week that he can´t wait to lose his job; provided the settlement was evacuated, of course.

When the cabinet approved the Evacuation Compensation Law last week, the battle lines in Mevo Dotan hardened between those desperate to leave the terror-stricken settlement and those who insist they must stay.

Mevo Dotan and its sister community of Hermesh will be the only two settlements left in the northern part of the West Bank after the evacuation. The communities remain on the Palestinian side of the security fence. To get home, residents drive - often in armored buses - through a security fence crossing that looks increasingly like a border terminal, causing some of them to quip "get out your visas - we´re entering Palestine."

The two settlements sprawl lazily on hilltops overlooking Route 585, where four motorists from Mevo Dotan were murdered and from which a terrorist shot dead two girls and a woman in Hermesh in 2002. As indicated by the IDF´s capture of a bomb-filled vehicle on Monday just a few kilometers to the east of Mevo Dotan, Molotov cocktails, errant bullets and roadside bombs remain part of the routine.

Half of the communities´ residents have fled, and most of the rest want out, but Ben Yaacov, who moved to the northern West Bank 25 years ago, reasserts that the place has a future. The government has paved a new road linking the settlement, through a major crossing in the fence, to the Shakked settlement bloc just to the north.

"That is our lifeline. For us, nothing will change after the disengagement," she says.

Ben Yaacov, a widow and a proud grandmother, notes that 12 of Mevo Dotan´s residents have died since the establishment of the settlement in 1982 - "just four" of them from terrorist attacks. Death, she says grimly, is just part of life. Her gravelly voice and no-nonsense bowl- cut embody a woman who in 1977 decided to move into a draughty tent with a six-month-old baby in a remote military encampment called Sa- Nur. It too will be evacuated come summer.

As an official for the Samaria Regional Council in the 1980s, Ben Yaacov fondly recalls careening along the West Bank roads with then- agriculture minister Ariel Sharon - Israel´s biggest settlement enthusiast.

"He called Homesh [a settlement north of Nablus, also slated for evacuation] the ´heart of the country,´ because from its high points you can see from Ashdod to Haifa."

Along with the lumbering ex-general, she helped spot and demarcate the settlements of Kadim and Ganim, now also slated for evacuation.

But Ben Yaacov´s battle is nearly lost. The completion of the security fence rimming the north of the West Bank succeeded where roadside bombs and snipers failed. Arieh Sintronovich, the current Local Committee chairman, the community´s liaison with the military and government, is convinced that as soon as the IDF pulls back, Mevo Dotan and Hermesh will emerge as big, easy targets. He is also convinced that Sharon has some sort of death wish for the marooned settlements´ residents: "I don´t understand this, why does he want us to die... why not remove us with the rest of the settlements?"

The IDF´s answer is that "it was a political decision," and that the settlers "will continue to receive the best protection we can provide."

In the meantime, at least Ben Yaacov and several other like-minded families are satisfied.

"What can we do?" she asks, recalling a metaphor a Beduin friend once told her, "our roots are wrapped around a stone." (© 1995-2005, The Jerusalem Post 03/03/05)

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