In Jenin, a tenuous alliance


Partners: Amid bombs and gunfire, an Israeli Army commander and a Palestinian governor work to bring some semblance of normality to a war-scarred city.

March 18, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JENIN, West Bank - On a deserted downtown street littered with broken asphalt, the driver of a lone garbage truck stops for a bag of refuse in what seems a useless act of civic responsibility in this moribund city.

In reality, it is a small victory. Jenin has been occupied by the Israeli army and subject to frequent curfews for the past nine months, reducing life to a day-to-day battle for survival by people trapped in their homes and unable to go to jobs, schools or stores.

Yet efforts are being made to restore some semblance of normality. That sometimes means steps as small as Palestinians and Israeli authorities reaching agreement for municipal workers to pick up the trash from the ruins of an active battlefield.

Recognizing that its efforts to suppress militant groups have virtually destroyed the offices, jails and police stations of the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli army has without fanfare re-created part of its military government here and in other West Bank cities. The army's aim is to help the Palestinian Authority govern even as Israeli tanks and soldiers move about seeking militant gunmen and suicide bombers.

There are now two men who essentially rule this city - a Palestinian governor, Haider Irsheid, and Israeli Army Col. Fuad Halhal. They are locked not so much in a power struggle as in a test of wills over what both acknowledge is the impossible task of properly running a city occupied by an enemy army.

About 200,000 Palestinians live in Jenin and its environs, described by Israel as a capital for suicide bombers, and the army's clampdown has been among the tightest imposed in the West Bank.

Irsheid, 48, meets with Halhal, 37, at least once a week and talks with him by phone up to five times day. They arrange everything from flour distribution to garbage collection to the safe movement of ambulances on empty streets where the crackle of gunfire has replaced the sounds of honking horns.

"Do you think I have a good time talking with him?" Irsheid says during an interview in his office, which was moved to a three-story private home after the army destroyed the main government building. "Do you think I have fun? We fight. My voice reaches the sky, it gets so loud."

But refusing to cooperate with the army is not a realistic option. "We are not happy with our situation under these circumstances, but what can we do?" Irsheid says. "My achievement is to reduce the suffering of the citizens as much as I can."

Halhal says his job is not easy either. Insisting that his troops are more humane than they are given credit for, he describes his task as a delicate balancing act to ensure the survival of both the citizens of Jenin and of Israel.

"We could take over Jenin in a few minutes," Halhal says during a tour of the area in his distinctive white jeep, designed to stand out from those used by combat soldiers. "Is that success? If I do my job right, everybody here gets fed and everybody in Israel stays alive."

Halhal has the face and build of a marine, but with a soft, conversational voice. He is Druze, not Jewish, and speaks fluent Arabic. He and his 10 officers are liaisons between Palestinian officials, army commanders and international aid agencies.

There are constant disputes. While in theory humanitarian workers and paramedics are allowed unrestricted travel even during curfews, the reality is radically different. Ambulances become targets, food and medicine are delayed and mothers in labor lose their babies while stuck for hours at checkpoints.

`Raised the bar'

A turning point in relations came in November when Israeli troops accidentally shot and killed a United Nations worker, Iain John Hook of Britain, in the Jenin Refugee Camp. The army says solders had responded to gunfire from militants who had broken into the U.N. compound, which the United Nations denied.

Halhal, who knew Hook and had spoken to him a day before he was killed, declined to discuss the details of the shooting, citing a continuing investigation. But he says the shooting forced changes in how he and combat soldiers work.

"The Iain Hook incident will not happen again," he says. "We have raised the bar on humanitarian issues." The colonel now distributes a booklet to soldiers reminding them to distinguish between Palestinian combatants and civilians.

The booklet includes detailed maps of Jenin with buildings and apartments used by aid agencies circled in red and roads to hospitals marked as off-limits for closures. There also are photos of Palestinian ambulance drivers and humanitarian workers meeting with top army commanders, so that soldiers can become familiar with their faces, uniforms and cars.

One photo shows an electric pole toppled by an errant tank. "How does this help the state of Israel?" Halhal says of the unnecessary destruction that occurred during a raid.

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