Past shared, present shattered

Once bound together, Israeli and Palestinian cities diverge, with one booming and the other suffering

March 18, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

NETANYA, Israel -- Robin Leigh, a 45-year-old London attorney, arrived in this seaside city on a recent afternoon to pick out bathroom and kitchen fixtures for his new three-bedroom condominium overlooking the Mediterranean. His purchase was the latest confirmation of Netanya's transformation from one of the most frequently bombed cities during the last six years of Israeli-Palestinian violence to one of Israel's most sought-after addresses.

Just 10 miles away in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, the launching pad for many Palestinian bombers, another move was under way. Abu Afif, 48, a Palestinian building contractor whose business had gone bankrupt amid tight Israeli security restrictions and crippling international sanctions against the Hamas-led government, was packing his bags to seek a new life in Dubai. His departure marked the latest exodus of Palestinian professionals fleeing the deepening poverty and political chaos of Tulkarm.

Although their fortunes couldn't be more different today, Netanya and Tulkarm were once two communities so deeply intertwined that Israelis and Palestinians there believed they were on course for a shared future and shared prosperity.

Thousands of Palestinian workers poured into Netanya to run its hotels and restaurants, build new homes and apartments and harvest fruits and vegetables. On weekends, Israeli bargain hunters ventured into Tulkarm's narrow streets to get their cars repaired, buy fresh produce and visit dentists. It was an unbalanced relationship and tensions remained, but geography appeared to make close ties inevitable.

That was before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000. Before the rash of bombings in Netanya and the Israeli military siege of Tulkarm. And before Israel's 400-mile separation barrier with the West Bank made physical the political, economic and psychological divisions of the Middle East conflict.

Instead of being models of coexistence, Netanya and Tulkarm are today sobering reminders of the deep separation between Israelis and Palestinians, a study in the disparities between two peoples and two communities, one moving forward, the other slipping further and further behind.

"We've gone back 200 years socially and economically. People here haven't seen such hardship before," says Suleiman Abu Libdeh, a Palestinian construction worker from Tulkarm who had worked in Netanya. "Before the intifada, Netanya and Tulkarm were like one city. ... It's impossible to go back to that."

A city of 173,000 people about 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, Netanya is in the middle of a building boom fueled by the arrival of thousands of Jewish immigrants from the United States, France and England in search of high-end beachfront real estate. Businesses are flocking to the city's industrial park. Ten new hotels - including one by Donald Trump - are planned, as is a new sports stadium, where Netanya will host a professional baseball team.

It is possible to walk along the city's beach promenade, with its busy restaurants, clothing stores and gelato shops, and forget about the conflict and the Palestinians completely. On the main seaside square, dozens of teenagers skateboard. The bombed restaurants, hotels, malls and intersections have long been repaired.

In Tulkarm, a governorate also with a population of 173,000, the conflict seeps into almost every aspect of life. Bullet holes pockmark buildings, tank tracks striate roadways, and posters of Palestinian militants and civilians killed in the fighting stare down from the marketplace, government offices and intersections.

Six years of violence, Israeli security measures and now sanctions have engulfed Tulkarm in poverty.

Tens of thousands of people are out of work. Schools were closed for three months last year when teachers and other public employees went on strike after months without pay. Seventy percent of families live in poverty. Those with marketable skills are packing their bags for other countries in the Middle East and beyond. No investors dare get involved in businesses there.

Sitting behind a wide polished wood desk in an office surrounded by armed guards, Gov. Amir Talal Dwaikat appears weary as he ticks through the growing list of Tulkarm's problems.

"We are about to collapse completely," he finally concludes.

If the residents of Netanya and Tulkarm share anything anymore, it is a feeling of political paralysis, a sense that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are further away than ever from resolving their differences.

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