28/11/2023 11:54:08
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Israeli Arabs credit fence for newfound prosperity


This is the fifth in a series on the impact of the security fence on Israelis and Palestinians.

The West Bank security fence has gained some unlikely enthusiasts: the leaders of Israel's Islamic Movement.

Since the fence's completion in their areas last August, many Arab communities – especially those bordering Palestinian villages – have enjoyed a spike in both security and economic activity, as Arabs who once hauled back millions of shekels worth of wares from Jenin now shop locally.

"God be blessed, the fence ended the parade of terrorists through this city and gave us an economic boom and increased security," says Umm el-Fahm City Manager Tawfiq Karaman.

Until the completion of the fence outside Umm el-Fahm 10 months ago, locals in this city of 42,000, northwest of Jenin, had complained that Palestinians casually filtering through from the territories had harassed schoolgirls, stolen cars, and even snatched laundry.

"They stole from us as they did from the rest of Israelis," says Karaman.

Worse yet, they stamped Umm el-Fahm as a launching pad for suicide bombers. Israeli checkpoints often blocked Umm el-Fahm's streets, and border policemen patrolled the city on a regular basis, hoping to pick up illegal Palestinian workers – or terrorists.

Because of its political sensitivity, the issue of the fence is a contentious one here. A few months ago, local Islamic Movement leaders skewered Umm el-Fahm Mayor Sheikh Abdel Rahman Mahajaneh for declaring that the fence had actually benefited his community. He was accused of collaborating with Israel; some branded him a "traitor" for abandoning his Palestinian brethren.

"It appears that telling the truth might not be the safest thing for a politician to say around here," Karaman says.

He apologized for Mahajaneh's absence, explaining, "It's just that he's at the Haifa District Court today for Sheikh Ra'ed [Salah]." Salah, the town's former mayor and leader of the Islamic Movement, is on trial on charges of funding Palestinian terrorist groups.

On the downside, the fence has sliced families in half, physically separating Umm el-Fahm from its satellite village of Anin on the Palestinian side. Worse, it has damaged Israeli Arabs' solidarity with the Palestinians living on the other side of the Green Line.

But the truth, say Karaman and leaders of the Islamic Movement, is that the security fence has significantly improved their lives.

From the dilapidated Umm el-Fahm Municipality building, wedged between the city's two main mosques, Karaman sees signs of progress. "Look," he says, "there are new stores opening up everywhere. We have security, and it is improving relations with our Jewish neighbors."

The benefits of the fence to Umm el-Fahm are already evident, says Karaman. On a drive toward the area's only country club, el-Waha, Karaman points out a new shopping center lining the city's main road. Shops there include Ra'adi Kaba'a's new "Tel Aviv-style" caf , replete with traditional Ashkenaki treats such as rogalach and cheesecake, a cellphone shop, and a spacious new restaurant.
A year ago, shopkeepers say, the area was a khirbet, or wasteland.

A little farther up the hillside is the city's colossal al-Manar Mall, whose 150 investors have grown more enthusiastic in recent months. Now that they can no longer buy their wares in Jenin – where prices are a fifth of those in Israel – local Arabs "use our city as a hub for shopping."
While no one will say the economic situation here is good, says Wa'el Radban, the owner of the city's largest supermarket, it is picking up. "When you can't go to Jenin, you have to go to Wa'el's," he joked.

Even relations with the area's Jews are on the mend. The Menashe Regional Council and the Jewish town of Katzir Harish are planning to build a joint industrial zone with Umm el-Fahm and two nearby villages. When Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Ehud Olmert came to Umm el-Fahm on Tuesday, it was the first time in the city's history that a deputy prime minister had paid a visit.

City officials say that this is no coincidence. The "Umm el-Fahm effect," as some here call it, is not unique to this city.

"While it is paradoxical, this phenomenon is occurring across the Arab sector," says Bassam Jabber, editor-in-chief of the Israeli Arab weekly Panorama. "In Nazareth, for instance, people who used to shop in Jenin are purchasing all their basic needs in Nazareth." The same has occurred in Taiba, where Panorama is based, and other major Arab communities, Jabber added.

Towns like Mukeibila and Barta'a, which abut major fence crossings into the West Bank, have particularly benefited from the increased traffic. The Jalama crossing, due to be finished in September, will funnel thousands of Palestinians per day past Mukeibila, says Eid Salim, a resident of the village and deputy head of the Gilboa Regional Council.

The towns, positioned along a strategic mountainous ridge overlooking the West Bank, were left in a sort of no-man's land after the 1948 War of Independence. And ever since Israel negotiated with the Jordanians for the area in the 1949 armistice agreements, residents have been torn between their kinship with the Palestinians across the forested ridge.

Between 1949 and the 1967 Six Day War, the area was sealed hermetically, according to Karaman. "Anyone crossing the border would be shot, either by the Jordanians or the Israelis."

Three young men were killed at the entrance to Umm el-Fahm in the October 2000 Arab riots, which drove a wedge between Israel's Jewish and Arab communities. The ensuing intifada further upset a delicate balance in the city and its environs.
Arabs' acceptance of the security barrier "does not mean they will dance for joy because of the fence," explains Jabber. "Everyone would prefer the fence to be on the Green Line all the way around the West Bank; many prefer no fence at all."

One of those who would prefer it otherwise is Umm el-Fahm's Mahmud Khader, owner of el-Waha country club. Over omelets and humous at his caf , Khader explains that, when he invested in the place in 1997, it was with the belief that peace and the Oslo Accords would bring Palestinian customers as well as local Arabs to the sprawling compound of indoor and outdoor pools, a small amusement park, and a theater stage.

The fence has cut off thousands of prospective customers. But his parking lot is packed with buses. With his outdoor pools teeming with screeching children, Khader contemplates whether he can pack more people into the place.

"Always more people," he says. "There is a growing demand for recreation here. People just want to live normal lives. I just wish they all had access to my club."

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