Enjoying a Quiet Picnic in the Settlement-free Northern West Bank

10 years since the disengagement: A recreation area was set up near the spot of the evacuated settlements of Ganim and Kadim, but it's under IDF control.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinians working their land near the former settlement of Homesh.
Palestinians working their land near the former settlement of Homesh. Credit: Moti Milrod
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Driving in the Jenin area in the northern West Bank is pleasant. This is the Palestinian region with the largest contiguous area. You can drive for 21.5 kilometers length-wise and 14.5 kilometers breadth-wise without encountering a single settlement. If one starts counting a bit further to the south, in the Nablus area, one can add another 5.5 kilometers of tranquility for one’s eyes and soul: soft hills on which village houses spread out, wide expanses of fields that are waiting to be ploughed and sown, roads of human dimensions.

There are no settlements, no pillboxes, no threatening guard towers and barbed wire that blotch the green. The districts of Jenin and Tubas are the vegetable gardens of the West Bank. 65 percent of the Jenin district is agricultural. It’s a poor and unpretentious area, which is why there are few flashy and large houses, such as the numerous ridiculous-looking ones near Ramallah, which look as though they were transplanted from the set of the TV series “Dallas.”

Even before the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 there weren’t many settlements, says the governor of Jenin District, Ibrahim Ramadan. The evacuation of the four settlements of Homesh and Sa-Nur in the south and Ganim and Kadim in the northern part of the district did not change much in the area. The IDF has ensured that the lands occupied by these settlements remained under the “Area C” category, namely under total civil and military Israeli control, which precludes Palestinians from using these areas as they see fit.

A settler prays in a bulldozer in Homesh.Credit: Reuters

The district of Jenin takes up 10 percent of the West Bank – 583 square kilometers. 49 percent of which – 285 square kilometers – are defined as Area A, in which the Palestinian Authority has civil and policing jurisdiction. At its edges there are 103 square kilometers of Area B, in which armed Palestinian policemen are prohibited from entering. But Area A is not one contiguous bloc. It is riven and cut by wide and invasive strips of Area C, which occupy 34 percent of the land, totaling 195 square kilometers.

This includes the enclave of Barta’a, 33 square kilometers enclosing a town and some Palestinian villages which were trapped inside the separation barrier, close to settlements which weren’t evacuated: Reihan, Hinanit and Shaked.

“The (Palestinian) residents of the enclave can enter the Jenin district but we can’t go there, unless we obtain a special Israeli permit” says Ramadan, who used to be an officer in the preventive security branch of the Authority’s security services. “If there are any positive developments in the Jenin area it’s not because of the unilateral evacuation of those settlements.” Residents complain that Palestinian felons find refuge in areas B and C, in which the Authority cannot arrest them.

The joy of landowners on whose land Homesh was built (mainly from the village of Burqa, in the Nablus area) was premature. The tilled land has been confiscated for military purposes and was never returned to them. There is one settler, they say, who has moved in under the protection of the army, intimidating the entire area.

“It was less bad when the regular settlers lived there,” said one of the villagers in Seelat al-Daher. “They didn’t look for trouble.”

Now the army is protecting that lone settler and his pals, preventing the villagers from using the less steep road that passes right by the evacuated settlement, forcing them to use a very steep road that reaches the higher part of the village. In any case, the farther one gets from the former settlement of Homesh, the more relieved one feels. A large mound points to a synagogue that was buried there, in the settlement of Sa-Nur. Villagers do till the land next to it.

“Since the settlements were evacuated, small as they may have been, whenever we see a yellow [Israeli] licence plate we know that it’s an opportunity for commerce and business, not a cause for friction and fear. There are no settlements here, therefore no army, no Israeli police and no fear. It’s very simple” says Dr. Nasser Abu Farha, an American Palestinian anthropologist and businessman from the village of Jalameh.

In 2005 he established a marketing company called “Canaan for Fair Trade.” It buys agricultural produce from 2500 families in 50 villages, successfully marketing it overseas. What about the army’s incursions into the refugee camp in Jenin and into adjacent villages? It’s true, they haven’t stopped, but they occur mainly at night, he says. Personally, he encountered a military flying checkpoint close to where he lives a few weeks ago, the first time this has happened since 2005.

Palestinians collect carrots during harvest season at a farm in the West Bank village of Tammon near Jenin. May 21, 2015.Credit: Reuters

The prohibition on building on the sites of former settlements has its benefits: in the northern section, the sites of the evacuated settlements of Ganim and Kadim have turned into large public picnic areas on Fridays and into an isolated rest area on other days. We were welcomed there a week ago by some cheerful young men, tipsy after some cans of beer. On a paved area a few girls – what a rare sight! – were practicing riding their bikes. The pleasant wind, on one of the hottest days this year, reminded us of why Israelis wanted to come and live amidst Palestinian villages. The evacuation of these settlements opened up some roads that were previously blocked to Palestinians.

Not far from Kadim lies The Haddad Tourism and Recreation Center. You know it’s in Area C by the pot-holed, poorly maintained road that leads to it. Repairs need a permit from Israel which was given only lately. Only a few weeks ago, a decade after the disengagement, the Palestinian Authority begin redoing and improving the road. The funding comes from USAID.

In the 1980s the owner of the center, Ibrahim Haddad, who was born in Nazareth and is an Israeli citizen, set up a factory for producing ploughs and other agricultural equipment in the industrial area of Jenin. Kibbutzim were then still good customers. He bought 60 dunams (15 acres) of land from residents of Qabatiya and began dreaming of a recreation site for Palestinians. He owes the realization of this dream to the evacuation in 2005.

He obtained building permits from the Civil Administration, and there is now a 200-room hotel on the site, as well as a pool, shade-giving trees and stretches of artificial lawn, an amphitheater, an amusement park, an incipient zoo and an attraction that is the self-made fruit of his imagination – a dinosaur park, including gigantic creatures which he himself sculpted, designed and welded. At the touch of a button in a control room, they open their large mouths and emit growls. Children love it, he says, just as they love the Ferris wheel and other amusements. The water and electricity are purchased from Israel, the Jenin municipality clears the garbage and the taxes go to the Palestinian Authority.

The hotel enjoys full occupancy, confirms governor Ramadan. The problem is that it’s not locals from Jenin or from other parts of the West Bank who fill the hotel. It’s filled with Palestinians who are Israeli citizens and Druze, mainly from the Golan.

A Palestinian worker sorts wheat in the West Bank city of Jenin May 10, 2015.Credit: Reuters

“Do you know why they come here?” asks Haddad. Upon hearing the reply “in order to escape the rampant racism inside Israel” his face lights up. “I was afraid to say so myself” he confesses. However, he regrets that West Bank residents don’t come. “They don’t have a culture of relaxation” he surmises.

Parents of children in the Ramallah area who were asked why they don’t make use of the park in Jenin replied that the settlements and army roadblocks on the way deter them. “The fear of what could happen on the way makes Jenin seem very far away.”

The slight economic recovery is attributed not to the evacuation of settlements but to allowing Palestinians from Israel to enter the West Bank and the opening up of Nablus, which had been closed for many years. Now, produce from Jenin reaches the markets of Nablus, says Nasser Abu Farha. One thing casts a shadow over the joy: The Jalameh crossing, through which Israelis can enter the area in their cars, is closed at 6:30 PM, the only crossing from Israel to the West Bank which is not open 24 hours a day, according to Ramadan and Abu Farha. The crossing is open until noon on Fridays and until 10 P.M. on Saturdays.

The relief completely dissipates when one travels slightly to the west – towards the settlements of Mevo Dotan and Hermesh, or a bit to the east, or to the southeast, in which the IDF has not relinquished its firing zones.

“Even with no settlements the occupation is present. Let’s not kid ourselves,” says governor Ramadan. “No matter what my rank is, any Israeli soldier can stop me. I’m working here in order to prepare our state. We’re not a state yet. I talk on the phone and know that the Israeli security services are listening.”

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