The impressive modern campus of Jenin’s Arab American University could be anywhere in the world. The first private Palestinian university in the West Bank was inaugurated on September 28, 2000 – the same day that Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, triggering the second intifada – but it was eerily quiet on a recent visit.
Mohammed Sbehat is born and bred in Jenin. Early last year, he put his savings from working in construction in Israel into a new restaurant, Al Faris, that caters to the students. “Business was very good, but then I had to close for eight months,” he recounts. “Now only 15 percent of the students are here.”
The coronavirus is keeping the rest at home. And for at least half of the university’s 11,000 students, that home is on the other side of the Green Line (the armistice demarcation line before the 1967 Six-Day War that separates Israel and the West Bank).
Students would travel regularly through the checkpoint at the border village of Jalameh, like about another million Arab Israelis every year. But the Jalameh crossing has been closed since January 2020, the only one that Israel has kept continuously closed – for reasons that have proved hard to explain.
Palestinians tell Haaretz that the failure to reopen it is suffocating the local economy.
Historically, the area of Jenin has been well-to-do. It is famous for its olive oil and freekeh wheat, as well as limestone and marble quarries. Located at an important crossroads, the city has also become a major trading hub, growing with the Palestinian communities on both sides of the Green Line. It grew from a hamlet into a town of 50,000, including 10,000 refugees living in the adjacent camp.
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Then the second intifada began in 2000. Jenin became known as the “capital of the martyrs” or “capital of the suicide bombers,” depending who you ask. Israel claims that about 30 terror attacks were committed by people from Jenin. This led to the 2002 Battle of Jenin, during which Israeli forces bombarded and invaded the refugee camp. More than 50 Palestinians and 20 Israelis died.
In the subsequent two years, the city was regularly put under lockdown. Almost half of the male population was unemployed, 20 percent more than average in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The economy started to improve after 2004, but the opening of the Jalameh checkpoint to vehicular traffic in 2007 and the broader influx of Palestinians “from inside” – as they are referred to in the territories – really helped to galvanize the local economy and close the gap with the rest of the West Bank.
Prices for most goods are around a third of what they are on the other side of the border, which has made Jenin a popular shopping and entertainment hub. The checkpoint had been at the heart of the city’s pre-coronavirus revival, with 929,000 vehicles entering from Israel in 2018. This brought in $344 million a year on average, according to the Jenin Chamber of Commerce (a semi-governmental organization that represents business owners in the governorate).
Ammar Abu Bakr, chairman of Jenin Chamber of Commerce, says 400 or 500 businesses would be enough to cater for the needs of the local population. “We now have 4,000,” he reveals, showing how much Jenin has become reliant on visitors. A new mall is set to open on the city’s main thoroughfare with another 300 shops, but it currently sits empty, awaiting customers.
Illustrating the problems created by the checkpoint’s shutdown, Waed and Shams, both 19, come from the villages of Iksal and Shibli, near Nazareth, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) away. They study nursing at the Arab American University. They don’t visit home as much as they used to, because instead of a 30-minute commute, the trip has become a 90-minute slog at least, Waed says.
The Jalameh checkpoint stretches from an Israeli army-manned gate to a terminal run by a private company, Modi’in Ezrachi. It currently sits idle, save for a couple of bored, fresh-faced conscripts, a handful of security contractors, and a few Palestinians with work permits allowed to cross on foot at three allocated time slots a day.
It was built on land that originally belonged to families from the village of Jalameh at the same time as the West Bank separation barrier. The checkpoint was first shut to vehicles in January 2020 following the lapse of security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and then its closure continued because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Palestinian businessmen Haaretz talked to still don’t know why it remains closed, and their Israeli liasons are not able to give them a clear answer.
When asked, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT, the Defense Ministry unit in charge of coordination with Palestinians), said they did not know, and that it was the responsibility of their colleagues at the Land Crossing Authority.
The Land Crossing Authority referred Haaretz back to COGAT, saying it did not deal with policy. Haaretz was then advised to contact the office of the defense minister, or to file a freedom of information request. No response to the inquiries about the lockdown were received as of print time.
When the Palestinian Authority announced a two-month lockdown in March 2020, it directly called on Arab Israelis not to visit the West Bank. But as coronavirus infection rates began to subside and after most Arab Israelis had received the COVID-19 vaccine, travel restrictions eased this spring.
Throughout the West Bank, yellow Israeli registration plates are, as before, ubiquitous. In Jenin, they are still few and far between, and there is a suspicion that the area has been singled out.
“Do we have a special mutation of the coronavirus here?” one local asks sarcastically. Jenin, on average, has had just above the average number of COVID cases for governorates in the West Bank. Another surreptitiously points to a grove of trees through which workers pass illegally into Israel. The army, he says, sees everything but doesn’t bother to stop them.
“If people can go out, why can’t they come in?” he wonders.
Mohammad Kmail, director general of the Jenin Chamber of Commerce, concurs. “There used to be one hole in the fence. In 2020, it became like a telecoms company – they opened branches everywhere,” he says. “The soldiers know it’s there, they arrest someone to make an example from time to time, but mostly they just look on.”
He continues: “When we first asked COGAT what we could do in order to facilitate the reopening, they said they had demands. We had to chase them in order to understand what they were. In the end, they said they wanted us to rehabilitate Nazareth Street [the main street leading from Jalameh to Jenin] and bring more Palestinian security forces to ensure safety. We did a lot of upgrades on the street, we planted trees, we did everything.”
And then nothing happened. The COGAT liaison is now telling Kmail the checkpoint will reopen next Tuesday, but the Palestinians have received similar assurances before and the crossing point has remained closed to vehicles.
Given the importance of the checkpoint, Kmail has been proactive, but feels the PA isn’t making enough of an effort. “We sent official letters to them, and nothing changed,” he says, adding that even the Palestinian media seems reluctant to cover the situation.
‘Back to square one’
The shuttered gates of Haddad Tourism Village, a couple of kilometers south of Jenin, decked out with a towering carousel and events halls, is a glum sight.
“Jenin is now relying on the service sector as an engine for growth,” Kmail says. “Even educated people earn day wages, and if they don’t find opportunities here, they’re forced to go elsewhere. We fear this will have long-term, strategic consequences.”
The issue is not purely economic; it is also social. “We should not be separated from Palestinians on the other side of the Green Line,” he adds. At a March demonstration calling for the checkpoint to be reopened, the placards did not only protest economic hardship but also “social segregation.”
Wasef Frihat, a soft-spoken chef with an infectious smile, agrees. His wife is from Nazareth and he trained in Haifa at Dvir Hotel before opening his own restaurant in Jenin, Ali Baba, 26 years ago. His business boomed when the checkpoint opened in 2007, he says, with the number of customers doubling. In the six weeks the checkpoint was closed before the coronavirus struck last year, his business collapsed by 80 percent.
“On a night like this one, during Ramadan, it would be impossible to get a table even if you called days in advance,” he says. As we talk, he points out that the handful of families in the restaurant are locals.
Frihat once had 16 full-time employees, but had to let half of them go. Now most of them are in Israel, probably working illegally. “They sleep on the floor in some restaurant, but at least they get paid well – almost double what they could earn here,” he says.
In 2019, Frihat says, he invested $2 million in opening a second restaurant, more than double the size of the original one. This included a major marketing push specifically targeting Palestinians on the other side of the border. But the building that was supposed to house the Ali Baba Palace still lies empty a few kilometers away.
The situation is made more painful and bewildering by contrast to the situation elsewhere in the West Bank. The owner of a new branch of Anabtawi Sweets, which opened in Jenin a few days before Ramadan, compares the paucity of customers here to the Qalqilyah branch, near Jerusalem. That one “is open 24 hours a day,” he says.
“Israel wants to take us back to square one. They want us to have enough prosperity to survive, but nothing more,” Abu Bakr says, at a loss for another explanation for the refusal to open the checkpoint for the past 16 months.
“They made us dependent on this checkpoint, but they have the key. They know that when it shuts, Jenin dies,” he adds, offering a warning about what the loss of hope could mean to Jenin. “We had become the capital of business. Do they want Jenin to become the capital of suicide bombers again?”