Israeli Arabs credit fence for newfound prosperity
Matthew Gutman The Jerusalem Post Jun. 17, 2004
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
"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
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
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
"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."