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Taming Suicide-Bomber City

Why is the West Bank's most notorious militant hotbed being touted as a model of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation?

The streets of Jenin are still plastered with posters commemorating Palestinian "martyrs" killed fighting Israel. Buildings are still pocked with bullet holes from the fighting when Israeli troops stormed this West Bank city several years ago. That's hardly surprising in a place long notorious as one of the fiercest hotbeds of Palestinian militancy, home to at least 30 suicide bombers and site of the bloodiest battle of the last intifada.

Today, however, Jenin is gaining attention in an unexpected way: as a model of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

Suicide attacks have stopped. Militant leaders have laid down their weapons. Even during Israel's ferocious war with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip last year, there were demonstrations but no violence in Jenin.

The newfound calm is largely thanks to an American-trained Palestinian police force that first hit the streets, with Israel's support, three years ago.

"When we first got here, it was chaos," says Col. Rade Asedeh, commander of the Jenin branch of the new National Security Force, sitting in his office beneath a mural of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock. "Jenin was famous as the place with the most illegal guns on the streets. They were in the hands of outlaws and drug dealers as well as resistance fighters. Now, we challenge any city in the world to match our security situation."

Every one of a dozen-odd residents of Jenin and its adjacent refugee camp I spoke with on a recent visit agreed that the new force has made the city much safer. "Now I can sleep at night without having to worry about my car or my sheep getting stolen," says Talal Waimi, a middle school teacher. "I don't have to fear that if I get in a fight with someone, he might come back and kill me."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has declared Jenin "a great success." Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair lauded the city as "a model," and ex-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it "a place of hope."

Asedeh and the several hundred men under his command were trained by American, Canadian and British military and police advisers in neutral, neighboring Jordan under a program launched in 2007 to rebuild the Palestinian Authority's security capabilities. The PA, dominated by the late Yasir Arafat's secular nationalist Fateh movement, needed a serious boost at the time, having just lost control of the Gaza Strip in a bloody power struggle with its longtime rivals, the Islamist group Hamas.

The National Security Force recruits are all screened by American, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian intelligence agencies to root out potential infiltrators from Hamas or other hard-line groups. The U.S. is providing more than $160 million in funding and equipment for the force.

The new troops, armed only with assault rifles and pistols, are being deployed in other West Bank towns as well. The idea is to build up a professional Palestinian force that can enforce, someday, a full-fledged peace with Israel.

The NSF has disarmed local militias, arrested some of their leaders and given amnesty to others on condition they pledge not to attack Israel — pledges that have so far been kept. NSF troops have even shot it out with Hamas gunmen in the town of Qalqilya, leaving a total of nine dead on both sides.

All of which helps explain why last year was the first in a decade in which not a single suicide bomber hit Israel. In 2002, at the peak of the second intifada, 429 Israelis were killed in attacks from the West Bank; last year, the figure was six. All of this is part of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' strategy of renouncing violence in favor of a political approach to winning statehood for his people.

"In the end, violence yields nothing for us or the Israelis," says Asedeh, who fought the Israeli army as a Palestinian Liberation Organization soldier in Lebanon in the 1980s. "We've had five or six wars, and it's only brought thousands of deaths. We think a political solution is best."

But the experiment is still perilously fragile. Though security is much improved, Jenin's economy is in shambles. Before the last intifada, the city of 40,000 was a major shopping destination for Israelis crossing over the then-unmarked Green Line separating the West Bank from Israel. Now, that line has become a heavily fortified, de facto border crossing. Cars are not allowed through, and pedestrian travelers must navigate a series of gates under the eye of rifle-toting soldiers. Many Israeli citizens are denied permission to enter — including the photographer who was supposed to accompany me — and almost no Palestinians are allowed to leave via the crossing, cutting off Jenin from both trade and jobs in Israel.

Israeli checkpoints within the West Bank keep many residents from even leaving town. "What's the use of security with this economic situation?" says a bearded grocery store keeper in central Jenin who declined to give his name. "It's like we're living in a big cage."

Many people complain that while the NSF protects Israelis from Palestinian terror attacks, it does nothing to protect Palestinians from Israeli raids. Israeli troops still enters Jenin at will to arrest wanted militants. NSF troops aren't even allowed out of their barracks between midnight and 6 a.m.

"They're just doing Israel's work for them," says Ahmed Hariri, a grizzled old man sipping tea in front of a shop. "The Authority has been given their responsibilities, and the Israelis relax and watch from a distance."

The sense that nothing tangible is being gained from cooperating with Israel is widespread — and dangerous. The Netanyahu government's unabashed program of building more Jewish homes in Arab East Jerusalem certainly isn't helping matters.

"The Israelis have supposedly given us this chance to see if we can enforce security. We've proven that we can," says Khader Torkman, 30, a lean, wary-eyed former fighter with the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, which dispatched dozens of suicide bombers into Israeli cities during the intifada. "But their goal is not to let us have a state. It's to buy time to expand settlements, build the wall (separating Israel from the West Bank) and take over Jerusalem."

Sitting across from him in a dimly lit office above an auto repair shop, I ask Torkman, who refuses to join the NSF, whether he thinks armed operations against Israel should begin again.

"All options are open," he says. What would it take for Palestinians to start fighting again? "We can start like that," he says, snapping his fingers.

That attitude helps explain why Israel has only in recent months begun removing checkpoints and other restrictions on Palestinians. Israel isn't only concerned about militants like Torkman and the thousands of weapons they are estimated to be hiding. The official Palestinian security forces themselves could turn their guns on Israel if the shooting starts again; that's what happened in the last intifada.

That leaves Col. Asedeh walking an extremely delicate tightrope.

"The goals of our campaign have been achieved, but nothing has changed. People call us 'traitor forces.' I'm not even allowed 5 feet outside the city," he says. "The Israelis need to stop humiliating me and give me something to show for my achievements."