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Israelis missed an opportunity, again

AP Photo/ Tsafrir Abayov
A banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest against his far-right government, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. Tens of thousands of Israelis protested Netanyahu’s government that opponents say threaten democracy and freedoms.

Israel’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abba Eban, famously quipped that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Ironically, Eban’s sentiment is more reflective of Bibi Nethayahu’s Israel today.

On Sunday, the Pope deplored a spiral of death as violence between Israelis and the Palestinians worsens. On Saturday, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy shot and injured two Israelis near a settlement in East Jerusalem, the day after a Palestinian gunman killed seven people outside a synagogue in the city. Arguably, the Israeli raid on Jenin in the West Bank last week, killing at least nine Palestinians, ignited this latest round of violence.

It did not have to be this way.

The U.S. — particularly our team at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Security Coordinator — gave the Israeli government a decade-long opportunity to reduce tensions in, of all places, Jenin. More importantly, we forged the political space to build a more peaceful, enduring coexistence between the Israeli and Palestinian people. Yet, the Netanyahu government missed this remarkable opportunity, failing to envision a reality that protected Israeli citizens while meeting Palestinian political aspirations.

Here is the story.

During the Second Intifada, Jenin was the most dangerous city in the West Bank and arguably more dangerous than Gaza City. Sometimes called “the Martyrs’ Capital,” Jenin was home to at least 28 suicide bombers responsible for killing 124 Israelis. In April 2002, as part of the largest military operation since the 1967 War, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) entered Jenin in a bloody 10 day battle. Despite the Israeli offensive, militant activities in the refugee camps were so intense that suicide bombings continued well into the mid-2000s.

Soon after the Ariel Sharon government evacuated four settlements near Jenin in 2005, we worked with the Israeli military, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the Palestinian private sector to open markets, facilitate trade, and promote commerce at the Jalameh crossing, just north of Jenin city.

First, we encouraged Palestinian traders to ship goods to high-end Israeli markets and across the globe through Haifa port. Second, we worked to deploy better trained and more professional PA security services to reduce crime and militant influence. Later, we negotiated with Israel’s security establishment to allow access for Israeli Arabs to drive into Jenin to eat at restaurants, repair their cars, or buy furniture all while maintaining adequate and efficient security. Indeed, with 929,000 vehicles entering from Israel in 2018. This brought in $344 million a year on average.

The then-Israeli Mayor of Gilboa and the Palestinian Governor of Jenin joined together to champion trade and cooperation.

Unemployment in Jenin — at Gaza levels as late as 2007 — fell by close to 60 percent; the business community prospered; the streets of Jenin became safe, and the PA improved health care and education. Perhaps most strikingly, almost none of the lone wolf attackers in 2014 were from Jenin

The Americans provided $10 million in assistance for the Jalameh trading corridor, leveraging annually hundreds of millions of dollars of sustained, private sector trade that fundamentally changed the economic, security, and social fabric of the northern West Bank for a decade. The Jalameh pilot proved the theory: sustained economic well-being could create the space to negotiate a political settlement between the parties.

For well over a decade, Israeli politicians pocketed this stability. In exchange, they offered nothing — nothing to their citizens, the Palestinians in the West Bank, or to the Americans who had funded this decade of stability and security.

Seeing the success of the Jalameh crossing, IDF senior leaders believed it could be replicated in Tulkarem and Qalqilya, two Palestinian cities in the northern West Bank without jobs, hope, or a future. The IDF pushed to establish additional crossings along the Green Line — but were shut down by the Netanyahu government.  

Most recently, the Netanyahu government sought to reestablish the four settlements Ariel Sharon evacuated a generation ago, effectively messaging to the Jenin Governorate that a decade of stability was meaningless.

At the height of the Second Intifada, Jenin was dangerous and deadly. We carefully, laboriously, and diplomatically tested a sustainable model of economic integration, reasonably effective governance, and shared security from the ground up. With a nod to Abba Eban, the Iraelis missed a rare opportunity to reshape their neighborhood and the broader Middle East. 

R. David Harden is CEO of Q2 Impact and was one of the longest-serving American diplomats in Israel, leading the USAID mission to the West Bank and Gaza for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Harden

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Bibi Netanyahu Economic development Israel Israel-Palestinian conflict Israeli settlement Israeli–Palestinian conflict Israeli–Palestinian peace process Middle East peace Middle East Policy Middle East politics Palestinian National Authority Palestinian territories Palestinian terrorism Palestinians Politics of Israel USAID West Bank

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