Tuesday, 15 July 2003

Daily decisions at Israeli border

Commander must balance needs, security

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jenin, West Bank -- Col. Fouad Halhal was enjoying a rare afternoon at home with his children last Saturday when the telephone rang. It was an urgent call from the Jalameh checkpoint, which controls the border crossing between the West Bank city of Jenin and northern Israel.

A soldier under his command said a Palestinian ambulance carrying a desperately ill 3-year-old girl with a blood clot on the brain was asking permission to rush the child to Ramban Hospital in the nearby Israeli city of Haifa, the only chance of saving her life.

"We had a problem," said Halhal. "We had a warning that a massive car bomb was being prepared in Jenin and they were trying to smuggle it into Israel. We also knew that ambulances had been used in other areas to smuggle explosives."

"But I had no hesitation whatsoever," he said. "I ordered the soldiers to allow the ambulance to pass without delay, and without any security check. Unfortunately, this incident ended in tragedy and the girl died at the hospital. But it was the right decision, despite the security risks."

Halhal faces similar decisions every day as commander of the DCO -- District Coordination Office -- at Salem, which supervises contact with the Palestinian civilian authorities in Jenin, one of the West Bank's most militant areas.

The Jalameh checkpoint and the surrounding countryside have been the entry points for scores of Palestinian suicide attackers bent on attacking Israelis in nearby towns or blowing themselves up on buses plying the highways that pass close to the West Bank border.

On May 19, a woman passed the checkpoint, hitched a ride into Afula and blew herself up at a shopping mall, killing three people and injuring 70.

Halhal and his men must deal with everything from stopping suicide bombers to facilitating the movement of Palestinian cucumbers destined for Israeli markets.

A tall Israeli Arab with a shaved head, Halhal is a member of the Druze sect, known throughout the Middle East for their loyalty to the state they serve. A proud member of the Israeli armed forces, he is nevertheless responsible for making sure Palestinian ambulances and food supplies get through while his colleagues in the security branch of the military try to stop the terrorists.

His officers take pains to distinguish themselves from Israel's fighting troops who, as the focus of Palestinian rage, often come under attack from anyone from small boys throwing stones to militants firing shoulder-fired missiles. All of Halhal's men speak fluent Arabic and drive white jeeps to set themselves apart from the troops in their tanks.

"I am an Israeli army officer, so I understand the security implications of the day-to-day activity," he said, "but my job is to protect the humanitarian and civilian needs of the 200,000 Palestinians who live in this area, which sometimes means I have to argue with my colleagues on the (security) side."

These days, Halhal is focused on matters more prosaic than terrorists. It is the height of the cucumber harvest, and he has to ensure that thousands of tons of the vegetables make their way through the checkpoint and into the markets of northern Israel.

Such assistance is no small matter for the Palestinian economy, since about 85 percent of its exports go to Israel.

Imad Zakarni, 39, who represents a group of Jenin farmers, transports more than 300 tons of vegetables into Israel each day, down from about 1,000 tons before the latest Palestinian uprising began 33 months ago.

"We rely on Israel for about 50 percent of our sales," said Zakarni. "The past two years have been very difficult. . . . Before they opened the checkpoints, we had to smuggle our produce into Israel or throw it away."

"Before the intifada, Jewish Israeli merchants would come every day," he added, "but now they are too scared, so we only deal with Israeli Arabs."

Jenin, known in Israel as the capital city of the suicide bombers, was the scene of intense fighting during last year's Operation Defensive Shield, when 53 Palestinians and 26 Israeli soldiers were killed in close combat in the booby-trapped houses of the crowded refugee camp.

Despite the danger, Halhal said he and his officers were inside Jenin every day, making sure the local hospital continued to function, escorting ambulances and ensuring supplies of electricity, food and water.

Israel has withdrawn its troops to the edges of Jenin, returning frequently to search for weapons or terror suspects, and an uneasy calm now prevails.

About 10,000 people pass through the checkpoint daily, mostly laborers with long-term permits allowing them to get to jobs on the other side of the border.

Other Palestinians can approach the Jenin side of the DCO with requests to travel into Israel for various purposes -- study, business or health. Halhal receives 200 to 300 requests for new permits every day.

A notice in Arabic at the window asks for urgent medical cases to come to the front of the line, and Halhal said there are standing orders that they be processed immediately.

He and the other members of his Civil Administration Unit, which helps to administer the occupied territories, have a complex relationship with the people of Jenin. Officially, they denounce his unit as part of the Israeli occupation, but over time, a relationship has developed between the two sides.

A huge aerial photograph of Jenin fills an entire wall of Halhal's office.

A 650-square-foot block in the middle of the refugee camp that was razed by Israeli bulldozers and Palestinian explosives can be seen clearly.

Halhal points to a factory on the outskirts of town. "This is the medical oxygen factory of Ibrahim Hadad, which provides oxygen for all 14 Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank from Jenin to Hebron," said Halhal. "If a truck is delayed even by one day, there would be no oxygen in the hospitals."

"Despite all the military operations and the dreadful events which have made Jenin the suicide capital, the factory has continued to work and the trucks have departed, with our cooperation and protection," he said, with a note of pride in his voice.

But he was quick to make his loyalties clear:

"I'm not doing this as a favor to the Palestinians. I'm doing it because my whole reason for serving in the army is to defend a democratic and humane society." To him, he said, "that's what the army is for."

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