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Past shared, present shattered

NETANYA, Israel — NETANYA, Israel -- Robin Leigh, a 45-year-old London attorney, arrived in this seaside city on a recent afternoon to pick out bathroom and kitchen fixtures for his new three-bedroom condominium overlooking the Mediterranean. His purchase was the latest confirmation of Netanya's transformation from one of the most frequently bombed cities during the last six years of Israeli-Palestinian violence to one of Israel's most sought-after addresses.

Just 10 miles away in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, the launching pad for many Palestinian bombers, another move was under way. Abu Afif, 48, a Palestinian building contractor whose business had gone bankrupt amid tight Israeli security restrictions and crippling international sanctions against the Hamas-led government, was packing his bags to seek a new life in Dubai. His departure marked the latest exodus of Palestinian professionals fleeing the deepening poverty and political chaos of Tulkarm.

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Although their fortunes couldn't be more different today, Netanya and Tulkarm were once two communities so deeply intertwined that Israelis and Palestinians there believed they were on course for a shared future and shared prosperity.

Thousands of Palestinian workers poured into Netanya to run its hotels and restaurants, build new homes and apartments and harvest fruits and vegetables. On weekends, Israeli bargain hunters ventured into Tulkarm's narrow streets to get their cars repaired, buy fresh produce and visit dentists. It was an unbalanced relationship and tensions remained, but geography appeared to make close ties inevitable.

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That was before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000. Before the rash of bombings in Netanya and the Israeli military siege of Tulkarm. And before Israel's 400-mile separation barrier with the West Bank made physical the political, economic and psychological divisions of the Middle East conflict.

Instead of being models of coexistence, Netanya and Tulkarm are today sobering reminders of the deep separation between Israelis and Palestinians, a study in the disparities between two peoples and two communities, one moving forward, the other slipping further and further behind.

"We've gone back 200 years socially and economically. People here haven't seen such hardship before," says Suleiman Abu Libdeh, a Palestinian construction worker from Tulkarm who had worked in Netanya. "Before the intifada, Netanya and Tulkarm were like one city. ... It's impossible to go back to that."

A city of 173,000 people about 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, Netanya is in the middle of a building boom fueled by the arrival of thousands of Jewish immigrants from the United States, France and England in search of high-end beachfront real estate. Businesses are flocking to the city's industrial park. Ten new hotels - including one by Donald Trump - are planned, as is a new sports stadium, where Netanya will host a professional baseball team.

It is possible to walk along the city's beach promenade, with its busy restaurants, clothing stores and gelato shops, and forget about the conflict and the Palestinians completely. On the main seaside square, dozens of teenagers skateboard. The bombed restaurants, hotels, malls and intersections have long been repaired.

In Tulkarm, a governorate also with a population of 173,000, the conflict seeps into almost every aspect of life. Bullet holes pockmark buildings, tank tracks striate roadways, and posters of Palestinian militants and civilians killed in the fighting stare down from the marketplace, government offices and intersections.

Six years of violence, Israeli security measures and now sanctions have engulfed Tulkarm in poverty.

Tens of thousands of people are out of work. Schools were closed for three months last year when teachers and other public employees went on strike after months without pay. Seventy percent of families live in poverty. Those with marketable skills are packing their bags for other countries in the Middle East and beyond. No investors dare get involved in businesses there.

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Sitting behind a wide polished wood desk in an office surrounded by armed guards, Gov. Amir Talal Dwaikat appears weary as he ticks through the growing list of Tulkarm's problems.

"We are about to collapse completely," he finally concludes.

If the residents of Netanya and Tulkarm share anything anymore, it is a feeling of political paralysis, a sense that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are further away than ever from resolving their differences.

Fractured by internal strife between Hamas, which still embraces Israel's destruction, and Fatah, which seeks a negotiated peace settlement with Israel, Palestinians cannot agree on their vision for the future. An agreement by Hamas and Fatah to form a new unity government, approved yesterday by the parliament, has helped ease the deadly feuding that left hundreds of Palestinians dead in recent months. But it does not recognize Israel, renounce violence or accept previous peace deals - key conditions for lifting international sanctions.

Israelis are also without direction. Weakened by Israel's war with Hezbollah last summer and allegations of corruption, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has shelved his bold campaign promise to evacuate thousands of Jewish settlers from parts of the West Bank and restart the peace process.

A study by Tel Aviv University last fall gauging the mood among Israelis found deep pessimism toward chances for peace in coming years.

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A U.S.-led effort last month to jumpstart peace negotiations between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seemed to confirm a general feeling of hopelessness and frustration on both sides when the leaders failed to make any progress other than to agree to meet again.

"We don't have an option of peace with Palestinians. That's why I support leaving most of the Palestinian territories. I want to cut myself off from the Palestinians," says Dan Schueftan a professor of political science at the University of Haifa whose ideas played a major role in initiating the policy of separation that has guided the government of Israel since 2004. "No matter what, the war will continue."

Relationship cracks

It's a 10-minute drive on Israel's Highway 57 from Tulkarm in the foothills of the Samarian mountains, across the fertile Sharon plain, past fruit orchards and greenhouses, to the malls and apartment towers of Netanya.

It's a drive Jack Weiss knows well. In the years after the 1993 Oslo Accords, when many people believed peace was within reach, Weiss, an Israeli building contractor, was one of the thousands of business owners who depended on Palestinian labor.

Each morning, he drove the length of Highway 57 to pick up dozens of workers for his building projects. In the evening he would return, often stopping for coffee at the homes of his Palestinian managers to make plans for the next day.

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"I would be invited to family occasions and weddings," recalled Weiss on a recent afternoon at his home outside Netanya, where Tulkarm's minarets and apartment buildings are visible in the distance.

In Tulkarm, traffic from Israel would spill onto Netanya Road, a commercial thoroughfare where car repair shops and restaurants sat shoulder to shoulder with vegetable stands and garden stores.

"We were busy all the time," says Mamoun Shalabi, 38, whose family ran the Nafurah restaurant, open 24 hours a day. Customers came for their grilled meat, Middle Eastern salads and water pipes. The menus were in Hebrew.

"Most of the clients were Jewish, and they would stay until 3 a.m.," Shalabi recalled.

It was by no means a perfect relationship. There were plenty of Israelis who refused to set foot in Tulkarm, fearing for their safety. Palestinians without work permits often lived on the run in Netanya trying to evade Israeli authorities.

Still, the bond between the two communities was strengthened in 2000, when Mayor Miriam Fierberg and Izzedine Sharif, then governor of Tulkarm, met together for a lunch.

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They exchanged student artwork and talked about starting joint programs for the school children. Sharif offered condolences for attacks by Palestinians against Israelis. Fierberg shared stories about being raised by a Palestinian nanny, and she expressed her desire for peace between their people.

"I left impressed," Sharif said of the meeting.

"I thought it would start special relations for both sides," Fierberg recalled. They both agreed to another meeting. The next time they had planned to have lunch in Tulkarm.

"Instead of inviting me for lunch, he sent me suicide bombers," Fierberg said.

Violence flares

Militants from the Tulkarm district in the northern West Bank have been responsible for some of the worst violence in Israel during the intifada.

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On March 27, 2002, Adel Basset Odeh, a Palestinian from Tulkarm, made the short journey from the West Bank to Netanya, where more than 200 guests were gathering to celebrate the first night of Passover at Park Hotel.

That evening, Odeh stepped inside the hotel and headed straight for the first-floor dining room, where families were sitting down to dinner. Loaded with explosives, Odeh blew himself up, killing 30 people and injuring dozens more.

Odeh, 25, had grown up with close ties to Israel and held jobs in Netanya's hotels. His father, Muhammad Odeh, bought and sold used cars from Israel and ran a supermarket and other enterprises that served Israelis. On weekends, the family often went to the beach in Netanya.

Because its streets, shops and restaurants were familiar to many Palestinians, Netanya became a favorite target of Palestinian militants, many of them from Tulkarm. Starting in 2000, they carried out 10 attacks in Netanya over six years, killing 51 people and injuring hundreds more.

But the Park Hotel bombing was the single deadliest. It triggered Israel's Operation Defensive Shield, a military push into West Bank cities and towns in search of militants. It also renewed calls for separation of Israelis from Palestinians.

Some 15 miles of fence and more than two miles of concrete walls studded with watchtowers and video cameras now divide Tulkarm from Israel, part of the 400-mile long barrier begun in 2002 that will stretch along the entire border between the West Bank and Israel.

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Israel has placed sweeping restrictions on Palestinian movement, using checkpoints and road blocks to cut off Tulkarm from other parts of the West Bank to stem the movement of suspected militants. Palestinians under age 30 are often restricted from leaving Tulkarm. Israelis - unless given special permission - are forbidden to enter. For all practical purposes there is no contact between the two cities.

Before 2000, 150,000 Palestinians had permission from the Israeli government to work daily in Israel. Only about 15,000 are allowed now, and the government will end those permits by 2008.

The spiraling violence and tightening restrictions immediately endangered business on both sides. In Netanya, Weiss scrambled to find workers for his building projects.

"It was like we lost our left hand," he said.

Ran Maimon had depended on nearby Palestinian labor to run his flower-cutting business for decades. By 2001, like many other local businesses forced suddenly to find other help, he had switched to Thai workers.

"It's a pity. Most of the Palestinians came here as young guys, and they would build their families and build their homes. They were like our children," he said.

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Maimon trusted his workers, but he said it became difficult to get them from the West Bank to his greenhouses because of Israeli security restrictions preventing Palestinians from entering Israel.

Economies diverge

In Tulkarm, Shalabi watched his successful restaurant crumble in a matter of days. On good days it had taken in more than $3,000. But as the violence accelerated, the customers stopped coming. One morning Israeli tanks showed up on Netanya Road. He never reopened for business.

Shalabi's family poured its savings into a small clothing store in Tulkarm's market. A sharply dressed businessman who once traveled around the Middle East and China, Shalabi now spends his days sitting alone in his shop, where dining tables from the former restaurant now display T-shirts, jeans and piles of socks.

"No one has money to go out to eat. But clothing is always a need," Shalabi said.

Like everyone in Tulkarm, he makes do with less. Once wealthy enough to afford five cars, his family now shares one. On a good day he makes $50 in sales. But many of his customers and business partners are broke, so he has begun accepting furniture and other items in lieu of cash.

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Cut off from its economic relationship with Israel, Tulkarm's economy is in shambles. The Palestinian economy shrank 21 percent in the fourth quarter of 2006 compared with the previous year, suffering from Israeli sanctions and cuts in international aid, Palestinian officials said. They say their economy is experiencing its deepest recession since 1967, with 70 percent of the population of West Bank and Gaza now living in poverty.

A green road sign in Tulkarm still points to Netanya, but concrete blocks and an iron gate bar the way. Nearly all the businesses along Netanya Road are shuttered.

Storekeepers sit out front, waiting for customers who rarely appear. Vegetable and fruit stand owners have watched their produce prices fall. It is surprisingly quiet most days. Without work, people stay home.

Posters lining the chaotic downtown market advertise the latest group weddings sponsored by charities, part of an effort to encourage young couples to marry even during difficult financial times.

On Fridays, men gather for prayers in the city's main mosque. Some wear threadbare clothes. A few are dressed sharply in suits. As they climb up the steps and slip off their shoes, it's possible to see over the barrier into Israel, to the red-tiled roof developments, the orderly rows of crops and tidy greenhouses and apartment towers in Netanya.

In many respects Tulkarm has become an island, its residents castaways fending for themselves. No one relies on the Palestinian Authority for solutions. No one expects that life will improve.

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Israelis like Barry Shaw, a real estate agent in Netanya, see no rush to try to end separation. After the barrier was completed near Tulkarm three years ago, the security in Netanya was restored - there have been no attacks there since December 2005 - and the real estate market is now soaring. Shaw has recovered from a long slump and is back in business selling seafront condominiums for a half-million dollars to British, French and Americans.

"What brought this transformation is that Israel got control of the terror situation," he said.

Israel's economy continued to bound forward last year, growing by more than 5 percent for the third year in a row, despite the disruption of a monthlong war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer.

In Netanya's city hall, Mayor Fierberg and her staff are busy planning an ambitious building program, including a new sports stadium, tennis courts and other sports facilities to meet the needs of the city's growing population and attract tourists.

The city's industrial zone with wide boulevards and big shopping centers has become the corporate headquarters for Hewlett Packard, L'Oreal and Cisco Systems. Every day, the parking lot is full at the IKEA home furnishings store.

"All of these shops came during the worst time in the city. We have the strength to cope. We are the underdogs and not the Palestinians who came here to kill us," says Mayor Fierberg.

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Many people in Netanya say they adjusted to life without Palestinians. It doesn't matter that the Palestinians haven't made the same transition.

"The Palestinians need pragmatic leadership. Until such time, they can starve to death," says Shaw. "I think the majority of the Israelis say to hell with them."

Reconciliation fails

Not all residents feel this way. Korin Ben Aroya worries about what's happening on the other side of the barrier.

She admits she has every reason to hate the Palestinians. Her husband, Shimon, was killed during the Park Hotel bombing, and she was injured so badly that doctors first thought she was dead. Her three children suffered serious wounds, including her oldest daughter, who lost sight in one eye and is paralyzed on her right side.

In last year's election, she voted for Olmert's Kadima Party, believing its plan for a withdrawal from the West Bank would lead to peace and security. Now that Olmert has abandoned his plan, she worries the government is not doing enough to find a solution. Something must be done to improve the lives of people on the other side of the barrier, she said.

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"I think the squalor in which they live can contribute to their hatred and their desire to take revenge against us," she says.

"I can't say I will forget what happened, but I'm trying not to think about it all the time. I have to continue my life," she said, sitting in the living room of her Netanya apartment.

About once a month, she and eight other women who lost husbands in the Park Hotel bombing get together.

"In the beginning, every meeting was very sad. We started opening up with each other. Now we are talking about everything. We are laughing," she says. Some of the survivors understandably remain bitter and angry with Palestinians. Ben Aroya is not one of them.

"Some people say they hate the Arabs more. I can't say that about myself. ... The doctor who saved me was an Arab. I am an optimist. Maybe I am naive to think like this. I still believe in peace even though there are those who say I should think differently."

In Tulkarm, the family of Abdel Basset Odeh, the Park Hotel bomber, is also moving on. On the day that the Park Hotel reopened for business, the Israeli army - which had a policy at the time of demolishing a bomber's home to deter attacks - tore down Muhammad Odeh's four-story family home. The family has since rebuilt a smaller, two-story home on a quiet street nearby.

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Sitting in his living room where two large wall hangings commemorate his son's bombing, Muhammad Odeh says his family's wealth has disappeared. His health is failing, and he complains he is not allowed to leave the West Bank for medical care.

In the end, he admits, his son's bombing neither improved the lives of Palestinians nor brought them closer to ending Israeli occupation and achieving an independent state.

"He didn't change anything," he says.

In the Palestinian elections, Odeh cast his vote for Hamas, the Islamic movement that has remained committed to Israel's destruction. Negotiating with Israel has gotten the Palestinians nowhere, he says.

After years of conducting business with Israelis, Odeh now wants nothing to do with them. "Before the intifada, we had a relationship, but it was just business. But the Israelis are against the Palestinians. They make us feel like they don't like us," he said.

When driving in the hilly streets of Tulkarm, he'll get a peek into Israel from time to time. Only one thought goes through his mind about the people who live there, he said.

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"I feel they are the enemies," he says.

Future looks muddled

While the Israeli government's goal is to sever nearly all contact, there are some things Israelis and Palestinians cannot separate that require shared solutions.

The Alexander River, which flows from Nablus through Tulkarm and continues into Israel near Netanya before it spills into the sea, carries dozens of pollutants, including raw sewage and industrial waste from the West Bank into Israel.

During the last six years, Tulkarm and Emek Hefer Regional Council in Israel have worked together to clean up the river, which has contaminated ground water on both sides and allowed the West Nile virus to thrive. Officials from Tulkarm and Emek Hefer often met in secret for fear of upsetting both Palestinian and Israeli governments.

"Not everybody is happy with the cooperation," says Amon Brandeis, the project manager of the Alexander River Restoration Project.

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Still, they talk about one day building a peace park for Israelis and Palestinians where the barrier stands today.

"It's an idea, a vision that we will have a park on both sides of the border. Children on each side will play. But in the future, we won't need the wall anymore. They will play together," Brandeis said.

For now, Brandeis' dream is only that. Places like Netanya and Tulkarm are drifting further apart, not coming together.

Leigh, the London attorney, isn't troubled by Netanya's history of bombings.

"I think we take the view that the world is a pretty unsafe place everywhere," said Leigh. "At least here you've got a government that knows how to look after its citizens."

In fact, he is coming to Netanya for safety. Worried about increasing signs of anti-Semitism in Europe, Leigh, who is Jewish, said he wants a safe harbor for his family.

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"My belief is that as Jews we've had an easy time since the end of the Holocaust. But if you take history altogether, Europe has been a bit of a problem to say the least. I think we're coming to the end of that period in Europe, and things will get harder for us," he said.

Abu Afif, the Tulkarm contractor, is also in search of security.

As he packed his bags for Dubai, he recounted his mixed fortunes in the West Bank.Educated as a civil engineer in Romania, he returned to Tulkarm to open a construction business, believing he would play a role in creating the foundations of a Palestinian state. For years he was a successful builder, never wanting for work.

Even during the violence of the Palestinian uprising he muddled through, working on projects commissioned by international aid organizations. But in the last year, as economic sanctions extinguished any signs of economic life in Tulkarm, he has had no new projects.

"The economic situation is not just bad. It has stopped. It is dead. We don't have anything," he said. His last project was building a sports center in a village outside Tulkarm city. The Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks that encircle the city made it impossible to get to the work site some days. He improvised by hiring tractors to carry building materials on back roads and once drafted a group of school children to help him carry cans of paint around a checkpoint. In the end, he finished behind schedule and lost more than $4,000 on the project.

The teachers' strike last year left his children unable to attend classes for three months. His wife, Abeer Muhsen, is a public school teacher and did not receive a paycheck for 10 months.

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Like many parents in Tulkarm, Abu Afif and his wife are afraid to let their children play in the streets. If they do go outside, they are told not to mention Hamas or Fatah.

Most days they sit at home in their second-story apartment, watching events televised from elsewhere in the world.

The growing disorder and poverty in places like Tulkarm underscores a fundamental irony in the current situation between Israelis and Palestinians. While Israel and the United States continue to talk about a two-state solution to the conflict, Palestinians say they lack the most basic foundations of government to create one.

"Where is the state? Only in our dreams," Afif says. "We are frozen here. All the people in Chad, Nigeria and other poor countries are moving ahead, and we are slipping behind."

So he decided to join a growing number of Palestinian professionals seeking opportunity elsewhere. He called a friend in Dubai who said that jobs were plentiful for skilled contractors. If he finds steady work, he hopes his wife and children will follow him.

According to the Engineers Associated of Tulkarm, about 40 members, or around 10 percent of all the engineers with homes in Tulkarm, have left this year.

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As he sat in his apartment saying goodbye to friends over cups of sweetened tea, Abu Afif laughed at his fate.

"There are two kinds of people in the world: men who want to build and men who want to fight. The man who builds is rich and can go anywhere. What remains behind are the bad people who want to fight," he says.

He left for Dubai taking one suitcase full of clothes and a package of spices from Tulkarm, not knowing when, or if, he would return.

jmurphy@baltsunnews.com


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