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An Intifada Casualty Named Atarot

'This place has turned into a ghost town.'

by Larry Derfner

March 22, 2001 | 7:00 pm

A light plane flies over Kalandia Palestinian refugee camp as it prepares to land in Atarot Airport in north Jerusalem in December 1999. At that time, the Haaretz daily reported that Israel had agreed to hand over civilian control to the Palestinian Authority of Arab neighborhoods in north Jerusalem and give joint control to the domestic Atarot airport.    AFP photo

A light plane flies over Kalandia Palestinian refugee camp as it prepares to land in Atarot Airport in north Jerusalem in December 1999. At that time, the Haaretz daily reported that Israel had agreed to hand over civilian control to the Palestinian Authority of Arab neighborhoods in north Jerusalem and give joint control to the domestic Atarot airport. AFP photo

The Atarot Industrial Park, located at the edge of a Jerusalem Arab village and right on the border of the Palestinian Authority, was meant as a forerunner of the "New Middle East": Arabs and Jews making money together, not war. Coca-Cola, Mercedes-Benz, Israel Aircraft Industries and some 200 other companies opened operations here, about 40 of which were Arab-owned. They employed some 4,000 people, roughly two-thirds of them Arabs from Jerusalem and the West Bank.

That was before the Al-Aqsa intifada broke out in September. Since then two Atarot employees have been shot to death outside the park after work. Another on her way home was shot and paralyzed. Other Atarot employees -- Arabs as well as Jews -- tell of driving past gunfire to and from the job. Stonings are so common they aren't considered worth mentioning.

Since October, about 40 companies have abandoned Atarot, and the employee population has gone down by approximately one-quarter, says park manager Ilan Roman. But Jacques Siton, standing on the loading dock of his Odeyah cosmetics company, figures the real attrition rate is more than half. "This place has turned into a ghost town," he says.

Located on the perilous Jerusalem-Ramallah road, the sprawling, 425-acre park's main entrances have been blockaded to keep out saboteurs. Hundreds of broken windows line the gray and olive-drab buildings facing the park's perimeter fence. "Rocks, Molotov cocktails," explains security guard Yaron Cohen.

Next door is Atarot Airport, which has been closed during the intifada; the thousands of rocks covering the now-idle runway explain why. Along the rest of the park's border are the Jerusalem Arab villages of A'Ram, Beit Hanina, Bir Naballah and Atarot, and, sitting on the outskirts of Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority's Kalandia refugee camp.

A reporter and photographer are met at one of the park's blockaded entrances by Cohen and his Israeli Army escort Geva, who is wearing a bullet-proof vest; Cohen says he ordinarily wears one, too.

They stop at a bathroom near the perimeter fence and the reporter gets out of the car; Cohen tells Geva to go with him. "Over there is Kalandia," explains Cohen, pointing a couple of hundred yards beyond the fence.

Driving around they see a man who, as the saying goes, looks Arab. Cohen pulls over the van and Geva asks him where he's from. "Beit Hanina," he replies. "Where do you work?" asks the soldier. "Strauss," says the Arab, referring to the Israeli dairy company. Geva examines the man's blue Israeli ID card -- as distinct from the Palestinian Authority's orange and green ones. "Have a good day," he says.

Later it turns out that Strauss, which had a storage and distribution facility here, moved out a few months ago when independent truckers told the company they would no longer run the risk of driving in and out of Atarot. Told about this, Cohen turns to Geva. "You see? We screwed up," he says. "From now on, if an Arab tells you he works at a company that's been closed, you give him straight to the Border Police."

In addition to Border Police jeeps, vehicles of regular Israeli police, Army soldiers and private security companies patrol the park all day and night.

Jewish and Arab businessmen say their friendships have survived the intifada, even if an element of unease has crept in. But among security guards -- Jews at Jewish companies, Arabs at Arab companies -- all trust seems to have gone. "If an Arab guard offers us a cup of coffee, we won't drink it," Cohen says. "It could be poisoned."

The Arab-owned Sbitany and Sons electrical appliances company used to have 25 Jewish salespeople working out of Atarot, selling to Israeli retailers. "But after the intifada began they said it was too dangerous for them to keep coming here, so we rented office space in Tel Aviv for them," says deputy general manager Maged Shahwan.

Most Atarot employees commute by company van. "Some are bulletproof, some aren't," says Roman. Large companies like Israel Aircraft Industries and Wella toiletries can afford bulletproof vests and buses for their employees. "They walk around here like lords," says Siton, noting that public utilities technicians also arrive at Atarot in bulletproof vests.

The Army's encirclement of Palestinian villages and cities, and its closure of Israel to Palestinians, has obviously placed tremendous obstacles before the bulk of Atarot's workforce. Some Palestinian employees have special passes to get through Army checkpoints. Others sneak past them. One Atarot worker is said to leave his Hebron home at 3 a.m. and hike over the Hebron hills to get to work in the morning. Still other Atarot employees from the West Bank just stay home.

Arab workers from East Jerusalem don't have it easy, either. Operating a forklift on Odeyah cosmetics' loading dock, Jamal Abdallah, who lives near the Mount of Olives and has been working for owner Siton for seven years, notes that with Israeli soldiers checking Arabs so carefully at roadblocks near the industrial park, the tie-up can last as long as two hours. "Sometimes I just turn around and go home," he says.

If there is one business that symbolizes the evolving hopes attached to Atarot, it is probably Hatifei Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Snack Chips), owned by Avi Ben-Ezra, a religious Jew from Rishon Lezion, and Khaled Salah, a Palestinian from Hebron.

Ben-Ezra used to buy snack foods from Salah's factory, and four years ago they went into business together at Atarot. Employing 15 Arabs from Jerusalem and the West Bank, they produce "Bambalulu," which, according to park manager Roman, is "the best bamba (peanut butter puff) in the Middle East."

Ben-Ezra says, "We're living out the peace, a religious Jew and a Palestinian together."

Contacted by phone at his home, Salah, who owns 80 percent of the company, tells a less optimistic story. "I haven't been able to get to Atarot for two months. I can't get out of Hebron because of the Army's closure," he says. "That's why I'm thinking of shutting the company down. You can't run a business like this."

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