Away from U.N. debate, Palestinian camp is on edge
JENIN, West Bank
JENIN, West Bank (Reuters) - Once again, it can be easier to find a rifle than a job in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin.
Residents say occasional bursts of gunfire in its narrow streets are an economic indicator as telling as any. Many see the renewed disorder as a consequence of despair.
The scene of heavy fighting in 2002 during the last Intifada, or uprising, Jenin camp today challenges the picture of a West Bank prospering under the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Western-backed and internationally-funded government.
Young men who fought in the last uprising have since emerged from Israeli prisons to bleak prospects. Their local standing as heroes has not helped them to find work. They hold the PA responsible and say their anger is growing.
"I live in total despair," said a 25-year-old ex-fighter jailed by Israel at the height of the Intifada and jobless since his release five months ago. "To me, the whole world seems black."
The camp's 16,000 people, mostly descendants of Palestinians dispossessed when Israel was created in 1948, live with memories of a violent past and little hope for a better future.
Some view the camp as a ticking bomb, especially at a time when Palestinian belief in any chance of peace with Israel -- or the removal of half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1967 -- has dissolved.
Plans by the Palestinian Authority leadership to press a claim to statehood at the United Nations in September offer something to talk about, but little more.
Its consequences hard to fathom, the diplomacy planned for New York appears a world away from the daily worries of getting by and the tensions that have surfaced recently within the camp.
In Jenin camp, locals say small groups of masked men have reappeared in the streets, reviving memories of lawless armed gangs that roamed here during the last Intifada.
A few weeks ago, dozens of bullets were fired at a community services center. Separately, UNRWA, the U.N. agency which cares for Palestinian refugees, was forced to suspend its operations temporarily following threats to its staff. The car of one local notable who lives just outside the camp was torched.
Adding to the pressures, Israeli security forces have stepped up raids and arrests in the camp in recent months as part of investigations into the killing in April of an Israeli actor and director who ran a community theater.
"I won't tell you the situation is out of control, but it is not under full control," said Atta Abu Irmaila, a local leader in Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. "Things are very difficult. If it stays like this, anything is possible."
Addressing the camp from mosque minarets, community leaders recently appealed for an end to displays of arms by masked men.
Palestinians who know the camp's politics attribute recent disturbances to individual rivalries rather than friction between factions such as Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Used to much worse, they say the trouble should not be overdrawn, but talk of tensions rooted in poverty -- at least some of the gunmen belong to the camp's jobless generation.
A decade ago, the workforce of Jenin camp and the adjacent city of the same name would have found jobs in nearby Israel. That was before the last Intifada, when Israel identified Jenin as a hub for suicide bombings and shooting attacks.
Its military response led to a 10-day assault in 2002 known among Palestinians as the 'Battle of Jenin'.
Today, tighter restrictions on access to Israel mean its labor market remains cut off to many. Veterans of the fighting also complain that the PA has failed to offer them employment.
"What's going on in the camp is because there is no work for the youth," said a 28-year old, a veteran of the fighting who was jailed by Israel for eight years and arrested recently by PA security forces on suspicion of opening fire in the camp.
He was cleared of the charges. His treatment by the police has bred more resentment of the PA. "When they come into the camp, they come in as if they are going into a war zone," he said. Like others, he would not give his name for fear that talking to the media would bring more police attention.
"I want to work. Tell me to demolish a mountain and I'll do it," said another Intifada fighter of the same age.
"We see that our children are going to be worse off than us. If things stay as they are, the pressure will generate an explosion," he said.
In a report issued in June, UNRWA highlighted a divergence between refugee and non-refugee prosperity in the West Bank, showing higher rates of unemployment among the refugees.
Registered refugees account for close to 700,000 of the West Bank's Palestinian population of 2.4 million.
Across the Palestinian workforce in the West Bank, one in four were unemployed, the report said.
For the most vulnerable, UNRWA runs a job creation program that pays laborers $420 a month for short-term projects, such as building repairs. But it isn't enough to make Jenin prosper.
By contrast, the city of Ramallah, the PA's administrative capital, has boomed, thanks in large part to injections of aid from international donors who have backed the PA's efforts to build institutions for statehood.
Economic conditions have also improved in other West Bank towns, partly because Israel has relaxed some of the crippling restrictions on movement it imposed during the Intifada.
The PA recognizes that Jenin needs more attention to remedy above average unemployment. "The government is aware of the need to double the efforts," said Ghassan Khatib, PA spokesman.
But the Authority faces an uphill struggle to win local confidence. Its economic policies are seen to be failing and its security forces are also looked upon with a degree of suspicion, their credibility undermined by repeated Israeli raids.
Some question the Palestinian security forces' role when the Israeli army still acts as it pleases. Such sentiment generates warnings that the PA could be the focus of future anger.
"I am the regional secretary general of Fatah but I do not work in politics. My job is social work," said Abu Irmaila. "I cannot do politics -- I can't say: 'Come, there is a Fatah conference, or a march, or support the president', to someone who can't find food to eat."
"People are saying: 'We fought the Israelis, we offered martyrs and prisoners and our homes were destroyed. But you, oh Palestinian Authority, Fatah -- what have you done to us?'" he said.
He believes trouble in Jenin camp could spark wider West Bank instability. "If there is going to be an explosion in the country ... its starting point will be Jenin camp," he said.
People have felt more hounded by the Israelis and the PA since the killing of Juliano Mer Khamis, the Israeli founder of the Freedom Theater, said Jacob Gough, who is now its director.
Founded in 2006, the theater aims to provide a creative outlet for youths who have grown up through years of turbulence. "There's a billiard hall, and there's us," said Gough.
"There's this anger inside and it's going to come out in certain ways. Some come to the theater, some go around with guns and shoot in the air," he said. "People feel left out of society."
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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