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The walls around Jericho

Al-Ahram Weekly – 11 July 2002
 
Two years ago, before the outbreak of the Intifada, several thousand wealthy customers, mainly Israelis, gathered each weekend to play the tables of the Oasis casino in Jericho.
 
More than a thousand Palestinians staffed the bars and roulette wheels, and hundreds more pampered the guests staying in the 181 luxurious rooms of the attached Inter-Continental hotel.
 
Today the casino is dark and locked, and two security guards prevent anyone approaching. The price of a room at the hotel has been slashed in an attempt to entice foreign visitors, the only people still allowed unfettered access to the oldest city in the world. But the guests, invariably diplomats, rarely outnumber the eight staff who keep the place ticking over until better times return.
 
It would be hard to find a more appropriate metaphor for the rise and fall of the Palestinian Authority than Jericho’s casino. Like the Oasis, the PA confidently rode a wave of cash-fuelled excess in the late 1990s. Now it is an empty shell, its coffers are bare and even loyal friends have turned their back.
 
The fact that the Oasis is located in Jericho makes the comparison all the more fitting. Back in 1994 the city was the first to be handed over to the new Palestinian Authority. And since Israel’s reinvasion of the West Bank last month, in what is known as Operation Determined Path, Jericho has enjoyed a unique status: it is the only city not under occupation.
 
Though Yasser Arafat might deny it, Jericho, and the Palestinian president’s Muqata compound in Ramallah, are in reality all that remain of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and of the Area A designated as under its control in the Oslo accords. That makes the plight of Jericho all the more pathetic.
 
The “City of Palms”, located 40 kilometres east of Jerusalem and at 250m below sea level in the Jordan Valley the lowest city in the world, can only be entered and left with the permission of the Israeli army.
 
“Even I have problems getting in and out,” says Saeb Erekat, Arafat’s spokesman and a Palestinian cabinet minister, who lives in Jericho. Sitting in his plush office on the outskirts of the city, he has sunk into the lowest of spirits.
 
“It’s wrong to say Jericho is free of the occupation. It’s window-dressing by Israel. Look at the roads into Jericho, they are all blocked by Israel. Residents need a permit to get in or out which are all but impossible to obtain. We are effectively under siege,” he says.
 
“Anyway, how can they talk of Jericho being free when the rest of the West Bank is reoccupied? Even if we could leave, where are we supposed to go? Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron? They are all under curfew.”
 
It is a siege with Biblical echoes. Here it was after all that Joshua led the Israelites to their victory over the Canaanite city, sounding their ram’s horns until the walls “fell down flat”.
 
Today the siege is more prosaic: a series of ditches around the city and huge concrete slabs blocking the roads.
 
So far Jericho has offered no resistance. Its proximity to the border with Jordan and reliance on trade, its small size — the population is only 14,000 — and even smaller neighbouring refugee camps make it far from fertile ground for militancy. And the long, wide streets — an open invitation to invading tanks — would be almost impossible to defend.
 
“Jericho is the equivalent of a small neighbourhood in Ramallah or Nablus,” says Erekat. “The Israelis know that this place will stay quiet even if they don’t bring in the tanks.”
 
Other local leaders, who wish to remain anonymous, say that Mossad exploits Jericho’s peace. Collaborators, they say, encourage wanted men to seek sanctuary here so that the Israelis can pick them up at their leisure.
 
Last week, that was precisely what happened. A dozen tanks rolled in and arrested three Palestinians.
 
Jericho did briefly make headlines in April when Arafat agreed to transfer, to Jericho’s PA building, six wanted Palestinians hiding in his compound in an attempt to bring the previous invasion, Defensive Shield, to an end. Their confinement is being monitored by a team of British and American wardens.
 
Brigadier Abu Bakr heads the Palestinian security detail guarding the men. Apparently unaware of current political sensitivities, he says their stay is being made as pleasant as possible. “They each have their own room, a computer, television and telephone,” he says.
 
If this is true, it is a more comfortable existence than that of Jericho’s other inhabitants. Until October 2000 they had two sources of income: tourism and agriculture. Now both are gone.
 
Tourists stopped coming the moment the Intifada erupted, even though for many months afterwards Jericho was a safe, ten-minute drive from the Dead Sea.
 
Shaher Gruf, a ticket seller at the archeological site of Tel Al-Sultan, or old Jericho, which also includes the now-closed cable car ride to the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus spent 40 days resisting the Devil, says up to 2,500 visitors used to come each day. Now he is lucky to hit double figures by the end of each month.
 
The farmers are faring no better. Jericho, long known as the fruit and vegetable basket of the West Bank, still has vast plantations of bananas, olives, vines and dates but most are no longer tended.
 
Movement restrictions mean farmers cannot get permission to export their produce to neighbouring towns and villages. And even if they can get out of Jericho, they cannot be sure that curfews in the rest of the West Bank will not make the effort pointless.
 
Local businessmen Abu Ahmed Aliyan Arif says: “After the farmers pick what they need for their family and friends and what they can sell locally, they leave the rest to rot. It’s cheaper than employing people to work in the fields.”
 
His own café in the city centre is taking a battering too. “No one here has any money to eat out. Many shops have shut. I haven’t paid my three staff a wage for eight months now. I used to make a profit of $70,000 a year but now the few hundred shekels I earn each week I split with them. The electricity and telephone companies are threatening to cut me off next month.”
 
Erekat says there is little he can do. “I can’t help them. If the farmers want to sell their produce they have to go to the young Israeli officers and plead for a permit. It’s the same if someone needs to go to hospital or to travel to university. I might as well take down this [PLO] flag behind me and go home for all the good I can do.”
 
There is a persistent tone of gloom in his voice. “I expect [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon will invade Jericho soon. They know they can come in whenever they please.”
 
He adds bitterly: “The Palestinians have a 97 per cent literacy rate and the whole economy is drowning, the whole nation is drowning. The Red Cross did a study recently and called what is happening here [in the West Bank] a human catastrophe. The foreign aid agencies know that but nothing is being said.”
 
Last week Sharon admitted at a meeting of the security cabinet that the Israeli army would “remain in the centres of the West Bank cities for a very long time”.
 
According to Erekat, this is the trumpet sounding the final destruction of the Palestinian Authority, and of Arafat too. “Sharon is going to take back the occupied territories soon, of that I have no doubt. This is his endgame. And he will find a pretext for killing Arafat.”
 
He says the result will be a generation of Palestinians who no longer believe in peace.
 
“What Sharon is about to create is chaos and anarchy. Warlords will rule each region, fighting among themselves and sending suicide bombers to Israel if their demands are not met. American and British intelligence must see this coming.”
 
Israeli spokesmen have been making noises about the imminent collapse of the PA, suggesting that Israel will have to step in on humanitarian grounds. The revival of the civil administration, the government of the military occupation, seems inevitable.
 
Erekat says he at least has another profession to fall back on. “I am a professor by training and I will go back to teaching. The day is not far off.”

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