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Email from Jericho

The Guardian – 26 August 2002

A huge, modern glass edifice dominates the entrance to the West Bank city of Jericho. Two years ago, before the outbreak of the intifada, it was a magnet for thousands of Israelis, who were drawn each weekend to its gaming tables. They were waited on by more than a thousand Palestinians, who staffed the bars and roulette wheels, while hundreds more pampered the Israelis staying at the neighbouring five-star Inter-Continental hotel.

Today the Oasis casino is dark and locked, and two security guards prevent anyone approaching. The price of a hotel room has been slashed to entice visitors 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 90s; but now it is an empty shell, its coffers are bare and even loyal friends have turned their backs.

The Oasis’s location in Jericho makes the comparison all the more fitting. This city was the first to be handed over to the new authority in 1994, and during the long days of the current intifada it alone has avoided the West Bank’s military reoccupation. Until Israel’s recent – and probably temporary – withdrawal from Bethlehem, only Jericho and Yasser Arafat’s much-shelled Ramallah compound remained of the PA in the West Bank.

This makes Jericho’s plight all the more pathetic. “Residents need a permit to get in or out [and these] are all but impossible to obtain,” explains Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian cabinet minister who lives here. “And with the rest of the West Bank reoccupied, where are we supposed to go? We are effectively under siege.”

It is a siege with biblical echoes. Here it was that Joshua led the Israelites to their victory over the Canaanites, 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 exposed position in the Jordan Valley and tiny size – the population is 14,000 – make it far from fertile ground for militancy. And the long, wide streets – an open invitation to tanks – would be almost impossible to defend.

The city did briefly attract attention this year when Arafat agreed to transfer here six wanted Palestinians hiding in his compound. 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 political sensitivities, he says their stay is being made as pleasant as possible. “They each have their own room, a computer, television and telephone.” If this is true, they are faring better than many of Jericho’s inhabitants. Until October 2000 the city had two sources of income: tourism and agriculture. Both have been crushed by the Israeli invasion.

Shaher Gruf is a ticket seller at the archeological site of old Jericho, which includes the now-defunct cable car to the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus spent 40 days resisting the Devil. He says that up to 2,500 visitors used to arrive each day. Now he is lucky to hit double figures by month’s end.

The farmers are suffering too. Jericho, long known as the Palestinians’ fruit basket, has vast plantations of bananas, olives, vines and dates but most are no longer tended. The blockade means farmers cannot export. Local businessman Abu Ahmed Aliyan Arif says: “After they pick what they need for family and friends and what they can sell locally, the farmers leave the rest to rot. It’s cheaper than employing people to work in the fields.”

Seated in his plush office, Erekat says he is powerless to help his constituency. “I might as well take down this [PLO] flag behind me and go home for all the good I can do.”

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