Jericho takes cover to welcome peace: There were supposed to be celebrations in Jericho yesterday to mark the return of 26 deportees. But instead, as Sarah Helm witnessed, there were clashes

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The Independent Online
IN JERICHO'S central square yesterday the stage was set for what could be the final scene. A fresh crop of Palestinian flags had been planted around the square, to greet 26 deportees crossing from Jordan over the Allenby Bridge.

In a cafe at one corner sat Abdullah abu-Jdib, with a delegation from Nablus, waiting patiently for the return of their exiled friends.

'This is the coming of peace,' said Mr abu-Jdib, smiling. To the right was the Israeli police station, a sniper watching nervously from the second floor, and rocks were strewn on the roads around. 'It's just kids, it means nothing.'

Further around the square was a bank of television cameramen, apparently expecting something to happen. And behind them, rows of shopkeepers were also looking on.

Then a Jeep entered stage left, and circled slowly around the square. Another soon joined the merry-go-round. Soldiers, legs hooked over the back of the vehicles, guns propped, peered out.

From nowhere came the stones, suddenly hurled at the soldiers. Several thundering bangs immediately followed, as stun-grenades were hurled back at the square, from over the wire fence of the police station. The sniper on the second floor took aim and tear-gas billowed out. The cafe owner was now pulling down his shutters. And the crowds were scattering.

Jericho is celebrating 'the coming of peace' in a very strange way. There is certainly evidence that change - of some sort - may be coming at last. 'The Jericho police station is preparing for final evacuation, which will apparently take place during the coming week,' said the police spokesman yesterday. A total of 49 Palestinians, deported since 1967, were being allowed to return home, 23 of them via Egypt into the Gaza Strip.

Among the returnees were not just the tired and ageing rebels Israel has allowed to return in the past, but key young figures in the entourage of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO. Activists had been sent ahead by Mr Arafat, to start preparing the ground for his own return.

And yet, the atmosphere in Jericho yesterday was subdued - and not only because of the tear-gas.

In Gaza, where oppression has been more intense, the signs of withdrawal have been treated with greater jubilation. Yesterday Palestinians cheered as the deportees arrived, and as the Israelis pulled down watchtowers and began to evacuate the headquarters of the military administration. But in Jericho the withdrawal appears to be bringing mixed blesssings. Jericho is both excited and fearful about the nature of the peace which is coming. Yes, they say, it is true that the army is moving. But now that an agreement is in sight, the people can see just how far they are moving - only a few miles down the road. A new 'border post' has been erected on the road just over a mile away. And now the agreement is near, the Palestinians here can see the Jewish settlers are not going to be moved. A new road has been laid to the east of Jericho for the Jewish settlers to bypass the new enclave.

'Suddenly the people are saying that Jericho feels like a prison,' said Khaled Ammar, a local journalist. 'People are saying - what are they giving us? Is this all it is?'

The sense of 'a prison' was reinforced yesterday when many families and friends, coming to Jericho to greet returning deportees, were barred from entering the Jericho enclaves, by Israeli soldiers at the new 'border posts' imposing new restrictions. The Palestinians were told they needed 'permits' to enter the town.

At the same time, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders were keen to play down any triumphant celebration for yesterday's returning exiles. So soon after the Hebron massacre, such joy would have been out of place for the Palestinians. And Israel wanted to dampen any sense in the minds of the Israeli public that Palestine is at last in the making.

Back on the merry-go-round, therefore, the charade went on. The 'kids' complained it was the soldiers who started it every time, and the soldiers said it was the kids. Both predicted, however, that the final curtain might soon fall.

'Perhaps it is our way of saying goodbye to them,' said 14-year-old Samir. A young soldier said: 'We hope to be gone in a few days anyway - back home.'

(Photograph omitted)