Peace moves meet wall of mistrust in Jericho greets

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The Independent Online

Israeli troops have begun to hand over security control of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority, and four other West Bank cities are due to follow, in what is seen as a message to ordinary Palestinians that an informal truce is paying off.

Israeli troops have begun to hand over security control of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority, and four other West Bank cities are due to follow, in what is seen as a message to ordinary Palestinians that an informal truce is paying off.

Many of Jericho's 25,000 Arab citizens are sceptical. In the Green Valley restaurant, heady with the scent of spring blossom and grilled lamb, Maher Alawi, a waiter, said he wouldn't believe that the Israelis were really easing their grip until he saw it. "The Israelis are playing with us. Jericho will remain one big prison. The majority of Israelis want peace, but not the government, not the settlers and not the generals."

The restaurant has tables for about 200 but the only diners were an amateur football team from Arab East Jerusalem.

Jericho lives off agriculture and tourism. For the past three years, it has taken a whole day for its produce to reach other West Bank towns. Growers stopped shipping bananas across the river to Jordan, which used to take six truckloads a day. Pilgrims and Israeli day-trippers have stayed away since the intifada broke out four and a half years ago.

Despite what was described as a last-minute technical hitch, a checkpoint on the Jordan Valley road was moved further north, allowing traffic to flow more freely westwards to Ramallah, a main market for Jericho's fruit and vegetables. South of the world's oldest and lowest city, the Israelis said that they would no longer check Arabs entering Jericho, but only those leaving towards Jerusalem. Israeli civilians would, however, still be barred, as they are from other Palestinian cities, for fear that they might be abducted or attacked. "Checkpoints are against life and against economic development," said the mayor, Hassan el-Hussein. Unemployment, he said,was at least 60 per cent.

Up the road, three busloads of Palestinian schoolgirls were riding a French-built cable car from the ancient Sultan's Spring to the New Testament Mount of the Temptation. The cable car opened at the beginning of 2000. It closed amid the intifada violence and reopened this month in the more optimistic, post-Arafat era. The school groups are its only takers. A shopping centre built at its base is barred and bolted. The cable car manager, Kamel Sinokrot, said that before the intifada they had 30-40 tour groups a day. He employed 75 staff. Now he had 15.

"As soon as the checkpoints are removed," he said, "we hope the tourists will start to come back - Israelis and foreigners." The ticket office still has signs in Hebrew as well as English and Arabic.

Even if the checkpoints are removed, it will take longer for the Austrian-owned casino and hotel, built after the 1993 Oslo Accords on the edge of town, to reopen. Before the intifada, 3,000 punters a day played its 120 tables and 240 slot machines. Almost all were Israelis. Gambling is illegal in Israel. The complex employed 1,600 Palestinian workers and 450 foreign dealers. All were sent home. The casino paid millions in tax to the Palestinian Authority.

Hans Holek, who keeps the place ticking over with a skeleton staff, said that when transport between cities was guaranteed, the casino could reopen in 12 weeks. But unless Israeli gamblers were allowed back, there would be no point. "If they can't come," he predicted, "the shareholders will lose patience and this project will die." And with it many of Jericho's hopes of a more prosperous future.

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