Palestinians want Jericho in a mini-state: Leaders attempt to put pressure on Israel to clarify what the 'entity' might look like

DOWN in the airless heat of the Jordan Valley, some 800 feet below sea level, brilliant bougainvillaea cascades over the mudbrick walls of the world's oldest continuously inhabited human settlement. Jericho is a sleepy place. It was one of the last towns on the West Bank of the Jordan to join the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. But now it has suddenly acquired symbolic political status all of its own.

For the idea has been floated in Palestinian circles to propose that Jericho and the Gaza Strip acquire independence first, as an interim step towards a settlement of the territorial issue of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War. For some time, it has been mooted by Israelis to grant independence to Gaza first, to divest Israel of a human time-bomb. For some 800,000 Palestinians, two-thirds of them of families who fled their homes in what became Israel in 1948, are crammed into the narrow strip.

Israelis have no territorial or security interests in the Gaza Strip. Now, however, the Palestinians are adding a demand of their own: to take Gaza and Jericho together. The proposal, presented by the Palestinian leadership to Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, during his visit to Israel, is that the Gaza Strip and Jericho should become a prototype for a putative Palestinian State. The Israeli government has not commented on the proposal - nor has it rejected it so far. The proposal is part of a drive by Palestinians to break with the framework for talks laid down at the opening session of the Middle East peace conference in Madrid 21 months ago.

The Madrid framework set out strict phases for the peace talks, limiting initial discussion on the Palestinian front to the setting up of interim self-rule over unspecified geographical areas in the West Bank and Gaza. Only after self-rule is under way can the 'final status' of the Palestinian 'entity' be negotiated, according to the framework.

The Gaza-Jericho plan envisages a 'two-speed' or what the Palestinians call a 'mixed-model' approach to solving the Palestinian problem. An interim autonomy would still be set up through most of the West Bank, but under a faster time-scale. Meanwhile, Israel would withdraw its forces and 'disengage' immediately from Gaza and Jericho. Either the UN would then be invited to take temporary control in these areas or Palestinian rule would be established, in a way which is yet to be defined.

On the face of it, the 'Gaza-Jericho first' idea is highly impractical. For one thing, the Gaza Strip lies nearly 60 miles from Jericho. The Palestinians say they want a corridor through Israel to link the two. The proposal is nevertheless politically significant. It is the latest attempt by the Palestinians to push Israel into clarifying at an early stage what the final status of the proposed 'Palestinian entity' might look like.

Until now Israel has insisted Palestinian autonomy must first be tested during an interim period, so as not to shock Israeli public opinion. The Israeli negotiators allow no mention of any issues which might relate to 'permanent status' and are particularly loath to talk about what the final area of Palestinian jurisdiction might be. Israeli officials say that if Israel were forced to state boundaries now - anywhere close to Palestinian demands - there would be a war with Jewish settlers. Rather, they urge the Palestinians to wait and see what might be on offer if autonomy is successful.

(Photograph and map omitted)