'PLO capital' cool about peace plan: Sarah Helm visits Israeli-occupied Jericho and finds residents confused about the modern role that Yasser Arafat is casting for their ancient city

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The Independent Online
AT THE Temptation Restaurant in Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, there was little faith yesterday that the stones of occupation could be turned into the bread of statehood.

'All these things will I give thee,' Yasser Arafat has promised the people of Jericho, which sprawls untidily over a lush oasis under the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus was tempted by the Devil.

'Sovereignty, peace, the return of exiles - for Gaza and Jericho first,' says the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. And Mr Arafat has promised to descend on Jericho himself, and to set up his headquarters here, to ensure the promise is implemented.

Sitting amid line upon line of empty tables, plastic covers curling in the heat, Khaled Abdel Razek, the restaurant's proprietor, said he would like to believe it. 'Mr Arafat is welcome here, and his friends. I have 1,500 chairs,' he said.

But his enthusiasm was easily overcome by the torpor, as overhead fans pointlessly wafted the stifling air and the temperature soared towards 48C.

The 9,000-odd residents of Jericho, which is 24 miles (38km) from Jerusalem, and four miles from the River Jordan, are confused. Since 1967, when Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan, installing a military occupation, Jericho has tried its best to make do with a paltry kind of life, keeping a low profile, away from the front line of the conflict. Perhaps because of the heat (the town is 825ft below sea level) or a general weariness with the world (Jericho is the oldest city known to man), Palestinians here have tried to avoid confrontation with their Israeli occupiers.

Now they are being told they must take the front line: this time in the battle for peace. The location of the town suits Mr Arafat's plans, being close to the Allenby Bridge, the West Bank's link with Jordan. He has therefore proposed that Jericho, along with the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, become a testing-ground for Palestinian 'independence'.

The theoretical benefits for this downtrodden town are many.

The soldiers who patrol the palm-lined streets would go, and tourists could throng here by the million to view the city where Joshua fought his famous battle; the city given to Cleopatra by Mark Antony, and then leased by Herod the Great. Pilgrims would flock to the site of Jesus' baptism on the River Jordan at Jericho.

At the same time Jericho would become the de facto capital of 'Palestine'. Mr Arafat's stretch limousines would brush against the bougainvillaea which line the roads, and heads of state would be invited to pass mild winter days at Mr Arafat's riverside residence.

Traders would be able to do their business with Arabs instead of with Israel. 'We all support the idea here,' said Isak Shawa, a shopkeeper. 'We want to be modern - like any other Arab country. But if this doesn't happen now it has been promised, we will all turn to terrorists - even me.'

Investors have already been pouring in money and house prices have doubled. There are rumours that Mr Arafat has had his people check out the prime local real estate.

But there are also strong fears of impending chaos: fears that if the Israeli soldiers go, internecine war might break out. Harb Jabr Jaber, imam (prayer leader) in the mosque, said he would oppose acceptance of the proposal. 'Palestinian rights are not limited to Jericho. They go back to 1948 - to 1967. This idea is just partition of the Palestinian state.'

One restaurateur, whose premises were burnt down by Palestinian militants when he disobeyed intifada rules, said: 'Whoever takes control here must be able to protect the people from themselves.'

With open borders, there are fears that 'bad people - from Bethlehem and Nablus' might come to Jericho. Some residents advocate checkpoints on the roads, manned perhaps by Palestinian police. The drivers of Gaza taxis, which are now the main link between the Gaza Strip, 60 miles away across Israel, and Jericho, wonder how the two zones will be joined under the plan. Others fear that new investment will make life expensive. 'What about taxes - will they rise?' asked Nader Adel al-Azis, a money-changer.

The people of Jericho also fear that tourists will be deterred, not encouraged, by the town's new notoriety as the 'PLO capital'. The PLO earned a reputation for terrorism for such a long time. And what will happen about freedom of movement in the town? 'How will friends and relatives in Ramallah visit me? Will they need passports or visas? We don't know,' said Mr Azis.

Most of all, the critics fear that self-rule for Gaza and Jericho is an Israeli trick and will not lead to self-rule for the rest of the West Bank, still less to a Palestinian state. Jericho will simply become a symbol of a PLO sell-out.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 27

(Photograph omitted)