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Behind the Headlines: ‘jericho First’ Idea is Popular but Not in West Bank Town Itself

In the heat of the day, when temperatures can climb to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the residents of Jericho prefer talking politics to doing work. It is simply too hot to move a finger.

This small town of 15,000 Palestinian residents has suddenly found itself near the top of the region’s political agenda. Speculation is running freely about a possible Israeli withdrawal from Jericho that is take to take place at the same time as a similar early withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

One no longer talks of “Gaza First,” the proposal that Israel unilaterally withdraw from the area before implementing other elements of an eventual peace settlement.

The new political game in town is “Gaza and Jericho First.”

But, surprisingly, as soon as the new idea came into being, the residents of Jericho seemed more determined than anyone else to reject the idea.

Why would Palestinians determined to establish an independent state reject such an idea? Because they distrust the Israelis. They want the entire West Bank, and they fear that “Jericho First” will become “Jericho Last,” as well.

The “Jericho First” idea was first raised several weeks ago by Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat.

Asked in a newspaper interview whether the Palestinians were ready to take over Gaza first, Arafat said yes, but added that he wanted “something else” in the West Bank — like “Jericho, for example.”

Then last week, in a surprise statement, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres accepted the challenge. He said he believed the idea should be discussed.

Now that Israel’s second-in-command has embraced the idea, it has emerged as a political given in the complex Israeli-Palestinian puzzle.

The “Gaza and Jericho First” idea has several apparent advantages: It could break the present deadlock in the peace talks; it puts the PLO on record for supporting an interim solution to the territorial compromise question; and it calms fears that Israel will not give the Palestinians anything beyond limited autonomy in the territories.

ARAFAT NO LONGER POPULAR

But quite surprisingly, all — absolutely all — residents of Jericho asked about the idea have rejected it.

“We oppose a partial settlement,” said Sadek a-Salaime, a retired teacher. “We need an overall settlement for the entire region.”

“If we receive Jericho,” added Nasser Khalil, a money-changer, “what about Nablus and Hebron? And most important, what about Jerusalem?”

It did not seem to matter to Khalil that negotiating over the status of Jerusalem at this time would virtually guarantee a stalemate in the peace talks.

The young man nodded smilingly and said without any hesitation: “Without Jerusalem, there is nothing to discuss.”

Even the fact that it was Arafat himself — the so-called president of the Palestinian people — who raised the idea first does not impress anyone here.

“We are a democratic society,” one Jericho resident said in complete seriousness. “Arafat is entitled to hold his views.”

A statement like this would never have been made until several months ago. But Arafat is no longer accepted as the final decision-maker. His authority is weakening, along with the financial status of the PLO, which means the flow of money into the territories has all but dried up.

The vacuum created by Arafat’s diminished standing has been filled by the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement and, at the other end of the spectrum, by Palestinian leftist radicals.

The rising star for the people here is none other than Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, head of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, who boycotted this week’s talks with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Abdel-Shafi said he was against discussing the Gaza-Jericho option without an overall agreement on the future of the territories.

With these views, Abdel-Shafi puts himself in opposition to other members of the Palestinian delegation, including chief negotiator Faisal Husseini.

But judging from reactions in Jericho this week, Husseini and Arafat are out. They are considered too moderate in local terms.

Abdel-Shafi, a retired politician of 75, is in.

To a large extent, this explains the difficulties in the negotiations with the Palestinians, and the reason why Christopher has focused his efforts on Syria. There, at least, no one says no to a “Golan First” idea.

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