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Behind the Headlines: Jericho is Waiting for Change Amid Anxiety About the Future

At this important, if uncertain, juncture in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the residents here waited this week with a mixture of hope and cynicism as negotiators in Oslo and Paris crafted compromises in the self-rule accord.

The residents believe the agreement will dramatically change their lives by removing their nemesis, the Israeli military authorities, from their somnolent oasis town at the foot of the Judean Hills, four miles west of the Jordan River.

That, they say, is paramount, while the type and composition of the Palestinian government to come afterward is secondary.

But they are impatient with promises, especially since Dec. 13 came and went without the accord going into effect as scheduled.

“I woke at 6 in the morning to see a change, looked out the window and into the street, but I didn’t see anything,” said Ra’afat Husseini, 23.

“All the time they are talking about peace and the economy and we hope to see something new, but we see nothing. The problem is that Israel lies and what we hear is different from what we see,” he said.

Nevertheless, he stressed, people in Jericho are “friendly, not like in Gaza. If Israel wants to live in peace, we want to live in peace. We just want to be free.”

“We’re waiting, but nothing’s happening,” said Nasser Ahroof, 25. “Maybe we’ll have to wait 10 years and not 10 days, but I’ve been waiting 25 years.”

Saeb Nazef, the head of Jericho’s PLO office, said he was worried about the failure to honor the first deadline in the agreement’s timetable.

He said it set a bad precedent in Israel-PLO negotiations and weakened Israel’s credibility in the eyes of Palestinians.

But, he said, “the most important thing is to get rid of the Israeli occupation and to have the other side (Israel) look at us and deal with us as equals.”

Jericho, with a population of about 15,000, has been one of the least militant places in the territories. The rejectionist Islamic Hamas movement has little presence here, and the vast majority of the people support PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and the autonomy accord he has fashioned.

Some residents say Israeli rule has not been as hard on them as on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

TOURISM HAS BEEN HARD-HIT

Nonetheless, they say they have suffered, especially since the start of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, from high unemployment, sparse economic development and restriction of movement.

Tourism, particularly, has been hard-hit, despite the rich history and climate that are Jericho’s natural draw.

Israelis traveling from Jerusalem routinely take a left fork in the road that leads them away from the town, toward Tiberias. Their route avoids the banana, orange and date trees of Jericho, away from the town’s engaging but empty garden restaurants.

But lately, in a sign of the changing times, drivers passing through in cars with yellow Israeli license plates are flagged down by restaurateurs eager for their business.

This is one of the only changes, however, since the Sept. 13 signing of the accord slated to grant self-rule to Jericho.

Drivers taking the right fork in the road approach the town center on a road lined with neat and richly colored rows of produce. At one end of the town’s main square, the Israeli flag still waves prominently atop the military police station.

Scores of men congregate around the square, which is clogged with dozens of idle Mercedes taxicabs. Time seems to stand still.

But there are undeniable changes. The Palestinian flag is visible everywhere. One vegetable cart boasts a host of them in miniature. Plastic-coated portraits of Arafat can be seen in several shop windows.

And down the road is the storefront office of the PLO.

Nazef, the PLO chief, said there have been two changes since the signing of the accord in September: “We opened this office, and we raised the flag without going to jail.

“But this is not a big enough change and it is not important,” he said.

“When we raised the flags with masks on we felt better. We didn’t sign the agreement to reach only these goals,” he said.

Adnan Hammad is the local head of the Palestinian Democratic Union, a pro-peace faction of the PLO. He is concerned about what will happen after Israel’s military withdrawal.

He conceded that another struggle, one for democratic leadership, will begin once autonomy takes effect.

It will be a “very hard process to transfer the instrument (of Palestinian government) from Tunis to Jericho,” and “we are not satisfied with what Arafat says now,” he said.

“We look for a good future for our people, and without democracy we can’t achieve it,” he said.

“If there is no democracy and (the leadership) starts working as if it is in Tunis,” many people will be dissatisfied, Hammad said.

“What is most important is the future of the Palestinian people and how to reach an independent state, not Arafat,” agreed Nazef.

“How to govern the Gaza Strip and the West Bank depends on what the Palestinians want,” he said. “We insist on elections.”

Nazef is not concerned that Arafat has not given a firm date for those elections, however, “as long as Israel withdraws by April 13.”

“Any rules which will be imposed here will not be a dictatorship,” Nazef said. “Most important is that the leadership will be Palestinian and won’t deal with us like the Israeli authority of the occupation.”

There is little concern expressed here about Hamas rejectionists and their ability to torpedo the agreement.

LOCALS ARE HOPING FOR PROGRESS

Hammad said that in many cases, especially among the young, allegiance to the ideology of Hamas does not run deep, and if Palestinian self-rule is fair and efficient, they will shift their allegiance to the autonomy plan.

The locals also appear sanguine about the prospects for economic development, despite the reluctance of the international community to release money pledged for urgent infrastructure and economic projects in Jericho and Gaza.

The donor countries have expressed mistrust of how Arafat will handle the money. They claim there are too many politicians and not enough expert economists involved.

Hammad is concerned that his people not expect too much when the aid finally arrives.

“If people expect (PLO) money to come in and be divided among them the way it was during the intifada,” he said, they will be disappointed.

Instead, he said, “we will create jobs and rebuild our city.”

But even with foreign aid and a fully implemented self-rule agreement, the people here have long memories.

“Since 1967 until this moment,” said Nazef, “Jericho has been the same, suffering from persecution from Israeli authority.”

“We believe the Palestinian tragedy began in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration,” Nazef said, “and our historical pages are filled with blood.

“I need a long time to teach my child how to love his neighbor,” he said, “because we have lived (so long) in an atmosphere like this.”

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