Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines: Jericho Residents Express Frustration, Some Hope, on Long Road to Autonomy

Expectations were guarded in the West Bank town of Jericho one afternoon this week as eyes and ears strained eastward toward the Allenby Bridge.

The first contingent of the Palestinian police force was expected to cross the bridge from Jordan, but the crossing had repeatedly been delayed, causing frustration and disappointment.

Still, the town mustered a marching band of about two dozen boys who paraded around the central square to drums and a cymbal, shaking the somnolence of the afternoon and causing what amounts here to a traffic jam.

Here, in this sleepy West Bank town, is where the nascent Palestinian authority is supposed to set up a seat of power and begin an experiment in autonomy that will be watched around the world.

Conversations with residents here, less than a week after Israel officially handed over governance of this area and the Gaza Strip to the Palestine Liberation Organization, show a deep sense of frustration with the slow pace of events and an abiding distrust of Israel.

On Tuesday, the Israelis began to transfer civilian authority to the Palestinians here, but little change was expected immediately.

But earlier in the week, when residents were awaiting the arrival of the police, routine was further shattered by a sudden burst of hornblowing followed by a procession through the square of cars and vans adorned with PLO flags. The cars bore nine Palestinian deportees who were returning from Iraq, including the PLO’s official representative in Baghdad, residents said.

The waiting resumed as the cars sped through to the nearby town of Jenin.

“Everything will continue as usual until the elections will tell us what the changes will be,” said Jameil Khalaf, the mayor of Jericho, sitting in the office of the town’s sleepy municipal building. The PLO talks of elections in October.

‘PEOPLE FEEL NO CHANGE’

“We have to be patient,” said Khalaf. “Politics is not easy and there are steps to be taken.”

“Months ago, people were very optimistic” about the autonomy agreement for Gaza and Jericho, said Samir Hilo, a 43-year-old civil engineer.

“But, like fire reacts to water,” he said, the mood has been dampened. “People feel no change. We won’t believe anything will happen until the (Palestinian police arrive and the) Israeli police withdraw from Jericho.”

He spoke a moment after a sharp crack of rifle shots came from Israeli soldiers atop the police station overlooking the central square. The soldiers were responding with rubber bullets to young children throwing stones at the station.

Hilo served three years in a prison in Nablus after he was captured fighting in Lebanon in 1982 with George Habash, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, he said.

Despite his past, Hilo has hope for the current autonomy agreement, but only as a first step. “We need a practical peace, an actual peace, a comprehensive peace,” he said, “beginning in Jericho and Gaza and going to Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank.” Jerusalem, he said, should be an international city. “The first step,” he said, “must be the release of all the prisoners.”

“The Israelis want to make us sweat,” said Isaac Shawwa, 31, about the delays in implementing the autonomy agreement. Shawwa is a chemical engineer who owns the nearby grocery store.

He said the Palestinians are frustrated and impatient for autonomy. “We are ready to suffer more and sacrifice more, but we need results.”

When asked if he has faith and confidence in Yasser Arafat’s ability to administer Jericho successfully, he said, “Not exactly. But I don’t have a choice.”

He said Israel will pay a higher price than the Palestinians if the agreement fails. “We’ll start fighting with stronger weapons,” he said.

“I am not afraid to die,” said Shawwa. “Cowardice has disappeared from my heart. I have lost everything.”

Shawwa said he has wasted all his years of schooling because Israel’s administration of the territories prevented economic development and job opportunities for an engineer.

“See what happened to me,” he said, after haggling with a woman over the cost of hand-sliced lunch meat. “I am a small grocery man selling cigarettes. I am fed up.”

But Shawwa believes there is room for hope. “If the Palestinian police come now, 80 percent will support the agreement, forget the sadness of yesterday and start celebrating.”

If the economy improves, terrorist actions will decline and “we will forget politics,” he said.

‘THEY TOOK OUR LAND AND OUR RIGHTS’

His friend, Yusef Nufel, 35, agreed. “We have been very angry,” he said, in the Hebrew he learned from working in construction inside Israel, where he has Jewish friends “who are like brothers.

“The Israeli people came to us and said, ‘you don’t have the right to live here,’ and they took our land and our rights. They were thieves.”

He said the Israelis told the international community that Palestinians were all terrorists as “an excuse to occupy our land.”

But relations between the two peoples can be put right, he said. “If life is good and there are no soldiers coming into people’s homes, no one will think of the politics of ’48. They will just look forward.”

But, “if I don’t have work or a home, or any air, I’ll make problems,” he said.

Hussam al-Fityani, a 27-year-old builder, said he believes there will be chaos in the beginning of Arafat’s administration. He said he anticipates problems between the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas organization and the PLO, and instability because the PLO is not “ready to fill the (official) jobs.

“It will take time to get ready, but after the elections, the situation will improve,” he said.

Nufel is a bit optimistic about the future. “We will divide the land and life will be good,” he said. But it will take five years, he believes, “to clean the heart” of the anger from the past.

Hilo, too, thinks there will be peace, but that it will take time. “We have blood and the intifada. We need time to clean this.”

NEXT STORY