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Behind the Headlines: One Year of Self-rule Finds Jericho Residents Still Yearning

Nearly a year after the start of Palestinian self-rule here, local residents complain that not enough has changed.

Although some speak with genuine pride about having control over the daily affairs of their lives for the first time, others say self-rule has proven to be an empty promise and has done little to alter the harsh economic realities confronting them.

On May 13, 1994, within days after Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the May 4 Cairo Agreement, the Israeli Defense Force handed Jericho and an irregularly shaped district surrounding the city over to the Palestinian Authority. Five days later, the Israelis handed over the Gaza Strip.

A year after these history-making events, a visitor who comes to see what life is like finds the entrance to the city — one of the oldest in the world – – surprisingly unassuming.

In contrast to the elaborate security measures at crossing points between Israel and the Gaza Strip, few exist here. There is a spiked metal strap in the middle of the road, a few concrete obstacles and two young Israeli border policemen.

Seeing an Israeli yellow license plate, the Israeli police wave the car through. There is no one on the Palestinian side to check the latest arrival.

The road into town is lined with barracks flying the green, red and black Palestinian flag. A car passed by the camp of the Preventative National Security Apparatus, the name for the new Palestinian secret service, which operates under the leadership of Jibril Rajoub.

Situated some 825 feet below sea level, Jericho is located at one of the Earth’s lowest points. The city has a population of some 15,000, and its main sources of income are agriculture and tourism.

Jericho’s main square is crowded by mid-morning, yet its pace is slow — as befits the hot and dry desert climate.

Outside a grocery, a bicycle is weighed down by bags of salt, which are labeled in Hebrew. Many of the goods here come from Israel, including the white T- shirts bearing PLO leaders Yasser Arafat’s portrait. Wherever one looks, there is a photograph of Arafat.

Two busloads of Palestinian women and school girls from the West Bank town of Hebron stop in the square. They have come to see what life is like under Palestinian self-rule.

Locals say that such tourists come here daily, but spend very little money.

The small square swarms with uniformed men; military and security officials wearing dark green, police in dark blue. Only a handful are armed, and most look bored.

Two Palestinian women in their 30s, who work a local factory, offer their views on a year of self-rule.

“There are many soldiers outside, but they are our soldiers,” says one of the women, who identifies herself only as Maha.

“We used to live in fear of Israeli soldiers, who would come and take someone to prison. Now we feel safe. This is our government, and our taxes go to it and not to the Israelis,” Maha says proudly.

“Yes, I have hope. You have your opposition, we have ours, but I think we can have peace.”

“There can never be peace,” her friend, Dalal, counters adamantly. “No one will be able to forget their lost one who died in the struggle” against Israel.

A similar sentiment is expressed by a local restaurant owner, who calls himself Abu-Maxim.

“This is no peace,” he complains. “The Americans and the Israelis don’t let us live. Since the closure, we cannot go to Israel to work.

“There are fewer tourists, and no one has money to eat in restaurants,” he adds, gesturing at his spacious, yet empty eatery.

Despite the dearth of business, Abu-Maxim is expanding the restaurant. The interior is still under construction, but overhead there is already a large notice in Arabic and English: “Abu-Maxim’s Restaurant.”

He shrugs off his plans for the new addition, saying he is building his children’s future.

A car shops, and two Orthodox Israelis, a father and son, peer out anxiously.

The son asks nervously in Hebrew for directions to the Dead Sea.

Muntahr, a man in his 20s, walks over and explains in Hebrew the way back to the main road.

“You see,” he says on rejoining the group that has gathered around. “You come to us, and we help you, even protect you. But we cannot come to you. You call this peace?”

He concedes, though, that life under the autonomy has become safer: “There are no drunks and no drugs in the streets, and there is less crime in Jericho.”

A high-ranking Palestinian officer contributes his own opinions.

“The economic situation is bad,” says the officer, who refuses to give his name.

Dressed in a dark, green uniform, the officer has a small Palestinian flag pinned to his shirt, and a handgun in a shiny leather holster hangs on his belt. After he departs, someone discloses that he serves with the Palestinian secret service.

“Much of it is due to problems left over by the occupation,” he says. “The Israelis never allowed us to establish our independent economy, and now we pay for it. But this is a transitional period. We have started to build our economy, and it will take time.”

“Israel must show that it is serious about the peace,” he adds. “If we have our security, Israel will have security. Our security is a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border, the departure of all settlers and the return of all Palestinians who live outside.”

Two military jeeps, one flying an Israeli flag, the other displaying a Palestinian flag, drive through town. Triangular orange flags on the jeeps identify them as a joint Israeli-Palestinian patrol.

Once the subject of doubt that such patrols could cooperate at all, the jeeps now attract scant attention.

A few men, former prisoners in Israeli jails, sit together at a cafe. They are in their 20s, and casually dressed.

After the signing of the Cairo Agreement last May, Israel allowed 574 Palestinian prisoners to serve out their terms in Jericho. So far, 171 of them have been released, with the remaining 403 waiting, all the while hoping that ongoing negotiations will eventually allow them to take short excursions out of Jericho to see their families.

“It’s better prison, but still a prison.” says one of the prisoners, who calls himself Fakiri.

“Future? There is no future. We are retreating all the time. If the situation stays as is, we are better off where we were before the agreement.”

The others agree.

Someone brings Israeli-made orange to the table. On the wall, there is a picture of a beaming Arafat receiving a gift of flowers. The cafe owner prepares coffee, tea and water pipes.

“We don’t hate Jews for being Jews, but for being occupies,” says Abdallah Jabar, an engineer who works for the municipality. He is the only professional in the group.

“Security? You can’t pin everything on security. Our security is Israel’s security. Give us our state, and we’ll give you security. The only hope is in the acceleration of the peace process.”

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