BEHIND THE HEADLINES Jericho’s residents maintain little hope for peace process

JERICHO, West Bank, Sept. 9 (JTA) – There is little hope here for the peace process. Four years after the first Israeli-Palestinian accords were signed on the White House lawn, the people of Jericho, the first West Bank town that Israel transferred to Palestinian self-rule, are disheartened. When a visitor arrived here this week, residents were reacting to the hardships of a closure that Israel imposed in the wake of last week’s triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Indeed, the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip had been sealed off from Israel. Along with that, Israel, which controls the main roads in the area, had also imposed an internal closure that prevented Palestinians from traveling between one West Bank town and another. Israeli officials defend the closures as one of the sole means at their disposal to prevent terror attacks. But their Palestinian counterparts attack the policy, which they describe as collective punishment. That criticism could also be heard on the streets of Jericho, the sleepy town in the heart of the Jordan Valley that was once the focus of so many Palestinian hopes. “If your brother kills, do they take you to jail?” asks Riad, a grocer at Jericho’s main square. “Why do I have to pay for the sins of the terrorists who placed the bombs in Jerusalem?” For some here, the closure, far from preventing acts of terrorism, will only drive people into the waiting arms of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Their reasoning is simple: The closure creates unemployment, which in turn creates desperation. One person advocating this theory is Abu-Raed, the owner of the Temptation Restaurant. Located at the northern entrance to the city, near the ruins of ancient Jericho, the restaurant used to have some 40 to 50 busloads of tourists stopping there daily. It was a thriving business: 2,000 guests stopping in for a meal that typically cost $10 per person. But this week the restaurant was empty. Abu-Raed says that if the closure continues he will have to lay off his 60 employees. That, he says, would mean another 60 families without a source of livelihood. “And what do you think those young people would do if they lose their jobs?” he asks. For him, there is a direct connection between the worsening economic situation in the territories and the growing popularity of Hamas. Not one Jericho resident this visitor encountered had a grain of sympathy for the closures Israel imposes after each terror assault. Abu Hashem, who stands among other unemployed cab drivers in the center of town, blames the bleak state of the peace process on the “destructive policies” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “If he had a more positive approach to the Palestinians, we would not have reached this unfortunate situation,” he says. One resident of Jericho has the awesome responsibility of attempting to restore some measure of trust to the peace process. For Saeb Erekat, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, the lack of trust between Israel and the Palestinians is “indeed our worst enemy.” Erekat made the observation while relaxing in his shirt sleeves in the garden of his Jericho residence. In a matter of days, he would be presenting the Palestinian case to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is due in the region later in the week. He views her visit as the last, best hope for the moribund peace process. “The visit of Albright must lead to something,” he says. “We can simply not allow the extremists to lead us down the drain.” Despite the lack of trust, Erekat maintained, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was trying to heal the wounds by vowing to do his utmost to fight violence. But many Israelis say they have heard the pledge before, and they are far from convinced. And on the streets of Jericho there is a similar lack of faith, driven by the feeling that the promises of peace were empty words. On May 13, 1994, Palestinian forces took control of Jericho, the first of the eight Palestinian population centers in the West Bank to come under self-rule. When Arafat first visited Jericho after the turnover, he was greeted as a political messiah. Tens of thousands of people gathered at the center of town to hear flowery speeches full of promises. Reporters from all over the world compared the situation to the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a widespread belief at the time that Arafat would make Jericho the seat of his government – Gaza City later became the choice – and that the town would, therefore, thrive. At the time, Abu-Raed began building a hotel above his restaurant. He envisioned an era in which Jericho would once again become the flower of winter tourism for the entire Middle East, as it had been prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. But the two floors above the restaurant remain unfinished. Jericho has had no influx of winter or summer tourists. The hotel remains a dream. Three years ago, Rajai Abdu, an Islamic cleric, returned from 24 years of voluntary exile in Greenville, S.C., to his native Jericho, where he used to serve as imam, or religious leader, in the city’s Islamic Center. Abdu, too, had dreams of building a hotel. He converted his family residence into the Hisham Hotel, but this week it was empty and quiet like the rest of Jericho. Unlike others here, Abdu remains optimistic about the future of the peace process. “I do have hope,” he says, dressed in a white robe, voicing prayers every few minutes in an undertone. “I have hope because I believe that once religion is removed from political aspirations, it can play a major role in bringing Arabs and Jews together in this part of the world.” Asked if he was perhaps a lone voice in the wilderness, he replies, “Indeed I am. But that does not make me any less right.”

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