Downcast in Jericho, then and now

For the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, JTA’s Ben Sales paid a visit to Jericho, the first West Bank city handed over by Israel to Palestinian rule. He found residents of the historic city near the Jordan River disappointed with the extent of progress, complaining of economic woes and Israeli military control of the surrounding area.

But 20 years ago, the mood in Jericho was also notably downbeat. Back then, JTA found little enthusiasm among Jericho residents for the prospect of their city becoming the first West Bank locale (along with Palestinian-populated parts of the Gaza Strip) to come under Palestinian control. JTA reported:

…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.”

The next year, JTA returned to Jericho as the first contingent of Palestinian police arrived in town. Residents, however, were still frustrated with Israel and the pace of progress. Some expressed what would turn out to be prescient anxieties:

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.

But there was also some optimism regarding the eventual possibility of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. “We will divide the land and life will be good,” said Yusef Nufel, a 35-year-old who had developed close friendships with Israeli Jews while working in construction. But, he said, it would take five years “to clean the heart” of past anger.

Two decades on, we’re still waiting for a final agreement, and for hearts to be cleansed.

Daniel Treiman is a contributing writer to JTA.