In Jericho, a sense of satisfaction ISRAELI-PLO PEACE TALKS

September 10, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

JERICHO, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- The big news had arrived from over the hills in Jerusalem, but it was still your typical night at the game room down on Jericho's main drag. Men slowly dealt cards at a half-dozen tables beneath whirling ceiling fans. Arab music blared on an old speaker, the violins screeching away. Every now and then an Israeli army jeep cruised by the open door, gun barrels poking from either side.

Perhaps the most familiar sight of all was Khalid Yusef and his two friends, seated as always at a small table on the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes and talking away the evening beneath two large ficus trees.

Sure, they said, they were glad Israel had decided to recognize the legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organization, because the PLO is the closest thing to a leadership they've got. But it wasn't time to celebrate.

"We are waiting for the army to leave," Mr. Yusef said. "Then there will be special festivities and celebration."

The more they talked it over, kicking the topic around the table at their usual easy pace, the more they admitted to a quiet, deepening satisfaction after years of waiting and frustration.

"We feel we can hold our heads up now," said Jamal Abdullah. "It is something honorable."

His friends nodded in agreement.

"This means that they recognize that the Palestinian people here have a right to their land," said Abed Hassouna.

The three men, now in their 50s, have watched Mideast history come and go through the streets of Jericho, deep in the valley of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, in the town of 15,000 that the locals like to call the world's oldest city.

Mr. Yusef, Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Hassouna grew up together. They eased into their late 20s under the rule of the Kingdom of Jordan, until one morning in 1967 the Jordanian army ran out of the valley, chased across the river by tanks and jets emblazoned with the Star of David. Leaving with the Jordanian army were refugees by the thousands.

"We all said the war will be a few weeks, a few months, and then the Israelis will be gone," Mr. Abdullah said. The war was far quicker, ending in six days. But the Israeli army never left town, and the refugees never came back.

The three friends kept getting together, gathering after dinner to play cards, although as they began to grow gray they gave up that pastime for the more contemplative evenings on the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, another war came and went, while the PLO acquired an outlaw's reputation in Israel. To fly the PLO flag in Jericho was to ask for an arrest.

The occupation has taken its toll. "The factor of fear has played its role," Mr. Hassouna said. "And always there are the roadblocks, the searches, the ID checks."

Sometimes the troubles in the streets have gotten too hot, and they've all stayed home. Other times it seemed as if nothing at all had changed from the Jericho of their childhood. Then another Israeli army jeep would rumble by.

The men say they've never held any of this against the Israeli people. "They are the same as we Palestinians," Mr. Yusef said. "But the politics, that differs."

So it was that they were caught completely by surprise when the politics suddenly shifted, with the announcement of a peace agreement with Jericho as a centerpiece.

If the agreement is signed as expected Monday, the Israeli army will prepare to withdraw, both in Jericho and on the Gaza Strip. If it works as hoped, there will be more withdrawals from more territory, and the PLO will hold elections.

"We hope very much there will be further steps," Mr. Hassouna said.

That left it to Mr. Abdullah to sum up the mood. "This is a very important event in our ancient town," he said. "It is a landmark in history."

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