Israel, PLO in '2nd battle of Jericho' as talks seek to define boundary

November 25, 1993|By Sarah Helm | Sarah Helm,The Independent, London

JERUSALEM -- With less than three weeks to go before Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, many questions remain unanswered about how the handover to a Palestinian authority can work.

Not the least of these is the question exactly what is Jericho.

The size of the town is "symbolic," say some. However, behind the scenes, this "battle of Jericho" is being bitterly fought.

The British Ordnance Survey cartographers who marked out the boundaries of Jericho in 1924, when it was part of British Mandate lands, did so with that bold clarity with which they always mapped "British territory."

A large loop marks the boundary of the Jericho area, carefully ensuring that water sources and land are apportioned to the town, according to geography and title.

Palestinian leaders have dug out the old map to help them stake their claim to greater Jericho in the peace negotiations now under way.

However, the British map, known as "Ordnance 16 (1:100,000 Palestine)," no longer holds any authority.

Israel has dismissed Britain's definition of the Jericho region, proposing instead that the line match the municipal boundary drawn by the Israeli military authorities in 1985, which runs round the neck of the town.

Israel claims the Palestinians want too much.

The Palestinians say Israel's refusal to grant a reasonable area to Jericho shows it has no real intention of allowing a truly autonomous Palestinian region.

Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), plans to live in Jericho and does not want his home to be a little Palestinian ghetto.

Furthermore, the Palestinians say, Israel is making false excuses.

While arguing it still needs the land for security, they say, Israel has drawn up plans to build in the region, to underpin the Jewish presence on the east side of Jerusalem.

The size of Jericho will set crucial precedents for talks on the rest of the West Bank.

Palestinians say the British Mandate map makes sense because it brought within a 133-square-mile "Jericho sub-district" which was largely owned or used by Palestinian residents of Jericho before being taken over as state land.

Access to Jordan

The British boundary also takes in the two bridges across the River Jordan, giving Jericho access to its neighbor, and all the springs that water the Jericho area.

In addition, the boundary ascribes to the Jericho district a range of holy sites associated with the region and brings in the northern tip of the Dead Sea.

"Without its water sources, Jericho is nothing. Without its holy sites, it is nothing. Without the Dead Sea, it is nothing," said Khalil Tufakjee, a Palestinian geographer and negotiating-team member.

The British boundary, however, is far too wide for Israel to tolerate.

First, it includes too many water sources.

Second, since Britain mapped out Jericho, 17 Israeli settlements have been planted in the Ordnance Survey's "sub-district."

Third, Israel argues that handing over a large area at an early stage of self-rule constitutes a security risk.

Instead, Israel has proposed granting Jericho an area 15 miles wide, drawn only around the main Palestinian residential area.

The Jewish settlements would remain outside the boundary, although some of the land they claim and a synagogue remain inside even the Israeli-proposed boundary.

Israeli security zone

Early in the talks Palestinians agreed Israel could maintain a security zone half a mile to a mile wide, running parallel with the Jordan River, and conceded that Israel should control the bridges.

The Palestinians also redrew their boundary to place many of the settlements outside the Palestinian zone.

Israel proposed a slightly larger boundary of its own but there talks have stalled.

Israel also has activated plans for settlement east of Jerusalem taking in the town of Maale Adummin as well as the small settlements in the Jericho region and laying the groundwork for a "flank" against infringement on Israel's claims to sovereignty over Jerusalem.

"Palestinians are asking if Israel is saying it is ready to hand back most of the West Bank soon, why are they arguing about this land around Jericho now? We are worried it means they will not be serious about handing back any land in the future," said Mr. Tufakjee.

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