Hollow fanfare in Jericho

March 24, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERICHO, West Bank -- When Yasser Arafat and Al Gore come to this town today, Othman Hulailah would rather be anyplace else.

All the pomp and celebration will just remind Mr. Hulailah how much money he lost betting on the great expectations of Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian dream.

"Believe me, he has brought nothing to Jericho but bad," Mr. Hulailah said of the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Jericho will awaken briefly from its dreams and disappointments to greet the U.S. vice president on his first visit, and the PLO chairman on only his second to this autonomous enclave on the West Bank.

The streets are festooned with American and Palestinian flags -- a rare sight in Palestinian areas where resentment of U.S. support for Israel runs high. The Boy Scout band is readying for a parade.

Mr. Gore is scheduled to make a brief swing through Jericho at the end of a trip to Israel and four other Middle Eastern countries. He will meet Mr. Arafat to talk about American financial aid and business prospects.

Mr. Arafat's visit is just as exceptional. He flew into Jericho on July 4, a month after it passed from Israeli to Palestinian control. -- He left the same day, set up his headquarters in the Gaza Strip, and has not been back.

His abrupt departure was a blow to little Jericho, which had been puffed up with speculation that it would become the seat of the Palestinian autonomous government.

"Everyone expected [that] Jericho would be the capital of Palestine, maybe even the capital of the Middle East," said Maher Jaber, the city engineer of Jericho.

Mr. Hulailah, a landowner, land trader and the father of one of Mr. Arafat's chief economists, bought into that dream.

Cable News Network helped convince him, he said. In preparation for Mr. Arafat's arrival, CNN rented a two-room apartment in the center of the city from which to film the chairman's triumphal entry. The network paid Mr. Hulailah $1,000 a month, and gave him a year's rent in advance.

That was almost as much as he used to get for a whole block of 30 stores and four apartments, said Mr. Hulailah.

"I imagined there would be lots of CNNs," he said. When the chance came to buy 12 acres for $840,000, he gathered what he said was all his money and bought the land.

The price was two or three times what he would have paid a year before. But everyone figured that Palestinian autonomy meant that Jericho would blossom with offices and bureaucrats and journalists and factories. Anyone with land boosted prices sky-high.

The blossoming did not happen. Mr. Arafat left after several hours, and fewer than 100 bureaucrats moved into town. Nearly 2,000 Palestinian police came, but most are camped at an old Israeli army base. About 500 prisoners were released from Israeli prisons into Jericho, and live in mobile homes at a refugee camp.

There are no new factories. No bustling bureaucracy. Journalists mosey down from Jerusalem and stay for the afternoon. There is no news here.

Mr. Hulailah is offering to sell the land he bought at $70,000 an JTC acre for, oh, $60,000 an acre. Or maybe $50,000. Or maybe less. But no one is buying.

"I can't find anyone to bargain with," he lamented. "I just want someone to say, 'Your price is too high. I'll give you this much.' But nobody offers.

"I do blame Arafat personally," he went on. "Where is the money? Where are all the projects that were going to be financed by the Europeans and Americans? In nine months, Arafat has done nothing for Jericho. When he comes this week, I don't want to see him."

In the dreary and dusty Municipal Building in the center of town, Mr. Arafat's hand-picked appointee, Nazeeh Amerah, sits as acting mayor. The rest of the city council quit last month, complaining of delays in holding promised elections.

"Of course, there have been a lot of disappointments. But the Palestinian National Authority is not the only party to be blamed," he said.

After the peace agreement, the Israeli army put tight roadblocks around the 24-square-mile area of Jericho. Residents are not allowed out without proper permits.

Tourist buses still trundle in to the site of the ancient Jericho walls-- said by the Bible to have been brought down by Joshua -- and to the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus is said to have been tempted for 40 days. But they do not stay long, and the tourists spend little money, the acting mayor said.

There are few outlets for Jericho's citrus and vegetables. The Israelis only occasionally allow the products into Israel, and Mr. Arafat's long-running feud with Jordan's King Hussein has cut off the Jordanian market.

Mr. Arafat has troubles getting here himself. Israel has not opened the promised highway corridor between Gaza and Jericho. The PLO chairman must fly from Egypt through Jordan to Jericho.

"People believed that peace would mean openness, free trade and free travel," said Mr. Amerah. "But this didn't happen."

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