Despite cease-fire, Jericho is cut off, with nothing to do

Middle East truce holds

Israeli blockade remains

September 20, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERICHO, West Bank - The Israeli tanks pushed away from one of the oldest cities in the world before dawn yesterday, and the people of Jericho finally returned to the market. They went not to buy anything, but for lack of anything else to do.

Despite a new cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel's security blockade remained and prevented nearly everyone and everything from entering or leaving town. So, with the guns quiet, people went to the central square. The doctor with no patients chatted with the grocer with no customers. The farmer stood next to boxes overflowing with unsold dates. The construction worker sat idly on the curb.

The market was crowded with people who should have been at work someplace else.

Sami Natsheh, a 44-year-old day laborer, ventured here from Hebron a month ago to build a house, a weeklong project to help feed his wife and three children. But the driver of the truck carrying the cement he needs can't get by the Israeli checkpoint on the outskirts of Jericho.

"I can't do anything," said Natsheh, as he hunted for a telephone so that he could call his family. "They won't let my supplies in, so I can't work. They won't let me leave, so I can't go home. I'm stuck here. This peace doesn't mean anything to me."

There is a truce that has not led to peace. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced a cease-fire Tuesday, and Israel followed suit by ordering its troops to halt military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli forces withdrew from the Palestinian-controlled cities of Jenin, Ramallah and Jericho, and Palestinian leaders promised that their police would use all means necessary to prevent militants from firing at Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers.

That commitment was evident yesterday afternoon, when blue Palestinian police cars were seen for the first time in months patrolling the hills above Hebron, an area from which gunmen fire at a Jewish enclave in the city center.

But all was not well. Within an hour after Israeli tanks started to withdraw from Palestinian cities, shooting erupted in several places. No injuries were reported. At midnight, the shooting stopped. Hours later, more shots were fired, from the hills above Hebron. The Israeli army said it did not fire back.

"What quiet?" asked Ranaan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who says there must be 48 hours of quiet before truce talks can begin. Gissin said last night that the countdown to truce talks had not begun but that the day had been quiet enough for cease-fire orders to Israeli troops to remain in effect. "We're giving it a chance," he said.

The near-absence of gunfire is something new. In the past year, the Palestinian uprising turned Jericho into a battleground, shut a casino that had proved lucrative for the Palestinian Authority and killed the tourist trade.

The highway that heads north from here through the Jordan Valley is virtually deserted, deemed too dangerous for cars with Israeli license plates and barred to cars with Palestinian plates.

Israeli army officials say tanks took up positions near the city's central mosque a week ago because of roadside shootings and attacks against a nearby Jewish settlement. Days of intense fighting left a dozen people injured and kept residents in their homes.

If the Palestinian Authority meets Israel's demand for 48 hours of calm, the ensuing talks could focus on easing Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians complain that the military posts make normal travel and commerce almost impossible.

Jericho residents say that to survive, they need an easing of restrictions at the checkpoint on the only road in and out of town. Then, perhaps, Natsheh could get his cement, finish his project and return to his family in Hebron.

And maybe someone would visit the Green Valley restaurant, popular among the busloads of tourists who used to come. It has been closed for months, its 16 workers laid off.

"Jericho needs people from the outside," said Abu Khalil, the restaurant's owner, strolling the market with nothing to do. "We are happy they stopped the shooting, and we hope there is peace, but they need to open the checkpoint."

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