Blockaded city withers as ire grows in Jericho

Moderate Palestinians prepare to defend city

April 08, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERICHO, West Bank -- Fatima Rasheed's spring harvest is a casualty of conflict, her markets and customers cut off by military checkpoints and the Israeli army's sweep through much of the West Bank.

More out of habit than hope, she stooped yesterday in the midday sun and, with calloused hands, tended beans she might have to throw out, pruned mint that will soon die and left squash, already rotting, for a herd of goats.

"We are just giving the vegetables to the animals," said Rasheed, 50, who wore a white head scarf, sturdy sandals and a purple dress embroidered with silver flowers. "There is nothing here. No income, only loss."

The Israeli army has not entered this city, a sleepy, overheated oasis in the Judean desert that seems a world apart from the other towns of the West Bank. It is not immune, though, to anxiety. And by many measures, the city is withering.

The schools are closed for a second week, because teachers can't reach them. Business is at a standstill. Tourism is finished. The one paved road that climbs the Judean hills to connect the city to the rest of the West Bank remains blocked at both ends. Farmers such as Rasheed are leaving their crops to the animals.

"We are always thinking and hoping the road will open," said Rasheed. "But it is always getting worse."

No one enters or leaves Jericho without the permission of Israeli troops. The city is cut off by a rocky desert and a steep range of barren hills from the other Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank.

Yesterday, two Israeli soldiers stood at a checkpoint fortified with 4-foot-high concrete barriers topped by sandbags. The soldiers laboriously checked travel documents and vehicles, signaling people and cars one by one.

"You can go," a soldier told an American. Turning to a Palestinian in the same car, he added, "But you can't."

"And the car can't go," the soldier said.

Jericho has the remnants of two refugee camps, a now-vacant hotel and an empty casino that during a brief season of peace lured thousands of gamblers, most of them Israelis. Yesterday, only a herd of goats occupied the parking lot.

The list of shuttered enterprises includes a cable car to the Mount of Temptation, a shopping mall, a pottery center, restaurants and apartment buildings in mid-construction.

At the city center is a traffic circle lined with sleepy cafes. Four Palestinians were stranded there yesterday -- two just returned from Dubai, the others hoping to go to Jordan. Sipping coffee, the men waited for a friend to arrive and drive them home to a village near Nablus, where fierce battles were reported between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.

The men were in no rush to get home.

Residents have grown frustrated at their isolation. They don't understand why they are cut off.

"We don't have any terrorist people here," said Mohammed Sameer, 21, who has missed a month of classes at a university in East Jerusalem. "We are like animals that you just put in a place and don't let out."

Frustration was also apparent on the second floor of a squat government building where Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority's chief peace negotiator, was at work. In coat and tie, he sat behind a desk with a single telephone.

What was the state of Jericho?

"It's under siege," he said. "I have been confined to this town for 10 days. For the last three months, I was the only thing moving in and out of Jericho."

Erekat worked the phone, contacting diplomats, journalists and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who remained holed up at his besieged headquarters in Ramallah.

"His mood is very difficult," Erekat said. "He is really unhappy, really upset."

Erekat, the Palestinian Authority's minister for local government, vented his anger at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the destruction wrought by the Israeli offensive.

"I have been building a brilliant infrastructure -- roads, sewers, schools, hospitals. It's destroyed," he said.

Sharon's policies, Erekat said, "have destroyed people like me." Worst of all, he said, was the talk of removing Arafat from power.

"This is the most despicable line of thinking that I can hear as a Palestinian," he said. "We're not a gang of tribes and chiefs. This is an elected leader."

Instead of building, Erekat is now preparing for defense. He showed a visitor two leaflets that he had begun distributing to Palestinian residents, telling them what to do in the event of an Israeli invasion.

The citizens will be pretty much on their own. Jericho's 45-member police force is down to 10 officers, Erekat said.

"Thirty-five police quit," he said. "They took off their uniforms and went underground."

To Erekat, the future appears bleak.

"Moderation," he said, "is finito."

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