From His West Bank Oasis, Palestinian Adviser Talks Peace

By Jo-Ann Mort

Published July 14, 2006, issue of July 14, 2006.
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Jericho is one of the few places in the West Bank where there is no wall and no separation barrier. Just two checkpoints, Israeli and Palestinian, stop traffic to and from Jerusalem, eight miles southwest. And yet it is, in its own way, a world apart. A desert oasis, just north of the Dead Sea, it views itself as an outpost of tranquility and a model for future Palestinian stability and growth. It is relatively affluent by Palestinian standards, and its 19,000 residents are cut off from the rest of the West Bank by miles of hilly desert.

I went to Jericho to have lunch with Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator of the Palestine Liberation Organization. A native of the city, he lives with his family in his childhood home and represents the city in the Palestinian Legislative Council. He was one of the few top leaders of Fatah to retain his seat after Hamas won power in last January’s elections. A familiar face to Western television viewers, frequently quoted expressing exasperation at Israeli behavior, he is also an indefatigable optimist who firmly believes Israelis and Palestinians can and must make peace. A top adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he said he “still believes that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace more than anything else in life, and peace will come.”

“What matters,” Erekat said, “is that Israelis and Palestinians know that they have no alternative, in order to go to a path through peace and negotiations.”

It isn’t obvious to all observers that Palestinians recognize the necessity of pursuing peace and negotiations. Israelis are keenly aware that the elected government of the Palestinian Authority, led by Hamas, is formally committed to the dismantling of Israel and has encouraged violent attacks on Israelis, including the June 25 raid on an Israeli army base that led to the current crisis. Even before the crisis, the Palestinian Authority faced an international diplomatic boycott and a cutoff of foreign funding because of Hamas’s positions.

If Erekat had his way, Hamas would accept Israel’s existence and let Abbas — and Erekat — negotiate a permanent peace with Israel. “If the current government accepts Abu Mazen’s program,” he said, using Abbas’s nom de guerre, “I don’t think we have any problems, simply because negotiation with Israel is not the affair of the government. It is the affair of the PLO. The government and the [Palestinian Legislative] Council have no jurisdiction over me as the head of the negotiating department.”

Of course, Erekat cannot act independently. In a way, he resembles the city he represents. Jericho, too, could reach its own modus vivendi with Israel if were left to its own devices. But it is not an independent player.

Ten thousand years old and 820 feet below sea level, Jericho is the world’s lowest and oldest continuously settled town. Locals see it as a potential tourist mecca, with its dry climate, lush vegetation and unique history. When the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, promising to usher in a new era of peace for the region, Jericho and Gaza were the first towns turned over to Palestinian self-rule. Israelis began flocking here, drawn by a posh casino attached to a high-rise Intercontinental Hotel.

But Israelis stopped coming after the Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000. Jericho escaped most of the fighting during the past six years, but the hopes for a boom are on hold. Christian tourists aren’t coming much, either. In any case, the Islamists of Hamas who won control of the Palestinian Authority this past winter have refused to let the casino reopen, since gambling violates their religious principles. Today, the casino building sits like another ancient relic that rises from the flat land around the high desert dunes as you drive off the highway into the town.

Post-intifada, Israeli law does not allow Israeli citizens to enter Palestinian-controlled areas. That means that even if Israelis wanted to return to enjoy the restaurants that dot the main street of Jericho, they would need an army permit to enter. As an American, I drove straight through in a taxi from East Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Taxi Company, since the car had a Jerusalem license plate marking it as a Palestinian car.

But today, the road to prosperity in Jericho — and peace in Gaza — leads through Damascus. That’s where exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal lives; he’s the man who controls the current Hamas actions in Gaza that led to the Israeli incursion. Referring to Meshal, one frustrated Ramallah-based businessman echoed Erekat’s message when he told me, “unfortunately, the toll of this crisis is being paid by innocent people and not those instigating it in Damascus.”

Worse for the people of Gaza, the current fighting is no longer the sole topic on the minds of most Israelis. Before the World Cup ended on Sunday night, nearly every restaurant and bar in Israel had big-screen televisions tuned to the soccer championship. Since then, Israeli news has been dominated by a brewing sexual harassment scandal involving Israel’s president, Moshe Katzav, and a woman who worked in his office. The captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, is still in the news, but his face no longer dominates Page 1.

Israelis have begun to ask whether their government has any clear plan for getting back out of Gaza — whether the army’s prolonged incursion will actually result in freeing Shalit or ending the Palestinian rockets that have been bombarding Israeli towns for months. But with the story receding from the front page, the urgency of the questioning has declined, leaving the government and the army freer to act as they see fit.

Returning to Jerusalem, I saw throngs of American Jewish tourists. There is an air of utter normality, as though the daily combat in Gaza, 30 miles south, were taking place in some distant land. Still, there are constant reminders. Last Saturday, tourists in Jerusalem’s Old City were caught by surprise when shopkeepers in the Muslim Quarter declared a strike and shut their stores to protest Israeli actions in Gaza. Reportedly, there was a similar strike by businesses in Ramallah.

The Ramallah businessman told me that the strike came as a reaction to graphic images broadcast on the satellite television stations Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, showing the carnage earlier that day in Gaza, particularly the death of Rawan Mohammed Abu Zeid, a 6-year-old girl killed by a gunshot. “Eighty-three percent of Palestinian households have satellite dishes, and 78% of them watch Al Jazeera,” the Palestinian businessman said. “There is an equal proportion of both Israelis and Palestinians who want peace… but a photo changes things in a day.”

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