Long on symbolism

Palestinians take control of Jericho's security, but some complain that with Israeli troops still in place, not much has changed.

By Chris McGreal
Published March 17, 2005 2:34PM (EST)

Even as a crane hoisted away the concrete slabs around the Israeli army's checkpoint into Jericho Wednesday, soldiers were still waving down drivers for inspection. By the end of the day, the paraphernalia of the roadblock was gone along with the Israeli flags. But the troops remained.

Israel transferred responsibility for security in Jericho to the Palestinians Wednesday in a largely symbolic step toward reviving the peace process. The army has not been into the heart of the West Bank town in six months. Further withdrawals will follow, beginning with Tulkarm, a more volatile city that was home to the man responsible for last month's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five people.

Officials on both sides heralded the symbolism of Wednesday's move as a turn away from the hopelessness created by the intifada. But some of Jericho's residents saw a less dramatic symbolism represented by removing the physical barriers at the checkpoint but leaving the soldiers in place. "There are many deals made with Israel and they haven't fulfilled any of them," said Walid Baraba, a restaurant owner in Jericho's main square. "You always have to look carefully to see if what they say is what you get."

At last month's summit in Egypt, Ariel Sharon promised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that Israel would pull out of five West Bank cities within days and lift many of the burdensome checkpoints in the occupied territories that often make it almost impossible for Palestinians to move around. But nothing happened as Israel stalled and the Palestinian leadership warned that without some relief from the most trying aspects of the occupation, Abbas' attempts to secure an end to violence would founder.

The stranglehold of the checkpoints, and a trench the Israelis dug around Jericho to seal it off, have embittered residents of the biblical town much more than periodic military raids. "They say they are moving the checkpoint, but as you can see with your own eyes the checkpoint is still here," said Walid Almalki, who drives from Ramallah each day. "I think Abu Mazen [Abbas] is serious, but I don't think Sharon is serious. There is no cooperation from the other side. The Israelis want Abu Mazen to fail. Every time you reach an agreement with them they break their promises."

Palestinians effortlessly reel off the examples of Israel's failed commitments, from its doubling of the size of settlements in the occupied territories since the signing of the Oslo peace accords to Sharon's oft-broken pledge to President Bush to remove the illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank.

Suspicions about true Israeli intentions have been reinforced by a sharp increase in the number of "flying checkpoints" across the West Bank. These temporary roadblocks allow Israel to claim it has removed checkpoints while still curtailing movement. The undercurrent of distrust was on display Wednesday. The handover was delayed by more than an hour after Israeli commanders said they wanted to seal it with a handshake but Palestinian leaders insisted on a signed document committing Israel to respect the transfer.

Jericho's deputy mayor, Ali Dana, said the easing of the occupation offered hope for his beleaguered town. "Jericho is a peaceful city. There was no Israeli military inside, but we suffered from the checkpoints. These and the trench around the city have had a bad influence on the economic, social and psychological life. We want the tourists back," he said.

Unemployment more than doubled to 60 percent as the number of tourist buses visiting biblical sites dropped from more than 100 each day to one or two, and some days none.

But Dana was not confident that Wednesday's symbolic step was leading where the Palestinians want to go. "Politics is not a clean business. All politicians are liars. God help Abu Mazen," he said.

Chris McGreal

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