Morning in downtown Jericho looked like the start of another ordinary day in the city. People young and old filled the plastic chairs outside the cafes last Thursday, facing the main square, some perusing the morning papers, others gazing at their cell phones or chatting with their friends. Drivers of the yellow taxis waited for passengers wanting to head to Ramallah, Nablus or Jerusalem. At the tourist information center located in a small downtown park, a young man waited for tourists who failed to materialize. When a few Italian tourists finally appeared, they passed right by him and entered a nearby dried-fruit shop.
The Israeli guide who accompanied them didn’t really need anything from the tourist stand, where they provide information about the key sites in the city along with a detailed map. I went up to the stand. The guy inside the air-conditioned kiosk was visibly cheered, thinking this was someone who would keep him busy for a few minutes, but he then was disappointed to discover I was a reporter and not a tourist. “Don’t ask me about politics and tourism, go ask the governor,” he said, handing me a map on which he marked the road leading to the governor’s residence at the northern tip of the city. “As you can see, things are slow these days and we’re hoping it will get better,” he added.
Not far from the tourist information booth, two young men, Husam and Mahmoud, were sitting beside two taxis. They both drive private cabs. They are in their late twenties, they were very young when Oslo happened, and they are part of the generation that awaited salvation only to be disappointed. “So you want me to talk and then we’ll get arrested? Leave me be. What Oslo dream?” said Husam.
“Why? Let’s talk,” said Mahmoud. “Tell him that the Palestinian Authority is milking us with taxes and fees and that after working from morning to almost noon, I’ve earned just 30 shekels. And that you left school after high school because you had no way to continue studying. We’re desperate and there’s nothing for us to do. Look around at the coffee shops – all the young people are sitting there unemployed, and that’s in Jericho where at least there’s a little tourism and business. In other places it’s a lot harder. No one thinks about Oslo. All they’re thinking about is how to earn a decent livelihood each day.”
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On the side of the plaza, at the entrance to a men’s club, a few men sat with the morning papers. The headlines were about the crisis with UNRWA and Khan Al-Ahmar. Mohammed Sa’adi, a man in his seventies better known as Abu Adullah, was reading with great interest. He lives in the refugee camp in Jenin and works as a taxi driver. He arrived in Jericho very early that morning and would wait until the end of the day to take passengers back to Jenin. “I’m a refugee from Saffuriya [now Tzippori] and I’ve lived in the refugee camp in Jenin since I was a teenager,” he says. “I’ve seen and felt what it means to be a refugee.”
When he hears that I’m here to talk about Oslo, he gets mad: “Yes, I wanted a better life for myself and my children, but we got nothing. Twenty-five years ago, Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat], for whatever reason, maybe because of the political situation at the time, signed the Oslo agreement and came here thinking it would finally lead to a state and to stability. Arafat was not naïve, but I think he fell into a trap. Or was pushed into it. Israel and the United States have never acted in a way that was really about establishing a Palestinian state and the two-state solution. They wanted to give us the false impression that we’re in a state with a governing authority and police and so on, but they control every aspect of our lives – from the air and water to the ability to move from place to place.”
According to recent data from the Palestinian Authority Central Bureau of Statistics, 35,000 people live in the Jericho area. The city itself has 21,000 residents, and there are two adjacent refugee camps: Ein el-Sultan with 5,000 residents and Aqbat Jabr with 9,000 residents. On May 4, 1994, nine months after the initial signing on the White House lawn, the Cairo agreement, better known as Gaza-Jericho First, was signed. This agreement said Jericho was to be the first West Bank city to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority. City old-timers remember July 3, 1994 when a Palestinian helicopter brought Arafat from Gaza to Jericho. Thousands came out into the streets to welcome him.
“Those were the days of joy and euphoria,” says Fahim Ghanem, known as Abu Khalil, owner of the oldest restaurant in town and a Jericho resident since 1963. “Abu Ammar’s arrival in the city transformed it into the liveliest city in the West Bank,” he recalls. “Abu Ammar’s offices and the various headquarters became pilgrimage sites and we thought that everything was moving in the right direction. Suddenly we started seeing new tourism projects, and a fancy hotel was built with a casino next door that provided a lot of jobs for the city and the area.
“Thousands of people would come to that place every day, and I remember people coming to me at three or four in the morning looking for something to eat. Looking back, I say the casino was a successful tourist project for its owners and for those who got to enjoy the money, but I know that a lot of families were ruined by the gambling.”
Jericho had always been a hub for Palestinian tourism, with its nearby religious and archeological sites, but after the signing of the Oslo Accords and the construction of hotels and amusement parks, it became a popular destination for Arab Israelis and tourists from abroad, especially Christian pilgrims. Hamza Sinokrot is the son of Marwan Sinokrot, a businessman who runs the first cable car in the Palestinian Authority, which transports tourists from Jericho to the monastery atop the Mount of Temptation overlooking the city.
Hamza says his father spotted the potential as soon as the PA took over the city. The cable car was opened to the public in 1998. “At the time, investment in real estate and tourism projects looked very promising. I was very young then, but I saw how everyone was thinking in terms of peace and stability and what that could mean for business.”
This unique project was a turning point in Palestinian tourism, but like many other businesses, the Sinokrot family was hard hit when the second intifada began in October 2000 and everything came to a halt: “I remember that they laid off all the workers or put them on extended leave,” says Hamza. “There were two or three maintenance people for the cable car who worked just a few hours a week, no more than that.”
In the last years, Sinokrot and restauranteur Abu Khalil agree, there’s been a feeling in Jericho of living hand-to-mouth. “I can’t say that there’s no work and no tourism,” says Hamza. “In the summer months there was a good amount. Now it’s quieter and it will start up again around October-November, and then it will be quiet again until the spring. Yes we have reservations but we look at what’s happening right now. There’s no more thinking about long-term investment because no one knows what will happen tomorrow or what the future will bring. There is no clear idea of where this situation is leading.”
“You ask me about peace agreements and a state and all I can do is smile,” says Abu Khalil resignedly. “Ya Habibi, we know there’s no accord on the horizon. It won’t happen anytime soon, if ever. Such is life. Yawm ‘asal wa yawm basal – you just have to take it as it comes.”
The feeling of living hand-to-mouth with no clear future ahead is likely common throughout the West Bank. The Oslo generation realizes by now that there is no solution in sight and that the dream of stability and self-determination is still far-off. But it’s the old-timers, the ones who fought against Israel, who seem more worried.
Assad Ishtaya, from the Balata refugee camp in Nablus, was a Fatah leader during the first intifada. “Then there was no PA and no regular government, but we were a people that fought for its freedom and were in command of things at the social level,” he says. “Unfortunately, today there’s a sense of disconnection between the people and the leadership.
Occasionally you see young people taking to the streets and there are some events, but it’s very sporadic. People today are thinking more about money and how to survive and less about a sense of national mission and solidarity. That’s the job of the leadership, but unfortunately everyone is only worried about himself and Israel is reveling in that at our expense.
“I reject the arguments that the Palestinians are the only ones to blame and the accusations of terror and violence. It’s not true. Only despair leads people to violence. I saw with my own eyes people who gave flowers to soldiers after Oslo. We want to live like everyone else, but in Israel they think otherwise. There they think that a Palestinian has only to eat and drink and work, nothing more. As if this were a zoo that had to be run.”
Ishtaya, who also has a background in business and finance, says that people tend to judge the Oslo accords mainly by political parameters, but that its economic implications were much more severe. The accords essentially stipulated that the entire Palestinian economy is dependent upon Israel. “All exports and imports, every move we make, requires an Israeli permit,” he says.
“Everything is up to Israel, and so it’s impossible to get anywhere. It’s just a façade of autonomy, because Israel actually controls everything. We knew it would be this way before Oslo but we said we’d support it because it’s an interim stage and we need this time to build our institutions. Sadly, the interim stage has become permanent, which is what Israel, with American backing, really wanted. It wanted to manage the conflict and control Palestinians’ lives by remote control via the Palestinian Authority.”
Bashir Hanani, a well-known businessman in Nablus and member of the Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Ishtaya’s analysis. He likens the whole Oslo process in all its economic and political features to a new suit that was promised to the Palestinians. “We were told that it’s a new suit to wear, and that it’s temporary for five years, and at the start it all looked very promising,” says Hanani. “Today that Palestinian kid is a 25-year-old man but Israel still insists that he stay in that same suit for a 5-year-old. It was obvious that at some point it would tear, and that’s what happened. Our dream shattered, and so no one thinks about tomorrow, just about today. No one knows what the future holds.”