Walls of Jericho Now Harbor Newlyweds, Thieves, 'Crazies'

Except for that incident with the walls a few years back - when Joshua, his trumpeters, and his troops clamored so loud that this town's walls came "tumblin' down" - Jericho has been rather quiet for the past 10,000 years.

Armies from the Jebosites to the Israelis (in both their present and more distant incarnations) have come and gone, but beneath Jericho's palm trees, quiet afternoons and taking time to talk to the neighbors have remained priorities.

These days, however, something is afoot. Jericho, placid Jericho has become haven for all sorts of characters: car thieves, affianced Jews seeking refuge from religious discrimination, and gunmen on the lam from the Israeli secret police. Even two families of fundamentalist Christians from Detroit, chased from everywhere else they've pitched camp, are welcomed by tolerant Jericho.

When the intifadah, the Palestinian popular uprising against Israeli occupation, broke out in Gaza in 1987 and quickly swept the West Bank, it largely bypassed Jericho, where scenes of stone-throwing and tire-burning were few and far between. And so the Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement was "Gaza-Jericho First" - these two tiny areas were the first to be put under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The local joke was: Gaza, because the Israelis are thrilled to get rid of it, and Jericho, because they're not sure where it is anyway.

With the advent of the PA, the rumors about Jericho began. First, Israel said car thieves in the West Bank were driving stolen Israeli vehicles inside the borders of the little autonomous enclave where they couldn't be pursued by Israeli police. Indeed, today many of the cars on the streets of Jericho sport the pink license plates that the PA, frustrated by the sheer volume of ill-gotten vehicles, gave out to the owners of stolen cars.

Then came the accusations of harboring terrorists. In July 1995, Israel accused the PA of giving Islamic militants who had planned a bus bombing in Jerusalem shelter in Jericho. The PA strenuously denied those accusations, but more have followed. In June, two gunmen believed to be part of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an antipeace-process group, crossed into Israel from Jordan and shot two Israeli soldiers on a Jordan Valley patrol. The gunmen, both Israel and Jordan suggested, then hid out in Jericho - and perhaps they're still there.

There's no sign of them now, though. Jericho has a fine new mosque, paid for in part by the emir of Kuwait. It has some terraced restaurants with impressive growths of bougainvillaea. It has some rather sun-bleached but still winsome murals of Yasser Arafat. But the only guns in sight are the Kalashnikovs carried by the ubiquitous PA police - and they usually leave their guns stashed under their chairs during card games in the shade.

It's a romantic little place, Jericho. And many Israelis are hoping they'll soon be able to travel there to marry. Unable to wed in Israel if one member of the couple is not Jewish (or for a variety of other technicalities of religious law), Jews seek civil weddings outside the country. And the PA has said it will oblige, opening a registry office in Jericho. It could bring thousands of Israelis into town. They could pose for photos in front of the Arafat murals.

Whether or not Jericho has opened its arms to armed militants, or will play Las Vegas to Jewish lovebirds, it has certainly made a welcoming home for a tribe of American Christian fundamentalists now living in the ruins of an old stone house with a few motley sheep and some donkeys. Adair and Shamir (they have abandoned the names by which they were known in Detroit in favor of more Biblical-sounding ones) arrived in Israel 2-1/2 years ago, guided, they say, by study of Scripture that told them to travel to the Holy Land and live "for Yehoa [God] in the old ways."

They got rid of the VCR, packed up the kids, gathered some like-minded friends, traveled to Jerusalem, and settled in - tearing up their passports when they got off the plane because they do not believe in "graven images." Almost immediately, Israel informed them that non-Jews were not allowed to stay and began to suggest they move on.

The family wintered in hide tents in the Jerusalem forest, but the Israelis became more insistent. Finally, the government served a deportation order. Devastated at being forced to abandon their quest, the family walked the long dusty road to Jericho.

"We've just been made so welcome here," enthuses Adair, her genial face sunburned pink beneath her white linen head wrap. "The people showed us this house, and the spring, and all the fruit trees, and they give us advice on the garden and taking care of the animals.

"The Bedouin, especially, they understand the old ways, and they're willing to teach us." Adair and family are affectionately known as il majanin in Jericho - "the crazies." But Shamir, who worked as a chiropractor in Detroit, has plenty of patients, who trade food for his services.

The family possessions amount to a wood oven, two buckets, a chair, a cradle, some mattresses, and several copies of the Old Testament. Adair keeps busy sewing the white linen robes worn by the whole clan (children going visiting are instructed to "turn the clean side to the front"). She says she wouldn't ever leave her new home.

All of which leads to the question: How does this new reputation as a safe harbor sit with Jericho's citizens?

"Ah, well," says Muhammed Jamal, a taxi driver who gathers one afternoon to shelter with friends in the shade of the new mosque. "Well, we don't ask questions, really. It's sort of better that way. This is a quiet place, you know. We're not interested in anyone's business."

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