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Israelis leaving Jericho

The West Bank town's transfer to Palestinians will set the stage for four more Israeli withdrawals.

By Ben LynfieldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 16, 2005



JERICHO, WEST BANK

To cut costs over the past four years, Munzir Izhiman has dimmed the lobby of the empty luxury hotel he supervises. But a few days ago, he switched to full power.

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"It looks like the light at the end of the tunnel is starting to appear," says Mr. Izhiman, referring to a planned Israeli army transfer of security control in Jericho that Palestinians and Israelis were seeking to finalize Tuesday. The grin of the neatly dressed manager of the Intercontinental Hotel reflects Palestinians' fragile hopes for normalcy and economic revival after last week's summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The transfer in Jericho, a city which has seen little conflict and few Israeli operations, will pave the way for staged withdrawals from four more West Bank towns, as agreed at the summit. But Palestinian officials stress that their reclaimed authority must be accompanied by a removal of army checkpoints that restrict Palestinian movement. Only then, they say, will Palestinians be able to substantially better their economic situation.

Israel, however, says that it must proceed cautiously on removing the checkpoints and that it will take time before it can trust the Palestinian forces to guarantee security. But Abbas is under political pressure to achieve rapid results, given the fragility of the cease-fire and July legislative elections in which the radical group Hamas is expected to participate.

The two sides Tuesday engaged in last-minute talks to resolve a dispute over control of an enclave near Jericho that is traversed by a major north-south road, and the removal of a checkpoint at the busiest entrance to Jericho, Palestinian security officials said. Israeli officials say that checkpoint will remain in place even after the transfer of authority.

"If there is quiet and there are no terrorist attacks and the Palestinian Authority assumes full responsibility, then we will continue to remove roadblocks, but this won't happen overnight, because there is still terrorist activity around," says Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "We must protect our citizens."

The extent and pace of checkpoint removal, first in Jericho and then in the other cities, will influence Abbas's ability to win support for ending occupation through negotiations. "If they don't lift the checkpoints, nothing will happen in this city. Everything will remain as it is," says Mr. Izhiman.

In 2003, Abbas arranged a cease-fire of Palestinian factions, but Israel, citing security concerns, did not substantially alter the checkpoint regime between Palestinian areas of the West Bank. Abbas was criticized by Palestinians for not bringing about change on the ground.

Occupancy at the Intercontinental fell to 3 percent from 90 percent after the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. For much of that time, there were no guests. Management kept the hotel open, but dismissed three-quarters of the 220 staffers, Izhiman says. He now hopes to rehire some of them. Like other businessmen in Jericho, he envisions a significant boost if tourists and Palestinians can reach Jericho. "If a guest comes to the hotel, I have to buy provisions from a merchant to serve him," he says. "The merchant must buy merchandise from another city. And so things will start to move in the West Bank and the economic situation of the people will rise again."

Palestinians have a long way to go before they approach their pre-intifada economic situation, which is recalled with nostalgia but was far from prosperous. Unemployment has risen to 27 percent from 12 percent, according to a World Bank report in November, and the poverty rate rose to 48 percent from 20 percent. A mainstay - earnings from day laborers in Israel - vanished when Israel barred such employment on security grounds.

At the Oasis Casino, adjoining the hotel, the lights of the 285 slot machines were flashing Tuesday for the benefit of the journalists who descended on Jericho. "The big question for us is whether Israel will allow Israelis to come back here," says general manager Brett Anderson. A snack menu in Hebrew from four years ago is still posted. An average of 3,000 people visited the casino daily, and the figure rose to about 7,000 on Israeli holidays, says Mr. Anderson. The casino - owned by the Palestinian Authority and Austrian investors - employed 1,600 Palestinian workers making it the largest private employer of Palestinians in the West Bank.

The transfer will not immediately end the casino's losing streak. Mr. Gissin says Israelis will still be barred for security reasons.

Palestinian officials Tuesday prepared to require fugitives in Jericho, wanted by Israel, to sign a pledge that they will not attack Israeli targets. "I would like to be optimistic that there will be a new era," says Lt. Col. Akram Rajoub, director of Palestinian Preventive Security in Jericho. "But about the relationship with Israel I am cautious."

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