Old Jericho, Seat of Self-Rule

Palestinians hope international aid flows soon to sustain their attempt at limited autonomy

THE inhabitants of this symbolic foothold of Palestinian autonomy are losing hope that the international community will provide development funds vital for the realization of meaningful self-reliance and, ultimately, a Palestinian state.

When Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat touched down in an Egyptian helicopter here on July 5 and threw an armful of pink carnations at a small but unruly crowd of Palestinian supporters, the world's oldest town was back in the full glare of world attention.

But the people of this ancient oasis in the Judean desert were already looking beyond the dust-brown hills that encircle the lush green orchards nurtured by the abundant Ein es-Sultan spring, which has sustained successive civilizations here since 8,000 BC.

``I hope that the international community will not abandon us and help us rebuild the infrastructure, which has been devastated by decades of Israeli occupation,'' said Muhammad Moshen, an administrator at Jericho's Islamic College.

Mr. Mohsen, who was freed in a prisoner exchange in 1985, was referring to the fact that international donors have delivered only $42 million of some $2.1 billion in development aid pledged over five years.

``I am very disappointed,'' Mohsen continued, ``especially when I recall that the international community supported the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure [in the Gulf war of 1991], but has done nothing to prevent Israeli destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure,'' he said. ``This only serves to reinforce our view that the international community has double standards and is not really committed to support Arab efforts at develpment,'' Mohsen said.

Years of deliberate neglect in failing to repair war damage has resulted in an infrastructure that is inadequate and crumbling.

In his speech on July 5, Mr. Arafat implied that elements of the international community were still involved in a conspiracy with Israel to ``eliminate the Palestinian people.''

``But I tell them: No one can liquidate or eliminate the Palestinian people,'' he said.

Many of Jericho's tiny population of 15,000 had mixed feelings about the possible benefits of limited self-rule.

On the upside, Arafat's much-vaunted and delayed visit has brought a flurry of commercial activity to the normally sleepy town.

But Arafat chose the impoverished Gaza Strip for his July 1 homecoming instead and switched venues for his Jericho speech at the last minute - from the square to a bus station on the outskirts of the town. Since his July 1 return, Arafat has focused attention on Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state and played down Jericho as a symbol of self-rule.

But some Jericho residents are still hopeful of a peace dividend for their historic town.

``The area has unlimited potential with an exciting history from Biblical times that could make it one of the most exciting tourist venues in the world,'' said Isaac Haddad, a health administrator with the Palestinian Health Council.

The remains of the 8th century AD Hisham Palace bear testimony to the sumptuous heights of bygone times and underscore Jericho's potential as a major tourist attraction, a possibility denied during the years of Israeli occupation and the intifadah - a sustained Palestinian rebellion that began in 1987.

But where will the funds come from?

``The international community shares the responsibility for the past,'' said Israeli Deputy Finance Minister Walid Sadik, the most senior Palestinian in Israel's government, who attended Arafat's return to Jericho. ``This should now be translated into economic aid.''

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