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World's Oldest City Retains Lure : Biblical Jericho: Winter Oasis for the West Bank

February 02, 1987|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

"We made one mistake in 1948," said a Palestinian who fled that year from Jerusalem to Jericho. Referring to 1967, the man, who requested anonymity, added, "I wasn't going to make the same mistake again."

Jericho is also home to a unique group of black Palestinians whose roots are lost in history. The most common theories are that they are descended from Nubian slaves, possibly from the time of Herod, or from a Nubian regiment left behind by the retreating Egyptian commander Ibrahim Pasha early in the 19th Century.

Reputation as Trouble-Free

The city's modern residents are mostly Muslim, conservative and quiet, which is one reason the town has a reputation as perhaps the most trouble-free on the politically volatile West Bank.

From Monday through Thursday, most of Jericho's bustle comes from traffic passing over the nearby Allenby Bridge, which is one of two principal land links between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on the east side of the river and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

About 600,000 people cross the bridge annually, and virtually all of them pass through Jericho. So does a steady stream of special green trucks authorized to carry goods from the West Bank to markets in Jordan.

Jericho's main business is agriculture. Local farmers cultivate bananas, citrus, dates and vegetables. Merchants sell what produce they do not export from outdoor stands that dot both the central square and busy Ein Sultan Street, the principal thoroughfare, which leads north to the rest of the Jordan Valley.

"We are not trying to stick our nose in politics," said Mayor Jameel S. Khalaf. "People don't have time to sit in the coffee houses discussing politics. The farmers' main concern is how to export his products."

Khalaf said in an interview that he warns Jericho's young people that acts against Israeli security forces only mean trouble for everyone. He compares their situation to that of ants. "If an ant bites you, you won't search for the one that bit you. You'll be all over, stepping on hundreds of ants."

Because of its location so near Jordan, Jericho is in a restricted Israeli military zone. There is an Israeli base on the south edge of town, and non-resident Arabs are forbidden to enter or leave the city limits between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily. Even residents can move freely in the surrounding Jordan Valley only until 8 p.m.

Relaxed Atmosphere

Jericho has no universities, which are hotbeds of Palestinian political activity in such other West Bank towns as Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus. It also has no Jewish settlers, though the zealous Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) organization has targeted it for future settlement.

Despite a large Israeli military and police presence, the atmosphere in Jericho is much more relaxed than elsewhere on the West Bank--particularly on a winter weekend, when the population swells.

During festivities connected with the Greek Orthodox commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan in mid-January, for example, about 45,000 people were in town, according to Mayor Khalaf.

"Jericho wasn't crowded like this for maybe 1,000 years," bubbled an enthusiastic, if inaccurate, restaurateur.

The influx typically begins on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, when the visitors are mostly from the West Bank Muslim towns like Nablus and Hebron. Sunday is the time for Christian Arabs from Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Ramallah. And Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, brings a mixture of West Bank residents who have the day off because they work in Israel, foreign tourists and some Israelis.

Jericho's pleasant climate also makes it a favorite site for winter weddings. It is traditional for the wedding party to pay a visit and sing ceremonial songs at a spot called "Bride's Hill."

Tame Merrymaking

By Western standards, the weekend merrymaking here is tame indeed. Bicycle riding is a favorite activity because the area is so flat.

A couple of pool halls in town stay busy, but there is almost no drinking. In the Muslim tradition, the swimming pool is for men only, as are the sidewalk cafes. Young Arab men and women may flirt on Ein Sultan Street, but they do it in sexually segregated groups. It is rare indeed to see an unmarried couple walking alone.

Festivities center on the restaurants, all of which feature bands on the weekend.

"I've been coming here since before 1948," said Andria Younan, a retired Jerusalemite who was enjoying a Sunday meal with his extended family.

"Because we are under occupation, people come here to get relief," added his son, Michael, an engineer.

Younes Restaurant manager Sami Houlila, back only six months after spending eight years in the United States, complained about the military restrictions and said things were much better under Jordanian rule, before 1967.

"A lot of famous singers used to come here," he said. "And right by the Dead Sea (about five miles south) there used to be a camel rodeo. King Hussein used to go there all the time. I think Jericho is in reverse gear since 1967. I think we've been knocked out of the saddle." But then, apparently worried that he had painted too black a picture, Houlila told his departing visitors:

"Still, we're a lot better off than many people. I don't feel sorry for us. Look at all our fat stomachs!"

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