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THE WORLD : FOREIGN EXCHANGE

Jericho birthday fete nothing to trumpet

A blowout to mark the West Bank city's 10,000th year fizzles amid poor planning and lack of funds.

October 14, 2010|Edmund Sanders

JERICHO, WEST BANK — Imagine you turned 10,000 years old -- and nobody showed up at your birthday party.

That's a bit how they're feeling in the ancient West Bank city of Jericho, believed to be one of the world's oldest continually inhabited settlements.

Three years ago, Palestinians made big plans for Jericho's historic birthday. Nobody really knows the exact anniversary, but Palestinians thought 10-10-10 had a good ring to it.

The idea was to host an international blowout to rival the 2000 millennium, including fireworks, laser shows, half a million guests and a who's who of international dignitaries. They dreamed of bringing singer Shakira to perform, and city officials figured they'd need to build at least a couple of new hotels and some restaurants to handle the crowds.

But when Oct. 10 rolled around, the party -- to say the least -- fell flatter than the city's walls once did.

A single balloon floated over the city square, a local band named Culture Shock performed on a portable stage, and some new artwork and an ancient mosaic were unveiled.

No foreign diplomats attended the opening ceremony, Shakira was not there to sing or shake, and even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was a no-show. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, greeted by a few dozen Jericho children, unveiled a Jericho-themed postage stamp.

Like much in the West Bank, Jericho's birthday fete appears to have fallen victim to inadequate finances, poor organization and political infighting. City officials said they received no funds to prepare. A planning committee fell into disarray as members and chairpersons kept changing. And a publicity firm was not hired until 10 days before the event.

"Unfortunately, we've been late in everything," Jericho city spokeswoman Weaam Iriqat said, sighing.

Palestinian officials are now trying to put their best face forward, deemphasizing Sunday's festivities and saying the celebrations will continue four to five years.

"This is just the kickoff," said Khouloud Daibes, the Palestinian Authority's minister of tourism. "Besides, whatever we did would not have been enough to give this occasion its proper value."

Still, some Palestinians criticize the Palestinian Authority for missing an opportunity to boost the West Bank's economy and international profile.

"We had a chance to celebrate 10,000 years of Jericho, which should have been one of the biggest events in the Middle East," said Yousef Aldek, a television production manager from the West Bank city of Ramallah. He said he had attended several disorganized brainstorming sessions that yielded no results.

"What better occasion than this to prove our claim and ties to the land," he said, complaining that officials misused funds by hiring family members to help organize the event. "In the end, no one even knew anything about it."

Jericho's mayor expressed disappointment that the opening ceremony was scaled back, but he noted that an extravagant party might not have been appropriate anyway, given the city's poverty and lack of infrastructure.

"We're 10,000 years old and we don't even have a sewage system," Hassan Saleh said. Nonetheless, he said he was hoping to parlay the city's birthday into some much-needed development projects, including a new airport. So far nothing has been confirmed.

Jericho has a history of high hopes and lost opportunities. With skeletal remains dating to the Stone Age and a prominent place in the Bible, the renowned city has long been seen as the West Bank's most promising tourist destination.

This is the spot where the Bible says Israelites ended their desert-wandering and brought down Jericho's walls with a trumpet. There's a sycamore tree said to be the one Jesus once passed and a monastery built into a hillside where Jesus is said to have resisted Satan's temptations.

After the 1993 Oslo peace accords, Jericho blossomed, drawing Palestinian investors and throngs of Israeli tourists enjoying a new casino and luxury hotel.

But after the 2000 Palestinian uprising, the Israeli military banned its citizens from visiting Jericho. The casino was shuttered, and today tourists generally swing through town in a couple of hours, barely getting off the bus.

The historic Old City, which wasn't included in Sunday's celebration, is little more than some dirt mounds, with no guides or signs to orient visitors. Indeed, there is nary a placard in sight to show where the walls once stood.

Swedish tourists Torsten and Ingrid Gunnarson, among a few foreign visitors who joined Jericho's birthday celebration, were unimpressed. "To be frank," Torsten Gunnarson said, "they really need to get their act together."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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