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A moment, but no miracle for sun-baked Jericho

Swarming with journalists, Jericho bustled hopefully for weeks. It was waiting for Arafat and a sign that he would make the city his new home and headquarters for the Palestinian Authority. But the chairman went as abruptly as he came. The town, as our roving writer HADANI DITMARS found it, was left only with a hangover.
A few months ago a media storm blew through Jericho, and spawned local dreams of greatness. A place that had once been little more than a winter tourist destination was to be the center of the new Palestinian Authority and home to Yasser Arafat himself.

Foreign journalists swarmed in and paid thousands of dollars to rent strategic roof-top perches for satellite dishes. By the end of June they had established a de facto colony wearing T-shirts with "Jericho 94" emblazoned in bright red letters.

Local businessmen had development wet dreams, while town merchants took in more immediate profits from brisk sales of mineral water and ice cream. Reporters searched frantically for man-on-the street interviews while the dazed residents of the oldest city in the world wondered just what had hit them. But gradually the buzz of excitement began to wane into a languorous hum as the summer heat advanced and the game of waiting for Arafat dragged on.

One oven-like afternoon, when the journalists outnumbered the locals, a group from Japanese TV stood baking quietly in the town square. I approached them like a displaced gunfighter and said "konichiwa". "Marhaba" they all responded with the slightest hint of a bow. It was a scene from a Sergio Leone film cross-bred with the Seven Samurai.

And then suddenly, without warning, two German photographers began flashing away at us, as if some great event was happening. Desperate for action and tired of waiting, the media was cannibalizing itself.

Where oh where was Arafat? Would he ever come?

Things started looking bad when the chairman missed the "World Cup" deadline, and journalists resigned themselves to long hot empty days and football-watching nights.

Meanwhile, producers got edgy and rumors bred like flies...CNN was pulling out....he wasn't coming...the price of roofs was going down....

When finally he came, the miracle was already a little late. You could feel it in the exhausted summer air, in the falling ice cream sales, in the conversations which were more often about dead Colombian footballers than aging chairmen.

From the disappointing turn-out, to the lack of violence , everything about his arrival was anti-climactic.

His helicopter entrance was vaguely exciting, what with the crowd waving, the cameras flashing, and the beduin women ululating. But it was a far cry from Gaza, where desperate crowds had charged barbed wire fences for a glimpse of Abu Amer and photographers got beat up by police. In Jericho, journalists who, 72 hours previously in Gaza had pushed cursed and spat at each other in the great race for position, were now almost polite.

After his speech about Jerusalem, the prisoners, and national unity, came the inevitable hug from the grateful mother of an imprisoned son . There was some minor scuffling, but nothing serious, and then he was off in a puff of helicopter dust.

Meanwhile, back in the town square, the locals dubkeyed and drummed for the cameras and kids screamed "bouza" till their lungs burst. People could sense it; this was the beginning of the end.

It was the last hurrah for Jericho and everyone milked it for all they could. Street vendors sold their last "I love Palestine" key-rings, Palestinian police mugged for photographers, journalists exchanged cards. By the time the press conference rolled around at 3 PM, everyone was exhausted

This was the post-coital cigarette of the whole affair, and it was underwhelming.

Nabil Shaath artfully dodged questions and provided vague answers. He spoke of 25,000 new housing units to be built in Gaza, no elections until Israeli withdrawal, Arafat's imminent return to reside in Gaza. Jericho, he said was to be a symbolic capital.

Soon afterwards the last journalists left the town. Palestinian flags blew in the wind, a few policemen smoked reflective Marlboros. In the distance Jerusalem waited like a sleeping giant..

By 5 o'clock, everyone was gone.

Three days later - a lazy Saturday afternoon - a few citizens were sitting under awnings playing cards and sipping mint tea. Some banners in praise of Arafat still hung over shop fronts, mostly closed. Nearby, goats grazed in a vacant lot.

At "Look Mama Look" the local purveyor of toys and gadgets, the mood was not gay.

"Everybody is disappointed", said the owner, standing next to a fine selection of "Allahu-Akbar" alarm clocks made in Taiwan. "We were hoping for more. People here feel neglected .Nabil Shaath spoke of 25,000 new housing units in Gaza . He didn't mention anything about Jericho.

Brushing past a display of "Glamour Girl" barbies in pink ball gowns, he continued,

"We were expecting more services from the government. We have an unemployment problem here, economic difficulties. I am with the peace, but..." he trailed off as a child played a tinny music box at the back of the store

"Arafat promised he would stay in Jericho. He said that it was a symbol and that we should start an agricultural revolution. In real terms, I don't know what he means. There is nothing concrete"

"I was optimistic but now it's sad. Everything is dead again."

In a quiet trimmed street, Mr. and Mrs. Hamduni served coffee in their eight-room villa where Arafat was supposed to stay. They dismissed any talk of Arafat not returning to Jericho.

"Nothing is certain yet... he may well still come and stay here," said Madame Hamduni. "He has an open invitation."

She pointed to its proximity to Jerusalem as a decisive factor in his return.

"And", she assured me, "once we have full autonomy he will come back for good."

Did she mean, permanent residence, I asked?

"Well at least in the winter," she said.

As for the local businessmen who may have overextended themselves in anticipation of Arafat, Hamduni had little sympathy.

"All this speculation is for ignorant, lazy people who don't want to work. They are dependent on Arafat to make a living."

But after the heady days of a 70% increase in land prices, she did admit to a post-Arafat recession. But she told me proudly that, nonetheless, her husband had just made a $500,000 property deal.

"West Bank businessmen are like wildcats, "she said, "they are just waiting for the right moment to pounce".

The mild depression, says Madame Hamduni, was temporary.

"People were hungry for Arafat and now they had something to eat", she explained. "They are resting."

"It has been an emotional time for us," she continued "Almost everyone felt excited -including the collaborators". But now, she maintained, there would be a break for re-positioning.

Before the intifada tourism was good, she said, and she is hopeful about the future.

"Once there is autonomy and we have full economic control over agriculture, we will be prosperous again. It will be a paradise here. But it's not only Jericho we are dreaming of -it's our whole nation. We are dreaming of a Hong Kong in the Middle East -with the luxury of Monaco."

Back in the town square, a street vendor sold his wares: make-up, brushes, underwear, heart-shaped "Palestine" key chains, razor blades.

Originally a 1948 refugee, he was now residing in Ramallah. He'd been making the trip to Jericho every day for the last two months, he said, to reap the benefits of the Arafat-inspired influx of tourists.

Although he was grateful for the business he'd had from foreign media, he said, "journalists never tell the truth. They should focus more on the quality of life of the people here. The story isn't just about Arafat. There is a lot of poverty here."

What will Jericho be like in five years from now? I asked him. He's dreaming of a shopping center and a Mac Donald's he said. By now a crowd had gathered and people were anxious to give their opinions.

"Things were better under occupation", shouted an angry young man.

"We have no work here and the Palestinian police harass us. They've already stopped me five times today".

He was quickly silenced by a group of men, including a Palestinian policeman who said, "Don't pay any attention to him. He's just a kid. He was stopped for driving without a license."

A man in a football uniform walked by. A house painter by profession, he'd just finished a match with a team from Beit Safafa. He was indifferent. "Nothing's really changed," he said. He was sick of talking to journalists.

A farmer approached and claimed that Israel was playing industrial sabotage. The authorities only give him a permit to export his produce, he said, when it's not in season. He has a warehouse full of rotten vegetables. And as for his chickens, he told me, the Israelis have been spreading rumors that poultry from Jericho have a strange virus.

I asked a nearby group of card players, "what's the difference between an Israeli and a Palestinian chicken?" The punch line potential was incredible, but instead I got an earnest response.

"Israeli chickens are full of hormones" said a young man, "Palestinian chickens are natural".

He turned out to be a former prisoner who was now working for the Palestinian secret service. He feared for the economic situation in Jericho and wondered what would become of the 300 unemployed prisoners recently released.

"Unless the European aid comes within the next three months", he said" the situation here will explode". At the Temptation Restaurant in the old city, the future looked brighter.

Owner, Khalid Abdelrazek recently tripled his capacity to 1200 seats, and built two new stories which will soon become a hotel. The entrance is grand, replete with a faux marble staircase and a fountain spouting chlorinated water. A gift shop displays perfume and Dead Sea skin products, which he plans to export to America.

Although he admitted that most of his business came from foreign tourists, Abdelrazek only started construction of his project in 1990, because of the Madrid peace talks. He was optimistic about the future and stressed Jericho's "cross-road" location linking Jordan, Tiberias and Jerusalem. "People should come and invest here", he said, "it's going to be good."

The desert night did not respond , but only offered silence, dreaming of future greatness.

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