Jericho bypass

The political situation has stunted the world's oldest city.

Jericho 521 (photo credit: Flash 90 / Issam Rimawi)
Jericho 521
(photo credit: Flash 90 / Issam Rimawi)
Over the ages, wealthy residents of Jerusalem used to flee the harsh winter of the Holy City and soak up the balmier weather in nearby Jericho, some 15 miles to the east.
Evidence of this can be found in the remains of the grand palaces of the Hasmonean kings that were discovered at the entrance to Wadi Qelt in northern Jericho, or the famous winter palace of Hisham, one of the most impressive structures in the Holy Land, built in Jericho by the Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik in the 8th century CE.
This winter in Jerusalem has been particularly cold and it was a treat going down to Jericho to warm up a little. These days the journey is easy and convenient. You drive through a short tunnel quarried under Mount Scopus and a fast, new road through the Judean Desert gets you to Jericho in less than half an hour. The steep descent drops from a height of approximately 800 meters to about 250 meters below sea level.
Jericho is a Palestinian enclave, surrounded by Jewish communities, the Jordan Rift Valley settlements, and IDF bases tasked with guarding the nearby Jordan River border.
The Palestinian governor of Jericho and the surrounding area, Majed al-Fatiani complains to The Jerusalem Report that his city is cut off from much of the West Bank, which makes it difficult for it to develop. He was born and raised in the sprawling refugee camp of Aqabat Jaber in northern Jericho.
The majority of its residents fled east to the Kingdom of Jordan in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War.
Al-Fatiani’s family originally hailed from the small village of Sataf adjoining Ein Kerem in West Jerusalem. After finishing high school, he studied engineering in India. On returning to Jericho he joined the Fatah movement. His is one of the most luxurious offices in the Palestinian Authority.
It functioned in 1994 as the headquarters of Yasser Arafat, then president of the Palestinian Authority, during the first stage of the implementation of the Oslo Accords, when Palestinians were given control over Gaza and Jericho alone. Arafat’s bureau and his residence are preserved as a small museum adjacent to the governor’s office.
Just passing through
Jericho, a fertile oasis near the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth – the place where Joshua brought the walls down.
Al-Fatiani notes that in 2011 approximately a million tourists visited the city. An impressive number indeed, but unfortunately the 35,000 residents of Jericho see very little revenue from tourism. Why? Because most tourists pass alongside Jericho’s attractions on buses, look around, and move on to more appealing tourist sites outside the city.
Jericho is surrounded by some of the most famous tourist sites in the world; the nearest is Kasr al-Yahud, the site on the Jordan River, where, according to Christian tradition, John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The site is encircled by fences and minefields where ancient churches and monasteries stand ruined and abandoned (apart from the Monastery of St. Gerasimus, a Greek Orthodox monastery situated on the main road of the Jordan Rift Valley). Nonetheless, the area is visited by thousands of pilgrims who go down to bathe in what little is left of the depleted waters of the fabled Jordan River. The office of the Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister, Silvan Shalom, has lately invested a considerable amount of money in developing the site and providing services for pilgrims.
South of Jericho, along the Dead Sea shore, is the site of Qumran, surrounded by the caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Considered Israel’s most important archaeological find, the scrolls are remnants of a collection of holy scriptures with nearly 1,000 documents, containing the oldest copies, dating back 2,000 years or more, of Biblical texts.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Qumran and continue southward to the Dead Sea shore’s therapeutic springs with its modern hotels. Then there are the remains of the Masada fortress, the most well-known and popular tourist site among Israelis and tourists alike.
One modern hotel was constructed at the entrance to Jericho. Though large and attractive, it remains empty most days of the year.
It was built primarily to serve the scores of visitors that used to come to the big casino, which was built alongside.
Israeli law prohibits the operation of gambling houses, but following the founding of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Jewish Austrian investor Martin Schlaff initiated the opening of the Oasis Casino in Jericho, in partnership with a Palestinian government company. Palestinians were prohibited from entering the casino, and so it was almost entirely patronized by Israelis.
With some 2,000 paying customers every evening, the casino brought in a fortune for its owners. However, when the second intifada broke out in 2000, Palestinians and Israelis started shooting at each other in the casino area, and it was shut down. It has never been reopened. Operating the casino had been widely condemned, especially on the Palestinian side, where religious circles denounce gambling as contrary to Islam.
And so, the casino stands desolate, and the adjacent Intercontinental Hotel is only partially operational, serving mainly as a convention center.
Jews barred
Palestinian guards are stationed alongside the abandoned casino, preventing Jewish Israelis from entering Jericho. “This is according to orders from both the Israeli and Palestinian security forces,” claims governor Al-Fatiani.
Jericho is located in Area A in which civilian and military control belongs to the Palestinian Authority; under the Oslo Accords entry into this area is forbidden to all Israeli citizens, although the prohibition is often ignored. In addition, Israel recently decided to allow Arab citizens of Israel into parts of Area A, such as Jericho, to boost the local economy. Goods are significantly cheaper in Palestinian towns than in Israel.
On a recent visit organized by Governor al- Fatiani and coordinated with Israeli officials, Jericho appears to be a city in stagnation. It has barely changed since the Six Day War. It has the same wide streets with a few restaurants and cafés, and vegetable stores that sell citrus fruits, bananas and other vegetables grown in and around the city.
While other Arab communities in the West Bank have undergone a significant building spree in the last few years, boasting modern, multi-story homes, in Jericho the same small houses remain. Some villas and winter homes, belonging to rich Palestinians, are surrounded by fences and walls, enclosing spacious vegetable gardens and orchards.
The city center has also remained small and somewhat dismal, as it was dozens of years ago.
The city itself is home to a few monasteries and the ancient Shalom al-Israel Synagogue, which the Oslo Accords permitted Jews to visit. Currently the IDF allows only occasional visits in order to conduct prayer services.
Jericho’s prime attraction is the 1,330 meter-long cableway that leads visitors from Elisha’s Spring (Ein el-Sultan in Arabic), in the city’s north, to the top of the Qarantal cliff on the Mount of Temptation. An ancient Greek Orthodox monastery, housing a few monks, has been quarried out of the cliff face. This is the place where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus stayed for 40 days, withstanding the temptation of the devil.
The views during the ride in the cable car and from the cliff monastery are spectacular.
One passes over the archaeological excavation at Tel Sultan, the site of ancient Jericho, surrounded by banana plantations.
The Palestinian company “TelPark,” owned by the Sonokrot family from Hebron, built the cableway a few years ago and operates a tourism center at the lower end. A cable car ride costs $15. At the top, alongside the monastery, the company operates a café and restaurant, overlooking a wonderful view of the whole of the Jericho Valley.
Towards the east, one can see all the way to the Allenby Bridge, the main crossing point connecting the West Bank with Jordan.
Nearby is a Palestinian military college.
Under different circumstances Jericho could have been a prosperous vacation resort for Israelis and Palestinians. However, the political situation has stunted its development, and it provides little more than a brief respite from Jerusalem’s chilly winter.