The Israeli truck driver strode into Basim Bader’s little corner restaurant Wednesday morning with his usual 9-millimeter automatic pistol on his hip. He ordered his usual morning coffee and exchanged the usual pleasantries with the restaurant’s Palestinian proprietors. Then, suddenly, an unusual conversation took shape.
“Hey,” a Palestinian diner shouted in Hebrew to the Israeli across the room in this ancient town, which is now the cutting edge of a plan to end 45 years of hate and war. “I don’t agree with this experiment you propose for us. Why should you test us in this way?”
“It’s not you we’re testing, my friend,” replied the burly truck driver, moving toward the Arab’s table. “I trust you. It’s the ones from outside. These are the ones we must test. We’ve had so many years of terror. This is why we feel we must test you.”
Then the Israeli pushed back his holster and did something even more extraordinary. He sat down with the Palestinian, a local bulldozer contractor, and continued.
“Believe me, my friend, there will be peace. Everything will be all right. You’ll see. We’ll sit together. We’ll drink together. We’ll eat and enjoy good times together.”
The Palestinian shook his head. “It’s not important that we drink and eat. We can always do that. The important thing is that we trust each other.”
The exchange reflected the deep fears, mistrust, cynicism and yet abiding hope with which Jericho’s Palestinians and their Israeli occupiers alike have greeted the latest breakthrough in the two-year Arab-Israeli peace process. The new proposal for limited Palestinian self-rule would make Jericho and the occupied Gaza Strip living laboratories for a comprehensive Middle East peace.
In interviews with more than a dozen Palestinians and Israelis in old Jericho and in the modern Jewish settlements that overlook it, it was clear that few, if any, view the proposal with unqualified enthusiasm.
The Jewish settlers who have staked their future on an outpost they believe vital to the future of Israel have reacted with concern, anger and, in some cases, abject fear, asserting that the plan gives away too much too soon.
Right-wing religious school students from Jerusalem and elsewhere in the occupied West Bank have camped out in a Jericho synagogue and in a field beside a crumbling, abandoned mosque to protest the plan. And Israeli police have been called in to break up nonviolent demonstrations against it.
At the same time, most of Jericho’s Palestinians, tired and traumatized after a quarter century of Israeli occupation, angrily insisted that the so-called “Gaza-Jericho first” proposal gives them too little too late.
Those who lost relatives in the Israeli crackdown on their intifada, or uprising, spoke of the need for justice and revenge. And most agreed that there can be no lasting peace without Jerusalem, the holy city of three religions that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has vowed will never again leave Jewish hands.
Typical of the grass-roots reactions to the historic proposal, reached after months of secret negotiations between Rabin’s representatives and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, were scenes Wednesday at a Palestinian refugee camp in Jericho and at a Jewish settlement on a hilltop above it.
The Aqabat Jabr Palestinian refugee camp has been there since the Israelis occupied the West Bank during the 1967 war, and 25-year-old Ramadan said he has lived there since birth. It was there, he explained, that he watched his younger brother, a “fighter” in the Palestinian uprising, shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in 1988.
“Somebody like me, who has a personal loss, no matter how much peace there will be, no matter what our leaders say, we reserve the right to take our revenge,” Ramadan said, describing in painful detail the face of the Israeli border guard who killed his 18-year-old brother. “And we will take our revenge.”
Almost in the same breath, though, Ramadan added that the Jews “undoubtedly feel the same way” after dozens of them were killed by Palestinians during the intifada. He gained such insight at his job as a day laborer at a nearby Jewish settlement, one of the many outposts Israel has built and populated throughout the occupied territories during the past 15 years.
“I don’t blame the people in the settlement for this thing that happened to my brother,” he said. “But I don’t talk about it with them, either. In fact, I don’t talk to them at all. But I think that if Arafat comes to Jericho and takes over, the Jews will leave these settlements.”
Ramadan’s 19-year-old friend and co-worker, Mohammed Akhras, nodded in agreement. “We don’t speak to each other,” he said. “In the settlements, they’re like dictators. They make us work all day in the hot sun, and they never socialize with us.”
But Akhras was more upbeat than his friend when asked about the Gaza-Jericho-first proposal.
“We will experiment,” he said. “ Inshallah (God willing), there will be this autonomy, and we can see if it is good or bad. And as for Arafat, we cannot object. We must put him above our heads for all he has done.”
But a few hundred feet above, at a Jewish settlement called Mitzpe Yericho (Hebrew for “View over Jericho”) one longtime settler described the compromise peace proposal as an invitation to Israel’s self-destruction. The plan would give Arafat and his PLO the opportunity to move their headquarters from exile in Tunis, Tunisia, to a palace in Jericho.
“Would you invite someone for dinner who is openly trying to kill you and your family?” asked Yitzhak Eshed. “Would you give the keys to your house to someone who wants to do away with you and your relatives?”
Fellow settler Yosef Stern was more circumspect. Stern is from Cleveland. He and his wife moved to Jerusalem 10 years ago, and five years later he built with his own hands the family’s four-bedroom home in a land he has come to love.
As he stood at the settlement’s boundary beside a cliff, gazing into the blazing valley and the oasis of Jericho below, Stern said it’s not so much fear as concern that has filled the settlement in the days since the Gaza-Jericho-first proposal was announced.
“Look, I came here to live in a Jewish state. I want to live in a Jewish state. I don’t want to live in a Palestinian state,” said Stern, 34 and the father of four, who has a degree in economics from Case Western University. “If my family is going to be in danger, if my life is going to be in danger, then I would have to leave.”
If the Palestinians took control of a region where they believe they have been oppressed by the Jews, “then it probably will be a clear policy of theirs to make my life bitter, as well,” he added.
But like the Palestinians in the valley below, Stern conceded that he has had little contact and few real conversations with his Arab neighbors, a fact he admits has fueled the longstanding mistrust and hate.
“There are cultural differences,” he said. “You’re limited to what you can talk about. It’s the same in the States to a certain degree, where you’ve got so many ethnic groups with so little in common. But the problem isn’t with people. The problem is with leadership.”
Stern said he is convinced that Israel’s leadership is foolhardy in offering up such strategic real estate--"the historic invasion route to Jerusalem,” he stressed during a road trip through the area.
He pointed out that virtually every hilltop is punctuated with Israeli military outposts or the ancient ruins of British forts, Crusader castles and Ottoman bases.
“I am not only worried about my house, I’m worried about Tel Aviv,” Stern said. “So yes, I have reasons to be nervous.” He remains skeptical not only of Arafat’s motives--"You can’t change things in just two weeks"--but also of Arafat’s ability to control more radical groups among the Palestinians and in other Arab nations.
“If he (Arafat) can’t prevent terrorism, if he can’t prevent infiltration, then what’s the point of a peace treaty?” Stern said. “And now I have a government which won’t give me the answers, which keeps me in the dark. We have no details of this plan, which maybe will work. Well, maybe also means maybe not.”
Back at Basim Bader’s corner restaurant, though, there was more than the rare conversation between the Israeli and the Palestinian to give grounds for hope. There was Basim Bader himself.
“I want the Israelis and the Jews to live together here,” said Bader, who conceded that his business is driven by the Israel Defense Forces military base across the street. “Look, we all just want to live. And we want to make a living here. We don’t want this chaos all the time.”