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Once an oasis of peace, Jericho now fears Israeli annexation – The Washington Post

JERICHO, West Bank — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat built a glitzy casino 22 years ago in this dusty town on the edge of the desert. He named it Oasis, and Israelis flocked to take a gamble on peace.

The casino’s golden sign still shimmers in the hot sun, but the building sits empty, shuttered since the outbreak of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising of the early 2000s. Weeds now wind through the paving stones at the once grand entrance.

The vision for peace captured here, though briefly, could soon be entirely out of reach. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to unilaterally annex the area surrounding Jericho, as well as other parts of the occupied West Bank, as soon as this week, and Palestinians are warning of a return to resistance, even violence.

“What we are facing here is the lowest point of Palestinian-Israeli relations in the past few decades,” said Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He was born in Jericho, located in the Jordan Valley, and can trace his family’s history in the biblical town back many generations.

“If this happens, then I am sure there will be some Palestinians who will demand one state with equal rights [for Israelis and Palestinians], but this is something Israelis will never accept. So we will be left with one state with two political systems, or apartheid,” he said.

It is still unclear what Netanyahu will do this week. He has set July 1 as the date for potential action on annexation and has indicated he will begin a process of applying Israeli sovereignty to all Jewish settlements and to swaths of strategic territory, including the Jordan Valley.

President Trump’s Middle East plan permits Israel to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank, which was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and leaves the rest for a possible Palestinian state. Trump’s plan conditions annexation on restarting the now-defunct peace process.

Last week, the president met with senior advisers, including U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, to discuss the potential annexation but has yet to give Netanyahu a green light to proceed.

Some political observers predict full annexation will come immediately, as Netanyahu tries to take advantage of a supportive administration in Washington. Others speculate he will carry out annexation in stages, trying to manage widespread criticism in Israel and around the world.

In Jericho, the most populous town in the mainly agricultural Jordan Valley, there is concern among the 22,000 residents that expanded areas of Israeli control will make daily life unbearable.

“The Israelis are arrogant. They want to take everything from us and then they want us to make peace,” said Mohammad Alwan, 49, a toy shop owner in the modest town center.

A popular vacation destination for Palestinians, as well as gateway to the wider world via the nearby border crossing to Jordan, Jericho was empty of visitors last week. A line of yellow Palestinian taxis stood idle in the central square, waiting for a fare or two.

“It will affect us deeply, especially economically,” lamented Mahmoud Injoum, 30, one of the drivers. “As a driver, if I want to take people to Ramallah, I will have to take back roads to avoid new checkpoints and that will consume much more gas. If I want to go to Hebron, it will mean taking a much longer and tedious way around Jerusalem.”

A map included in Trump’s Middle East plan suggests that Israel will take control of the entire valley that runs along the border with Jordan southward to the Dead Sea. If so, Israeli territory would encircle areas designated for the Palestinians and leave places like Jericho isolated.

“Netanyahu is pulling Israel into its biggest, hardest, bloodiest ambush ever,” said Bassam Abu Sharif, a former key adviser to Arafat and also a resident of Jericho. “I don’t want to boast, but Palestinians will resist this.”

The onetime militant known for a string of airplane hijackings in the 1970s, who was badly wounded by a letter bomb the Palestinians attributed to the Israelis, said in an interview that “security for Israel cannot be achieved by military power.”

“Only peace can give this to Israel and we, the Palestinians, hold the key to peace,” said Abu Sharif, whose 1988 paper on finding a peaceful solution to the conflict is widely believed to have paved the way for Palestinian participation in the Oslo accords with Israel.

Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a Jerusalem-based think tank that has been advising Netanyahu, said the Israeli plan was technical, “changing the legal system” for Israelis but “not changing anything for Palestinians.”

“Annexation is a loaded term,” he said. “Under international law, it means taking territory by force from another country and making it your own. This is not the case here.”

Oded Revivi, an official on the Yesha Council, an umbrella group for Israeli settlers, said the move would have little impact on daily Palestinian life. “The plan is to apply Israeli law to Israeli communities, not annexation or sovereignty.”

But Erekat, a longtime peace negotiator whose nephew was shot dead last week by Israeli forces after his car rammed into a military checkpoint, said annexation would spell the end of his vision for peace and destroy the Palestinian national project he has worked on for the past three decades.

He pointed out that the Trump plan allows Israel to maintain overall security control of the entire West Bank, which, in reality, he said “means 100 percent annexation.”

“It means that I, as a Palestinian, will not be able to do anything without their permission,” said Erekat. “It means they will control my movements, my planning, my borders and my access to everything.… They are trying to suffocate me, bury me and they think I will stand for it?”

Erekat added that “in absence of a political horizon there will be bloodshed, and I have seen far too much blood this past week. It’s enough.”

Sufian Taha contributed to this report.

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