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Land Prices Double in Two Days, Town Abuzz With Rumors With PM-Mideast-Talks, Bjt

August 31, 1993

JERICHO, Occupied West Bank (AP) _ Land prices in this sleepy oasis doubled in the two days since word came that Israel and the PLO are close to formal agreement to start Palestinian self-rule here.

But the boom town atmosphere is mixed with anxiety that the autonomy experiment might fail because of infighting or PLO mismanagement.

″I hope the PLO doesn’t mess this up. This is the last chance for them and for us,″ land dealer Arafat Abu Raoushe said Monday.

The most likely threat to Palestinian autonomy would come from the Muslim fundamentalist group Hamas, which has rejected the plan as a sellout and vowed to fight it.

But in Jericho, a farm town of some 15,000 people in the Jordan Valley, Hamas has little influence, and PLO chief Yasser Arafat’s mainstream Fatah faction remains dominant.

Arafat apparently selected Jericho as his foothold in the West Bank as a ″sure thing″ where he would face little political opposition.

Israel also finds Jericho appealing because there are only three Jewish settlements nearby. Friction is expected to be minimal because, unlike many of the 120,000 settlers elsewhere in the occupied lands, the Israelis living near here are neither very religious nor political hardliners.

Later Monday, some 20 right-wing activists led by two hawkish members of Parliament took over an old synagogue on the outskirts of Jericho to protest the autonomy deal. The army declared the town a closed military area and tried to persuade the squatters to leave, state radio said.

Jamal Safi, a top Fatah activist in Jericho, said Palestinian peace negotiators told him the changeover to Palestinian control would be quick. ″We were told we could already be in charge here by the end of the year,″ said Safi.

Safi said Arafat would move to Jericho. He said five houses were being renovated for the PLO chief who is known for moving frequently for fear of assassination.

The ″Winter Palace,″ a dilapidated villa on Park Lane, the main road, would likely house the offices of the autonomous council in the first stage. Before the 1967 Middle East war, the villa was sometimes used by Jordan King’s Hussein as a weekend getaway.

The full understanding between Israel and the PLO that would also involve the occupied Gaza Strip has not yet been published, and on Monday, Jericho’s main square was abuzz with rumors.

″I hear there won’t be taxes for the first three years,″ toy shop owner Emad Salem told Abu Raoushe hopefully.

″If it’s true, I’ll buy you dinner,″ offered the land dealer.

Merchants in the market said they believed they would prosper under autonomy, citing the expected investment of tens of millions of dollars by diaspora Palestinians, the Europeans, Americans and Arab states.

Jericho was a flourishing resort town before the 1987 start of the Palestinian uprising, drawing both Israelis and West Bank residents who filled the garden restaurants along the main road and bought citrus fruit and souvenirs.

Shopkeepers are confident the good times are coming back. Over the past few months, several have renovated rundown shops along the main square and replaced dusty merchandise with the latest European imports.

Abu Raoushe said land prices have doubled over the past two days, from about $10,000 per acre to $20,000.

Prospective buyers called him in the middle of the night while others knocked on his door carrying bags of cash since word came Sunday on the Israel-PLO deal.

″They were ready to put their money down immediately,″ said Abu Raoushe, adding that no Jericho residents were ready to sell because they expected further increases.

Ahmed Barham, who cooperates openly with Israeli military authorities, said he would move out if Arafat moved in. One of Arafat’s possible future homes is a two-story villa across the street from Barham’s home.

″I trust those who helped me (the Israelis) and not those who stole the money of their people and built themselves villas,″ said Barham. ″Arafat doesn’t represent me.″

The fact that Barham was sitting in an unprotected office in downtown Jericho without fear of being attacked is perhaps the strongest indicator of the town’s laid-back attitude.

In other West Bank cities, those who cooperate with Israel have been targeted by underground activists who have killed 750 since the Palestinian uprising began in December 1987.

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