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Ask Israelis what first comes to mind when they think of Jericho, and nine times out of ten, you’ll hear “casino” (Yasser Arafat operated one there between 1998-2000) or perhaps “Area A-off-limits.” It’s the rare Israeli in 2012 who’ll mention the town half an hour north-east of Jerusalem as the first place Joshua led the Israelites into the land after crossing the Jordan.
In fact, Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, has been devoid of any normal Jewish presence since 1994, as the Gaza-Jericho Agreement phase of the Oslo Accords mandated that the lush oasis fall under Palestine Authority control.
Since then, Jericho has borne witness to various phases of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Like King David’s birthplace Bethlehem, now also under PA control, Jericho stands as one of several examples of important historic sites whose links with the Jewish people are in danger of fading due to a lack of Jewish presence and a strong economic incentive to emphasize Christian sites.
Today, one of Jericho’s main sources of income is Christian tourism. The small, sleepy town of 20,000, which is surrounded by acres of banana groves, welcomes busloads of pilgrims. A cable car takes them up the hill known as the Mount of Temptation, where stairs lead to a Greek Orthodox monastery and a restaurant offers spectacular views toward Jordan.
Less than a 10-minute drive away, through flat, sandy fields where wild camels graze, is Qasr al Yahud, the spot on the Jordan River where Christians believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Renovated by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism at a cost of $3 million, the site was reopened last July. It now hosts thousands of the faithful who come to be baptized under the gaze of Jordanian troops stationed a few yards away on the east bank of the muddy trickle of river. Very few Jewish groups venture through the deactivated minefields to visit the place named for the Jews crossing the Jordan after the exodus from Egypt—Qasr al Yahud in Arabic means the place where the Jews “broke” the water.
Entry into Jericho itself is forbidden to Israelis by Israeli law—apart from groups with an Israeli army escort, who are occasionally permitted to visit the remains of the Shalom al Yisrael synagogue. The synagogue is believed to date back to the 6th or 7th century CE and sits in the basement of a non-descript building at the western edge of town. An intricate mosaic still visible on the floor depicts a menorah and a shofar along with the inscription “Shalom al Yisrael”—Peace unto Israel. According to Annex II of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of 1994, “Religious affairs in the ‘Shalom Al Israel’ synagogue in Jericho shall be under the auspices of the Israeli authorities.” In fact, Israeli authorities have taken little interest in the site, leaving it to tiny groups of yeshiva students who have intermittently tried to preserve a presence there. Before the second intifada, Palestinians even charged admission to Jewish tourists who ventured into the site.
Today, the mainstay of concern about Jericho comes from the few hundred families living in several small communities overlooking it. At Mitzpeh Yericho, a predominantly religious community of 400 families, longtime resident Moshe Eyal explains how a mixed group of religious and secular young people wanted to settle on government land adjacent to Jericho in 1977. However, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman refused to give permission. Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon suggested they move up the hill to the current site, with its panoramic vistas over the stark desert. Eventually two communities were formed: on the hill sits Mitzpe Yericho, a small town that today includes a yeshiva, a wedding hall and an electronics business; and Vered Yericho, in the valley, just south of Jericho.
A more recent addition to the Jewish communities surrounding Jericho is Mevo’ot Yericho, a village of 27 families founded in 1999 just north of Jericho in the Jordan Valley. Evidence of ancient Jewish settlement in the area is easy to identify. Remains of aqueducts from the Hasmonean period are visible on the community’s main street, and the remains of the 6th century Na’aran Synagogue and its beautiful mosaic floor are within walking distance.
Standing out on the low-rise Jericho skyline are the various US-sponsored facilities built to train Palestinian security personnel. They include the $9.1 million, 18-acre Presidential Guard Training College, the nearby Nuweimah Training Center ($8 million), and the NSF Operations Camp ($11.3 million). USAID is apparently working on a road system linking Jericho and Ramallah, strengthening the links between cities under Palestinian Authority control but making ever more remote the prospect of a return of a Jewish presence.