JERICHO, West Bank, March 16 -- Ismael Abu Dahuk, cigarette in one hand, brown prayer beads in the other, watched Palestinian security forces set up a new checkpoint Wednesday morning at the main entrance to this biblical city.
About 500 yards away, Israeli soldiers were dismantling half of their checkpoint and loading the concrete blocks onto a flatbed truck. The other half will remain in place and continue to be guarded by soldiers.
Palestinian youths make the victory sign near a Palestinian security checkpoint in Jericho, which was handed over by Israel.
(Nasser Nasser -- AP)
With those simultaneous events, Jericho became the first city in the West Bank to be returned to Palestinian security control by Israeli forces as a result of negotiations that began after Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in January.
"It's not a historic moment," said Abu Dahuk, a 50-year-old father of 14 children, explaining why he'd driven to the edge of town to watch the morning's activities along with a flock of international reporters and photographers. "But it's a first step toward a solution."
According to an agreement signed Wednesday after weeks of sporadic discussions between Palestinian and Israeli officials, Palestinian security forces now have authority over Jericho, a city that Israeli troops have not entered in months. But even as Palestinians were setting up their checkpoint on the main road into town, Israelis were dismantling only half of theirs.
While cars and trucks will be allowed to enter the city freely, vehicles leaving southern Jericho will still be subject to checks by Israeli soldiers, an Israeli military spokeswoman said. Another Israeli checkpoint northwest of the city will be moved an unspecified distance from its current location about 2 1/2 miles from town and will also remain in operation, she said.
The primary purpose of the Palestinian checkpoint, as far as the Israeli military is concerned, is to stop Israelis who might be tempted to enter the city once its casino reopens, according to the spokeswoman.
Israeli officials have said they plan to make similar provisions for other West Bank cities in the coming weeks, although the Jericho transition suggests timetables are largely irrelevant as the sides haggle over details of the transfer.
"This is a minor step in a long, long road," said the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel, Saeb Erekat, a resident of Jericho. "It will not meet all the expectations of Palestinians, but we have to start somewhere."
Erekat said the Israeli military had agreed to completely remove both checkpoints in another month if no major security problems arose.
Firas Awad, a 24-year-old taxi driver, said: "Psychologically, I will be relieved. Just having the checkpoint there is as if somebody puts you in a room and locks the door."
Jericho was a major tourist destination before the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, but its economy has shriveled. Before the conflict began, buses disgorged an average of 3,000 tourists each day, drawn to the desert oasis about 25 miles northeast of Jerusalem and more than 800 feet below sea level. Some claim that Jericho is the world's oldest city, and among its most popular sites are the purported remnants of walls said in the Old Testament to have come tumbling down when the Israelites assaulted the city after years of wandering in the wilderness.
Now, perhaps two or three buses roll into the city on a typical day, according to Deputy Mayor Ali Dana, and unemployment hovers at 60 percent.
"To remove the checkpoints from Jericho is not enough," Dana said, sitting in an office beneath a picture of Abbas standing with longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died last November. "What does the removal of checkpoints here mean while other cities are still surrounded by military checkpoints?"
Abu Dahuk said he believed the Israeli military wanted "to show the whole world, 'We've withdrawn.' They were never inside Jericho to start -- it's propaganda."
The Israeli government chose to start the security handovers in Jericho because it has been less involved in the current conflict than other major Palestinian cities. No suicide bombers have come from Jericho, according to records kept by the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group; the Palestinian Red Crescent reported that only 13 Palestinians from Jericho have been killed in a conflict that has claimed more than 3,100 Palestinian and 1,040 Israeli lives.
Even so, Israeli troops isolated the city with trenches, roadblocks and checkpoints during a massive West Bank military operation in the spring of 2002 in response to near-daily suicide bombings inside Israel and against Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
At that time, the Israeli military barred Palestinian security forces from carrying weapons, but Jericho police officers were exempted.
On Wednesday, the 12 Palestinian security officers patrolling the new checkpoint on the city's southern edge wore five different types of uniforms, illustrating the unwieldiness of a Palestinian Authority security apparatus that the new president has vowed to streamline.
"We haven't coordinated our uniforms yet," said the Palestinian commander on duty, a beefy man with a bristly black mustache who declined to give his name.