Jericho, City of the moon

Jericho out the bus window
Jericho from the Telepherique

Our first day in Palestinian Palestine. Our friend Sameer (not his real name) knows Jericho well, and is only slightly nervous as he explains to the policeman at the only Palestinian checkpoint in the West Bank that we are guests from Italy. Our foreign passports are given a cursory glance. The policeman returns the documents with an ahalan wa sahlan and we are through.

Next stop Hisham’s Palace. There is a nice visitor’s centre, and we watch a very slick video produced by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. The film diplomatically ignores the period of direct Israeli control of the site, with only a vague reference to damage incurred in 1948. The site itself is impressive and the “Tree of Life” mosaic breathtaking, although some of the restoration work (yellowish concrete pillars with iron rods sticking out the top) leaves a lot to be desired. An American student or volunteer, working on a new dig, automatically addresses us in Arabic. We reply in kind.

After Hisham’s Palace, we head for the main attraction in Palestine’s favourite internal tourist spot – the Téléphérique (cable car) that links Tel Jericho to the Mount of Temptation (Qarantal). A lot of money was obviously invested in the city when it was first turned over to the Palestinian Authority, but buildings are unfinished or poorly maintained, and there is a kind of depressed look to the place. A boy selling pomegranate and orange juice approaches us as we enter the deserted cable car terminus, and asks us (in passable Italian) to promise that we will buy a glass on the way out. Atop the Mount of Temptation (where Jesus is believed to have been tempted by Satan), we order some drinks at one of the restaurants. Again we are introduced by our Palestinian friend as guests, and the waiter goes out of his way to get some biscuits and chocolate for us (not on the menu). We are joined on the terrace overlooking the desert, by a group of Italians. They seem politically committed, like most of the Europeans we encounter here. Jericho is no longer on the average pilgrim or tourist’s itinerary.

Back in the valley, we are again addressed in Italian, or rather a mixture of Italian and Portuguese, by a souvenir salesman intent on selling us Israeli settlement-produced Dead Sea salts and mud. We decline, on both environmental and political grounds (BDS!). Although the salesman agrees with us in theory, he doesn’t give up until we buy some Hebron pottery. A glass of promised pomegranate juice, and we’re off to the market to buy some dates. Sameer decides to do his vegetable shopping, and phones home for instructions. While filling our bags, we are offered bananas, cucumbers and coffee. The shopkeeper is surprised when Sameer turns to me in English. He was sure I was Palestinian. The confusion is repeated the next morning at a grocery in East Jerusalem.

Jericho market
Jericho market

Sameer insists that we stop for lunch. His father-in-law, the family expert on kebab, has assured him that Essawe’s Restaurant makes the best in Palestine. He’s probably right. Essawe’s is five or six stories high. We sit on the second-story terrace with a great view of the recently-renovated main square (“A gift from the People of Japan to the People of Palestine”, the sign says) and the traffic that flows around it. Jaywalking seems to be the rule in Jericho, despite the presence of a shiny car with “Traffic Police” written on the side and a couple of uniformed men standing next to it.

We end our visit to Jericho with coffee and a narghileh at a crowded sidewalk cafe on the other side of the square. A municipal inspector comes by and has some words with the owner, who has apparently overstepped his allotted 80 centimetres of pavement. I describe a similar scene I once witnessed in Rome (which ended without a fine) and Sameer translates. The inspector is amused and decides to let it go. The owner tells us that our drinks and smoke are on the house.  We thank him and pay anyway, as etiquette seems to require.

Fortunately, by the time we are ready to leave Jericho, the Israeli checkpoint we spotted on our way into the city has gone. Our foreign passports would have been suspicious without Israeli entry visas, and our Israeli identity cards would have exposed us to fines and possible criminal proceedings for having entered Area A. Sameer had suggested that we keep both documents ready and “go with the flow”. He keeps checking to make sure we haven’t left our documents anywhere.

About Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel

Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel is a Canadian-Israeli translator living in Italy.
Posted in Israel/Palestine, On the ground reports

{ 23 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. LeaNder says:

    Hmm, will there be more impressions? You don’t tell us this time.

  2. Avi_G. says:


    It sounds like you had a great experience in both Nablus and Jericho. What prompted this sudden exploratory trip, if you don’t mind my asking?

    • What prompted this sudden exploratory trip, if you don’t mind my asking?

      A propitious alignment of the stars and an invitation by a Palestinian friend.

        • Sorry. Longer answer:

          It’s something we’d been meaning to do for a long time, but had never quite managed to extricate ourselves from the family obligations that bring us to Israel in the first place. The Israeli restrictions were also a deterrent, and we’d made the mistake, in the past, of consulting with Israeli activist friends who go to the OT to protest against the occupation (as we used to do, when we lived in Israel), but know very little about Palestinian life beyond the struggle.

          A couple of months ago, a Palestinian friend came to stay with us for a few days and we discussed the matter with him. He offered his home (within Jerusalem, but beyond the wall) as a base, his contacts and, most importantly, his company. It was also a great opportunity to get to know his kids, whom we hadn’t seen since they were very small (and the ones born since), and to practice a little Arabic. Kids are the best teachers.

  3. Walid says:

    “Atop the Mount of Temptation (where Jesus is believed to have been tempted by Satan).”

    Speaking of temptation, to the chagrin of Jericho’s religious Muslims whose religion forbids gambling, this is where Arafat and his Israeli and Austrian partners built the Oasis gambling casino in the late 90s to cater exclusively to Israelis and other non-Palestinians. Hamas, for obvious reasons, shut down the place during the intifada. The Intercontinental Hotel still operating there was part of the gambling and spa complex.

    • LeaNder says:

      Walid, are you aware that quite a few American Indian tribes
      let themselves be talked into this business?

      • Walid says:

        “Walid, are you aware that quite a few American Indian tribes
        let themselves be talked into this business?”

        Yes, I was, LeaNder, and that most of those that did the talking and are now managing the Amerindians’ casinos are Irish.

    • Walid,

      If I recall correctly, the casino had a few other problems – not least, attracting Israeli gamblers, in the wake of the intifada.

      Alcohol on the other hand is sold freely and openly by Christians, on the main square. I saw two liquor stores, with large beer ads and cases of beer, whisky and vodka piled high, practically on the street. In Jericho – as in Nablus and the densely-populated E. Jerusalem neighbourhood we stayed in – virtually all of the women wore hijab, although we saw only one woman (in Jericho) in full niqab.

      Appropriately, they served Taybeh (Palestinian) beer at the restaurant on the Mount of Temptation, but I opted for coffee out of respect for my Muslim friend.

      • Walid says:

        “… Alcohol on the other hand is sold freely and openly by Christians, on the main square. I saw two liquor stores, with large beer ads and cases of beer, whisky and vodka piled high, practically on the street.”

        Not on the streets, is the Hamas religious muscle that shut down the casino and from what I gathered, they have been rounded up and thrown into the PA’s WB jails since the PA’s failed Gaza putsch of 2006. Maybe this explains a bit why you saw liquor being sold freely there, Shmuel.

        Along the same religious rumble, the Salafists in Egypt are sending out signals to tourists to keep their bikinis at home and to drink all they all want before they arrive in Egypt. The brothers are telling the Salafists to be gentle on that issue to not spook the important tourist trade and that such restrictions should be introduced gradually over the coming years. With the ongoing reconciliation between Hamas and the Fateh, maybe Hamas are now willing to be more gentle and maybe Arafat’s Jericho casino will be allowed to re-open.

  4. benedict says:

    Following the common criticism about the supposed Israeli ignorance of Islamic period archeology I am faintly disappointed to see that the Palestinian attitude is no better.
    The visitor is brought over to see khirbat el mafjar (“hishams palace”), ruins from the early Islamic period, but it seems that nowhere is there mention of Jericho’s rich Jewish past: the hashmonian winter palace complex, the earliest Synagogue found in Israel, the Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue, and the Hebrew written documents discovered in nearby ketef jericho indicative of the robust jewish presence in the area even after the bar kochba war and into 6-7 century.

    • Straw man x2, benedict. I’m well aware of Jericho’s Jewish past, and was “taken” to Hisham’s Palace because that’s where I asked to go.

      As for your broader argument, in their shoes, would you emphasise the very history and artefacts that continue to be used – illogically and illegitimately – to assert a “superior” claim to your land (see eg. asherpat’s comment below) or would you try to emphasise your own historical ties? Admittedly, it’s a silly and dangerous game. The only legitimate claim to Jericho is that of people like Yousef Aljamal (see below).

    • Walid says:

      “… but it seems that nowhere is there mention of Jericho’s rich Jewish past.”

      Benedict, no need to mention it as it’s well known and it continues to be repeated today. Even its folkloric form, Jewish history for Jericho is about the theft of land and of massacring the inhabitants. When the Jews got there after the imaginary trek from Egypt, the land was already occupied but this didn’t stop the Jews from claiming it and ethnically cleansing it.

      The early Jewish history repeated itself when modern Jews did it again in 1948 to those people that are descendants of the early Cannanites. The rich Jewish past you are talking about whether back in the days of the mythical Joshua or of today was about theft, pillage, massacres and ethnic cleansing. That’s not a rich past.

      • Walid says:

        Before I get reprimanded by RoHa, Shmuel or Dr Hatem Kanaaneh, that should have been “Canaanites” instead of “Cannanites”

  5. asherpat says:

    In a comical article in NYT, I think, the PLO guy in the US tried to respond to the facts in the famous “invented people” interview of Newt. Most of the facts can not be disputed.

    The guy yakked in pathos about how Palestinians were ruled by others through the ages, meaning for thousands of years, but the most farcical statement was “My city, Jericho is 10,000 years old”. I am burning to ask him the following question: What was the contribution of the Palestinians, their culture, their architecture, their consruction to…Jericho? Oh yea, the casino!

    • Walid says:

      “Oh yea, the casino!”

      asherpat, like most casinos including the Amerindian ones in the US, Jericho’s was a Jewish enterprise and it was built to cater to Israelis as casinos were illegal in Israel. Arafat and the PA, gave the rights to build and operate the $50 million casino to Jews from Israel and Austria in exchange for 25% of the casino. Israel National News reported 3 years ago:

      link to
      by Ezra HaLevi

      ( A lengthy investigative expose in Haaretz targeting Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman has unearthed connections between the financier of the corruption-laden Oasis Casino in Jericho and PMs Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon.

      Lieberman is currently being investigated for receiving a bribe from Austrian-Jewish businessman Martin Schlaff. The investigation suddenly became active again once he left the government last week.

      Schlaff “was known during the Cold War for his ties with the East German secret police, the Stasi,” Haaretz reports. It also notes fact that he met with Yitzchak Rabin hours before Rabin was murdered on November 4, 1995. He established the Jericho casino with the help of former Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri during Binyamin Netanyahu’s term as prime minister. The two were introduced by Dov Weissglas, who went on to be the architect of the 2005 Gaza Disengagement as a consultant to Sharon.

      Many see the casino as one of the most corruption-laden aspects of the Oslo Accords. For years, gambling moguls lobbied for a casino in Israel and were rebuffed. Finally, with the “Gaza and Jericho First” stage of the Oslo Accords, in which the two areas were relinquished to PLO control, the Knesset no longer needed to approve the casino’s establishment.

      While it remained illegal to gamble in Israel, Israelis flocked to the Jericho casino to gamble there, forking over an average of a million dollars a day. Local Arabs were barred from gambling there by the nascent Palestinian Authority.

      At the start of the Oslo War, after Arab terrorists had used the casino to fire at IDF soldiers and a tank blew a hole in the front of it, Schlaff tried to broker a cease-fire to get the casino running again. The biggest Haaretz revelation was that he did so through then-mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert, who would meet with Yasser Arafat’s confidant Mohammad Rashid, a partner in the casino.

      Olmert, Rashid and Schlaff met at least six times – the last meeting included Shas Chairman Eli Yishai and Atty. Dov Weissglass.

      Schlaff is now afraid to set foot in Israel as he is being investigated for giving out millions of dollars in bribes to Lieberman and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Police have concluded that Schlaff transferred $3 million in bribes to Sharon through South African millionaire Cyril Kern to open offshore casinos on boats docked in Eilat. Austrian police confirmed that Sharon accepted the bribes.

      The original Haaretz interest in the case was a series of articles by left-wing activist-come journalist Uri Blau, who was determined to expose Lieberman’s corruption, even at the cost of bringing down Olmert and Sharon.”

  6. My mother’s family live in Jericho. We have not been allowed to get “a permit” to move to the other part of our homeland since 2000. I feel jealous. I want to go there. I want to say goodbye to my mother’s parents who I could not seen while they were alive. I feel jealous. I feel jealous. I feel jealous.

  7. Yousef,

    Although I did not go to Jericho as an occupier, but as a guest, I was keenly aware of the fact that I was very privileged, and that Palestinians are unable to move freely in their own land. I hope that you get to see your family and your mother’s city very soon.

  8. David Samel says:

    Shmuel, thanks for keeping us posted on your trip. What a contrast between your awareness of your surroundings and Matt Gross’s clueless golly gee “isn’t security fascinating” approach in the travel section of the NYTimes. Enjoy your time with Sameer, his family and friends.

    • eljay says:

      >> Shmuel, thanks for keeping us posted on your trip. What a contrast between your awareness of your surroundings and Matt Gross’s clueless … approach in the travel section of the NYTimes.