(In part 1 of this series, I detailed how my wife and I ended up in the old Hyundai of a well-meaning Palestinian tour guide, driving towards the ancient town of Jericho. We have passed the red signs on the road, containing the Israeli warning that we are entering territory “dangerous to your lives.” In part 2, I talk about the hotel and casino project lying along the Jericho road, a project that marks the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian joint venture following the 1993 Oslo Accords.)
As we drive into Jericho, the scenery turns greener. Jericho is an oasis, fed by ancient underground springs. Water from these springs is Jericho’s most precious resource – this is easy to understand, given that the region receives only about 5 inches of rain a year. The principal spring in Jericho is named ‘Ein es-Sultan in Turkish, or Elisha’s Fountain in English. This spring is legendary; in the Bible, the prophet Elisha purified this spring with salt, making it fit to drink. There are smaller springs throughout Jericho, and these springs have been tapped for irrigation, turning Jericho into a town of small farms. We can see water for irrigation running down culverts on the sides of many roads as we tour through the town. But less water flows today than in the past, a result of decreasing rainfall and deep-well drilling in nearby Israeli settlements.
Our guide Assaf (not his real name) stresses that Jericho is a small town. Wikipedia confirms this, giving Jericho a population of less than 20,000. Even if we look at the entire Jericho Governorate – a region of the Palestinian Territories that includes Jericho along with much of Palestine’s Jordan River border, we’re still looking at a population of roughly 30,000 people. This is tiny by the standards of towns we consider small in America – towns like Boulder, Colorado, or Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Jericho’s fluctuating size is part of its modern story. Jericho used to be even smaller – in 1945, its population was closer to 3,000. But in the aftermath of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Jericho became home for some 100,000 Palestinian refugees who had fled (or were forced to leave) Israel. At the end of the war, the West Bank (along with Jericho) was annexed by the new nation of Jordan, and perhaps the Jordanians reasoned that Jericho’s water resources made it a logical place to locate refugee camps. When Israel invaded the West Bank during the Six Day War in 1967, most of these refugees fled (or were forced) across the Jordan River. There are only 7,000 Palestinian refugees remaining in Jericho today – most of them children or grandchildren of the original 1948 refugees – but even with these reduced numbers, roughly half of Jericho’s current population lives in refugee camps.