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JERICHO PREPARES FOR WAR AS PEACE FALTERS

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Israeli tanks, almost invisible in the brownish desert, ring this sleepy oasis town on the West Bank. They stand ready for action should the Washington peace summit collapse and Israeli-Palestinian violence erupt again.

Deployed around the Gaza Strip and the seven Palestinian-ruled cities of the West Bank since Saturday, they're part of the Israeli army's emergency plan, code-named "Field of Thorns."With tensions increasingly high, diplomats warn that an invasion of Palestinian land appears increasingly likely.

They believe that the Israeli army, reluctant to risk major casualties by battling in the narrow mountainous alleys of Nablus or the labyrinths of Gaza, would respond to a renewal of clashes by first retaking Jericho, a small town which, because it was the first to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, has become the symbol of the Oslo peace process.

"Jericho is flat and undefensible, and the Israelis believe they can take it in a few hours with fewer than 100 Palestinian casualties and about 10 Israeli dead," a foreign diplomat said.

Inside Jericho, however, Palestinians warn that the Israeli army is wrong and that reoccupying the town - whose 20,000 residents remained mostly calm throughout the Intifada - would be a bloody business.

"If the tanks come here, I will strap explosives around me and become a live bomb," said Zaher Hamis, 40, a butcher. "I will fight because we shall never allow the Israelis to rule us again."

Gen. Fahmi Aqila, the war-seasoned commander of Palestinian police for the Jericho district, said that only "a fool" would contemplate retaking the town. Apart from the thousands of police and the Palestinian Preventive Security forces in Jericho, many civilian residents would use their own weapons against the invaders, he warned.

Palestinian security forces in Jericho and throughout the West Bank are already digging trenches to prepare the armed resistance.

"We don't have the troops and the strength to fight against tanks and helicopters," Aqila said. "But I would prefer to die rather than see the Israeli flag over Jericho again. Most of the people here think the same."

The blockade imposed by the Israeli army over the weekend has already deprived Jericho of its main source of income: tourism. Only diplomats and journalists are allowed to cross the Israeli checkpoints around Jericho, which means that shops do not receive fresh supplies and that local produce remains inside the town.

"If the Washington meeting does not succeed, there will be endless violence," said Nasim Hafez, 27, an unemployed Jericho schoolteacher. "But here in Jericho, the Israelis don't even have to fight us. We depend on them for everything, and if they stop the deliveries of foodstuffs, water and gas, we'll be dead anyway."

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service