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Israeli Withdrawal Begins, Palestinians Ready to Move in

Though negotiations continue over the details, the experiment in Palestinian autonomy is getting under way. And a 27-year chapter in Israeli history is coming to a close.

Israeli troops are pulling out of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

And Palestinians are heading in.

In the past few days, the Israel Defense Force’s transport corps has been trucking out trailers housing IDF district headquarters, the barbed wire that marked the bases and even the potted plants.

In a deeply symbolic gesture, Israel permitted the return this week to the territories of some 50 Palestinian deportees and fugitives.

And Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat has announced his desire to fly into Jericho when autonomy is implemented and then embark on a pilgrimage to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Jails and the intifada detainees they hold have been relocated, as well.

Some of the equipment, and most of the prisoners, have been moved to inside the “Green Line” marking the pre-1967 border; the rest has been redeployed in Gush Katif, a settlement bloc at the south of the Gaza Strip, which will remain for now under Israeli control.

Outside Jericho, soldiers are pitching their tents within sight of will be, within a matter of weeks, an autonomous Palestinian enclave.

Israeli soldiers in Gaza seemed close to unanimity in their relief at departing a posting that for many has meant humiliation and frustration rather than military glory and heroism.

“This place is no good for us,” a soldier told Israel Radio, echoing the words of many others. “You don’t come out of here as a normal person.”

‘I GOT USED TO THROWING STONES’

The departure of the Israeli presence after nearly 27 years has some Palestinians at a loss. In the Deir el-Balah refugee camp in the south of the Gaza Strip, the final Israeli presence was scheduled to be removed on Wednesday, with outposts to be handed over to members of the PLO.

Dozens of clapping youths followed departing army vehicles through the camp, but when some began throwing stones Monday, soldiers opened fire, wounding nine.

“For seven years I got used to throwing stones at the army,” Haimen al-Tawil, 14, was quoted as saying by the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, explaining that he wanted to take advantage of his last opportunity.

“Besides,” he added, “I’m throwing stones at them so they will remember me.”

At the border crossings from Egypt to the Gaza Strip and from Jordan to the West Bank, ululating women, cheering children and men swallowing back their tears greeted the return Tuesday of the Palestinian deportees.

The returnees were, in almost every case, those who directed PLO action. They included the political and intellectual leadership of the intifada, the grass-roots uprising in the territories that began in 1987. They also included some who were expelled as early as the 1970s.

Israeli leaders insisted, to a skeptical Israeli public, that none of the returnees had blood on their hands.

Ghassan al-Khatib, who has been a member of the PLO negotiating team, is on record in the daily Ha’aretz as believing that the expellees, and the enthusiasm their return will engender, “will put a stop to the fall-off in support for the PLO.”

HEBRON’S MAYOR REINSTATED

It is Arafat’s PLO that is pushing the peace process, against the rejectionism of the fundamentalist Hamas.

The returnees will also take their place in building the foundations and ground-floor of Palestinian self-government. In a signal that Arafat intends to control these institutions, PLO local offices have recently been closed down to await the arrival of the PLO chairman’s trustees.

In Hebron, similarly, former mayor Mustafa Natshe was reinstated at the special request of Arafat. He had been dismissed by the Israeli authorities in 1983, following the terrorist murder of Israeli yeshiva student Aharon Gross.

The vacuum of law and order created by the IDF’s withdrawal is due to be filled by an armed Palestinian police force whose 10,000 men are training in Egypt and Jordan.

Details of the size of the force have been submitted, by the Israeli and PLO negotiators meeting in Cairo, for final approval by Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

But whatever their final numbers, the advance party of this force was due to arrive in Gaza and Jericho by the end of the week, to acquaint themselves with the area and its volatile population.

They will certainly get a mixed reception. Some will regard them as conquering heroes. Supporters of the Hamas fundamentalist movement, which opposes the peace process, will view them as no better than quislings.

For the few thousands of Jewish settlers who will find their homes have become enclaves within or all-too-close neighbors with the autonomous Gaza and Jericho regions, the future seems uncertain, even though the IDF will be guarding them from within.

The deeply committed nationalists of Gush Emunim and their right-wing allies see the Gaza-Jericho autonomy as a threat to the future of settlement in “Greater Israel.”

The IDF has few illusions about how they may react, no matter whether they are immediately affected or are those who live in West Bank areas where Palestinian autonomy may be still some five years away.

The IDF, the police and other security personnel will be very much in evidence on all roads leading to the newly autonomous regions and barriers will go up on the day of the final IDF withdrawal.

But many settlers are less ideologically committed.

Eighteen families from the small Gaza Strip fishing village of Dugit set up protest tents just inside the Green Line, demanding that the government resettle them in Israel proper.

In other settlements, among them those in the Jordan Valley north of Jericho, there is bitterness for sure.

But there is also the beginning, albeit tentative and almost undercover, of a realization that life in the autonomous Palestinian areas may not be too attractive and that compensation may be the better part of valor. The precedent for such a pay-off was set by the government in the wake of the peace treaty with Egypt, when settlers in the Sinai were compensated for moving.

Also at the end of this week, the first members of an international observer force were due to arrive in Hebron. The force was established to meet Palestinian demands for enhanced security in the wake of the February massacre of at least 29 Palestinians by a settler in Hebron.

The force will be supplied by Norway, Denmark and Italy. Sixty members will patrol as observers, armed with revolvers.

Israel has never before agreed to an international observer force in the territories because that smacks of an infringement of its sovereignty.

And the right-wing opposition has denounced it as setting a possible precedent for the oftmooted idea of internationalizing Jerusalem.

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