Autonomy Slowly Limping to Life As Palestinians Start Taking Control

One week after Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed an agreement in Cairo for implementing self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, Palestinian autonomy is limping slowly to life.

The week had been filled with high hopes, as crowds of Palestinians waited eagerly each day for the first signs of a transfer of authority. Instead, they encountered seemingly endless delays.

During the week, small numbers of Palestinian officials were given tours of civilian installations in Gaza and Jericho by Israeli representatives. But no actual transfer of responsibilities took place.

Indeed, there was no one for the Israelis to make the transfer to, since PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat had not yet named more than a few of the officials who will serve on the 24-member Palestinian Authority, the body that will oversee Palestinian affairs in Gaza and Jericho.

Financial problems as well as administrative foul-ups — to say nothing of the internal battles being waged by top officials at PLO headquarters in Tunis — appeared to be the chief causes of the delays.

On Wednesday, at least one PLO official admitted that the organization does not have the money needed to finance the deployment of its police force.

In an effort to help smooth the path to Palestinian autonomy in the face of the PLO’s financial difficulties, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin persuaded the Israel Electric Corp. on Wednesday to maintain the supply of electricity to Gaza despite a debt of some $12 million owed the company.

‘HISTORY IS BEING MADE HERE’

As a result of all the delays, only a small number of the newly created, 9,000-member Palestinian police force had arrived in either Gaza or Jericho by midweek.

On Wednesday, a group of 10 Palestinian officers toured Jericho together with Israeli security officials from whom they will be taking over the responsibility for maintaining law and order.

Crowds of Palestinians were out in the hot and dusty streets of Jericho to greet them — as they had been on almost every day since the accords were signed last week in Cairo.

The crowds were full of enthusiasm, calling out excitedly, “This is the beginning of our state! Tomorrow it will be (the West Bank town of) Ramallah. This is history that is being made here in the streets of Jericho.”

But the gaiety and excitement changed to growing bitterness when it became clear that the officers were not to be followed by any contingents of police.

The police units scheduled to assume duties in Jericho, known as the el-Aksa force, had arrived at the Jordanian border with the West Bank earlier in the week.

But they did not cross the Allenby Bridge for reasons that a senior PLO officer admitted “have nothing to do with Israel.”

It came to light Wednesday that the police had been trained in Iraq and that before leaving for Jordan en route to Jericho, all their identity papers had been confiscated.

The problem was certain to drag out even longer the process undertaken by Israel of checking the identities and fingerprinting each member of the arriving units.

As the Jericho residents realized that once again no police were to arrive, they started throwing stones at Israeli soldiers on patrol.

The soldiers soon responded by firing rubber bullets, and the acrid smell of tear gas burned the air. Several youths and a foreign journalist were injured in the confrontation.

That same day, 146 Palestinian police arrived at the Rafah border terminal separating Gaza from Egypt, where the units had undergone training.

The uniformed men were brought to the border town in the south of Gaza in three buses. They then went through the lengthy arms and identity checks that Israel is insisting upon for security reasons.

When the checks were completed, the police were scheduled to join a similar-sized police force that had traveled Tuesday night from Rafah to the Gazan town of Deir el-Balah, which became the first area to fall officially under Palestinian control.

The transfer to the Palestinians had taken place late Tuesday night, when Israeli officials thought it would be safest to remove their soldiers from the military headquarters in Deir el-Balah.

Just the same, thousands of Palestinians stayed up all night to welcome the newly arriving police.

On Wednesday, as the police presence in Deir el-Balah became more prominent, one officer who had spent 23 years in an Israeli prison compared his situation to that of newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela, who had also once been a prisoner.

One police recruit, who was barely 18, was asked why his eyes were full of tears.

“I’m so happy. It’s such a great day,” he said.

NEXT STORY