JERUSALEM (May. 15)
When Israel handed over control of a 24-square-mile area surrounding Jericho to Palestinian authorities last Friday, residents of the West Bank town were jubilant.
The move brought an end to 27 years of Israeli administration of the area.
But within two days the celebrants had a head-on confrontation with the realities of the region, when Israeli settlers marched on the ancient synagogue in Jericho and vowed that the Israeli flag would soon fly over the building again.
Despite the festivities, few if any municipal services were available in Jericho, and local leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization said the problems with services would not be resolved until PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat finished providing the list of officials who would take charge there.
Arafat’s problems with forming the 24-member Palestinian Authority were highlighted over the weekend, when one of the people he named last week to the governing body, former Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, turned down the offer to be part of the body that will oversee Palestinian affairs in Jericho and the Gaza Strip.
Ashrawi, who resigned from the PLO’s Washington negotiating team last December, said over the weekend, “My order of priorities dictates that I stay with the independent Palestinian Committee for Civil Rights to which I was recently elected.”
But it is widely believed that her refusal is a protest against what is seen as a preference Arafat is giving to PLO personnel at the organization’s Tunis headquarters over local Palestinian leaders when naming those who will be part of the Palestinian Authority.
CONFRONTATION AT JERICHO SYNAGOGUE
Friday, the day of the transfer of responsibilities to the Palestinians, was a day of wild rejoicing among the residents of Jericho.
PLO flags were run up flagpoles where the blue-and-white Israeli flag had flown only hours earlier. Women ululated noisily with tears of joy coursing down their faces.
Youngsters who had thrown stones at Israeli soldiers walked among the ranks of the newly installed force of 400 Palestinian police and enthusiastically kissed the cheeks of the men who will have the responsibility of maintaining law and order in the streets of Jericho.
The only note of discord last Friday occurred when a Palestinian boy, playing with the rife of a policeman, accidentally shot and killed his brother and wounded two other people.
Brig. Gen. Haj Ismail, Jericho’s new police chief, later said the policeman had been arrested for violating an order that ammunition clips be removed from the rifles during the celebrations.
Saeb Erekat, a former Palestinian negotiator who was a newly named member of the Palestinian Authority, later said that the there would be no leniency for the police officer.
“We must prove to the Israelis that we can take care of our affairs,” he said.
By Sunday there was further tension in the air, when Israeli settlers marched on Jericho’s ancient synagogue.
They arrived on the same day that a contingent of journalists, who had been barred from the town in the days preceding the hand-over, were allowed to visit Jericho.
The settlers, many armed with Uzi submachine guns, arrived at the synagogue under the leadership of Hanan Porat, a Knesset member representing the National Religious Party who is a prominent settler activist.
“We are horrified,” said Porat, “to find that Palestinian police have put their equipment in the building and hung a photograph of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat alongside the Ark of the Law.”
“The Israeli flag will yet fly again here,” Yehuda Ernest, the head of a yeshiva housed in the synagogue, vowed as he stood just three or four yards from a Palestinian policeman.
“This is a Jewish place, acknowledged as such even in the agreement, and the flag ought to be up there,” he said.
FEW REGRETS IN THE ARMY
Asked why he and his fellows had arrived armed, Ernest explained: “In this so-called peace, they station terrorists as if to protect us, until one day, when they decide, the whole thing will blow up in our faces. Anyway, they are only behaving properly today because you, the press, are here.”
The troubles involved in implementing the autonomy agreement became obvious some minutes later when the commander of the police at the synagogue ran over to his superior officer to check whether it was in order for the settlers to be armed.
The Palestinian officer and his Israeli counterpart, out together on a joint patrol, soon agreed that this was permitted under the terms of the Gaza-Jericho agreement signed earlier this month.
In Gaza meanwhile, civil administration of the area was handed over to the Palestinians on Sunday.
That same day, a contingent of 400 Palestinian police arrived and the Israel Defense Force began its withdrawal from the center of the strip, the southern area having been handed over Friday.
The evacuation of each installation was a low-profile affair, with no advance notice leaking out as the IDF sought to avoid any conflict with the local population.
Maj. Gen. Matan Vilnai, the top Israeli commander in Gaza, had few regrets about leaving the region when he spoke with reporters over the weekend.
“I spent five years here,” the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot quoted him as saying. “It is completely evident to me that we have to leave, and I am happy to be doing it.”