Arabs rejoice as Israelis pull out

West Bank withdrawal: Palestinians wary but triumphant as Nablus handed over
"Everybody was caught by surprise," says Husam Khader, one of Palestinian leaders in Nablus, as he describes the final moments of the Israeli withdrawal from his city. The Israeli forces pulled out 24 hours early, apparently in the hope of preventing last-minute clashes with local Palestinian stone throwers.

It was a plan which almost came disastrously unstuck. Israeli radio prematurely announced late on Monday evening that its troops were pulling out that night. "Some of our boys went down to the military headquarters looking for a fight," said Mr Khader. "There were still about 50 Israeli border guards. I called all my friends to tell our people with guns to go there there and get them out. We escorted them to the nearest Israeli checkpoint."

By yesterday morning the 1,200 police of the Palestinian Authority were fully in control. They are, in fact, not police, but combat soldiers armed with assault rifles and in full military uniform. Units in green berets were carrying mattresses into the old Israeli headquarters, housed in a large dirty cream building. Apart from an old wooden chair on which a bored soldier had carved his name in Hebrew, the building was scraped clean. Even the washing bowls in the lavatory were smashed and somebody had defecated on the floor.

The Israeli withdrawal from Nablus, the largest city on the West Bank with a population of 130,000, is the critical moment in implementation of the Oslo accords. In Jerusalem a senior Israeli official said: "We can never go back in." The escalation of violence by the Israeli extreme right, which culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, on 4 November, came because they believed the pullout from cities like Nablus made a Palestinian state inevitable.

In a villa built into the side of the mountain overlooking Nablus, Mahmoud Aloul, the new Palestinian governor, complains that the departing Israelis "destroyed the telephone lines and electricity supply in their headquarters". He cannot move in until they are repaired. Born in Nablus, he was jailed for four years in 1967, a few months after Israel captured the city in the Six Day War. He was then deported for 24 years, but helped organise the intifada in the city from abroad. Two months ago he came back.

The mood of Palestinian leaders in the city swings between exhilaration at being in control and wariness about the extent of their gains, since Israeli forces still surround Nablus. Nevertheless, Sami Musallum, head of the office in Jericho of Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, looked quietly triumphant as Palestinian troops escorted him through the gates of Jneid prison, which used to hold between 850 and 1,000 prisoners. He said: "Some people want to use it once again as a hospital, but I think it should turn it into a museum. This is where our freedom fighters were held and tortured."

Mr Khader, 34, is the leader of Fatah, the main Palestinian political organisation, among the 16,000 people in Balata refugee camp, just south of Nablus. "People believe in the Oslo agreement because they are seeing some results on the ground," he said. "But this is not enough, because we have only a little bit of our lands." The refugees in Balata, who fled from Jaffa and Lod in Israel in 1948, are disappointed that Oslo does not do anything to win them back their homes. Fatah activists like Mr Khader are also angry that Mr Arafat is preferring notable families and PLO politicians from abroad in the election to the 82-member Palestinian Council, which is to be held on 20 January.

There were few signs of these doubts on the streets of Nablus yesterday. Despite drenching rain and the crash of Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier overhead, most of the population was celebrating. People brought their children to look at the deserted rooms of the military headquarters and central police stations, both now decorated with Palestinian flags. After expressing his reservations about the partial nature of the Israeli withdrawal and the lack of democracy in Fatah, Mr Khader, a hardened intifada leader, said: "I cried when I saw the Israelis leave, because freedom is freedom."

n Washington - Israel's Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, addressing a joint meeting of Congress, issued an emotional appeal to President Hafez al- Assad of Syria to join him in building a new peaceful Middle East, Reuter reports. But in his two-day visit to Washington, a wary electorate at home has prevented Mr Peres from saying the words Damascus wants to hear: full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights.

Damascus gave a cautious welcome to Mr Peres' vow to proceed "full speed ahead" to break the deadlock.