Doubts mar joy as Israelis quit town

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Yasser Arafat's portrait beams in technicolour triumph from the top of a pillar in the main street of Jenin, the first of the six West Bank towns Israeli forces will evacuate over the next two months. The Arabic slogan beneath it reads: "Today Jenin, tomorrow Jerusalem!"

The pull-out began yesterday, but will not be completed for three weeks. Israeli police withdrew from the main police station, although a handful of soldiers remained behind.

A five-man Palestinian police liaison team arrived from Jericho and joined Israeli officers at a new District Co-ordinating Office on a caravan site at the entrance to the town. But the Palestinian police are not yet patrolling Jenin.

The hand-over will be phased and monitored. Neither side can afford to let it go wrong. But Jenin, a hill town of 44,000 Arab inhabitants at the far northern end of the West Bank, no longer feels like occupied territory. The shame of 28 years of Israeli military rule has evaporated.

The black-, white-, red-and-green Palestinian flag, which was once a symbol of defiance that could land you in jail or in hospital, is flying everywhere. Shopkeepers have strung banners across the streets welcoming Mr Arafat and his Palestinian National Authority.

Talal Assad, 32, a postal clerk, estimated that 90 per cent of the townspeople supported the PLO leader. An opinion poll earlier this month found more than 70 per cent of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians endorsed the peace process.

On the eve of the Jenin pull-back, householders painted over the graffiti of the seven-year Intifada uprising. Yesterday, local authority workers were sprucing up the graves of 45 Iraqi soldiers killed in the 1948 Arab- Israeli war, who are buried in a military cemetery next to the co-ordinating office. Outside, lest anyone should forget, a crippled Jordanian tank, vintage 1967, stands beside a memorial to the Israeli troops who were killed during the Six-Day War that year.

The future is still uncertain, but in front of the police station dozens of young men, all of them Intifada veterans, were convinced that it would be better. "Jenin is fighters' country," Naji Sha'er, a popular wedding singer, chanted. "But on this glorious day we are ending our war," they responded. "Today is a festival in Jenin."

Ala Jarar, 26, a hairdresser and mother of two, explained: "Life was very hard for us during the Intifada. You couldn't do what you wanted. We couldn't take our children to do anything beautiful. All the kids did was throw stones at Israelis. Now I hope my children can live like children all over the world."

Ali Hamad, 23, an unemployed labourer, spent two years in an Israeli jail for security offences. "I feel very happy", he said in impeccable Hebrew. "Today we are seeing the fruits of everything that we did during the Intifada."

But behind the facade of joy, the Palestinians in the street are waiting for answers. "If there is peace, why are some of our people still behind bars?" asked another prison graduate who would identified himself only as Ahmad.

"Will there still be checkpoints outside town?" he added. "I don't want Israeli soldiers ordering me to put my hands up and spread my legs. That's not peace."

Ahmad, who is 38, has been denied entry to Israel because of his resistance record since 1993. To feed his wife and eight children, he has scraped around for casual construction jobs on the West Bank. It was enough to live on, he said, but no more.

Jenin has no industry and the rocky terrain offers little scope for farming. Unlike its more prosperous West Bank neighbour, Nablus, the town shows no sign of a building boom. The peace dividend, if and when foreign investors can be attracted, is a remote dream.

Then there is the unfinished business of the peace negotiations. "When are we going to get the rest of Palestine?" asked a rare dissenter, who declined to give his name, but works as a chemist.

Another in a coffee shop opposite the Iraqi cemetery asked: "What about the Jewish settlers? What will happen on the ground after the Israeli soldiers leave? Will I be able to go to Israel? Will I be able to visit Jerusalem? Half of my family lives in exile. Will they be able to come back?"