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Men in the green berets cast a spell over Gaza: Palestinian police a popular symbol of change, writes Sarah Helm in Gaza City

'WELCOME, welcome,' say smiling Palestinian policemen at the checkpoints into Gaza and Jericho as they wave the cars into their enchanted little enclaves. Since Israeli forces pulled back one month ago, and ceased to administer the areas, the people of Gaza and Jericho have been living under a strange kind of spell cast by the sudden appearance of thousands of police.

In order to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the Israel forces, Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, conjured up his aging revolutionary fighters, reinforced them with fresh young recruits, transported them from distant corners of the Middle East, armed them with Kalashnikovs, and planted them in the streets, calling them Palestinian police. Their presence was intended to spread pride and confidence in a new future, pending the setting up of real Palestinian authority.

And it has worked. Every policeman is a symbol of sovereignty. The sight of Palestinian policemen drinking Seven-Up in the park, or directing the traffic, has been enough, for now, to convince many of positive and irreversible change. The policemen are Palestinian exiles returning to their homeland, the first substantial group to do so. As such, they have embraced the people, and the people have embraced them.

In this atmosphere ordinary Palestinians have been tolerant so far of the limitations of their new authority. The only fully-fledged Palestinian 'institutions' yet set up are the offices of the police. Today every Palestinian in Gaza and Jericho knows where the department of 'preventative security' is, but nobody knows where the economics or housing departments are - or even if they exist. No evidence has yet appeared of much- heralded investment, or of economic revival. Yet the presence of green berets has encouraged people to be patient and to go on with their daily lives in orderly fashion.

Factions such as the PLO Fatah 'hawks' have been 'co-opted' into the new force. Their masks are off, and they are enthusiastically setting off on drug busts, or guarding VIPS. The spell cast by the police, however, cannot last. Now that he has arrived in Gaza and Jericho, Mr Arafat will face demands for democratic rule and economic revival.

There are those who have observed the first month of Palestinian self-rule with foreboding. The so-called 'intellectuals' - the middle-class professionals - and the technocrats, who were encourged to believe they might be included in building a 'civil society', are already feeling sidelined and whisper about a police state.

'Is this going to be a Chatila republic?' asks Raji Sourani, director of the Gaza Centre for Rights and Law, referring to Mr Arafat's guerrilla rule in Lebanon in the 1970s. 'Gaza is not Lebanon. But, of course, we are concerned. And we will be as stubborn in calling the Palestinian authority to account as we were with the Israelis.' As recently as February a conference of Palestinian businessmen and politicians discussed a detailed draft Palestinian constitution, including grandiose proposals for an independent judiciary and a Basic Law. Mr Arafat, however, has shown he prefers to pass laws 'by fax'.

On 23 May a fax arrived from Tunis, saying Mr Arafat had decreed that all Israeli military orders would, from now on, be abolished and the law in Gaza and Jericho would revert to the law in force before the occupation - that is, a mish-mash of Jordanian, British, Egyptian and Ottoman laws. As a result, a few retired Palestinian judges have been resurrected to sit in a few dilapidated Palestinian courts. But the decree is unenforceable. The Israelis have denounced it, the 'state-builders' have thrown their hands in the air, and, in the confusion, the military men have moved into power.

Colonel Hamdy Rifi - recently arrived from Tunis and now head of 'criminal investigations' in Gaza - has set up a 'moral unit' to 'hunt down perverts'. General Nasr Yusef, police commander in chief, who issues his orders by hand-distributed leaflet, has cracked down on free speech in mosques.

But the truth is that the only legal reference for the Palestinian police is the Gaza-Jericho agreement between Israel and the PLO. And the only real control over the actions of the Palestinian police is Israel. In small caravans inside the Israeli army bases in Gaza's settlement enclaves, Palestinian officers sit next to their Israeli counterparts co-ordinating activities: in effect the Palestinian police do the bidding of Israel, as indeed, Mr Arafat agreed they would under the terms of the Gaza-Jericho deal.

Anti-Israeli violence is well down. The police have been called on by Israel to stop Palestinian stone-throwers. They have arrested two suspected Islamic militants, on Israel's instructions. And this week they handed over five Palestinian prisoners to Israel. The approval of Israel, however, makes Palestinian opposition groups, particularly the Islamists, ever-more anxious. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, has warned Mr Arafat not to use his men to curb their 'legitimate activities' - attacking Israeli targets.

The question is, how long can Mr Arafat maintain a 6,000-strong police force outside any democratically accountable rule of law? In the autumn there are to be elections for a Palestinian parliament, but Mr Arafat has given no indication that he wishes the election to proceed. Local leaders say Mr Arafat will be forced to accede to the demands of the people after setting foot on Gaza and West Bank turf, where the occupation has created a heightened desire for human rights and democracy.

'In exile the leadership was never accountable. Our experiences have made us highly critical of authority, and the public will eventually demand accountability. I think Arafat knows that,' says Hanan Ashrawi, head of the Palestinian Independent Commission on Human Rights.

Economic hardship is certain to disillusion the people before long. Potential donors are already refusing to pour in funds, on the grounds that there is no one to account for them. The police, for instance, have no money. Donor countries, fearful of funding oppression, refuse to see the police as a 'development' project. Mr Arafat's fighters, therefore, sleep on floors or in tents, under blankets provided by friends and family, running on petrol donated by Israel. Their pocket money hardly stretches to buy a crust. It is most likely that the police themselves will tire of the conjuring trick before anyone else.

(Map omitted)