Palestinians back in force for a new beginning

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The Independent Online
PALESTINIAN flag in one hand, Kalashnikov in the other, a young Palestinian policeman flashed his bright eyes at the crowds, and saluted Palestine yesterday, from the roof of the town's police station.

In the square below, the Palestine Liberation Army advanced, pouring into the seething streets in a snake of buses. From the bus windows, grey-haired warriors in green berets, and teenagers in brand new uniforms stretched out their hands to the revellers. 'I am Captain Heikal from Nablus,' an elderly man shouted through a window. 'I am back home. I am here to protect my people.'

Boots, blankets, uniforms, ironing boards, soap, and refrigerators followed in creaking trucks. After 27 years of Israeli rule, 13 May 1994, was liberation day for the 20,000 inhabitants of Jericho.

Around the perimeter of the town the Israelis were withdrawing, and a new order was taking shape. 'We are happy. We want to go home,' said a young Israeli officer at a checkpoint. A rifle-bearing Palestinian policeman patrolled beside the menorah outside Jericho's ancient synaoguge. On the main road near Jericho an Israeli jeep, flying the Star of David, and a Palestinian land-cruiser, flying the Palestinian colours, red, white and green, were moving in convoy.

Many doubts gnaw away at the foundations of the fragile peace, set out in the Gaza-Jericho agreement, signed in Cairo 10 days ago. The Israelis have granted the people of Jericho the minimum freedom with which to build independence.

There will be restrictions on building near roads and perimeter fences, according to the Gaza-Jericho agreement. The joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols will only be able to deal with incidents 'involving Palestinians'.

Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, protested about the offer of a 'bantustan'. He demanded that the Jericho enclave comprise 195 sq miles and take in all 18 Jewish settlements in the area, include all water sources, and have access to the Dead Sea and nearby holy sites. After months of bitter wrangling, Jericho has emerged as a stunted, mis- shapen piece of land.

The final map defines Jericho as 24 sq miles, excludes every Jewish settlement and two nearby water sources. The town is ringed by Israeli checkpoints, demanding that travellers 'prepare documents for presentation'. Yesterday the Israeli army attempted to declare Jericho a 'closed military area', in an attempt to bar access to revellers and journalists.

But nobody disputed that the oldest city in the world witnessed the start of something new. At 7am yesterday the liberation began, when Israelis handed over the keys of the yellowing, two-storey military administration building, built by the British, to General Saed Nadji of the Palestinine Liberation Army. He commands Jericho's Palestine police.

Soon the building was decked out with Palestinian flags, and Hassan abu Roleh, 20, of the al-Aqsa brigade of the Palestine Liberation Army, was patrolling at the gate. At first the atmosphere was joyful but calm. 'I am back in my homeland to heal the suffering. To help my people,' said Hassan Musallem, 52, a Palestinian sergeant who left Jericho after the 1967 war.

At the gates of the building, young Palestinians came to peer through the doors and windows at the rooms and cells where they had been imprisoned and interrogated over many years. 'The Israelis brought me here two months ago. I was interrogated in this room,' said Arkan Kawasmi, 20, as he stood near the old Israeli cells. 'This is great day for my people. It is the beginning for Jericho.'

The Jewish settlers near Jericho sensed the beginning of the new order. Although they will not come under Palestinian authority, they could see they would have to live alongside it, or leave. In reinforced cars, they were forced to by-pass the enclave and drive down a new 'settler road', which runs to the east.

At the checkpoints the settlers were barred from Jericho for 'security reasons'. Angrily they showed identity cards to the Israeli soldiers, and stared in disbelief at the joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols. 'I am disappointed in my government. What have they done?' asked Giora Shushan, a farmer from the settlement of Naama. 'I live here. This is my home. But now I cannot drive through Jericho.'

(Photograph omitted)

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