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The Middle East: Elusive Palestinian policemen leave Gaza off their beat

At the Rafah Crossing yesterday between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, they were waiting for signs of change. They were waiting for Palestinian policemen, for returning Palestinian deportees, and for Palestinian passports - for anything to prove that the peace agreement, signed on Wednesday, was real.

A hundred - or, some said, a thousand - Palestinian police were due to arrive by Saudi jets in Egypt yesterday to cross into Gaza. But there was not a policeman in sight.

Ahmed Abdel Meguid, an Egyptian official co-ordinating Egypt's role in the handover, had not seen one. 'Nobody knows where they are. They would tell me if they did,' he said at his office in Al-Arish on the Egyptian side of the border.

In Cairo yesterday a PLO spokesman said it could take three weeks for the handover of power, but denied Israeli claims that Yasser Arafat, the PLO Chairman, had asked for a delay of a month.

Palestinians at the Egyptian terminal were returning to Gaza to see for themselves if there was any change. 'If things are good now I may come back,' said Abdel Rahman Ahmed, a car dealer who has worked in Dubai for the past 20 years. 'I have an orange grove and a house in Gaza. If the economy looks good I may bring my business here. Perhaps I might even get a Palestinian passport,' he added, presenting his Israeli Laissez Passer document stamped with a Hebrew security clearance. 'The Israelis give me permission for only three crossings a year,' he said.

At the exchange office, on the Egyptian side, Khaled Eid was counting his grubby Egyptian pounds. 'I have no Palestinian bank notes yet,' he said. 'But soon I may - inshallah (God willing).'

Mr Arafat has insisted that the first official on the Gaza side of the terminal would be a Palestinian police officer. But yesterday the Israelis were still firmly in charge. Hebrew crackled over their walkie-talkies and Star of David flags greeted the Palestinian arrivals.

Israeli immigration officials in the tourist terminal said they too had seen no Palestinian policemen that day. 'They are frightened to come to Gaza. They were supposed to come today but they cancelled. You see, you can't trust them - Arafat is just a cheat, as he showed yesterday,' said one official, referring to a last- minute dispute over which of the Gaza/Jericho peace documents should be signed.

Across the room, however, there were at last signs of change. Noises of drilling were proof that a new Palestinian terminal was under construction. 'We hope it will be ready in two weeks. But it is Israel who is building it and paying the bills,' said one official.

In Rafah refugee camp there was at last a real-life Palestinian policeman, though Musa Abu Samhandani, 31, a returned deportee, was not yet in uniform. 'I don't know when I will start work,' he said. 'Only Mr Arafat can decide that. But we don't mind waiting. The people here are happy with the new situation.'

Closer to Gaza City, there were more signs of slow but indisputable change. Around the main settlement block of Gush Qatif the Israeli army had set up 13 new posts, having withdrawn already from many centres of Palestinian population. Around Khan Younis there were more Palestinian flags flying than have been seen for many months.

The smiles on the faces of many in the streets suggested the peace was being given a cautious approval. There were no celebrations, but there were no clashes. In Gaza City, a bus festooned with Palestinian flags paraded a group of returned deportees, summoning up some memory of the euphoria which greeted the signing of the Oslo accords in September last year.

At the Israeli police station in Gaza City, an advance party of Palestinian police had paid a visit earlier in the day to inspect the facilities they are soon to take over. Outside the station, Palestinian teenagers joked with the Israeli officers who were preparing to leave. 'So what was it all about? We used to throw stones at you. But now you let me fly my Palestinian flag and you don't shoot.' The Israeli officers on the other side of the fence nodded happily and smiled.

About 104 observers from Norway, Italy and Denmark due to serve in Hebron were to arrive yesterday and take up positions in the town within three days, AP reports. Their deployment came after the massacre at a mosque in February when a Jewish settler killed 30 Muslim worshippers.

In Jericho, hundreds of Jewish settlers protesting against self-rule and vowing to prevent its spread throughout the rest of the West Bank tried for a second day to congregate at an ancient synagogue in Jericho, expected to be the seat of the PLO government.

(Photograph omitted)