HIS WEATHERED FACE crinkling into a smile, his emerald-green beret tipped to one side, Abu Abbid, a 47-year-old Palestinian soldier, yesterday claimed his place in history as a member of the first Palestinian-Israeli joint police patrol in Jericho.
At midday, five hours after the town was officially liberated, ending 27 years of Israeli rule, a Palestinian land-cruiser carrying five Palestinian policemen and following an Israeli Jeep carrying five Israeli paramilitary police, set off down 'Route 90' jointly to keep the new peace, as set out in the Gaza-Jericho agreement.
'I will protect my people. That is why I have come home,' said Abu Abbid, a veteran of the Palestine Liberation Army's Al-Aqsa brigade, which had fought the Israelis in two wars. Around him the balance of power was visibly shifting. The relaxed Palestinian unit mingled easily with their edgy Israeli counterparts, finalising rules of engagement. 'I will say only one thing,' said a young Israeli patrolman. 'This is history.'
At the side of the road Palestinians watched open-mouthed as the joint patrol wound its way past. Jewish settlers looked on dumb-struck. But the patrol passed off peacefully, the best proof yet that a new order is starting to take hold. Israeli commanders handed the keys of the Jericho military headquarters to Palestinian generals at 7am yesterday. An atmosphere of relief and joy first enveloped the town, building up into triumphant euphoria.
The celebrations were marred by tragedy. As the crowds seethed uncontrollably and young Palestinian soldiers thrust forward with loaded rifles, a nine-year-old Palestinian boy, Ammar Abed al-Shawwa, was shot accidentally in the head and died instantly. A 55-year-old woman and a 67-year-old man were wounded.
Clashes with Jewish settlers also raised tensions. In the 1,400-year-old Jericho synagogue, three settlers protested at the hand-over by ripping their shirts.
'A man who sees his land given to his enemies - he also tears his clothes,' said Yoel Elitsur, a 44-year-old settler, while around him Palestinian police were on patrol.
The liberation of Jericho crowned a week of renewed optimism among Palestinians of the occupied territories as Israeli withdrawal became a reality for the first time since the Oslo accords were signed last September,.
The first Palestinian police crossed into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, and by yesterday the central and southern section of the strip had been largely handed over to Palestinian control. Next week Gaza City will be officially liberated, and self-rule formally implemented throughout the strip.
As pictures of a triumphantly returning Palestinian army appeared on Israeli television last night, the government braced itself for a backlash from the Israeli right, which accuses Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, of setting up a 'PLO state' on Israel's doorstep. The Al-Aqsa brigade, hundreds of whose members arrived in Jericho, just 20 miles from Jerusalem, is based and trained in Iraq.
The Israeli army has tried all week to smother publicity surrounding the arrival of the Palestinian soldiers. Yesterday, even as Israeli withdrawal was under way, Jericho was declared a 'closed military area' by the Israeli army, and journalists were barred. The Israeli public learnt of the day's events only in the evening when state-controlled radio quoted foreign news agencies reporting from the town.
As the celebrations died down last night the people of Jericho started to look more coolly at the reality of the self-rule they have gained. The joint Palestinian-Israeli patrol was watched with scepticism by Mohammed Kuriya. 'What happens if the Israelis attack someone - what will the Palestinians do?' he asked as the Israeli and Palestinian flagged vehicles swept past him.
According to the Gaza-Jericho agreement the road being patrolled remains 'under Israeli authority'. The patrol is always to be led by an Israeli vehicle, and may deal only with incidents 'in which Palestinians are involved'.
The map of Jericho, giving the Palestinians 62 square kilometres of land, was signed under protest by Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO. Yesterday, its borders became a reality, marked out by a ring of Israeli checkpoints.
New beginning, page 11
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