ISRAEL handed over a military base in the Gaza Strip to Palestinian police officers yesterday, the first transfer of authority under the Israel-PLO peace agreement. And at last, under a dusty evening sky, units of Palestinian police crossed on to Gaza soil last night, giving the first real proof that the promise of self-rule may be fulfilled.
After several days of delay, Major-General Nasser Youssef, commander of a 9,000-strong Palestinian police force, appeared in public on the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing-point with Egypt to announce the arrival of 150 of his men. 'It is the first step on the road to freedom for the Palestinian people,' said the general, in olive-green uniform and matching beret.
Since the signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement in Cairo last Wednesday, Palestinians have waited patiently for the arrival of their own police force, and frustration has mounted as hope of the arrival appeared to ebb away. But the sight of the first uniformed officers stepping through Israeli controls sparked a surge of euphoria. Crowds waving Palestinian flags jammed the roads to the crossing-point. Israeli soldiers seemed to disappear into the background as the Palestinians pushed forward, determined to claim this as their day.
Younis Musa, 28, was waiting to greet his father, Ibrahim, and his brother, Ihab, both members of the new force. Most of yesterday's arrivals were part of the Ein Jaloud brigade, the Egyptian-based unit of the Palestine Liberation Army.
'My father and brother will be very good policemen. We welcome them, they will take care now of our security,' said Younis Musa, who had not seen his father since he left for Egypt after fighting in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. 'Now there is to be Palestinian law, our police will enforce that law. But there was no Palestinian crime. There will never be any crime on the Palestinian territory.'
There has been speculation that the Palestinian police may use hardline methods to curb inter-factional violence and to clamp down on Palestinian gunmen, still determined to oppose the continuing Israeli presence with violence.
But yesterday the Palestinian police were welcomed by their people with open arms. Bassam el Khalidi said: 'What is there to fear? They are our people. They are from our families, from our land.'
The first units were due to arrive last night in the Gaza town of Deir el-Balah, where a school has been turned into a makeshift camp. In the town, walls are painted white and decorated with intricate graffiti welcoming back 'the heroes of the revolution'.
The mukhtar, or head man, of the town, Salah Musa, was expecting his cousin, Ahmed Abdel Karim, to arrive with the first brigade. Mr Musa explained that the task of the police would be to guard new Palestinian premises and provide protection for the people.
Until now Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been enforcing their own rough and ready form of law and order, with local gunmen punishing 'offenders' found guilty of so-called 'moral' crimes, using such methods as house arrest and shooting in the leg. Now men such as Mr Musa are confident that such factions will hand over power to the new police.
At a press conference yesterday, Yomtov Samia, former commander of the Gaza Strip, and now head of the Israeli side in the Palestinian- Israeli security liaison committee, spoke optimistically about the smooth transfer of powers and responsibilities from Israeli forces to the Palestinian police. 'We hope both sides will now feel safe so we can start a new era of prosperity for all the area,' he said.
However, the delays of recent days show just how difficult co-ordination between the two sides is proving to be. Before this first batch of police were allowed in yesterday their Kalashnikov guns were checked by Israeli officers, and every name had to pass through detailed Israeli security clearance.
Within days it is expected that joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols will begin on the main road through the Gaza Strip where Jewish settlers are to travel.
With the Israeli army still very much in evidence around the Jewish settlements some Palestinians yesterday still voiced scepticism about the ability of the two forces to work together. 'We pray to God our police force will succeed in its mission. But we are not sure that this is real peace. We are frightened about the future,' said Abu Eiman, as he waited in the crowds at the Rafah Crossing.
BEIRUT - Israeli warplanes yesterday twice attacked bases of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) south of Beirut, Reuter reports.
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