AS 150 Palestinian police prepared to cross into the Gaza Strip last night, Israeli and Palestinian generals stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the Rafah crossing point, declaring their determination to work together for a peaceful transfer of power.
Emerging from the departure area at Rafah terminal, General Yomtov Samia and General Ziad Attrash appeared in public as the first proof that Israeli-Palestinian co-ordination is indeed a reality.
General Samia, a young Israeli commander formerly in charge of the Gaza Strip, showed the way to the podium to General Ziad, a grey- haired former fighter in the Palestine Liberation Army, who limped forward with the help of a stick.
The Israeli spoke first. 'We have achieved a joint plan for the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip and the deployment of Palestinian police,' General Samia said.
'We have a joint mission and we have our separate missions. But the goal is to work together and implement the joint agreement.'
Then General Ziad, raising his spectacles to read a prepared speech, appealed to God to help the Palestinian people 'witness the rising of a new dawn for Palestinians'.
'I salute my people and the sacrifices of tens of years, and the sacrifices of our martyrs. I ask God to give us the wisdom to make peace. We must be careful to show our joy today in a disciplined way to exhibit the greatness of our people. I do call on our people to show the civil side of their nature,' he said.
As the general spoke to the assembled media, crowds of Palestinians were being kept at bay just a kilometre down the road by the Israeli army. At least 23 Palestinians were reported wounded during clashes with the Israeli army using tear-gas and stun grenades. The Palestinians had gathered for a fourth day running in the hope of seeing the first brigade of Palestinian police step on Gaza's soil.
Nevertheless, there is a growing sense in Gaza that the balance of power is slowly shifting towards a Palestinian authority. The Palestinian youths were more confident yesterday in the face of Israeli soldiers, and there was an increasing readiness to challenge Israeli aggression.
At the same time it is clear that the Israeli army is now under orders to try, at least, to use restraint in the Gaza Strip. Patrols in the refugee camps have all but ceased, and the Palestinian crowds marching to the crossing point yesterday passed yet another Israeli watchtower recently dismantled from a nearby refugee camp.
Since the signing of the agreement last Wednesday the Israeli army is no longer enforcing Gaza's nightly curfew, although it has not formally been lifted.
The first batch of Palestinian police was supposed to have crossed into Gaza from Egypt the day after the agreement. As time has passed, the arrival of the first brigade, a 9,000-strong Palestinian police force, has been awaited as the main symbol of real change on the ground.
Yesterday, Palestinian suspicion mounted that Israel's intention was to force the policemen to enter under the cover of nightfall, to detract from any symbolic power the event would hold.
Israeli officers however denied any wish to delay arrival of the force. 'There is a procedure, there are negotiations. Both sides want to do it the best way,' said Sharron Glinker, an Israeli army spokesman in the Gaza Strip.
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