No More Sitting Idle For Gaza's New Police

After waiting years to go `home,' Palestinians charged with law and order have their hands full

SOME of them, perhaps, had dreamed of liberating Palestine in a more glorious fashion. But for the 157 Palestinian soldiers-turned-policemen who finally made it into the Gaza Strip just before dawn yesterday, the mere fact of their arrival was enough.

For five days they had waited just across the border in an Egyptian Army camp, only to be held up for 10 more hours on Tuesday in the Israeli terminal of the Rafah border crossing.

Sitting around doing not very much has been a way of life for these Palestine Liberation Army soldiers since they were evacuated from Beirut in 1982.

But in their new jobs, policing the newly autonomous Gaza Strip, they are unlikely to have much time for sitting around.

As the policemen waited at the border post for their leaders to negotiate with the Israelis the exact details of how they would be deployed, the men they had come to replace were having as difficult a time as ever keeping the peace outside.

Even after seven years of experience during the Palestinian intifadah (uprising), Israeli soldiers have never really gotten the hang of crowd control, as their swan song on Tuesday night showed only too plainly. Time and again the company of men assigned to keeping Palestinians away from the border point resorted to stun grenades and tear gas, and time and again the crowd welled up anew.

Eventually, exhaustion was the Israeli Army's best ally: Most of the crowd had gone home by the time the olive-green uniformed Palestinian policemen finally emerged. But the fact that anyone was there at all, defying the curfew, was an indication of how life is changing in Gaza.

For more than six years, Gaza's 850,000 residents have been confined to their homes after nine o'clock at night. But in recent days, people in refugee camps such as Rafah and Jabalya have been openly flouting the regulations, keeping their shops open, squatting on street corners and chatting, or just strolling about.

Strikes declared by the Palestinian leadership are also much less rigorously observed. Where once the whole Strip would have been shut down to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the intifadah, life was almost normal last Monday.

Few Gazans have jobs from which to strike, especially since those who worked in Israel can no longer get into Israel, denied entry permits since Islamist bombers blew up two buses last month. With little else to do, some of the more artistically inclined youngsters are passing the time by drafting intricately designed and carefully lettered graffiti, proclaiming their newfound political hope on any available wall.

Once, a quick protest scrawl at dusk with a can of spray paint was all a boy had time for, fearful of the prison term he risked if an Israeli Army patrol caught him. Palestinian youths have even been shot, simply for writing political graffiti.

Now, with most of the soldiers pulled out of the Palestinian towns and refugee camps, youths can take the time and trouble to paint a whitewashed background for their slogans. Popular embellishments include doves bearing olive branches and Jerusalem's landmark Dome of the Rock, generally executed in the red, green, and black of the Palestinian flag.

Smaller boys, emboldened by the imminence of the Israeli departure, are going further than they ever dared before to taunt the soldiers who are left.

On Tuesday morning, in Gaza City, some eight-year-olds on their way to school, backpacks over their shoulders, took a moment to scramble up the chicken wire fence around the central prison, so as to get a better slingshot at the one guard who was visible.

They will miss him when he's gone. One little boy was heard bemoaning the Israeli withdrawal earlier this week: ``I don't want them to go,'' he said. ``There'll be nobody to throw stones at.''

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