JERUSALEM — WHEN a Palestinian human rights worker went to lecture Palestinian policemen in autonomous Gaza recently, he found his listeners surprised to be treated as potential culprits.
Instead the newly organized policemen felt like victims. Could the activist please defend their rights as workers? they asked. Could he remind Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leaders that they had not been paid?
That incident was merely one of the more bizarre cases illustrating the confusion that autonomy has brought to human rights agencies, both Israeli and Palestinian, working in the Gaza Strip and Israeli-occupied West Bank.
For Palestinian groups such as Al-Haq and the Palestine Human Rights Information Center (PHRIC), autonomy has raised difficult questions about the switch from working against the enemy occupier to working with - and perhaps also against - their own government.
Israeli organizations, meanwhile, are facing even more radical choices. Some are wondering whether autonomy will not put them out of business, with no role to play in Palestinian-ruled areas.
And on both sides of the border, human rights workers are worried by the lack of any judicial system in the autonomous zones, or of any institutions that guarantee human rights.
Palestinian groups, though, see a silver lining here. ``You feel you can have an impact on how things are formed,'' says PHRIC director Jan Abu Shaqra. ``There is a concern about the vacuum being filled by corruption and abuse, but there is also tremendous opportunity, a freshness.''
Al-Haq, too, is eager to influence developments. ``We are sending enquiries'' to Palestinian security about human rights policy, explains Fatheh Azzan, Al-Haq's director. ``We send them to find out what is happening, and to push them in the direction of what should happen.''
Al-Haq and PHRIC are studying the possibility of training the Palestinian police in respect for human rights under a program to be run by the United Nations.
Both organizations insist that they will be as critical as necessary of the Palestinian authorities. ``We'll deal with the Palestinian authorities in very much the same way as we have dealt with the Israelis,'' Mr. Azzan argues.
PHRIC will have to try hard to prove its independence, having been until now under the Arab Studies Society, run by Faisal Husseini, the senior PLO official in Jerusalem.
But Ms. Abu Shaqra says that beyond formally breaking away from Dr. Husseini's organization, PHRIC ``will not be grandstanding the fact of our independence. We are trying to work out how to be effective in defending peoples' rights.
``We want to help the Palestinian authorities realize what they say is their goal, to secure Palestinian rights,'' Abu Shaqra adds. ``And of course we will do our watchdog role, too.''
In the past, PHRIC has shared that role with Israeli groups such as B'Tselem, for whom the onset of autonomy has posed an awkward dilemma.
``On the one hand, we were established to monitor human rights violations by the Israeli authorities [in the occupied territories], so you could say that there is no room for us now'' in Palestinian run areas, says B'Tselem researcher Eitan Felner.
``Or you could say that although we are an Israeli human rights organization, we are first and foremost a human rights organization,'' he adds, ``and it is unacceptable not to deal with the Palestinians now that they are in authority.''
The picture is complicated, Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists agree, by the ambiguities inherent in the autonomy accord, which has created something short of a state, but is free of day-to-day occupation.
With the Israeli government still enjoying influence over the autonomous Authority, through joint committees that will oversee all aspects of life, Israeli human rights organizations see a continued need for their work.
``It is not our business to defend Palestinians against a Palestinian Authority in the Israeli Supreme Court,'' says Eliahu Avram, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. But under the autonomy agreement, ``there are many places where immediate authority has been given to the Palestinians, but Israel has oversight or veto power. It will be very difficult to adjudicate these cases,'' he warns.
In Jericho and Gaza, meanwhile, there is still no court with the power of habeas corpus, nor any civil judicial system. A policeman who gave his loaded gun to a boy who then shot his cousin by mistake is being tried according to PLO revolutionary justice.
But even when judicial systems are in place, and even if they are perfect, Palestinian human rights activists have an enormous job ahead of them just as educators, Azzan says. ``After 27 years of occupation, the law is your enemy, not your friend,'' he points out. ``We have a tremendous negative history to overcome.''