HEBRON, WEST BANK — For months, plainclothes Palestinian policemen have patrolled the crowded streets of the West Bank town of Hebron. But soon they will don the blue uniforms and eagle-bedecked patches of the Palestinian Authority's finest.
Israel is set to hand over control of most of this town to the Palestinians. And like the switch from civilian clothes to official attire, many of the coming changes will be largely symbolic.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat initialed the Hebron redeployment agreement early yesterday. And Israeli officials say the pullout of Israeli troops will take place as soon as the deal passes in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, today.
Netanyahu is sure to win a parliamentary majority for the agreement to implement key parts of the peace accords, even if he is unable to muster one out of his right-wing Cabinet. The deal is set to be formally signed tomorrow.
For Hebron's 140,000 Palestinians and 500 Jews, life may actually change very little, as the Palestinian Authority (PA) is already acting as a quasi-government in Hebron, and Israeli soldiers are now stationed predominantly in the places they are slated to remain to protect settlers.
But as the possibility of violence looms over the imminent redeployment, Israeli and Palestinian security agents are making joint efforts to prevent extremist opponents of the deal from derailing the transfer of power.
Some 400 Palestinian police are waiting in villages near Hebron. Palestinian Brig. Gen. Tariq Zeid says he can get his people into position in a few hours. Additional troops may be brought in from other parts of the West Bank and Gaza. "After we redeploy, we will confiscate weapons that are a danger to the agreement," General Zeid says, referring to arms caches reportedly held by Islamic militants.
Outside of the Israeli military presence, the occupation of everyday life for Palestinians here is already effectively over.
Many municipal departments once controlled by the Israeli civil administration - such as water, health, agriculture, labor and education - have already been transferred to the Palestinians.
Palestinian legislative council members from Hebron already represent residents. Political offices display Palestinian flags, and the mayor's office bears a portrait of the PA leader, Mr. Arafat.
"These are the aspects that touch the everyday lives of the Palestinians," says Second Lt. Peter Lerner, an Israeli Civil Administration spokesman. "The only real difference is for the Palestinian police to be there. The problems are places where there is lots of contact between Palestinians and Israelis. It's going to be a very long and hard test."
Indeed, there will be no hard border or wall between the two areas, since some Palestinians live in the region to remain under Israeli control, and both Jews and Muslims will be able to pray at their shared holy site - the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham is supposed to be buried.
Life on the line
In this area of town that is regularly a site of friction, no one seems to be able to envision a social dtente.
Najati Sultan, whose refrigerator repair shop is on the dividing line, says business is already bad because other Palestinians would rather avoid this neighborhood.
"If the settlers push us to trouble, believe me, we know how to answer them," says Mr. Sultan. "Tell them to take the 400 shekels back and leave here," he scoffs, referring to the Biblical story of Abraham buying the land for a burial plot.
Many here don't expect their lives to improve. "Every day there are problems," says Madiha Abu Haker, a Palestinian. "The settlers are going to throw more rocks," she adds, pointing to a scar on her forehead that she says was from a stone thrown at her. "We can't live with them."
But to Baruch Marzel, a Jewish settler who lives down the street from Mrs. Haker, it is his kin and the other six families living in mobile homes who need protection. Here, no one is convinced that Netanyahu has found a better formula than his predecessors in the dovish Labor Party.
"The changes are all cosmetic," he says. He then invokes the current joke among settlers - that even though Netanyahu got the Palestinian police to agree to use shorter-range guns, they still "have missiles."
Other settlers say that any protest against the redeployment - which they call abandonment - will be within legal boundaries. One of them, Shani Horowitz, fears the security situation will deteriorate. "There are people who have thrown Molotov cocktails at my home and my children, and the Army used to be able to chase after the terrorists. Not only is this not security, it's the negation of Jewish Zionism," she says.
It is that kind of accusation that is most grating on Netanyahu, as several leading members of his Likud party promise to vote against the deal because they think it will endanger Israelis.
Dose of safety in new deal
And yet, as details of the Hebron deal emerge, there are adjustments not outlined in the original accords. Netanyahu, who had promised to bolster the security throughout the Oslo accords, did win some concessions - "there at least 12," he told reporters - that he is promoting as accomplishments: Palestinian police will be allowed to carry only pistols, not rifles, in areas close to Jewish enclaves; there will be joint Palestinian-Israeli "rapid intervention teams" to prevent violence; a joint force will patrol the hillsides overlooking Jewish settlements, which Netanyahu says may be targets for attacks from above.
Arafat won his own points. He swayed Israel to agree to the opening of two zones the Army had closed to quell violence: a wholesale market and "martyrs' street," a thoroughfare passing through the Israeli-controlled area.
But each had to drop some of his demands, the very demands their critics seize on now. Israel had to back down from its claim for an explicitly stated right to "hot pursuit" and unilateral, preemptive arrests in the Palestinian area, but Palestinians had to give up their demand for joint security at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
However, the option of a Palestinian presence at the site is to be reconsidered later on, depending on the success of the joint patrols. The likelihood of that will depend on Israeli and Palestinian forces keeping the calm.
"All in all, there is no real change in the agreement itself," says Moshe Shahal, who served as security minister to the Labor government that Netanyahu toppled last May.
"It's almost a copy of the previous agreement, but it's going to be tested in the coming few days in how it's going to be carried out on the ground."