VISITING the poverty-wracked Gaza Strip - usually one of a Middle East correspondent's least enjoyable duties - has suddenly become an unusual privilege.
Since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed their ``Gaza and Jericho first'' autonomy accord 10 days ago, Gazans enervated by years of despair are awakening into hope.
The most obvious change in the Strip, a sandy wedge of land along the Mediterranean coast where 800,000 people, most of them refugees, live cheek by jowl in squalor, is the profusion of Palestinian flags that were illegal less than a fortnight ago.
But perhaps the more significant change takes a while to figure out: People here are smiling.
Skeptics say the smiles are premature and warn that life under Palestinian rule, due to start taking effect here before Christmas, will not improve overnight. Others argue that things are so miserable in Gaza that making a noticeable difference won't take long.
But for most Gazans, these sorts of arguments are beside the point. They are smiling because of the one provision in the accord that even critics cannot oppose: The Israeli Army is on its way out of the Strip.
Israeli military occupation has hit hard here. It is almost impossible to find a resident without at least one family member who has been killed, wounded, or imprisoned by Israeli soldiers. The resentment this has bred is as pervasive as the stench of raw sewage in Gaza's alleys.
But the occupation's days are numbered, and Gazans are flying the red, green, black, and white flags that for 27 years have been illegal symbols of Palestinian nationalism.
Driving around the dusty, unpaved streets today is a surreal experience.
Until Sept. 13, when the accord was signed, a Palestinian risked being shot for hanging his flag in a public place. Displaying a photograph of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat qualified as incitement, and could earn the culprit six months behind bars. An artist was once sentenced to nine months in jail for painting an abstract picture in red, green, black, and white.
Now it seems as if every other car owner has plastered his rear window with portraits of the PLO chairman, grinning broadly through his jowly stubble.
Flags are everywhere, from a 50-foot bunting stretched above Palestine Square in downtown Gaza City, to more modest banners hanging from windows or flying from makeshift rooftop flagpoles, to small, plastic versions strung from boys' bicycle handlebars or tied to the back of ubiquitous donkey carts.
There are black flags too, hung out by opponents of the accord, to mourn what they see as the death of the Palestinian cause, sold out by Mr. Arafat's readiness to compromise with Israel. Black flags fly over many of the mosques, raised by Islamic militants belonging to the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.
From time to time, a Palestinian flag of celebration and a black flag of mourning can be seen fluttering from the same pole atop family homes.
``That's because part of the household supports the treaty and part of it doesn't,'' a local resident explains. ``That's Gaza democracy for you.''
Outsiders wonder how solid that democracy will prove in the face of the bitter anger for which Gaza is notorious. The apparently political murder of a prominent PLO official here Tuesday does not augur well.
But Gazans themselves cannot wait to run their own lives, and they are confident they can do it. For the first time in half a century, they are looking forward to their future.