AS Israel and the Palestinians scramble to finalize their agreement on autonomy, all the fuss has focused on how many Palestinian policemen should be allowed to come to the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip, and when.
A far more important question has not merited a word of public debate and has still not been decided two days before the Palestinian autonomous authorities are due to take office: Which law will the policemen enforce when they get here?
Many other decisions of similar moment remain to be made by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), whose officials are meant to be taking over Gaza and Jericho next Wednesday, according to the timetable agreed with Israel six months ago.
And the fact that ordinary Gazans see no evidence of such decisions being reached has created a mood of ``anxious waiting, not really optimistic,'' says Haider Abdul-Shafi, former head of the Palestinian peace negotiating team.
Other observers, though, say that life will go on pretty much as before once the Palestinians take control, if only because repeated delays in the negotiations in Cairo make the April 13 deadline for autonomy look impossible to meet.
``The Palestinians will be ready [to rule] a long time before implementation'' of autonomy, says Ghassan al-Khatib, another former Palestinian peace negotiator. ``I don't expect things to move soon.''
Certainly there is little sense of urgency in Jericho, the placid town 20 miles east of Jerusalem where PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat is expected to move next month.
The local PLO chief, Abdul Karim Sidr, was found one morning last week not at his desk planning his city's autonomous future, but shaping loaves at his father's bakery. Asked if he had five minutes to discuss the preparations for autonomy, he gave a wry smile. ``I have five minutes, but there aren't any preparations,'' he said.
``On the ground, preparing buildings and so on, the PLO has done nothing,'' added Adnan Hamad, Jericho representative of the Palestinian Democratic Union, the only PLO faction aside from Mr. Arafat's Fatah to fully support the peace process.
According to the accord, Israel is to transfer authority to the Palestinians for local security - to be assured by a Palestinian police force - education and culture, health, social welfare, direct taxation, and tourism.
So far the main bones of contention between the PLO and Israel, and the focus of public interest, have centered on security - the issue on which the autonomy experiment will be judged. About 9,000 armed policemen are due to deploy in Gaza and Jericho as the Israeli security forces withdraw, and the scope of their powers has been the subject of minutely detailed negotiations.
But ``there is nothing going on with the institutions of the [Israeli] Civil Administration'' in Gaza that run day-to-day life, according to Alex Pollock, a planner with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza. ``There doesn't seem to be a process going on that we can see at the moment.''
Neither have the Palestinians yet made contact with the Israeli Civil Administration in Jericho to discuss taking over its various departments, but Mr. Sidr is unconcerned. Palestinians hold almost all the jobs in the Civil Administration anyway, he points out, and only their Israeli supervisors will need replacing.
``Things can start because there are existing organs and persons and arrangements in education and health,'' Dr. Khatib says. ``We don't need to create anything new.''
Who will raise the money to pay those Civil Administration officials, however - and there are 10,000 of them in Gaza - does pose a problem. Almost all the officials in the occupied territories' budget and taxation offices are Israeli, and ``there is no cadre of [Palestinian] professionals,'' Mr. Pollock laments.
While such professionals are being trained, and until the autonomous authorities can pay their way, international donors will tide the Palestinians over. But on economic planning, too, the PLO is hardly up and running.
The Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR), the institution that will channel all international investment into the autonomous zone, has only just found offices and still has no telephone lines. Its first project is not expected to get under way until July at the earliest.
At least PECDAR has a home. The 2,600 policemen due to be deployed in Jericho have yet to be assigned anywhere to live, according to local officials; and when they do arrive, if they arrest anyone it is not clear which body of law will be valid.
In Gaza, a body of British law imposed in 1936 has been overlaid by a few Egyptian additions and 1,200 Israeli military orders. In Jericho, the new authorities will have Jordanian law to choose from as well.
``It is so confusing, I don't understand how things will happen,'' complains Rajai Sourani, a lawyer who heads the Gaza Center for Rights and Law. ``Nobody knows yet,'' for example, which autonomous courts will try cases currently heard by Israeli military tribunals.
Mr. Sourani is not the only one to be confused. With the negotiations in Cairo unfinished, and PLO leaders in Tunis making little effort to keep local militants informed of their plans, nobody in the occupied territories is making any bets as to what Palestinian rule will look like when it comes.
``Nobody knows what is going on,'' says a PLO official in Jerusalem. ``One day you do, and the next day you don't. So we have stopped even thinking about it.''