Palestinian Policemen Finally Enter Gaza Strip

MOHAMMED al-Gazawi leaned heavily on his stick and smiled with grim satisfaction as he stood before the judge's bench in the Gaza military court on May 10.

The last time he was here in 1979, Mr. Gazawi was inside the barred cage that runs along one wall of the courtroom. He was being sentenced to 20 years in jail for blowing up the Gaza branch of an Israeli bank.

On May 10, dressed in the olive drab serge uniform of the Palestinian Revolution Old Fighters Association, Gazawi was assigned to guard the court, abandoned the day before by Israeli soldiers.

``I told the judge that one day I would be a free man standing here,'' recalled the former Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrilla, who was freed in a 1985 prisoner exchange. ``I always felt that one day we would rule ourselves.''

Gazawi and his auxiliary were finally reinforced May 10 by regular Palestinian policemen. About 150 officers drove into the Gaza Strip checkpoint controlled by Israel nearly a week after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat signed their agreement giving Palestinians limited self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.

The Palestinian officers flashed ``V'' for victory signs and danced the dabka, a traditional Arab dance. ``We are coming to you, Palestine,'' some chanted. Others sang, ``Good-bye to the diaspora.''

Now that the police are in place, Palestinian officials say they can begin to take over authority for the day-to-day running of Gaza's strife-torn slums, home to about 850,000 people.

But the transition is still likely to take time. ``We need at least 2,000 policemen to guard all the departments,'' says Freih Abu-Middein, a prominent Gazan expected to be named to the 24-member council that will run the autonomous Palestinian zones. ``Until we have them, we cannot take over.''

Palestinian and Israeli officials were blaming each other for the delay: PLO officials complained that Israel was refusing to allow any policemen into Gaza or Jericho until Mr. Arafat formally announced the composition of the autonomy council. The Israelis said the PLO had failed to provide adequate personal information on the former Palestine Liberation Army soldiers who will make up the bulk of the 9,000-man police force.

Of the 60 Israelis who used to run Gaza's civil administration, only two computer technicians remain. And although the vast majority of administration employees are Palestinian, they are leaderless, with no new Palestinian department heads, nor instructions from PLO headquarters. ``They are not allowing people's day-to-day lives to go on normally,'' complains Gaza City's Mayor-designate, Mansour Shawa. Without policymakers for the past two weeks the court system is at a standstill, nobody issues licenses to import anything, and government has ground to a halt,'' Mr. Shawa says.

The only senior Palestinian official in Gaza is Brig. Gen. Ziad al-Atrash, head of the Palestinian delegation to the joint security committee with Israel, who is negotiating the details of the Palestinian police deployment.

After an emergency meeting with General Atrash on May 10, his Israeli counterpart, Brig. Gen Yom-Tov Samia, said that ``We had some problems, and we solved them,'' suggesting that some of the police force might cross the border on that evening.

So far only a few score men, mostly Gaza residents, have been issued the dark blue trousers and sky blue shirts - an enamel Palestinian flag badge pinned to the left shirtsleeve - that constitutes the force's uniform.

The handful of policemen engaged in trying to keep back crowds of children from the police headquarters on May 10 were still unarmed. Their Kalashnikov rifles were being checked by Israeli ballistics experts, so as to be identifiable if they are ever used in an attack against Israelis.

Although the autonomy agreement gives Israel three weeks to pull its troops back to Jewish settlements, Mr. Abu Middein suggested on May 10 that he was aiming for a takeover ``within 48 hours.''

Arafat, facing opposition even among his supporters to the terms of the autonomy accord, was reportedly having difficulty in persuading all his nominees to serve on the autonomy council. He had promised to inform Israel of its membership by May 10.

Meanwhile, as confusion reigned in every aspect of Gaza's handover to Palestinian authority, the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) threatened to complicate matters even further.

Unless the Gaza municipality pays a $10 million debt in unpaid bills immediately, the IEC said it would cut off electricity to the Gaza Strip on May 11. Municipal officials said they did not have the money to pay the debt.

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