Transition Is a Bit Rocky, But Palestinians Are Happy Anyway


A MOOD of good-natured confusion reigned here yesterday on the Gaza Strip's first day under Palestinian rule, when nothing much worked, and nobody much cared.

The last Israeli soldiers withdrew from Gaza City just before dawn, ending their 27-year-long occupation in a hail of stones thrown by Palestinian youths, and a barrage of celebratory gunfire fired into the air by Palestinian policemen.

For the first time since Israel seized the Gaza Strip in 1967, there were no Israeli soldiers in Palestinian towns and refugee camps. Those who have stayed in the area have withdrawn to Jewish settlements.

Asked how he felt, Ahmed Salman, a gardener with the Education Department, was unequivocal. ``This is what we have always wanted,'' he says. ``How much better can it get?''

But Mr. Salman was not having much luck collecting his salary as he waited outside the locked gates of the Civil Administration building, from where Israeli military officers used to run daily life in the Gaza Strip.

He was not being allowed in, and none of the officials inside had any instructions anyway, since the Palestinian replacements for the departed Israeli departmental heads have not yet arrived.

``It is still like a state of emergency,'' a Palestinian policeman apologizes, as he tries to keep order among a crowd of supplicants at the gate. ``We are not well organized yet.''

Most of the people trying to get in to the Civil Administration offices were seeking a stamp from the new Palestinian authority, which they need before the Israeli police will allow them into Israel.

Those stamps were not forthcoming yesterday, and although one official promised them for the next day, there was little prospect that the government in Gaza would be up and running very soon.

``It will take one week, maybe two,'' predicts Soufian Abu Zeida, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official. ``But it doesn't matter, people are used to things not working here.''

Normally, Salman would have gone to the post office to collect his gardener's wages.

But Gaza's post offices are all closed, partly for lack of security and partly because the new Palestinian stamps have not yet been printed, let alone distributed.

With the 24-member Palestinian Authority that will rule Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho not yet completely named, there is no real center of power in Gaza.

The PLO office, until recently a hive of activity, was almost deserted yesterday, and with the Civil Administration shut down, the new police station appeared to be the center of authority.

But the 2,000 policemen themselves had nothing to do except keep the crowds away from the buildings they had taken over from the Israelis and chat with crowds of admiring youths.

UTSIDE the Governor's Palace, where chicken-wire fencing topped by coils of razor wire lay twisted and trampled on the ground, Sgt. Saud Mohammed Saleh, recently arrived from Iraq, said he had no words to express his joy at being home.

Since fleeing the West Bank during the Six-Day War in 1967, Sergeant Saleh had been stationed in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq - ``all over the world,'' he says.

``But if there is a beginning, there has to be an end, and that end has happened,'' he beams.

What shape that end will take, however, remained unclear. ``We have received no orders yet,'' explains Pvt. Raed Shukeri.

``I don't know whether we will stay in Gaza or go somewhere else. I just know that our job will be security,'' explains Private Shukeri.

The policemen, who will eventually number 9,000 in Gaza and Jericho, have enjoyed a heroes' welcome here, even from political factions that oppose the peace treaty with Israel as a sellout, as the radical Islamist group Hamas, and left-wing PLO groups.

``Hamas welcomes the Palestinian police, and together we will serve the people,'' proclaims one wall's graffitti. And at PLO headquarters, Mr. Abu Zeida was confident that Hamas will do nothing to undermine the autonomy accord.

``The opposition knows that the peace process is on the ground and can't be stopped,'' Abu Zeida says.

``They have to choose between standing and watching how we build our state and people, or joining in building this future,'' he adds.

``They may not join in officially, but step by step, slowly, slowly,'' they will participate in the government he predicts. ``They need time to adjust their thinking.''

Meanwhile, just outside Gaza City, young Abdel Karim Atom was putting the finishing touches to a newly whitewashed pillar he had constructed in the middle of a crossroads by piling, one on top of the other, three of the giant concrete cubes that the Israelis once used as roadblocks.

As Christmas tree lights strung atop the monument blinked feebly in the bright sunlight, and a Palestinian flag flapped in the breeze, Mr. Atom read the slogan he had emblazoned in red paint.


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