`PALESTINE.'' That word was on the lips of almost every Palestinian in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho, as Israeli soldiers disappeared after 27 years of occupation, and Palestinian policemen took their place this week.
The independent state they have dreamed of for so long may not be around the corner, but for most Palestinians now celebrating their autonomy, that outcome looked eventually inevitable.
Palestinian politicians, on the other hand, were considerably less sanguine.
Among those who have studied the details of the autonomy deal that their leader, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, signed earlier this month in Cairo, opinions are divided. Some say the agreement with Israel is a disaster from which something can be saved. The rest say it is simply a disaster.
The Gaza and Jericho accord is ``very far short of our expectations,'' complains Hanan Ashrawi, the former spokeswoman for the Palestinian team at the Middle East peace talks. ``Israel will be calling the shots and looking over our shoulders every step of the way.''
The terms of the agreement, argues Ghassan al-Khatib, another former negotiator, ``makes the role of the Palestinian Authority like that of a sub-agent [for the Israelis], an implementer, not an authority.''
Whether sub-agents or authorities in their own right, the Palestinian policemen patrolling the streets of Gaza and Jericho have become the most visible signs of the new reality. Their AK-47 assault rifles have fascinated their people. Carried clandestinely and only by wanted men just a couple of weeks ago, the guns have become instant symbols of Palestinian sovereignty.
But every one of those guns has been through an Israeli ballistics test, so that each bullet they fire can be identified. Every one of the 9,000 policemen keeping law and order has been thoroughly vetted by Israeli intelligence, as required by the agreement.
Grating even more harshly on Palestinian sensitivities is the network of joint Palestinian-Israeli committees, established by the accord, that will oversee almost every aspect of the Authority.
Such committees - dealing with issues ranging from security to zoning laws - will give the Israeli government veto power over the least Palestinian decision, critics charge. ``They are like bottlenecks, allowing the Israelis to make life difficult for the Palestinian Authority, or easier,'' Dr. Khatib argues. ``So the extent to which the Authority can work will depend on Israeli willingness.''
The autonomy accord leaves in place all the military orders that the Israeli occupation forces decreed over the past 27 years. This means that practically every aspect of daily life will continue to be shaped by Israelis.
The Israeli military orders can be abrogated and amended by the new Palestinian Authority only if the Israelis do not object, for the agreement gives Israel the right to refer any Palestinian laws to a joint committee to ``decide whether such legislation exceeds the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority or is otherwise inconsistent with the provisions of this agreement.''
Israeli officials say the Palestinians should not worry. Israel will use its influence in the joint committees ``only as a last resort, not as a way to temper the authority of the Palestinians,'' government spokesman Uri Dromi says. ``Only when something conflicts seriously with our interests will we bring it to a joint committee.''
That does not reassure all Palestinians, even those who have agreed to join the new 24-member Palestinian Authority despite their reservations about the agreement with Israel.
``We don't need to consult on things that bother no one,'' says Saeb Erekat, the senior PLO civilian in Jericho. ``If we make legislation in accordance with what the agreement specifies, everything will be fine.''
Azmi Shuabi, another member of the Authority, is so critical of the accord that he hopes it will be ignored. ``I hope that on the ground we will not look to details ... not stick to every word of the agreement,'' he says.
He may get away with it: ``The Palestinians will be surprised by how lenient and easy we will be in watching them run their own affairs,'' Mr. Dromi says.
But one of the most deeply offensive aspects of the occupation for Palestinians will stay: Jewish settlements in Gaza and the 4,000 settlers who live in them will remain where they are, and under Israeli rule.
Where United Nations resolutions have declared the settlements illegal and called for their removal, the PLO itself has now sanctioned their existence, at least in the interim phase until the occupied territories' final status is agreed. ``This is simply incredible,'' Ms. Ashrawi laments.
The settlements also provide the Israeli Army with a reason to keep bases in the Gaza Strip - contrary to the Oslo accord's provision for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the zone.
Whether this presages Israeli annexation of areas settled by Jews, blocking the way to real Palestinian statehood, or whether it is merely one of the obstacles that eventually will be overcome, is still a matter of fierce debate.
But even for the optimists, the road ahead looks hard. ``Now everything depends on whether we have the will and the ability to build the institutions and the ethic that will make the dynamic [of statehood] unstoppable,'' Ashrawi says.
``We have to see how we can transform [the agreement] from a severely restrictive sort of prison into a flexible first step in an incremental process,'' she adds.