FOR the first time in their history, Palestinians enjoyed a taste of self-government July 5, as Yasser Arafat swore in members of his new autonomous authority here.
In a refurbished Government House, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman convened the first meeting of the Palestinian Authority that he will head, and which will oversee daily life in the Gaza Strip and Jericho until elections to a broader council are held.
The Authority met after Mr. Arafat arrived in this dusty oasis town from Gaza, stepping foot on the West Bank for the first time in 27 years. His speech, however, in a voice hoarse from overuse, was uninspiring, and fewer Palestinians than expected came to hear him. (Letter From Jericho, Page 20.)
PLO officials blamed the poor turnout on threats by Jewish settlers, opposed to the Palestinian autonomy deal, to block the roads to Jericho. In any event, their efforts were sporadic and largely ineffectual.
There were absentees, too, among members of the Palestinian Authority, which is supposed to have 24 members. So far, Arafat has named 18 officeholders, and only 12 of them came to Jericho for the ceremony on July 5.
Arafat himself was sworn in by the acting deputy speaker of the Palestine National Council, the PLO's parliament-in-exile, Salim Zanoun, and then he swore in his fellow members, who took the oath of office on either a shell-encrusted Koran or the Bible.
The new ruling body, officially known as the Palestinian Authority, is universally known among Palestinians as the Palestinian National Authority. It is an interim institution, designed to hold temporary power until elections are held. No date for those elections has been set, but officials have suggested they might happen next October.
Voting on peoples' minds
That vote was uppermost in the minds of most people in Jericho on July 5. ``The Palestinian National Authority should enhance its credibility by committing itself to general elections,'' said Mamdouh al-Akr, a former senior member of the Palestinian delegation to peace negotiations with Israel. ``A neutral and independent committee should be set up to formulate the election law.''
``I have confidence in the people Arafat has chosen to be his associates,'' added Isaac Haddad, an administrator with the Palestinian Health Council. ``But this is going to be a democratic nation, and we plan to have everybody in high office elected to his post.''
Meanwhile, the Authority faces a massive task to foster the economic boom that Palestinians throughout the area are expecting and to rebuild the physical infrastructure that has suffered from 27 years of Israeli occupation.
``Today it is celebration, and tomorrow, hopefully, it is work to build up this nation,'' Mr. Haddad said.
Authority has limited ability
The Authority goes about its work with limited ability to change the situation, however. Under the Oslo accord, the framework peace agreement with Israel that launched the autonomy process, the Palestinians have no authority over foreign affairs or defense. The detailed agreement on how autonomy should be implemented also sets constraints on the Palestinian Authority's powers to govern, starting from the composition of the Authority, which is subject to Israeli approval. One member, Samir Ghoshe, the putative labor minister, was not at the July 5 ceremony, because the Israeli government refuses to sanction his appointment.
The Authority is also unable to revoke any of the Military Orders, decrees imposed during the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, without Israeli approval and must submit its plans in a wide range of areas to joint Israeli-Palestinian committees for ratification.
But beyond the Authority's practical role is its symbolic value as a first step to independent Palestinian statehood. Promising to extend self-rule from the small Jericho enclave, Arafat pledged in his speech on July 5 that ``we will continue this struggle until we establish our Palestinian state with holy Jerusalem as its capital.''
Arafat tries to balance associates
The people he has chosen to assist him as members of the Authority are mostly drawn from his own, dominant, faction of the PLO, Fatah - a choice largely forced on him by the opposition of most other PLO factions, and of the Islamists, to the autonomy agreement as a whole.
At the same time, Arafat has balanced residents of the occupied territories, who have been given eight of the posts, with PLO officials from headquarters in Tunis. It is believed that Arafat is deliberately leaving six positions on the Authority unfilled, in the hope of attracting opposition figures who might broaden the government's appeal.
But the way in which most of the 18 members so far named are politically dependent on Arafat, rather than on power bases of their own, has fed fears among critics that the Authority will be unable to act as a brake to Arafat's autocratic tendencies.
Even those critics, however, were prepared to look on the bright side on July 5. ``I don't expect the Authority to perform very positively, because some of its members don't have a good reputation,'' said Muhammad Mohsen, an administrator at Jericho's Islamic College. ``But in the final analysis, this authority is ours, not an occupation authority,'' he added. ``And we accept any national authority as definitely preferable to continuing the occupation.''