Jericho: autonomy's challenge

April 05, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERICHO, OCCUPIED GAZA STRIP — The dateline of a story from Jericho incorrectly identified the town as part of the Gaza Strip in yesterday's editions of The Sun. Jericho is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Sun regrets the errors.

JERICHO, Occupied Gaza Strip -- Israeli stun grenades answered Palestinian stones just a few blocks from his home yesterday, but Saeb Erekat was contemplating the end of an era.

The portly Palestinian negotiator with an early gray beard knew Israeli soldiers were carting away their equipment amid the jeers and occasional stones of Palestinians.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The soldiers were preparing to withdraw from the town they have overseen for 27 years.

"I was 12 years old, in this same house, when the occupation began," said Mr. Erekat, 39. "Three months later, I was arrested for the first time."

Now he is a senior member in the peace talks that may end that occupation. And he is helping to construct a new Palestinian government to replace the Israelis as they leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"There's a part of me that's about to panic," he acknowledged of the challenges ahead.

Some of his colleagues grappled with Israeli negotiators in Cairo yesterday over details of the first stage of withdrawal, in which Israel is to leave Mr. Erekat's sleepy town of Jericho and the crowded, angry Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said yesterday that the actual withdrawal could be done in a few days after agreement on the details. The first Palestinian police officers are expected to arrive today along with 46 Palestinians deported for political activism years ago.

Yesterday, at the police station at the center of Jericho, soldiers and police stood watch as files, desks and chairs were loaded onto trucks. At the edge of town, Israelis ignited a bonfire to burn Hebrew traffic signs; Israeli traffic will now be routed around Jericho on a new bypass road.

Palestinian youths suddenly discovered a boldness they had not shown during the years of the intifada "uprising," when Jericho was mostly peaceful.

They hurled rocks at the soldiers, and scampered into alleys to dodge the tear gas and percussion grenades that came in reply.

A Palestinian truck arrived to claim an air conditioner from the police station, the apparent prize of a government sale.

"We will have to start from scratch," grumbled Mr. Erekat in his home.

"They sell the air conditioners. They even unbolted the chairs in the main office. All that furniture was paid for by us through fines and taxes," he said.

But the conspicuous uprooting of the Israeli offices is a boost to Palestinian morale, he concluded.

"What they see yesterday and today are more effective than talk," he said.

"The normal people are seeing things are moving. They are cautiously hopeful. They are sick and tired of hearing us talk about it."

Mr. Erekat is a believer in negotiations despite his frequent arrests by Israeli authorities. When he went to the peace talks in Madrid, Spain, in 1991, he had a five-year suspended prison term over his head.

He had left Jericho for an education in the West, at San Francisco State and Bradford University in Britain. He returned in 1979 to teach political science and became a leader of the then-outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization in the occupied territories.

Now he must worry about much more than chairs and air conditioners. Mr. Erekat is in charge of devising a Council, a sort of Palestinian parliament, and of setting up free elections among people who have never had them.

He must establish 1,500 polling stations and train 6,000 poll workers. He must organize modern governorates out of 350 local villages that always have been ruled by "muktars," or traditional elders. He must help winnow one set of laws out of the layers of military rules and legal codes applied by a succession of Turkish, British, Jordanian, Egyptian and Israeli rulers.

"It's an enormous task and an enormous challenge," he said of founding an autonomous Palestinian government.

Already the target for the elections has slipped, from July 13 to Oct. 15, he said.

"We've been doing nothing but preparing our homework as Palestinians," he said. "We're entering one of the biggest challenges of our history."

The groundbreaking agreement between Israel and the PLO signed in Washington in September called for a pullout of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and Jericho by April 13.

By July 13, troops are supposed to "redeploy" from Arab populated areas in the rest of the West Bank.

Despite the flow of trucks moving equipment this week, Mr. Rabin said yesterday that he does not expect to meet the April bTC 13 deadline.

Palestinian officials said that if the deadlines are met, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat might arrive in Jericho and the Gaza Strip in May.

Both sides are worried that violence will further delay the implementation. In clashes yesterday, Israeli troops shot and wounded 27 Palestinians, and two Israeli civilians were hurt by stones, according to Israeli radio.

The clashes have increased since the Feb. 25 massacre of 30 Muslim worshipers by a Jewish settler in Hebron.

An Israeli commission is holding hearings on that incident and yesterday heard testimony from a ballistics expert that one of the shell casings found in the mosque came from an unknown gun.

Palestinian eyewitnesses had testified that they believed there was gunfire from someone other than Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish settler who opened fire in the mosque and was killed when his gun jammed.

Mr. Rabin is to testify before the commission tomorrow in secret session. He also serves as the defense minister, ultimately in charge of the soldiers who were guarding the Tomb of the Patriarchs when the massacre occurred.

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