Observers arrive Arab police wait

May 09, 1994|By Doug Struck and Danna Bethlehem | Doug Struck and Danna Bethlehem,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

HEBRON, West Bank -- A team of European observers arrived here yesterday while Palestinian police prepared to enter Jericho and the Gaza Strip -- new forces intended to break the lock of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Even as the observers, clad in starched white uniforms, took up their posts, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youths played out the familiar script of exchanging stones and tear gas, the acrid smell stinging the Europeans, too.

In Jericho, another West Bank town, residents waited in vain yesterday to celebrate the arrival of the first elements of a Palestinian police force. Tear gas also drifted across the square where last week youths offered soldiers garlands and palm fronds.

"Nothing will change until Palestinians and Israelis are separated," said a store owner in Jericho, wiping his eyes.

Hundreds of Palestinian police may enter today, although their arrival could be delayed further. They are camped in two groups -- just inside the borders of Jordan and Egypt -- waiting to take up their posts in Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

Both forces are the product of the slow and fitful -- but continuing -- negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel agreed last September to withdraw its troops from Jericho and parts of the Gaza Strip, giving Palestinians a measure of autonomy there. A force of 9,000 armed Palestinian soldiers-turned-policemen, almost all now living in other Arab countries, will have the chief responsibility for keeping peace in those areas.

"If the Palestinian police come and the Jews go, there will be peace in this area," predicted Izzat Khalil Fayoumi, 62, outside his shop in Jericho where he sells cooking gas.

The force of international observers also resulted from negotiations. Its introduction was one of the demands of Palestinians after the Feb. 25 massacre of 30 Muslims by a Jewish settler at a Hebron mosque.

Unarmed observers

The observers from Norway, Italy and Denmark are to patrol only in Hebron. They are unarmed and only make reports, but their presence is supposed to deter clashes between Arab residents and the Jewish settlers and soldiers in the bitterly divided city.

"Our mandate is to monitor and report all incidents," said Stein Stoa, head of the Norwegian contingent of the observer force. "We don't want to carry arms so that the level of possible harassment will be lower."

The group -- known as TIPH, for Temporary International Presence in Hebron -- has set up telephone lines and mailed letters to collect complaints from residents.

But on their initial expedition to Hebron yesterday they found that such solicitation is unnecessary in this city where clashes between Israelis and Palestinians are almost a matter of daily routine.

As the observers toured Hebron with journalists, Palestinian youths began throwing stones at an Israeli patrol, and the patrol responded by firing tear gas into the crowd.

The observers seemed uncertain what to do. One officer suggested that the others get into their cars for safety. The incident, in which no injuries were reported, seemed mainly a demonstration of the powerlessness of the new force.

No authority

The observers have no authority to stop conflicts, and Israel retains the right to declare any area closed to the observers, a method used frequently by the army to try to keep out journalists.

"People have a mixed perception of our duties and our mandate," said Mr. Stoa. "We can never achieve what the citizens of Hebron want."

Israel only reluctantly accepted the international force after the Hebron massacre. Palestinians initially demanded some mechanism to provide them international protection, arguing that the massacre proved that the soldiers do not protect them from radical Jewish settlers. But even the Palestinians are now more skeptical about how much protection the force will provide.

"The international force has only political importance," said Akram Jabri, a 31-year-old elementary school teacher. "The only solution is if the Israelis withdraw. The main problem here is the settlers. The settlers must be removed."

"If America wanted to protect us, they would give us guns," said SharifHaleb, 25, who works in a clothing store in Hebron. "Nothing will change" with the arrival of the observers, he said.

Palestinians in Jericho and the Gaza Strip have more hope in the ability of their new police force to change their lives.

The police force

The police, recruited mostly from the Palestinian army brigades scattered through the Middle East, will be armed. A truckload of automatic rifles arrived in the Gaza Strip from Egypt yesterday.

Their duties were spelled out in detail in the agreement signed Wednesday in Cairo, Egypt, by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The police will have authority over Arabs in the Gaza Strip and Jericho; Jewish settlers living there will be subject only to Israeli laws and authorities.

The first 1,000 police officers were supposed to pour into the new autonomous areas within a day of the Cairo signing.

After initial delays, a group of 270 in Jordan traveled to the Allenby Bridge yesterday, and another group estimated at 300 traveled from Cairo to the Rafah crossing at the southern border of Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

It was unclear why neither group crossed yesterday. Israeli authorities said that there had been no coordination, and that it was necessary to catalog the men and their weapons.

Palestinian officials acknowledged that their logistical difficulties also had slowed the entry of the police officers. The first group that was supposed to enter the Gaza Strip had been stationed in Yemen and were trapped there by the civil war, they noted.

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