DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip -- The long and tortured peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians came down to this yesterday: Palestinian officers, in green uniforms, posted with their Kalashnikov rifles on the watchtowers of a former Israeli army post.
And this: Fayeh Abu-Aweymer, 61, surrounded and overwhelmed by youngsters who were not yet born when he left his homeland in 1967, crying openly as he sat in a shop on the first day of his return.
And this: Hundreds of Palestinian boys crawling up and over the walls of a military camp that for as long as they could remember has been the target of their stones.
"This day is so big. To feel safe for the first time, to see the Israeli soldiers leave. We never want to see them again," said Sami al Akluk, 32, as he stood watching Palestinian officers in the former Israeli army post.
Palestinians in this central Gaza Strip neighborhood awoke yesterday to a change of authority. For the first time in 27 years, Israeli soldiers were gone and Palestinian policemen had arrived from Egypt in the night to take their place.
It was the first real change of authority resulting from last September's peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The Palestinian officers will take over Israeli military camps throughout the Gaza Strip as the army withdraws to Jewish enclaves in the next week. Other Palestinian policemen will arrive from Jordan to take over Israeli posts in Jericho.
The Palestinian policemen are from the ranks of Palestinian army brigades that have been scattered throughout the Middle East by past battles with Israel.
Despite their new name, they look like soldiers, are armed like soldiers and will replace Israeli soldiers. The agreement with Israel calls for a force of 9,000 Palestinians.
"Next Wednesday, all the responsibility for the Gaza Strip and for Jericho will be in Palestinian hands, and the test of the agreement begins in practice," said Israeli minister Yossi Sarid, speaking in Jerusalem after the Cabinet officially approved the plan.
The Israeli government also approved a list of 1,000 officials who will move from the PLO headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, to Jericho and the Gaza Strip. The list includes about half of the officials DTC now in Tunis, where the PLO has been headquartered since being driven out of Beirut, Lebanon, by the Israeli army in 1982.
"We hope that, as the Palestinians take control of Gaza and Jericho, they will act to halt terrorism, or at least minimize its impact," said Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Israeli opposition leaders railed against the handover of power, describing it as national suicide and a historic mistake. But implementation of the agreement is accelerating, and each day promises to put fresh pictures on Israeli television of former enemies now taking control.
Palestinians, as well, are finding the scenes jarring.
"Who would have believed I would be walking in here?" said one man among the crush of Palestinians who surged into the whitewashed, former Israeli army camp at Deir al-Balah to greet the policemen yesterday.
Israeli soldiers had left intact the compound surrounded by high, barbed-wire fences. Yesterday morning, Palestinian boys could not resist climbing up the observation towers, over the fences and onto the roof. Such army posts have long been the focal point of clashes between Palestinian youths who throw rocks and soldiers who fire back.
A father rejoices
On Monday, Hani Abu-Eisa, 19, was shot in the chest and seriously wounded during a clash outside the post.
Several blocks away in their quiet home, his father, Tawfiq Abu-Yusef, said yesterday that he would rejoice at the departure of Israeli troops. In 1990, another of his seven sons was killed in a clash, he said.
"I'm very happy. I lost one son and another is wounded, but because the soldiers are going out, I know other families will not ++ be hurt," he said.
He acknowledged that the violence will not end entirely. The army still will patrol Jewish settlements that occupy large tracts in the Gaza Strip, he said, "so we will not have real peace."
The new commander of the Palestinian police attempted to reassure Israelis yesterday.
"I do not believe that Palestinians will attack Jewish settlements," said Cmdr. Nasser Youssef.
Palestinians offered up an out pouring of joy yesterday, rare in the grim warrens of the Gaza Strip. Thousands stood outside the army post, just watching the uniformed soldiers with their automatic rifles.
A drum kept up an excited beat,accompanied by cheering whistles of Palestinian men and the distinctive trilling of women. That chorus was split regularly by the crackle of gunfire, shots fired in celebration by Palestinian faction members saluting the new police with guns still considered illegal by Israel.
The new autonomy
A bulldozer nosed through the crowd and began shoving aside the yard-square concrete security blocks that had long blocked traffic in front of the Deir al-Balah army post.