Palestinian policemen take charge in Jericho

May 14, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERICHO, West Bank -- For the first time since June 6, 1967, this small town slept under Arab control last night, as Palestinian policemen moved yesterday into camps evacuated by Israeli troops.

Israeli citizens were barred from entering Jericho indefinitely, by order of the Israeli Army, which erected new roadblocks a mile out of town.

Throngs of the area's 15,000 residents rushed out to greet the Palestinian troops arriving from Iraq to take up duties of policemen. They swarmed over the policemen with enthusiasm that prompted one tragedy: A boy handling a policeman's automatic weapon accidentally killed his 9-year-old brother when the gun discharged.

Ammar Abed al-Shawwa died instantly when hit in the head, and an older woman was wounded, according to Reuters. Israel Radio said an 11-year-old girl was the one injured.

A Palestinian flag hung yesterday over Jericho's central police station, a high-fenced symbol of Israeli authority in the center of the Arab town. A small squad of policemen arrived from Jordan at dawn to take control of the building. In the afternoon, hundreds of Palestinian troops arrived in buses and trucks.

They waved their Kalashnikov rifles victoriously, as youths clung to the sides of the vehicles and men threw candy at the arriving troops.

"I saw them put up the flag. It's the first time to have our own government, to have policemen of our own blood," said Mousa Selame, 28, who runs a small plastics factory in Jericho.

In the center of town, children pressed to the fence of the old Israeli police station, seemingly transfixed at the sight of armed Palestinians inside. Hundreds of residents milled around the peaceful square. In recent weeks in the square, young boys threw rocks and bottles toward soldiers, who replied with tear gas and stun grenades.

The festive scenes were similar to those Wednesday in the Gaza Strip, when Palestinian troops took over the first Israeli Army camp. Under an agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Jericho and most of the Gaza Strip will be turned over to Palestinian control by May 25.

The Palestinians face enormous problems in improving conditions in the areas they take over, and there are continuing complaints that the PLO is not up to the task. But yesterday was a day for optimism in Jericho.

"I know I will not get work right away," said Ahmed, 28, who lives in one of the parched and dismal refugee camps on the outskirts of Jericho. His father had fled from Yaffo, near Tel Aviv, in the 1948 war that created Israel.

He quit school in the 10th grade to pick vegetables in Israel and later to clean in a restaurant to help feed his family of 15. But even those jobs stopped as Israel imposed restrictions on Palestinian workers.

"I'm not worried about work," he said. "For now, it is enough just to know our brothers are here to help us."

In the Gaza Strip yesterday, the Army turned more bases over to the Palestinians, who continue to arrive from Egypt at the Rafah border crossing. The southern portion of the 136-square mile strip was under Palestinian control, and Israeli soldiers had pulled back to Jewish settlements within the strip.

But as a sign of the problems the new authority will face, a large crowd -- estimated by some reports at 20,000 -- of Hamas supporters marched through Gaza City yesterday. The Hamas demonstration -- one of the largest it has put on -- condemned the peace process that resulted in the arrival of the Palestinian police, most of whom belong to the rival Fatah faction.

Two Palestinians were wounded when the crowd clashed with Israeli troops who have not yet withdrawn from Gaza City, according to Palestinian reports.

Although most Israelis do not travel in the Palestinian areas, the ban imposed by the army yesterday on Israeli citizens going to Jericho served as an abrupt reminder that Israel is turning over control of territory it has held since the Six Day War. An Army spokesman said the regional Israeli commander had imposed the ban "until it is assessed that the Palestinians have consolidated power and there is no security risk."

Among those stopped by the ban was a small group of Jewish settlers. They attempted to reach an ancient synagogue site on the outskirts of Jericho to protest its handover to Palestinians.

The Israeli-PLO agreement guarantees freedom of worship to Jews at the site. The settlers reportedly were told they could return tomorrow.

"We respect them and their religion, and we will offer them all necessary services," Palestinian Brigadier-General Saed Naji told reporters. "No flags, Israeli or Palestinian, will be raised on the synagogue."

The Israeli Army also attempted to stop journalists from covering the handover in Jericho. Several foreign journalists petitioned a panel of the Israel High Court, which ruled yesterday that they could not be barred from the area. But Israeli reporters were prevented from witnessing the turnover.

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