Palestinians' rocky start still leaves room for cheer

May 29, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERICHO, West Bank -- A Palestinian official, just arrived with the new police force from Jordan, waxed eloquent on the telephone last week to his wife back home about life in Jericho.

"It's like heaven," gushed Abu Yassin. "Psychologically, it is poetry to be in my homeland.

"But we are living in hell," he admitted to her. "The weather is very bad. There is no bed -- I sleep on the floor. And to eat, I have to go out to pick fruit from the banana fields."

Such is the mix of emotions and complications that has marked the start of Palestinian autonomy in Jericho and the Gaza Strip. The first 10 days after Israeli withdrawal has served up a salad of close calls, doomsday predictions, angry threats and cautious whiffs of optimism.

Palestinian autonomy has gotten off to a predictably rocky start. There is little sign so far of a Palestinian government to replace the civil administration that left with the Israeli army.

The last Israeli paycheck to civil servants here runs out Tuesday, and no one has stepped in to pick up the payroll. Palestinian soldiers-turned-police still are trickling in from scattered bases in the Middle East, but they have no supplies and little equipment.

They have to borrow gas from Israel to put in their patrol jeeps, donated from the United States. When officers declared it unseemly for their men to take handouts of food from local residents, they had no other provisions. The Israeli army started slipping combat rations to the new arrivals.

And the designated leader of all this, Yasser Arafat, is sowing more chaos than control. He issues decrees and declarations that put the Israelis in a tizzy. At week's end, he still was in Tunis, Tunisia, trying to appoint a national council. Other Palestinian figures balked at joining their revered leader and sharing blame for the mess.

Surprisingly, it is Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who finds cheer amid this gloom.

It is "a good start . . . a good chance for the future," he said last week on a tour of the Gaza Strip. "Things were carried out in a much better way than I thought.

"I had deep fears about . . . the way things would take shape," he said. But "on the Palestinian side, a real effort was made to coordinate and understand."

The prime minister may have been practicing a little damage control. Public opinion polls showed a sharp dive in Israeli support last week for continuing the five-year autonomy process; 63 percent said stop now, according to one poll.

Israeli newspapers worked themselves into a froth over the first mishaps involving Palestinian police. Last Monday, a Palestinian soldier shot out the tires of an Israeli who ignored a checkpoint. On Tuesday, the new officers improperly arrested three armed Israelis. On Wednesday, a Palestinian private stopped at gunpoint an Israeli general. News photos showed Israeli and Palestinian soldiers faced off with guns, a hair-trigger away from an explosive disaster.

But the disaster did not happen. Nor did other dire predictions that autonomy would bring civil war among Palestinian factions, or a revolt in other areas, or a slew of fresh terrorist incidents. In all, last week, things were relatively quiet.

Israeli officials seem to have received orders midweek to be conciliatory. The Palestinians are new to the area, they said. They've been in the wilderness of Sudan, Libya and Iraq for three decades. The rules of autonomy still have not been translated into Arabic, so how could they know? the officials said.

In a background briefing to Israeli reporters, top Israeli army chiefs went out of their way to compliment the Palestinian police.

The crisp-uniformed Palestinians look smarter than the determinedly sloppy Israeli soldiers, admitted a senior Israeli officer, anonymously. And "when an Israeli brigade replaces another, it is much less organized than what we have seen so far from the Palestinians," he said.

Even Mr. Rabin lashed out more harshly at Israelis than Palestinians. He condemned "provocations" from "a minority of hard-core settlers, bent on disrupting the peace process" who would "exploit" the leeways allowed Israelis by the agreement.

But flattery and understanding could not hide obvious shortcomings in the Palestinian takeover. Although they have had eight months to plan their transition, the Palestinians have arrived with no mechanism to continue government services.

The Palestinians shunned any overlap with authorities from the Israeli occupation. Only last week did they call back to work 47 Palestinian clerks who had been in the tax collection offices before 1988, and asked them to try to figure out the computerized tax records Israel left behind.

Israel's civil administration said that it spent about $70 million a year on government services to the Gaza Strip and Jericho. With the additional cost of police salaries, the Palestinians may need three times that amount.

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