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Palestinians Gain Self-Rule, Almost

Residents of Gaza Strip celebrate Israeli-PLO accord with caution, wary of the work ahead

FOR Mafhdi Zein al-Din, yesterday's ceremony in Cairo sealing Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho was a personal triumph.

Sitting on the floor of his modest living room beside his Israeli wife, Mr. Din, a Palestinian taxi driver, watched the ceremony on television and felt vindicated.

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``I thought of this 15 years before those guys,'' he says, smiling at his wife, her head now wrapped in the traditional Muslim scarf. ``We are showing the world that Arabs and Jews can live together. Today is a victory for me.''

A mixed Palestinian-Israeli couple may be an almost unique oddity in the Gaza Strip, but their aspirations are common to all their neighbors in this quiet housing project.

Yesterday morning, as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hosted the grandiose signing ceremony that wrapped up eight months of negotiations over the deal to give Palestinians limited autonomy in Gaza and Jericho, Gaza's streets were nearly empty.

But from the open windows of almost every house came the sound of televisions tuned to Cairo.

Confusion reigned in Din's household, as it did everywhere, about the hitch in the ceremony that initially led Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, not to sign their approval to some of the maps they were offered.

The dispute produced an extraordinary scene as President Mubarak, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and others negotiated with Mr. Arafat on stage as speeches continued.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres jokingly told the audience, ``Nowadays you can watch how birth is being given on television.''

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Arafat walked out of the hall, but returned a few minutes later and signed, writing notes on disputed sections. Mr. Rabin, after calling in an Arabic-speaking aide to translate what Arafat had written, then signed.

PLO chief negotiator Nabil Shaath says Arafat refused to sign maps of Jericho and Gaza because he wanted to make clear that they were still disputed. He agreed to sign when Rabin offered a letter saying arguments over the areas were not yet settled, the Associated Press reports.

But while the lofty words of the speeches in Cairo heralded the prospect of comprehensive peace in the Middle East, Gazans had their sights set closer to the ground as they welcomed the autonomy agreement.

``I hope that we won't need so many different permits to get into Israel,'' says Din, voicing a dream that will probably not be fulfilled. ``And I hope there will not be so many taxes.''

His wife, Esther, is equally practical. ``At least we will have the freedom to move when the curfew is lifted,'' she says. ``There will be nobody to ask you why you are outside your house'' after dark.

Other Gazans have other priorities that they want the new Palestinian authority to focus on as it begins to take over responsibility for day-to-day life here during the next few weeks. ``They should start by improving the roads and building an industrial zone to encourage industry,'' says Taher Jeru, who owns a shop selling electrical appliances.

At the local Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Gaza City, officials were aware of just how much work they face.

``We feel not happiness but the burden of responsibility,'' says Soufian Abu Zeida, a senior PLO official here. ``This is a time for thinking, not for celebration.''

In Cairo, Rabin was equally blunt about the problems ahead. Referring in his speech to the public squabble on stage over the map of the Jericho area, he warned that ``the world has just witnessed now the tip of the iceberg of the difficulties we will have to overcome in order to overcome 100 years of animosity and bloodshed.''

Gaza's streets were quiet in the morning, but once the accord was signed, young men decked crossroads with balloons, set up flag-draped speakers on the sidewalks playing songs in praise of peace, and roared up and down the streets honking their car horns.

Outside the PLO office, a group of Fatah Hawks, armed young militants of Arafat's wing of the PLO, shot off a few rounds from their automatic weapons in celebration, and there was nobody from the Israeli Army to stop them. Indeed, few Israeli soldiers were seen yesterday in Gaza's towns and refugee camps.

Exactly what autonomy will mean is still unclear to most Gazans, especially as the terms of the accord signed yesterday have not yet been revealed. But the main thing, says local PLO chief Rashid Abu Shebak, is that ``Palestinians will not see any Israeli soldiers walking in their camps and cities. They will see their police for the first time in their history, instead of Israeli occupiers.''

The first 16 of those Palestinian policemen arrived in Gaza yesterday and were taken on a tour of Army facilities by the Israeli officers who will be vacating them over the next two weeks. Thousands more policemen are due to arrive by the beginning of next week.

Two thousand Palestinian prisoners were to be released from Israeli jails yesterday, the first contingent of 5,000 due to be freed as part of the autonomy accord. They do not include any members of Hamas, the radical Islamic group opposed to the autonomy deal.

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