The moment was one that Palestinians had dreamed of for more than a generation--soldiers of the Palestine Liberation Army returning to their homeland to end the Israeli occupation.
For Fatma Deeb, the reality on Wednesday, as the new Palestine Police took control of Deir al Balah, was almost as sweet as all those songs she had sung as a schoolgirl and poems she had given her students to read as a teacher.
"I walked out this morning and saw not a single Israeli soldier--no watchtowers, no patrols, no trucks, nothing," said Deeb, 34, "and this for the first time in my memory. What I saw instead was truly wonderful--our soldiers, some youths but many veterans, come back as liberators. For me, this was the first taste of freedom."
Although stretched almost beyond the patience and understanding of most Palestinians, the replacement of Israeli occupation forces by Palestinian police finally began here Wednesday under the agreement on limited self-rule for the Gaza Strip and the Jericho district on the West Bank. The stage-by-stage process is now scheduled to be completed within a week.
"This is the moment for which we have worked and waited for so long," Maj. Gen. Nasser Yussef, the commander of the new force, said as he moved into his headquarters in Gaza City. "Words are not enough to convey our emotions or to give full meaning to this step. There is nothing more beautiful than this day. . . . It is the first step on the road to independence and freedom for our Palestinian people."
Thousands of Gazans had stayed up through the night, wrapping themselves in blankets and huddling around campfires against the chilly desert winds, to welcome the 157 police who arrived here in a convoy from the border with Egypt, 11 miles to the south, about an hour before dawn Wednesday.
"To wait another night after 27 years is not much," Mohammed Salman abu Silmi, 60, a truck driver, said as he waited, seated on a plastic chair in the back of a pickup truck, outside the border terminal at Rafah. "These men are making history, and for me this is a chance to see good history after living so much bad history."
When the convoy arrived in Deir al Balah, a town of 35,000 including the adjacent refugee camp, people poured into the streets, singing the Palestinian anthem, "Biladi, Biladi," or "My Homeland," and dancing in the dusty lanes. Many embraced and kissed the policemen, draping them with garlands of flowers.
"This is the happiest day of my life," said Lt. Amjad Deeb Shaker, who left the West Bank when Israeli forces captured it and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East War. "I had tears in my eyes as I arrived here."
As the crowd grew through the day, it virtually swamped the white-walled police station and adjoining army base, evacuated by Israeli troops just after midnight, and members of the Fatah Hawks, one of the Palestinian militias here, fired their rifles in the air in jubilation--then in an effort to clear the compound.
"These policemen have brought us peace and security after years of Israeli occupation," said Mahmoud abu Samhadeneh, 40, a tailor. "It may seem a funny thing to say of a police force, but I feel they have come to protect us and free us from the occupation. To me, they are the first step toward Palestinian independence."
Samir abu Zeid, a building contractor, added: "No more curfews at night, no more stone-throwing--I think stability will return to this town. The years of trouble we had in Deir al Balah ended when the Israelis left."
The first move by the new police was to order bulldozers to push aside 200 concrete-filled metal barrels that Israeli forces had set up in the market to keep stone-throwers away from the army base.
"The first benefit will be the absence of the occupation forces," Yussef commented in Gaza City. "So much aggravation, not to say bloodshed, came from the cruel fact of the occupation. End the occupation, and life gets better--that is the heart of our mission."
Freij abu Midan, a prominent Gaza lawyer who is expected to become a member of the interim government, the Palestinian Authority, observed that Gazans were also liberating themselves from the regulations of the occupation, including the 8 p.m. curfew in the territory.
"The curfew is finished," he said. "The people decided it was over, and they came out on the streets to greet the policemen. It seems such a little thing, but for us it was throwing off the occupation."
Preparations were under way for a transfer from Israeli forces to the Palestine Police in Jericho as well, but there residents clashed again with the soldiers Wednesday.
The trouble began when the troops, acting on orders of Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, the regional Israeli commander, moved to clear the town of journalists, even dragging some out by their arms and legs. Palestinians shouted in protest. The troops fired stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets at them in response, according to correspondents who were forced to leave.
A senior PLO official said Tuesday that he expected about 1,800 Palestinian police to reach Gaza by Friday and about 400 to deploy in the Jericho area.
The police force, which will have 9,000 members, is a key part of the agreement on autonomy, and many Palestinians regard the deployment of the police as the first step not only in ending the Israeli occupation but in achieving eventual independence.
Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said Israel will yield control of the southern half of the Gaza Strip and Jericho to the Palestine Liberation Organization on Friday under current plans and will complete its hand-over throughout the Gaza Strip next Wednesday.
"We hope that as the Palestinians take control of Gaza and Jericho they will act to halt terrorism or at least minimize its impact," Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the Knesset, the country's Parliament, in a debate on the agreement signed last week in Cairo. "We see that as the main test of the Palestinian police created under the accord."
The agreement was approved unanimously by the Cabinet and then ratified, 52 to 0, by the Knesset after opposition members walked out following hours of stormy debate.