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Gleeful Arabs Take Control of West Bank City

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Making good on slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s peace plan, Israeli troops pulled out of this northern West Bank town on schedule early Monday and handed the city over to Palestinian authorities.

Throngs of Palestinians poured into the spruced-up streets of Janin before dawn to witness the end of a 27-year occupation and welcome their own people into power. Singing, dancing and wild gunfire--shots fired into the air in celebration--greeted the Palestinian police who arrived in crisp new uniforms.

After raising the Palestinian flag over the former Israeli military government compound, Palestinian leaders paid tribute to Rabin, who was gunned down Nov. 4 by a right-wing Jewish student opposed to relinquishing West Bank land.

“This is the crowning of the efforts for which Rabin gave his life,” said Gen. Nasser Yusuf of the Palestinian security forces.

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The crowd erupted in glee when Atayeb Abdel Rahim, the top Palestinian official at the ceremony, declared: “We hereby pronounce Janin a liberated city forever.”

Janin is the first West Bank city given over to Palestinian control under the interim peace accord signed by Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Washington, D.C., in September. Under the agreement, Israeli troops are to pull out of five more Arab cities and most of the sixth--Hebron--by the end of the year. Palestinians are to hold their first elections for a governing council Jan. 20.

The hand-over took place just before 5 a.m., when about 300 Palestinian police arrived in buses from the Palestinian-controlled town of Jericho and scores of Israelis left town in military vehicles to the applause and whistles of young men and teen-age boys who had stayed up all night to witness the event.

Arafat has ruled over the West Bank town of Jericho and the coastal Gaza Strip for the past 1 1/2 years under a 1993 peace accord with Israel.

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After the soldiers left, hundreds of Janin residents forced their way into the Israeli compound--hostile territory when it housed the Israeli military governor’s office, police interrogation rooms and the jail. All day long, young men and women toured the buildings in awe, unable to believe they were there as free citizens.

“This is the first time I’ve come in here without handcuffs,” said Hisham Sadakah, 31, a Palestinian who had been jailed several times for political disturbances.

Pictures of Arafat and balloons in his likeness blanketed the town. “Today Janin, tomorrow Jerusalem,” said one billboard, alluding to the disputed Holy City whose status will be decided in the final phase of peace negotiations.

Muslim women with covered heads danced together in circles, singing for the “freedom fighters” and “martyrs” of their struggle for a Palestinian homeland.

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A few young men expressed regret that there had not been a military victory over the Israelis. Others noted that Israeli troops would remain in control of 70% of the West Bank.

Religious Israelis and the approximately 120,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank call the same area by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria, and many believe that God gave the land to Jews. They fear the presence in the West Bank of armed Palestinian police, whom they still consider terrorists of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

A bypass road around Janin was built so that Jews would not have to travel through a Palestinian-controlled town. Israeli soldiers will continue to control the main highways and “overall security” in the West Bank.

“To get here, I still had to go through an Israeli roadblock where they searched me,” lamented Mohammed Taher Jalghoum, 41, who traveled to Janin from one of the surrounding villages. “We want full freedom.”

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Iman Abdel Muati, 26, toured the vacated cells and interrogation rooms of the former Israeli jail where he had spent 2 1/2 years for opposing the occupation. He pointed out where he had carved his name in a wall and said, “There was pain here, but today there is freedom.”

Outside, schoolgirls asked the newly arrived Palestinian police for their autographs. Mothers held tightly to the hands of their young children, dressed in party clothes for the historic day in Janin.

“I wanted them to feel they were celebrating,” said Itimas Mohammed, 35, who brought her three youngsters to the outdoor fest.

“It is a very happy feeling that we are starting to become independent,” Mohammed said. “When Rabin was killed, I was afraid the peace process would collapse. But now I know that [acting Prime Minister Shimon] Peres will continue.”

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Nearby, Aida Zakarnai, explained to her 5-year-old son that all the fuss meant his father would no longer be arrested and taken to jail for opposing Israeli rule. “I tell him the occupation is over, that today’s the day we got rid of the soldiers. He knows what that means because his father was in jail,” Zakarnai said.

Ori Nir of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.


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