JENIN, West Bank (AP) _ Thousands of Palestinians lined the streets of this West Bank city today _ dancing, singing and firing shots in the air to welcome 200 police who moved in after Israeli troops pulled out before dawn.
Israeli and Palestinian officials shook hands at a gas station on the outskirts of Jenin to mark the formal transfer of power in Jenin, the first West Bank town to come under Palestinian self-rule under the Israel-PLO agreement signed in September by Yasser Arafat and the late Yitzhak Rabin.
Palestinians cheered, whistled and shouted ``God is great!″ when a convoy of 14 jeeps and armored vehicles drove out of the fenced compound from which Israel ruled the city during 28 years of military occupation.
The moment the Israelis left, some 200 uniformed Palestinian police officers rushed into the building, with hundreds of Jenin residents trying to push in behind them. PLO officers quickly raised a Palestinian flag.
PLO chief Yasser Arafat’s West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub, appealed for calm. ``Please behave so the Israelis can leave with respect,″ Rajoub told the crowd.
But Palestinian police did nothing to stop an impromptu convoy of revelers from driving through the base, making ``V″ for victory signs and firing pistol shots in the air. Officers stuck their head through barracks windows and waved as the convoy passed by, led by a member of Arafat’s Fatah faction of the PLO, wearing all black and his face covered with a black hood.
One spectator, 23-year-old laborer Ziad Khaled, said seeing the Israelis leave meant the dream of a Palestinian state was becoming real. ``I’m happy because we feel really independent with the arrival of our brothers,″ he said.
``It’s a great day _ a historic day,″ said Kamal Jabr, 45, who spent 15 years in an Israeli prison.
``We are emancipated from the barbaric occupation.″
Following the Nov. 4 assassination of Rabin by a Jewish extremist, Israel moved up by a week the handover of Jenin, originally set for Nov. 19, to signal that it is committed to its agreements with the PLO.
Just hours before the pullout began, Rabin’s widow, Leah, asked some 250,000 Israelis gathered for a final farewell in a Tel Aviv square to support Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, in his peace efforts.
``I want to believe that the sacrifice is not for nothing. I ask you, Shimon Peres, to continue to lead the people of Israel toward peace ... in the spirit of Yitzhak,″ Mrs. Rabin said.
The pullout from Jenin began around midnight Sunday when troops lowered the flag at the military headquarters.
At about 6 a.m., a 31-vehicle convoy with more than 100 Palestinian police arrived in Jenin from the PLO-ruled enclave of Jericho. As the convoy passed through villages near Jenin, Palestinians stood by the roadside, waving and clapping.
In all, 1,000 policemen are to be deployed in Jenin and surrounding villages.
The policemen drove into a city decked in Palestinian flags and decorated with posters of Arafat. One banner read, ``The fighting will continue until the occupation is over.″
A large poster at the entrance to town showed Arafat holding a map and walking toward Jerusalem, which both the Palestinians and Israelis claim as their capital. In the background were the names of areas already ruled by the Palestinians: Jericho, Gaza and, now, Jenin.
In last-minute talks, Israel and the PLO settled a dispute that had threatened to delay the handover. The Palestinians insisted that police take their automatic rifles with them on the trip to Jenin. Israel demanded that the officers arrive unarmed.
In a compromise, the officers traveled most of the distance unarmed, but were given their guns by Israel shortly before their arrival in Jenin, a town of 40,000 people at the northern end of the West Bank.
Before the pullout, teen-agers got in their last licks at Israeli troops, throwing a few stones at soldiers lounging outside the army headquarters building Sunday night.
A 22-year-old Palestinian, Ahmed Isa, said he threw a stone because the Israelis were still ``occupiers,″ but he good-naturedly shook hands with a soldier minutes later.
Jenin is the first of six Palestinian cities to be handed over to Palestinian control by the end of year, in advance of Palestinian elections Jan. 20. In the seventh town, Hebron, the army will redeploy by March.
Palestinians will also establish self-rule in about 500 villages in the West Bank, but Israeli troops will have final say on security issues in those rural areas.
Jenin is the least problematic West Bank city because there are few Jewish settlers in the area surrounding the city.