For months, plainclothes Palestinian policemen have patrolled the crowded streets of the West Bank town of Hebron. But soon they will don the blue uniforms and eagle-bedecked patches of the Palestinian Authority's finest.
Israel is set to hand over control of most of this town to the Palestinians. And like the switch from civilian clothes to official attire, many of the coming changes will be largely symbolic.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat initialed the Hebron redeployment agreement early yesterday. And Israeli officials say the pullout of Israeli troops will take place as soon as the deal passes in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, today. Netanyahu is sure to win a parliamentary majority for the agreement to implement key parts of the peace accords, even if he is unable to muster one out of his right-wing Cabinet. The deal is set to be formally signed tomorrow. For Hebron's 140,000 Palestinians and 500 Jews, life may actually change very little, as the Palestinian Authority (PA) is already acting as a quasi-government in Hebron, and Israeli soldiers are now stationed predominantly in the places they are slated to remain to protect settlers. But as the possibility of violence looms over the imminent redeployment, Israeli and Palestinian security agents are making joint efforts to prevent extremist opponents of the deal from derailing the transfer of power. Some 400 Palestinian police are waiting in villages near Hebron. Palestinian Brig. Gen. Tariq Zeid says he can get his people into position in a few hours. Additional troops may be brought in from other parts of the West Bank and Gaza. "After we redeploy, we will confiscate weapons that are a danger to the agreement," General Zeid says, referring to arms caches reportedly held by Islamic militants. Outside of the Israeli military presence, the occupation of everyday life for Palestinians here is already effectively over. Many municipal departments once controlled by the Israeli civil administration - such as water, health, agriculture, labor and education - have already been transferred to the Palestinians. Palestinian legislative council members from Hebron already represent residents. Political offices display Palestinian flags, and the mayor's office bears a portrait of the PA leader, Mr. Arafat. "These are the aspects that touch the everyday lives of the Palestinians," says Second Lt. Peter Lerner, an Israeli Civil Administration spokesman. "The only real difference is for the Palestinian police to be there. The problems are places where there is lots of contact between Palestinians and Israelis. It's going to be a very long and hard test." Indeed, there will be no hard border or wall between the two areas, since some Palestinians live in the region to remain under Israeli control, and both Jews and Muslims will be able to pray at their shared holy site - the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham is supposed to be buried. Life on the line In this area of town that is regularly a site of friction, no one seems to be able to envision a social detente. Najati Sultan, whose refrigerator repair shop is on the dividing line, says business is already bad because other Palestinians would rather avoid this neighborhood. "If the settlers push us to trouble, believe me, we know how to answer them," says Mr. …