JENIN, West Bank -- Palestinian Col. Ribhi Arafat strode into a white mobile trailer yesterday to help take over the first major West Bank city from Israel.
His counterpart, an Israeli soldier, offered a handshake and said: "Congratulations, you now have Jenin," Colonel Arafat said later.
With that, Israel started the clock on a timetable of withdrawal that will dismantle its 28-year military occupation in Jenin within three weeks and in five other West Bank towns by the end of the year.
"It's a very, very important day," said the burly Palestinian officer, who spent the better part of 27 years in Algeria after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the June 1967 Six Day War. He is no relation to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Israel withdrew its troops from tiny Jericho and the Gaza Strip in May 1994. Yesterday began the second phase of the withdrawal promised in peace accords signed with the Palestinians in Washington in September 1993.
This phase will gradually remove Israeli troops from Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem by Jan. 1. By March 30, 1996, most Israeli troops are to leave troublesome He bron. Palestinian and Israeli patrols will share responsibility in West Bank rural areas containing more than 400 villages.
Unlike the withdrawals from Gaza and Jericho last year, there were restrained celebrations yesterday in Jenin, a farming town of 40,000 people. Palestinian officials said that was because of the drawn-out departure of the Israeli soldiers.
The dirty, two-story buildings of Jenin are spread over a hillside, and were dressed for celebration with banners and posters saluting the Palestinian Authority. Street vendors sold Palestinian flags and inflatable Yasser Arafat pillows for the occasion.
"We're happy the Israelis are leaving," said Yusef Mohammed Kabiyah, 19, waving a large Palestinian flag. "This is what we have struggled for for so long."
Gunshots of celebration rattled in the town as Israeli police abandoned the police station -- temporarily giving it to the Israeli army before it will be turned over to the Palestinian authorities in the coming days.
The gunshots were a reminder of the bitter resistance to Israeli rule that festered in Jenin. More than 150 Palestinians were killed in clashes and shootouts with Israeli security forces during the occupation. And the Black Panthers, one of the earliest Palestinian groups to forsake the tactic of civil disturbances in favor of using weapons to kill Israelis, got its start in the orchards and olive groves around Jenin.
"There weren't many Black Panthers left at the end," acknowledged Colonel Arafat. "The Israelis killed dozens of them."
Although Jenin residents said they are relieved to see the end of Israeli patrols through their town, they are sobered by the limitations of the withdrawal and the problems the city still faces.
The Israeli army will pull just a mile out of town, to new headquarters being carved out by bulldozers from six acres of tomato and orange groves confiscated from farmer Hassan Nazzal. Any Palestinian trying to leave without approval will be stopped by an army roadblock there.
The city's economy depends on selling vegetables grown in Jenin's fertile valley to northern Israeli towns and to Jordan. But trade with those markets has been disrupted by Israeli restrictions, leading to unemployment in Jenin estimated at more than 60 percent.
"We hope what happens today will be followed by economic agreements to help us," said the mayor of the city, Walid Abu Muwais. "The economic situation in Jenin is very, very bad right now."
Mr. Muwais is still settling into City Hall. The previous mayor, appointed by the Israelis, is considered a collaborator in Jenin. He now lives in the Israeli town of Tiberias, "enjoying a sun tan," and would be in danger if he were to return to Jenin, said Mr. Muwais, who was appointed by Yasser Arafat.
Mr. Muwais, a money-changer turned mayor, spent eight years in Israeli prisons. He spoke poetically of the departure of Israeli troops. "The rocks and the trees, they weep for joy today."
Rocks and trees, perhaps, but not water. Mr. Muwais said "the problem of all problems" he faces is lack of water. He said limits set by Israeli authorities restricted Jenin residents to eight gallons per person per day. That is about one-tenth of the amount used by nearby Jewish settlers, he said.
Israel has not returned control of the water to the residents. But Mr. Muwais hinted that the new Palestinian authorities will not search hard to find private wells that might be dug by residents.
Similarly, a Palestinian intelligence officer in plainclothes watching yesterday's formalities predicted that the Palestinian Authority will flood Jenin with police and "security forces," just as it has the Gaza Strip, regardless of limits set by Israel.
"We're probably not going to be restrained" by the Israeli demands, confided the officer, who requested anonymity.
The main billboard at the entrance to Jenin yesterday seemed designed to make that point. It challenged the Israelis' most fervently held claim, that of sole sovereignty to the city of Jerusalem, regarded by Israelis and Palestinians as their respective capital.
"Today is Jenin, Tomorrow is Jerusalem," the sign read.
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are to begin discussing the issue of Jerusalem, along with other difficult issues such as the Jewish settlements and the sovereignty of the West Bank, in May. The negotiations are scheduled to last three years.