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>Israel Faxx
>PD Jan. 17, 1995, V3,#11

Joint Israeli-PLO Patrols in Gaza

By Al Pessin (Gaza Strip)

While Israeli and Palestinian negotiators struggle over the next stage of their peace agreement, hundreds of soldiers and policemen from the two sides have been thrust together and asked to work side-by-side to implement the first stage of the agreement. There have been problems. But officers and soldiers involved say that, overall, their joint patrols are a startling success story in the often troubled peace process. This reporter rode with one of the joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols in Gaza.

Information and orders crackle through the two-way radio in the Palestinian jeep on this joint patrol with the Israeli army. The Palestinian police lieutenant and his two young colleagues have made their rendezvous with their Israeli counterparts and set off, with their special orange flags flying, to patrol a stretch of beach and fruit orchards in southern Gaza. It is sunny, windy and, they are pleased to report, quiet.

They stop for a break along a small pond, with a herd of camels grazing in the distance. There is not much conversation as they stand around with their automatic weapons at the ready, but one of the Palestinian policemen offers everyone a small snack -- fresh fried falafel balls from a nearby Arab village.

Israeli Lt. Col. Kobi Michael is co-commander of the DCO, the District Coordination Office, command post for the joint patrols. "The joint patrols and the DCO's are the success point of all this agreement. Seven or eight months ago, we were enemies. They took a share in terrorist activities and we fought them and they fought us. And suddenly, we are sitting here together in the same office, at the same table and we drink coffee together and we eat together. It was something very, very unusual."

The Palestinian co-commander, Col. Abu el-Farid, in his identical office 20 meters away, puts it a different way.

Colonel el-Farid says the peace agreement has made the impossible possible. He says he never dreamed he would be working with an Israeli officer, but now, when they go on inspection tours they ride in the same car, just to prove to anyone who sees them that they are in this effort together.

The joint patrols operate in areas shared by Palestinians and Israelis following the withdrawal of Israeli troops from most of the Gaza Strip. They arbitrate disputes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers and between Israeli troops at checkpoints and Palestinian civilians who sometimes have trouble getting through.

The troops involved are constantly being changed, or switching to different shifts or areas, so relations on patrol are not so close. But at the command post, both colonels say they have developed a unique friendship and a mutual commitment to make the concept of joint patrols work. The Israeli commander, Col. Michael, puts it this way.

"We are the same officers in the same place 24 hours a day. We are eating together. We are sleeping together. We are sitting together a lot of times in his office or in my office. And we are talking not only about the work problems. He asks me about my daughters and he tells me about his daughters and about his family. And with time, we built a very close connection between us. And the friendship and the informal connection between us, I think causes a very strong mutual commitment between us. The relationship here is a very unique relationship. We are more than colleagues; we share the same aims. And I think that I can say that there is a friendship here."

And that is a startling thing to say about men who were on opposite sides of a conflict little more than a year ago.

The friendship between the Israeli and Palestinian officers was put to a severe test earlier this month. There were several shooting incidents between Palestinian police and Israeli troops.

Soldiers on both sides were reluctant to go on the joint patrols, fearing the other side would stage an ambush in a remote location. Once out on patrol they stayed far from each other and could no longer work effectively. Michael says he had an emergency meeting with el-Farid.

"We got together to understand that we have here a common problem. And Abu Farid and I went out and we made a common patrol in Abu el-Farid's vehicle to all the joint patrols and we joined them and we talked with them and we tried to calm the tension between them."

After a few days, the situation eased, and the two colonels say it was crucially important to ensure that what they call the strongest bridge between the Israeli and Palestinian forces not be irreparably damaged.

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about the joint patrols. Both Palestinians and Israelis have their complaints. Israeli settlers in Gaza worry about having armed Palestinian police so close by. They fear that if one of them decides to attack a settler, his Israeli colleagues might be reluctant to open fire fast enough. Some Palestinians in Gaza believe the joint patrols help extend the Israeli military presence in what is supposed to be autonomous territory.

Col. el Farid has a response for both sides. He says when there are problems the joint patrols are blamed. But he says when they actually manage to solve a dispute, they gain a lot of respect for themselves and for the entire peace process.

After a morning of work, the two colonels go out to lunch together. They leave Israeli and Palestinian communications officers behind at the command post. And nearby, men from both sides put on their flak jackets and sunglasses, sling their rifles over their shoulders and head out on joint patrol.

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