TUNIS, Tunisia — Even as the first contingent of Palestinian police crossed into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, the Palestine Liberation Organization faced a crisis in naming its new Palestinian Authority, which will preside over autonomy in Gaza and Jericho until elections this fall.
Key PLO officials say PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat has been repeatedly rebuffed by Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories as he tries to set up the 24-member governing council.
"People are depressed, and it seems that the end of the problem will not come soon," an Arafat adviser said Tuesday. "Until now, many people are refusing."
Over the weekend, the PLO Executive Committee was unable to come up with a list of names for the new government and postponed a decision until after Arafat's trip to South Africa for the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela. But with Arafat's scheduled return here today, there is still no certainty he will find the leaders he needs for the council.
A growing number of Palestinian leaders view the authority, which will be only temporary and subject to Arafat's whims, as a ticket to political suicide, or worse.
"It seems that nobody is accepting to be used for three months," one PLO official said. "It could be the end of your reputation--and maybe your life."
Key leaders from the occupied territories--such as Faisal Husseini, Ghassan Khatib and Saeb Erekat--have all refused posts on the authority, which is to be headed by Arafat and draw 60% of its members from inside the territories.
On Monday, Arafat is said to have phoned Gaza Strip Palestinian leader Zakaria Agha from South Africa to urge him to join the council. Agha, a PLO official here said, told Arafat, "Until now, it's not clear what my responsibility, my power, will be."
The official noted: "People see this as just nominating names with no clear idea of the future, and there is no support, no investment. Arafat is having big troubles."
Another PLO official said that, as matters now stand, it appears that even the next executive committee meeting after Arafat's return "will not be successful."
Arafat was able to persuade Agha, Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij and Gaza Bar Assn. chief Freij abu Midan to sign on to the authority, according to reports Tuesday from the occupied territories.
The first contingent of the Palestinian police, 148 men in olive-drab uniforms and green berets, crossed into the Gaza Strip from Egypt on Tuesday afternoon. But the group was held at immigration for hours by Israeli security officials, for identity checks and luggage searches.
"We are letting 9,000 terrorists, retrained and armed to be policemen, into Gaza and the West Bank," an Israeli army officer said, explaining the delay. "Is it any wonder we are rather careful about who is who and what he is bringing?"
Arafat, interviewed by Israel Television in South Africa, exploded with anger over the delay when asked whether he had not asked for a slowdown in the hand-over because the PLO was not ready. "Who asked for the delay?" he snapped at the interviewer. "Our security forces are there. We have not asked for the delay--not one hour, not one day. Who can ask for a delay in returning to his homeland?"
The lengthy processing deprived the policemen of the popular welcome Gazans had planned. For the third day, thousands of people had gathered outside the Rafah border post to greet the police, all members of the Palestine Liberation Army, and thousands more lined the roads, standing around campfires until well past midnight.
More Palestinian police are expected to enter the West Bank town of Jericho as well as Gaza today. Israeli troops handed over the first of the Gaza bases they will transfer to the Palestine police.
"This is a historic day for the Palestinian people because this will be the first day on the road to independence," said Maj. Gen. Nasser Yousef, commander of the Palestinian police.
Despite the slow start, plans still call for 6,000 police to be deployed by May 25.
But PLO leaders say Israel has told them that no substantial action on admitting the officers will occur until the Palestinian Authority is named. And even after the officers enter, they say, Israel has said they must remain in camps in Gaza until Israel completes its withdrawal from the new autonomous zones.
The delay in naming the new governing council reflects both factional disputes and growing challenges to Arafat's single-handed leadership style that have plagued the PLO for months. But it is also a sign of the general confusion in Tunis as the PLO prepares to take on the greatest challenge in its history: the transition to governing its own people.