JERICHO, West Bank, May 13 -- Palestinians hoisted their flag over the central police station in Jericho Friday, declaring the beginning of self-rule with exuberant celebration and dancing in the streets.
Residents of the small town, which is due to become the administrative center of Palestinian autonomy, held an all-night party at a farm with Palestinian policeman who came in from Jordan.
'Today is a new day for Jericho,' said Ibrahim Samkhouri, a restaurant owner who watched the police convoy entering town from his home.
Brig. Gen. Gadi Zohar, the head of Israel's Civil Administration, formally surrendered authority over the town to Palestinian officials at a ceremony just after dawn.
Israeli troops immediately withdrew and the new police went to the roof of their headquarters in the central square to fly the red, green, white and black banner of their people.
A sign hanging outside a store across the square said: 'Yesterday South Africa, today Jericho.'
Israeli soldiers sealed off the town at midnight and prevented other Israelis and foreign journalists from entering. Only a handful of reporters who spent the night in Jericho witnessed the dawn of Palestinian rule.
Foreign reporters appealed to Israel's Supreme Court for an order allowing them to enter Jericho.
Throughout the town of some 6,000 people, the mood turned virtually overnight from frustration with the delay in Israel's withdrawal to heartfelt joy over the beginning of Palestinian self-rule, which they hope will eventually lead to an independent state.
Autonomy for Jericho came three days after Israel first turned over authority for several towns in the Gaza Strip to a vanguard of 150 Palestinian police who entered from Egypt. Israel has said it plans to complete its withdrawal from Palestinian population areas in Gaza by next Wednesday. The army will maintain a significant presence in Jewish settlements, where some 5,000 Israelis plan to remain.
The advent of self-rule in Jericho came exactly eight months after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands for the first time at the White House and agreed on the institution of Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and Jericho. The two met against last Wednesday in Cairo to sign the accord. Over the next three years, autonomy is scheduled to extend to most of the remainder of the West Bank, excluding Jewish settlements.
About 20 Palestinian police commanders entered Jericho on Thursday and were followed by about 60 others. A group of 300 were waiting on the other side of the Jordan River, awaiting permission to enter.
Friday morning, Palestinian police officers were patrolling the town's streets. Abbas, a 25-year-old recruit, would not give his last name, but said he had trained in Iraq. Although looking bedraggled for lack of sleep, he said he was happy to be finally in Jericho and greeted by the entire town.
'I felt like I was being welcomed by my entire family,' he said.NEWLN: (Edited by Jonathan Ferziger in Jerusalem)