"We must not give this story more importance than it deserves," economist Hisham Awartani said as he watched Israeli soldiers open the largest checkpoint in the area on Tuesday, signalling the transfer of security control.

For almost four years, Israeli troops at Anab Gate have controlled all traffic on the main road east from Tulkarim to the city of Nablus, setting up shortly after the Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000.

But the opening of the gate, known officially as Anabta Gate, and the deployment of armed, uniformed Palestinian police officers in the streets of Tulkarim, was the only tangible evidence of the transfer, and some wondered what all the fuss was about.

"We're talking about a photo op (opportunity) without meaning. A single Israeli patrol can easily re-block the traffic on this road," Awartani said.

Palpable discontent

The fact that Israeli soldiers merely opened the giant metal yellow gate rather than began to dismantle the contraption has only fanned feelings of discontent.

During the intifada, Tulkarim was
a stronghold of resistance groups

Reporting from Tulkarim, Walid al-Umari, Aljazeera's Palestinian bureau chief, said the transfer covers Tulkarim town, its refugee camps and six outlying villages, all of which will be completely handed over to the Palestinian Authority.

Control of three other villages - Alar, Ramin and Saida - will be also be transferred, but unarmed Palestinian policemen will be deployed there for two weeks on a tentative basis, al-Umari said.

A deal to replace the current arrangement will have to be worked out in the meantime.

Many residents of Tukarim town came out on the streets to celebrate the handover, al-Umari said, but still more Palestinians were upset that Israeli forces had not fulfilled their obligation of removing the gate and the concrete blocks.

Smallest district

Anab Gate links Tulkarim with Nablus and the rest of the West Bank, and is the only checkpoint the Israelis have agreed to remove in Tulkarim district, home to about 170,000 Palestinians.

Many Palestinians regard armed
policemen as a welcome sight

After Jericho, Tulkarim is the smallest district in the West Bank, which is probably why Israel agreed to hand over control of these two districts first.

Meanwhile, speaking to al-Umari, Brigadier Izz al-Din al-Sharif, governor of Tulkarim, said the Israeli army should implement its pledges and obligations on the ground.

"Anabta Gate has to be removed. Merely opening it is not enough. The agreement states the removal of this gate. They [Israelis] should respect the agreement," he said.

Hot air?

Al-Sharif quoted Israeli forces as saying they did not have a crane to remove the structure.

But Salim Mujahid, a 38-year-old builder, said: "Not taking down the gate shows the Israelis' bad intentions. They never stick to agreements."

Um Ali, a mother in her 50s, is another sceptic. "We don't trust the Israelis. I hope they don't re-close the barrier this evening," she said.

"Not taking down
the gate shows the Israelis' bad intentions. They never stick
to agreements"

Salim Mujahid,
Palestinian resident of Tulkarim

In a town largely dependent on salaries earned in Israel before the intifada resulted in lockdown, unemployed labourer Abd Allah Sulaiman, from Tulkarim's refugee camp, dismissed the Israeli handover as "hot air".

"We see our policemen in the streets, but the Israeli army still surrounds Tulkarim on all sides. Most roadblocks will remain and the wall is choking us," the 50-year-old said, referring to Israel's West Bank security barrier.

Others were less pessimistic but equally wary. "There's no doubt that opening this gate will improve the situation in Tulkarim, but a lot remains to be done," Usama Adas said.

No more clashes

Dressed in olive fatigues, Kalashnikov at the ready, one Palestinian officer on Tuesday was directing traffic in Tulkarim's central Martyr Thabit Thabit Square - named after a Fatah leader killed by Israeli troops at the beginning of al-Aqsa Intifada.

The opening of Anab Gate should
ease Tulkarim's commercial woes

"At the moment we can get on with our job without Israeli interference. We won't have clashes with Israeli troops because they won't be allowed in the town anymore," policeman Fuad Husain said.

Israelis have expressed their unhappiness with the presence of some armed Palestinian policemen, and called for their departure from around Anab Gate.

But barber Ibrahim Mirhi saw armed Palestinian policemen on the job as a good sign.

Security boost

Mirhi said: "It gives us a feeling of security. I hope they will keep the peace and end the chaos."

For his part, Tulkarim Governor al-Sharif told Aljazeera local residents are now free to enter and exit the town without having to get their identity documents checked.

"Citizens can now go to other parts of the West Bank, such as Nablus and Hebron, through this gate," he said.

Al-Sharif added: "Opening the gate will also ease our commercial woes, as it represents a bridge to the rest of the West Bank."