Jerusalem — The assassination of a Palestinian mayor in the West Bank has brutally challenged Prime Minister Shimon Peres's effort to promote local Palestinian rule. ``It's a character assassination of Arab moderates,'' Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij said of the slaying of Zafer Masri, mayor of Nablus, early Sunday.
Masri's assumed office four months ago with the tacit agreement of Jordan. His appointment was widely viewed as a test case for Mr. Peres's plan to restore local rule to several towns on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The mayors of those towns were deposed in 1982 in an effort to curtail Palestinian nationalist activism. Israeli military officers have run the towns since.
Peres has recently promoted his plan as an alternative made necessary by the lack of progress toward a negotiated solution to the Palestinian problem.
Masri was shot as he arrived at work at Nablus city hall. The city was plunged into mourning as Israeli troops imposed a curfew and searched for the assailant. The Nablus city council, meeting in emergency session, appointed Deputy Mayor Hafez Tukan as Masri's successor and vowed to continue the slain mayor's work.
Israeli security sources and Palestinian observers said they believed the shooting of Masri, who had wide public support, was the work of radical Palestinian groups opposed to any accommodation with Israel.
Two of these ``rejection front'' organizations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), headed by George Habash, and the Abu Nidal splinter group, claimed responsibility for the assassination in separate announcements from Damascus and Beirut.
The PFLP linked the slaying to the Israeli attempts to promote local Palestinian leadership, and to last month's speech by Jordan's King Hussein announcing stoppage of political cooperation with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PFLP said Masri was ``executed'' as a warning against cooperation with what it called a Jordanian-Israeli scheme to replace the PLO with a Palestinian leadership that would collaborate with the liquidation of the Palestinian cause.
Masri, a businessman and former head of the Nablus Chamber of Commerce, had adopted a pragmatic approach to his job and carefully avoided the kind of controversial political statements that led to the deposition of his Arab predecessor, Bassam Shaka. In a recent radio interview, Masri defined his goal as bettering the life of Nablus residents.
``It has nothing to do with the political process or peace process. It is something which is bringing things back to normal,'' Masri said.
The assassination ``will make it very difficult to have Arab [municipal] councils take over in the Arab towns of Hebron, Bireh, Ramallah, and Gaza,'' said Bethlehem's Mayor Freij.
Masri's murder ``will have a negative effect on all Palestinian leaders and increase their fears of moderate steps which could upset radical elements,'' Menahem Milson, a former head of Israel's West Bank civil administration, told Israel Radio. ``Every Palestinian politician will make his own calculation. It will require them to demonstrate hostility to Israel and reservations about the peace process.''
But Peres, who in a statement to the Cabinet admitted the murder was a ``blow to the residents of the territories and those who wish to see progress toward common understanding,'' vowed that ``the murder will not deter the Israeli Cabinet from proposing to residents of the territories that they administer their own affairs.''
Jordan, which used its support for the Masri administration to maintain its influence in the occupied West Bank, also condemned the murder. It called it an act of terrorism and said it served the Israeli occupation and settlement policy. The PLO, which reportedly also approved of Masri's appointment, expressed its condemnation in a statement from Tunis.
``The confrontation between Hussein and the [anti-Jordanian] forces has been sharpened by Hussein's speech,'' Mr. Milson said. ``It has created a complicated situation which has pushed Palestinian politics in a more extreme direction.''
Mansour Shawwa, a Gaza businessman and friend of Masri, said the extremism that led to the death of his colleague was evident in a generation of increasingly frustrated younger Palestianians, born under occupation, who see no immediate solution to their political plight.
``They have nothing to lose,'' he said. ``They just hate everybody.''