New Self-Rule Plays Well in West Bank

Palestinians look toward Israeli withdrawal and self-rule in the West Bank with both hope and expectation

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OHAMMED YUSUF says he is able to dream again.

"The occupation killed my dreams," says Mr. Yusuf, a restaurant worker here who looks forward to the end of 28 years of Israeli occupation with both expectation and hope.

During the nearly three decades of Israeli administration, Yusuf abandoned his# dream of owning his own restaurant and survived years of unemployment and humiliation in a town that acquired a reputation as one of the most militant centers of Palestinian resistance.

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Israel took the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. It has since maintained control over the territory mainly because of security reasons.

If plans remain on schedule, an agreement on a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank will be signed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Washington on July 25. And the Israeli Army will withdraw from Nablus and three other West Bank towns by the end of August.

Yusuf sees the dawning of a new era. "I think there will be a total change in the life of Palestinians when the Israeli soldiers withdraw from our city.

"For the first time in nearly three decades, we will have our own people in charge, and the daily harassment by Israeli soldiers will end," says Yusuf, who works as a waiter at the al-Nojoum Cafeteria here.

He foresees economic problems persisting for some time. And he says there's sure to be confusion over the partial #pullback by Israeli troops, who will remain in some areas to protect about 130,000 Israeli settlers.

The years of conflict in Nablus and the people's rejection of the Israeli Civil Administration led to the collapse of most municipal services, and the virtual stagnation of the once-thriving commercial and industrial sector of the West Bank's largest town.

The town's council collapsed around 1987. For the next seven years the town had no mayor and no civic leaders supported by the 150,000 people in a predominantly Muslim town.

But a year ago, as a result of the 21-month-old Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Nablus acquired a new mayor, Ghassan Shakah, who has succeeded in transforming the appearance of the town in preparation for the withdrawal of Israeli troops, which is expected to take place by the end of August.

Mr. Shakah, a respected lawyer, is part of the Palestinian Authority - a council appointed by PA leader Yasser Arafat to implement the September 1993 self-rule agreement in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

"We are doing our best to rebuild the city and get the services working smoothly again so that it will be easier for the PA when they take over in the West Bank," Shakah says. "What we need, first of all, is our liberty. Then we will be able to decide ourselves what is good for us.

"At the moment the Israelis decide everything from who is granted building permits to what kind of food prisoners receive," he says. "But we are entering a new stage now, and I think we will notice a change immediately. We will organize ourselves to build and develop our city and our homeland on the road to a Palestinian state."

Yusuf is pleased with the visible improvements in the town's roads and public facilities and its municipal services, such as refuse collection and street-cleaning.

He is also encouraged by some of the symbolic changes that followed Mr. Arafat's return to Gaza last July and the Israeli government's subsequent transfer of five of the 32 administrative functions in the West Bank to the PA.

The most notable of these is the daily practice in Palestin#ian schools of singing their anthem and flying their flag. This was outlawed during almost three decades of occupation.

BUT the years of occupation have left their marks on many Palestinians. "It became a daily occurrence to be pushed around by the Israeli soldiers," Yusuf says. "If I had had the power to resist, I would have done so. But I knew that the soldiers had the guns and the power to shoot."

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Yusuf has never been detained in an Israeli jail and has not lost any of his immediate family in the turbulent campaign against Israeli occupation.

During the most intense years of the intifadah - a spontaneous Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that began in 1987 - Yusuf worked in a restaurant in the Israeli commercial center of Tel Aviv.

But after the outbreak of the Gulf war #in 1991, Israel withdrew his work permit. He returned to his home village of Beit Fureek, about seven miles southeast of Nablus, to his wife and parents. But he was unable to find work.

"It was really hard to sit at home and do nothing," he says. "I often though#t I would prefer to die than just sit and do nothing."

Despite the complex and gradual nature of the phased withdrawal, Yusuf is confident that the PA will create new economic opportunities and that investors will eventually launch projects in the town and rid it of its dependence on the Israeli market.

"We are hoping that the PA will open factories and help people find jobs in agriculture or advance them start-up money to open their own businesses," he says.

He is also hopeful that the arrival of about 12,000 Palestinian police on the West Bank will reverse the lawlessness that has seized West Bank towns during the decades of Israeli occupation.

"Right now, we are not safe in the streets. You don't know who will attack you. It could be an Israeli soldier, an Israeli collaborator, a gangster, or a common criminal," he says. "When the PA is in charge, we will be able to discuss our problems with someone that we trust, and we will be able to reach compromises. The Israelis are not interested# in our people's problems."

Yusuf is not starry-eyed about the Palestinian leadership, but he insists that they are the only legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people. "We don't have an alternative to the PA. They are the only people who can take care of the Palestinians," he says. "Don't forget, the Israeli withdrawal is just a step toward establishing our Palestinian state . . . then we can decide who we want as our leaders."

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