Car bombs that severely injured the two leading mayors of the Palestine West Bank have focused attention on right-wing Israeli extremists, who have been asserting with increasing violence their claim to control the entire area.
The two injured mayors, Karim Khalaf of Ramallah, who lost a foot, and Bassam Shaka of Nablus, who lost both legs, have been the predominant members of the unofficial West Bank political directorate, the National Guidance Committee, since the expulsion by Israeli authorities of two other leading mayor- members in May.
Seven other Arabs were injured June 2 when a grenade was tossed into the Hebron casbah by an unseen assailant. A third mayor, Bira's Ibrahim Tawil, also a member of the guidance committee, barely escaped death when a hidden bomb exploded near his car, seriously injuring an Israeli sapper who had arrived to check the vehicle.
Ramallah was tense but quiet as the news filtered through the town, perhaps because students were studying for final exams scheduled for June 3. But the future may have been presaged by the shooting of three students in the legs by Israeli soldiers when a group of youths gathered near the Ramallah municipal headquarters and threw stones.
West Bankers immediately blamed the bombing on extremist Israeli settler groups based on the West Bank, such as the right- wing Gush Emunim (Faithful Bloc) and the even more extremist Kach movement (Jewish Defense League), which has called for the explusion of all Arabs from the West Bank.
From his hospital bed, Mayor Khalaf accused "Gush, the settlers, and [ militant Jewish nationalist Rabbi Meir] Kahane [leader of Kach]" of "trying to get at those mayors who are against their policy. We are yearning for peace," he said. "They don't want peace. They just want a piece of land."
(American-born Rabbi Kahane is being held under three-month administrative detention by the Israeli government on suspicion of organizing an underground army to attack Arabs.)
Prime Minister Menachem Begin, while labeling the bombings "crimes of the worst kind," tried to discourage speculation about the perpetrators ". . . as long as we don't have prima facie evidence."
But Yossi Dayan, a spokesman for Kach, was less reticent. Acknowledging to UPI by telephone that Jews might have been responsible for the bombings, he said , "It's 30 days after the bombing of Hebron [on May 2, six Jewish settlers were killed in Hebron by unknown Palestinian gunmen] so somebody has to pay for this. This was done with coordination in the three main cities of the West Bank."
The bombings cap an escalating cycle of violence and counter- violence between Jewish settlers and hostile Palestinians on the West Bank. Because new settlements have been established, sometimes contrary to Israeli law, near Arab population centers, friction between Jews and Arabs has increased.
Stone-throwing by Arab youths at Israeli vehicles has been met with vigilante actions by settlers who protest that the Israeli Army does not protect them.
The settlers have become increasingly well organized and well armed. All male settlers are issued personal weapons, but in addition groups of settlements have set up their own regional security forces with arms and special training. Palestinian response has improved similarly in organization.
On April 23, Jewish settlers smashed 120 car windows and more than 70 home windows in Ramallah. The May 2 Hebron attack on the settlers indicated, according to Israeli security sources, a new high in local Palestinian coordination and military operation.
At the funeral for one of the victims in Hebron, Rabbi Kahane -- who had just been released from police detention for illegal distribution of leaflets in Ramallah calling for all Arab residents to get out -- swore vengeance for "this desecration."
Shortly afterward, he was detained without trial by the Israeli government. A report in the respected Israeli daily Haaretz on May 15 quoted official security sources as saying a reason for his detention was a report that Kach planned acts of violence on the West Bank. These included the murder of the exiled mayors of Hebron and Halhul should they be allowed to return.
The Israeli press also reported that police were checking the possible connection between Rabbi Kahane and two Israeli soldiers caught with a cache of arms and explosives hidden in Jerusalem's Old City. The cache was traced to a theft from an army base and represents only part of the weapons and explosives stolen.
The June 2 bombings indicate a high level of weapons expertise and meticulous planning, according to both Arab and Israeli observers. Mayor Khalaf's car was wired with two bombs apparently timed sequentially.
The mayors' movements were known. Mayor Tawil's car had been parked in a neighbor's garage for the past two weeks; his assailants knew this, indicating surveillance or leaked intelligence.
And the grenade in the Hebron casbah, located near the scene of the Hebron shooting a month ago, was thrown just as the three mayors were leaving for work. Experts surmise several units would have been needed for the operation.