With a little help from their enemies, Arab mayors in the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River are evolving from small-time politicians into a potential leadership nucleus for a yet-unborn Palestinian state.
The latest stage in the process came June 2 when terrorist bombs maimed two Palestinian mayors and instantly handed them unprecedented political prominence.
"They can amputate my legs," whispered Mayor Bassam Shaka of Nablus, the West Bank's largest Arab town, from his hospital bed, "but not my struggle." Foreign -- and Israeli -- news media promptly carried the comments to the rest of the West Bank, to the also-occupied Gaza Strip, and worldwide.
In the long run, the strengthening of West Bank leaders could undercut exiled guerrilla chief Yasser Arafat's claim to "sole legitimate" representation of the Palestinians. But even the most moderate of Palestinian mayors share Mr. Arafat's immediate political goal, establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
In the view of some Middle East experts, recent actions of Israel and other sworn foes of such a state have unwittingly helped provide Palestinian nationalists with one key tool they had lacked -- a strong voice from and within the Israeli-occupied territories.
One question on June 3 was to what extent West Bank and Gazan Palestinians would manage to take advantage of the gift. Gaza Mayor Rashad Shawa resigned June 2 in protest against the bomb attacks, which he, other Palestinians, and even some prominent Israelis blamed on Jewish extremists.
Telephone callers identifying themselves as spokesmen for two previously unknown Jewish groups were quoted in the Israeli press June 3 as claiming responsibility for the terror strikes.
Another leading Palestinian mayor, Elias Freij of Bethlehem, followed Mr. Shawa's lead June 3. It was unclear whether the two bomb victims, Mr. Shaka and Mayor Karim Khalaf of Ramallah, would also step down and whether this might help the Israeli military government in the West Bank to crack down on their political activity.
Yet that, in any case, could prove difficult for the Israelis to accomplish.
Two years ago, the Palestinian mayors were a motley of small-time politicians , united largely in their vocal support of Mr. Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Some, including Mayor Shaka, owed their election less to a defined constituency than to membership in one of the prominent families that had long dominated local economic and political life.
The mayors' first boost came from Washington, and was both inevitable and intentional. President Carter's Camp David blueprint for Palestinian autonomy presupposed eventual participation by West Bank and Gazan leaders and promptly focused world attention on them.
The Israeli government, through actions ostensibly designed to curb certain mayors, further contributed to this process:
* In late 1979, the Israeli military detained Mayor Shaka after he was quoted -- misquoted, it turned out -- as condoning a Palestinian terrorist attack on Israeli civilians. He was ordered deported. He was also automatically thrust onto front pages worldwide.
Protests erupted throughout the West Bank and Gaza and even inside Israel, later embracing Western officials and bubbling into the United Nations. Israel, having handed Mr. Shaka a fame he could hardly have imagined, backed down and allowed him to stay.
* In early May of this year, hours after an ambush of Jews in the West Bank town of Hebron, the Israelis summarily deported Hebron Mayor Fahd Kawasmeh and Mayor Muhammad Milhem of nearby Halhul on charges of having incited the violence. Since the mayors were denied a legal hearing, Israel's own High Court has ordered the government to show cause for their expulsion.
Meanwhile, the two highly articulate Palestinian moderates are taking the West Bank's political message to the outside world, including the United States, and to outside news media.
"The mayors," as one Western diplomat put it, "are no longer minor, local figures. They have become known, first beyond their home towns, and increasingly beyond the West Bank and Gaza.
"Where this will lead is difficult to say," he commented.
But most diplomats agree on where it already has led -- to a united and strengthened local opposition to Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, and to increasing awareness abroad of the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians' difficulties, desires, and demands.