Whose West Bank? Jews, Arabs voice rival claims
| Bethlehem, Israeli-occupied West Bank
Hostility between Arab and Jew on the Israeli-occupied West Bank is growing toward unprecedented proportions. Latest indication of this is the bitter resignation of the normally cheerful, rotund Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem -- a resignation which also deprives the Israeli-occupied West Bank of its lending moderate politician.
Another moderate, the most prominent leader in the Gaza Strip, Mayor Rashad Shawa, resigned earlier in the week. Both were deeply angered by the maiming to two fellow Arab mayors by car bombs June 2.
Coming on the heels of the expulsion of two of the most influential West Bank mayors last month, these woundings and resignations leave the two territories denuded of all the leading mayors. As one Western diplomat commended morosely:
"Even if Israel and Egypt ever agree on autonomy, there are no Palestinians left to be in on it -- they are either exiled dismembered, or they've quit."
In an angry letter of resignation addressed to the Israeli military government, Mayor Freij denounced what he called a "campaign of humiliation and disrespect . . . by Israeli occupation authorities" against West Bank Arab mayors and daily "arbitrary and oppressive measures against the population."
"There isn't any mayor on the West Bank who called for peaceful coexistence lik e I did," Mayor Freij told The Christian Science Monitor angrily.
A Christian businessman and political pragmatist who sees himself in a special ambassadorial role as mayor of the Christian holy city of Bethlehem, the mayor often came under criticism on the West Bank for his wide acquaintance with Israeli officials and foreign diplomats.
On June 3, before his resignation, as part of the new hard-line policy to combat commercial protest strikes and other acts of protest, Israel soldiers forced open Mayor Freij's tourist shop across from City Hall efore opening time without prior notification, breaking the glass and accidentally starting a fire inside with their torches.
"I will not let them humiliate me," Mayor Freij exclaimed loudly. "They are destroying all bridges of understanding between Israelis and Arabs."
This viewpoint was underlined also by the resignation of Mayor Shawa of Gaza in a burst of anger immediately after news of the car-bombings. Like Mr. Freij, Mr. Shawa was a moderate with ties to both Jordan and the negotiations-minded segment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He had no qualms about meeting with Israeli leaders or American diplomats.
Meanwhile, says Mr. Freij, the current quiet in the West Bank is due to "an Israeli hand so heavy people can't breathe." But conversations around the West Bank reveal an underlying tension bordering on hysteria and a growing belief -- now voiced openly from all quarters -- that Israel is consciously trying to drive Palestinians out of the West Bank, or at least is willing to countenance Jewish terrorist groups with that aim.
The bomb attacks on the mayors have left West Bankers in shock. They are afraid of vigilante moves by Jewish extremist settlers. Frequently voiced in Arab living rooms are quotes from an anonymous press statement by an unknown Jewish group called "Terror Against Terror," which takes credit for the bombings and says "our aim is to expell all the Arabs."
"They [the Israelis] are deliberately trying to wipe out our leadership," said one prominent young intellectual, repeating a sentiment heard with increasing frequency.
Half-Hearted charges by some Israelis that the assassination attempts were perpetrated by the PLO were dismissed by Mayor Freij as "crazy," a sentiment echoed by Mr. Shawa.
Many West Bankers feel they have no one to whom they can turn for help. After 00 merchants were rounded up and held in the wee hours of June 4 to compel them to open their strike-closed shops in Jerusalem's old city, one complained bitterly to Israel radio: "We re afraid of your police who force us to open, we are afraid the PLO will burn our shops if we don't stay closed, and we are afraid of Jewish extremists."
Says Mayor Freij, "If this government falls, at least I will have friends in [a future] Labor Party government I can talk to. In this government, with [ Moshe] Dayan and [Ezer] Weizman gone now, who is left to speak with? We are besieged."