The West Bank: a volatile history

Palestinian leaders in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip owe a lot to the Camp David peace process -- even though they have refused to take part in it. The world attention showered on them after Camp David's call for West Bank-Gaza self-rule, or "autonomy," forced them to take a fresh look at their situation.

Their hostility to autonomy (as representing continued occupation in disguise) galvanized new political activism and institutions on the West Bank. A public West Bank-wide political directorate was formed for the first time after Camp David to oppose the self-rule plan and agitate for a Palestinian state.

Israeli expulsion of two West Bank mayors and the mysterious car-bomb maiming of two others -- all members of the directorate -- have now projected the four into international prominence. Arab and Israeli analysts believe that West Bank and Gaza leaders may one day play a role as intermediaries between an acquiescent Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and a future Israeli government, if a mutually acceptable negotiating formula can be found.

Before Camp David, West Bank leaders were relatively minor figures, divided politically by family and geographical rivalries. They looked outside for leadership: Some were loyal to King Hussein of Jordan, who ruled them before 1967; others backed the claim of the PLO to dominance in the area. PLO supporters in the West Bank were subordinate in the Palestinian hierarchy to leaders in the PLO's Beirut headquarters.

No West Bank-wide leadership existed. Jordan had discouraged any areawide institutions during its 1948-67 rule of the area. After 1967, Israel encouraged traditional local leaders who favored the return of King Hussein. But Israel permitted municipal elections in 1976, which returned a crop of younger, pro-PLO nationalist mayors and municipal councilors. Until Camp David, they, too, stressed the local nature of their jobs and their subordina tion to the PLO in Beirut.

After Camp David, a large segment of West Bank and Gaza figures, including mayors, doctors, lawyers, journalists, Communist Party members, and others, formed the National Guidance Committee, the public West Bank political directorate, to coordinate local opposition to Camp David.

While declaring overall allegiance to the PLO, they did not hesitate to deviate from directives of Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, on tactical issues. They argued that they knew the West Bank scene better than did Beirut.

The guidance committee may be a temporary phenomenon. It has been hard hit by the loss of the four mayors and threatened with banning by the Israelis. On the West Bank, it is opposed by conservatives, pro-Jordanians, supporters of Mr. Arafat's Al-Fatah wing of the PLO, and Islamic forces.

For the moment, the committee's existence is sustained by Israeli pressure -- forcing all West Bank Palestinians to stand together -- and by the martyrdom of its injured mayor-members. Whether or not it survives, the precedent has been set for a West Bank-wide political infrastructure.

In political outlook, the West Bank leadership is united behind the symbol of the PLO. But there the unity ends. Supporters of King Hussein include some mayors, traditional village and clan leaders, former Jordanian officials and civil servants who still collect salaries from Amman, and Islamic leaders (whose power on the West Bank is far less than in other Arab countries).

Since King Hussein's tactical post-Camp David rapprochement with Mr. Arafat, pro-Jordanians now publicly back the PLO and are allied with supporters of Mr. Arafat's PLO mainstream Al-Fatah guerrilla organization.

The guidance committee is linked with the more strident, less negotiation-oriented wing of the PLO (though these distinctions are somewhat blurred after the hard-line rhetoric at Al-Fatah's recent conference in Damascus , Syria).

The Israeli military government calls the committee "rejectionist." But on the West Bank, where both radicals and moderates are eager to end occupation and are both still influenced by traditional conservative clan values, "rejectionists" are still more moderate than in Beirut.

Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 boundary lines is now the bottom line for all West Bank leaders. But even guidance committee members admit the necessity of links between a Palestinian state and the moderately pro-Western King Hussein. And many of them publicly accept the concept of mutual recognition between Israeli and Palestinian states.

While the Camp David autonomy plan seems a dead letter with West Bank and Gaza leaders, they may yet provide a bridge, with their more serious post-Camp David standing, between Jerusalem and Beirut.

As for the Gaza Strip, it is a narrow, sandy 25-mile coastal section along the Mediterranean, whose 17 years of Egyptian rule after 1948 left it more lacking in institutions and leadership than the West Bank. While only 10 percent of West Bankers live in refugee camps, almost half of Gaza's 430,000 residents are refugees. The vast majority live in nine camps, several of which are as big as an average West Bank town.

Egypt fostered a Palestinian identity here but never allowed elections. Mayors are appointed, and the only quasi-political body is the Red Crescent Medical Society, whose annual elections last year, which produced a left-leaning PLO slate, provided a political barometer.

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