Jubilant Arabs welcome return of Nablus mayor

The triumphant return here of a small, wiry, legless man with a wide grin has brought jubilation to Palestinians and a potential problem for the Israelis. Nablus Mayor Bassam Shaka, returning from recuperation in Amman, Jordan, after a car bombing in early June blew off his legs, evoked a frenzied burst of adulation and Palestinian patriotism from his welcomers. It underlined his new role as a symbol of the Palestinian cause.

"In spirit, in blood, we are your men, Bassam," hundreds of Nablus residents chanted as the carried him up his driveway, nearly crushing him in their frenzy.

"All my life for you, my people," he shouted back, ebullient despite his long journey. As he waved the V-sign, throngs jammed the roof and family compound, singing, "Palestine is ours, Palestine is Arab," while overjoyed youths sacrificed a sheep atop his ambulance.

But to the Israelis, the man who, until his injury, led the now-dormant West Bank political directorate spearheading resistance to the Camp David accords, is a hot potato. Handling him becomes complicated by his condition, by the international attention focused on him since the bombings, and by the fact that his assailants, who remain uncaught, may well be extremist Jews.

Mayor Shaka was considered a radical by the Israelis for his strong support of a pro-Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) state. Their reversal (under international pressure) of plans to deport him last year, over which all elected West Bank mayors resigned, boosted him to prominence throughout the West Bank.

His fortitude since the bombing -- he plans to return to his office on July 12, only a month afterward -- has won him popular admiration.

Most important, he now symbolizes, the Palestinian struggle, even to those Palestinians who criticized him politically for his opposition to Jordan's influence on the West Bank and to PLO leader Yasser Arafat's tactical alliance with King Hussein of Jordan.

Explains Dr. Hatem Abu Ghazalleh, a Nablus city councilor, "After the explosion, Bassam is bigger than just himself. HE represents our opposition to the occupation. Now we have to give him all solidarity and help."

Israel's concern about Mr. Shaka's influence was amply demonstrated by the precautions the Israelis took to contain his return. Nablus residents were forbidden to leave town to welcome him en route, and festivities were limited to locals in the area of his home. Israel Radio reported that he would not be allowed to give interviews to the press.

But Mayor Shaka was holding court for reporters half an hour after his arrival home. He insisted that the Israeli government was behind the bombings, "if not in a plan, then as a result of their policies, "especially the encouragement of Jewish right-wing settler groups on the West Bank.

For the time being, however, the Shaka presence is likely to be more of a morale booster for the Palestinians than a spur to renewed political activity. He will remain here only one month before leaving for France, where he is invited to meet the president, and to England to be fitted for artificial limbs.

The Israelis will watch him closely and are likely to maintain the "hard-hand" occupation policy that has kept things relatively quiet on the West Bank since the bombings.

Moreover, of the four leading elected Arab mayors, Mr. Shaka is the only one present. One, also a car-bombing victim, is receiving treatment in the United States.

Two others, deported for alleged incitement in May, are awaiting the results of an Israeli Supreme Court hearing on whether they can return to the West Bank.

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