Little change seen in wake of West Bank mayor's return

The West Bank's most prominent Arab political leader, Nablus Mayor Bassam Shaka, has returned home in triumph, but neither Palestinian activists nor Israeli officials expect him to be more than a nuisance for the Israeli military occupation authorities.

Mayor Shaka gained international publicity last June when he lost his legs in a bomb attack. Despite his renown, Mr. Shaka is not believed to be capable of reviving the West Bank's moribund political leadership.

The twin attempts on the lives of Mr. Shaka and Ramallah Mayor Karim Khalaf in bomb attacks came after the May expulsion of the mayors of Hebron and Halhul and the Israeli policy of putting other West Bank mayors under town arrest. This was accompanied by house arrest for members of the National Guidance Committee -- a radical body of Palestinian mayors, professionals, and union representatives.

Taken as a whole, these developments have immobilized the West Bank's Arab leadership. But Mayor Shaka's return may give the Palestinians new hope.

"Shaka has the advantage that he is not only self-confident but also has been severely punished already," one West Bank expert said. He added that "Israel will hesitate to punish him further and Shaka will take advantage of this."

Upon his return to Nablus Jan. 4, Mr. Shaka appeared to be trying to make the most politica capital out of his current prominence. For example, he spoke in radical Palestinian cliches that other West Bank notables would be reluctant to express publicity.

But diplomats and West Bank experts doubt that he will be capable of significantly influencing the situation. "He will be more free to ignore his ton arrest," one expert said, "but so what? What difference will it make?"

Mr. Shaka's display of courage -- he now walks with artificial legs -- serves as a source of inspiration to many West Bank Palestinians who, despite the symbolism of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), crave a leadership that can cope with the daily problems of the occupation.

Addressing the crowds that scrambled through the broken windows of the Nablus municipal library to catch a glimpse of their mayor and martyr, Mr. Shaka emphasized that he had not lost touch with the people during his extended stay abroad for medical treatment.

Diplomats and West Bank-watchers feel Mr. Shaka is handicapped by the fact that he represents the what is called the "transitional leadership in the Israeli-occupied territories." He is one of the radical Palestinian leaders who gained office in the 1976 municipal elections. But at the same time, he is a scion of a prominent conservative Nablus merchant family.

During his latest stay abroad, Mr. Shaka met with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Syrian President Hafez Assad, and Jordan's King Hussein. "No one from the occupied territories has met so openly with these leaders," one observer said, pointing out that this establishes Mr. Shaka's credentials with both Palestinian radicals and supporters of the Hashemite kingdom.

"His problem is: what happens tomorrow?" a Middle East expert points out. "Will he choose for his family, which has strong business interests in Amman, or for the PLO? As long as he is not forced to make a choice, he's in good shape."

An occupied population has a certain degree of control over its situation. "They decide if the place goes up in flames or remains quiet," one political scientist who keeps a close tab on West Bank developments said. He added that in the case of the Israeli-occupied territories, "The West Bankers have not quite decided to spill their blood for the land. These guys are not dumb. They know that they have the option of emigrating to the West."

Mr. Shaka vowed upon his return to Nablus that the National Guidance Committee "will persist and continue." "But," said one Palestinian professor in Nablus to welcome the mayor, "the situation is 100 percent frozen." He added that "you cannot have an effective committee which is not even capable of meeting."

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