Exiled West Bank mayors hope to go home after Israeli election

Two men most eagerly awaiting the outcome of the June 30 elections in Israel are not even Israelis. They are the Palestinian mayors of the Israeli-occupied town of Hebron and Halhul, on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

The two mayors were deported to Lebanon almost a year ago in the emotional wake of the murder of six Jewish settlers in Hebron by Palestinians. The first anniversary of their expulsion from Israel is May 2.

Today the two wait in Amman, only hours by road from their homes, hoping that if an Israeli Labor Party government is elected to replace the present Likud coalition that deported them, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres may allow them to go home.

The mayors' importance surpasses their small-town status. Muhammad Milhem, a former high-school English teacher, and Fahd Kawasmeh, an agricultural engineer, were leaders of the only body of formally elected Palestinian officials anywhere , the 26 mayors of the West Bank.

As such they were touted by United States diplomats and European leaders such as Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky as a possible bridge between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel in future peace negotiations.

Labor Party shadow foreign minister Abba Eban has stressed that his party, unlike the present Likud Party coalition, would place strong emphasis on talking with elected West Bank political leaders. But Mr. Peres will not confirm reports that he indirectly promised, if elected, to allow the mayors' return.

After their expulsion last year, the mayors received more attention than PLO leader Yasser Arafat. They made four trips to the United States, met European leaders, and visited Arab heads of state.

Today, with international attention focused on the Gulf, they are living in Amman, without offices or clear function, spending their days giving speeches or attending political discussions. They are determined to avoid being pulled into official PLO politics, lest Israel use this as grounds to prevent their reentry.

But their main attention is still focused on getting home, even if this means curtailing their political activity. Sitting in the lobby of a Palestinian-owned hotel in Amman, where West Bankers frequently stopped to embrace him, Mayor Kawasmeh spoke bitterly about the Israeli government decision to ignore an Osraeli Supreme Court ruling that the mayors be allowed to return.

"Those who committed the Hebron murders were caught and the Israelis know we had nothing to do with it, so why won't they let us come back?" demanded the mayor. Under the Geneva Convention, it is illegal for an occupier to deport citizens, he noted.

The Israeli military authorities on the West Bank accused the mayors of "incitement" in their speeches at home and abroad. They also criticized the mayors for their leading role in the West Bank political directorate, the National Guidance Committee, which coordinated Palestinian opposition to the Camp David peace accords.

The mayors do not deny their support for the PLO or their opposition to the Camp David accords, which, they think, would deny Palestinians self-determination. But Mayor Kawasmeh argues that the guidance committee could have developed into "a bridge between Israel, the PLO, and the Arabs." He recalls with fervor, "I built a relationship with Jewish groups. I had SHELLI, MAPAM [left-of-center Israeli parties], and Peace Now [a dovish lobbying group] in my living room."

Both mayors are more flexible than the PLO leadership in Beirut where PLO foreign minister Farouk Khaddoumi recently rejected the idea of recognition of Israel even if Israel recognizes the PLO. "When I say I support the idea of two states," Mayor Kawasmeh told the Monitor, "this means mutual recognition and normalization. For me personally I have no objection to normal relations." He stressed, however, that he could not talk for the PLO.

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