Israel tries to outflank West Bank leadership
Hebron, Israeli-occupied West Bank — In a tree-shaded building near the entrance to Hebron a burly, mustachioed, tough-taliking Palestinian named Mustafa Dudin dispenses financial aid to area villagers.
Mr. Duddin is head of the Union of Hebron Villages. His organization has been fostered and funded by the Israeli military occupation authorities to sidestep politically hostile Palestinian urban leaders.
Israeli military officials say Mr. Dudin is a "moderate" they can talk to. But elected West Bank municipal officials call him a quisling.
The disagreement highlights can issue critical to revival of the Israeli-Egyptian talks on West Bank and Gaza autonomy: Can Israel find Palestinian leaders willing to participate in Israel's version of self-rule?
Or, if established leaders refuse -- as has been the case until now -- can Israel create an "alternative leadership" that will talk on its terms?
Israel insists that autonomy applies to West Bank and Gaza inhabitants -- not to the territory -- and should be limited to administrative control of local affairs. The Israeli government stresses that autonomy "means neither sovereignty nor self-determination." Israel says it will press for "its right of sovereignty" over the West Bank and Gaza after a stipulated five-year transition period.
Established West Bank and Gaza leaders -- elected mayors, heads of charitable and professional societies, academics, and most pro-Jordanian notables -- have opposed such an autonomy. They insist on full self-determination and say that Israel must negotiate with the Palestinian Liberation Organization(PLO).
Israel military authorities have been working in recent months to encourage a more accommodating leadership. This policy -- reportedly endorsed by new Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon -- holds that Israel should intervene more directly in West Bank politics in order to support figures willing to cooperate with Israel and to impose sanctions on those who support the PLO and reject autonomy.
Over the past year and a half, two West Bank mayors were deported for incitement, two others maimed in as-yet-unsolved car bombings, and all restricted at various times to their home towns.
In August 1981, Israeli authorities launched an offensive aimed to sever ties between West Bank leaders and the PLO. They argue that Palestinian leadership more friendly to Israel will emerge if it is not fearful of assassination by the PLO. West Bank mayors have been warned that open verbal support for the PLO is banned along with political statements to the press. They have also been told not to meet with PLO officials abroad.
Most potent, the Israelis have banned funds from Arab states that pass through a joint PLO-Jordanian screening committee in Amman. Since 1979 these funds have become the mainstay of West Bank and Gaza Palestinian municipal budgets, especially as Israeli spending on the West Bank has shifted into building of Jewish settlements there.
"Cutting off this money is a tactic to pressure the towns for not cooperating with Israel," charged one West Bank municipal official.
At the same time the Israel government is fostering village unions -- three now exist around the major West Bank towns of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron -- which challenge the political influence of the towns and their mayors. Mr. Dudin is the only well-known West Banker so far associated with the unions, whose other organizers are little-known figures. The village unions enjoy close relations with the military government and receive ready approval and generous funding for development projects.
Israel radio reported that Mr. Dudin's Hebron union has obtained military government approval for more than 200 million shekels (about $16.5 million) worth of improvements in road building, electricity, and water projects. Mr. Dudin says the military government picks up half the cost of his projects. In contrast, the mayors of Bethlehem and Hebron say they received no money for development from the Israeli military authorities last year, only tax rebates. (When asked about these sums, an Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman said he "had no figures.")
West Bank residents say that dealings formerly processed through the municipalities -- like permits for reunions with family members in Arab countries or permissions for community projects -- must now be referred through the unions.
"If someone from the Hebron area has a problem with the Israeli military authorities and I ask for help, the Israelis will usually refuse," says Hebron's Mayor Mustafa Natshe. "But if the person goes through Dudin the military will help him."
Mr. Dudin's brother Muhammed was recently appointed agricultural cooperative director for the Hebron district by Israeli military authorities -- a key position for processing potential village union projects -- despite his 1973 conviction in absentia in a Jordanian court for theft of municipal funds. The military authorities have also suggested to American charitable agencies that distribute US aid funds on the West Bank that they route rural projects through the unions. So far none has done so.
Mustafa Dudin insists that he gets no special privileges from the military government and has no political ambitions. "I only want to help my people," he told the Monitor, gesturing expansively in shirtsleeves from behind a large desk at a map of 74 Hebron area villages. Before his union existed, he sys, these villages suffered badly, getting only PLO-approved funds "for political purposes."
A native of the Hebron area from a large clan, Mr. Dudin spent 30 years working in Egypt and as a Jordanian government official and Cabinet minister before returning home.
He ran unsuccessfully in the 1976 municipal elections before founding his union. "I am not a child," he said in booming tones, flashing two gold teeth. He lambasted his local critics as "communists," and chastised the PLO for not accepting "every Palestinian's right to express his opinion." Jews and Arabs, he said, "must live together and no political solution can cancel this."
But he denied that he was the military government's "man" or that he would participate in an autonomy scheme that sell short of self-determination.
Israeli officials are more sanguine. "To ensure our survival we must influence another people," said one official. "Dudin is someone we can count on. . . . We have to have moderates. We must smash the extremists politically, within the rules of the game, and reward the good people." Prof. Menahem Milson Hebrew University, an authority on Palestinian affairs and a former adviser to the military government, argues that it is now "incumbent on Israel to create a new situation [on the West Bank] in which the latent forces of moderation have the safety of expressing their political positions."
But West Bank leaders, along with other Israelis familiar with the area -- including journalists covering the West Bank and well-known Arabists -- challenge the existence of a genuine alternate leadership or the usefulness of creating one. Says Yehuda Litani, West Bank correspondent of the independent daily Haaretz: "Whoever thinks that somewhere in the territories there hides a leadership that fears to identify itself publicly does not know what he is talking about." He adds, "In Algeria in the 1950s the French tried all they could to encourage individuals who seemed moderate in their eyes -- but in the eyes of the majority of the population they were considered collaborators."
In a heated public debate last year, another former academic adviser to the military government, noted Arabist Prof. Amon Cohen of Hebrew University challenged Professor Milson's arguments. "It is impossible to foster Milson's arguments. "It is impossible to foster artificial leaders in the long run," argued Professor Cohen.
Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem, once considered a moderate by Israelis but now out of favor, denies that fear of the PLO holds back genuine "moderate" Palestinian leaders. The real problem, he says, is "not whom to speak to but what is there to speak about."