The West Bank's Arabs -- caught in the middle

Nimr Abul Karim Ubeid, headman of this Arab farm hamlet on the occupied West Bank, assumes the Jewish settlement of Barqan across the road is there to stay. He resents this. (The Jewish outpost sits on land traditionally belonging to Haris.)

But life is full of things people may not like. Allah provides. If not Allah, maybe America. Nimr Abul Karim, meanwhile, has a more modest concern: bringing electricity to his village.

Israel and the Arab world, in separate ways and for separate reasons, are making that very difficult.

''I am caught in between,'' the headman sighs. He is not alone.

Beyond the sporadic outbursts of Palestinian student violence against the Israeli occupation, the West Bank remains largely a peasant society -- angry, but lacking leaders or organization to give that anger coherent direction.

And just about everyone outside (Israeli or Arab) is both feeding that anger and undermining local moves to give it focus.

There is an important exception. Arab money has helped open several Palestinian universities. They -- along with the harsher aspects of Israeli occupation, and Palestine Liberation Organization rhetoric -- have helped encourage the emergence of a West Bank youth that is far more politically conscious, and politically active, than its parents.

But the change is a slow one -- diluted, among other things, by the departure of many of the young to work or study abroad. More quickly, the disputed territory is becoming wedded ever more tightly to the Israeli state that occupies it.

''The PLO keeps saying time is on our side,'' confides one prominent local West Bank politician, who publicly supports the mainstream Palestinian guerrilla organization. ''I think they are wrong. . . . Time is on the Israelis' side.''

Nimr Abul Karim disappears inside the stone house he built before the Israelis came, with money he earned as a policeman under both British and Jordanian rule of the territory, and returns with tea and coffee for three Arab guests: a neighboring farmer, his own nephew (who works as a delivery boy in Israel), and a young Palestinian activist from Arab east Jerusalem.

Then the headman brings out a map, takes a seat on the terrace and a sip of tea, and opens the document over his knees. ''Here is the plan for electricity. . . . The (Israeli) military government approved it. I was going to get the money from Jordan,'' which, jointly with the PLO, funnels funds into the occupied territories despite an Israeli move to stop this.

''But the Israelis say I can't set up a local generator. . . . They are trying to get the villages around here to hook up with the Israeli electric system.

''And the Jordanians won't give me the money if I do that.''

The young Jerusalemite interrupts: ''What will you do?''

''What can I do?'' Nimr Abul Karim replies. ''I'll do what the other villages decide to do.''

''Of course, it would be good if the village had electricity,'' he goes on. He pauses, then adds in a sharper voice: ''If the Arabs don't want us to take anything from Israel, let them come liberate our land.''

Staring across the Trans-Samaria road, he tells how Jewish settlers on the other side plowed an access road through the terraced plot of one of his villagers.

''Why doesn't the man fight them?'' probes the younger Palestinian.

Nimr Abul Karim smiles. ''Stand in front of the bulldozers? He has a family. . . .''

''Why not take the case to the Israeli court, then?''

The headman says that, indeed, one of an emerging group of young West Bank lawyers opposing settlement has taken on the case. But Nimr Abul Karim is sure it will go nowhere.

The dirt road, cutting through a terraced, if scrubby, Arab field, climbs upward. A group of hillside homes on stilts, looking a little like New England chalets, has sprouted. This is Ariel.

Recently, like a bigger version of the fledgling Barqan farther along the road, it was a cluster of small homes on a windy hilltop. Now Ariel is spilling down the hillside toward olive groves below. A road is being plowed in that direction.

Ariel is becoming more a town than a settlement. Its population is pushing over 1,000, nearing that of Haris, below.

At Barqan, a pleasant young Israeli woman is hanging wash between dwellings that look like trailers cast in concrete. But here, too, there are moves toward permanence.

''It was tough living here at first,'' the woman says. ''But now we are being hooked up to piped water and have electricity from a generator.'' There are plans to hook Barqan into the Israeli electric grid.

A member of the ultranationalist youth group that helped organize Barqan, the woman says she and her husband moved here earlier in the year. He works in the Israeli port city of Haifa.

''We came here because we feel we must be here,'' she says, ''because Samaria is part of Israel. . . . There are too many Arabs here, and too few Jews.''

She arrived after the access road had been built, but says ''maybe'' it did go through a field claimed by Arabs. She points out that many Arab villagers have farmed land by tradition rather than title deed. Legally, she says, that means it is not theirs to contest.

But that, she goes on, is not the issue: ''The Arabs can't even work the land they have. . . . Besides, everywhere in the world, land can be taken for public works.''

Asked if the Barqan road is a public work, she replies with the patience of a teacher addressing a slow child: ''Yes, if you build a road for an industrial area, that saves people from wasting gas to go back and forth to work in Tel Aviv or someplace else.''

In Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, east Jerusalem -- the chief urban and political centers of the West Bank's Arabs -- life looks good nowadays. Pricey Western cars hum by. Stone homes are going up. (But in Jerusalem, Israeli authorities can be skimpy in granting building permits. Israel has unilaterally annexed the disputed city.)

In villages like Haris, where most of the Arab population still lives, there are few such cars, relatively little new building.

But town and village share key problems: a shrinking population as the young go abroad to earn money or study, and little early prospect for development, economic or political.

Oddly enough, what ''national'' consciousness West Bank Palestinians have is partly a gift from Israel. Before 1967, the West Bank was the less-developed sector of Jordan, having been annexed in 1950. The occupation separated the West bank physically from the rest of the Arab world. And the daily pressure of occupation has united the West Bankers, if only in anger.

Few here loved the authoritarian Jordanian rulers whom the Israelis ousted in 1967. But the Israelis managed to bind peasant and politico in common fury. ''Whatever grievances we had with Jordan, they never took our land,'' explained one local politician.

The emergence of the PLO as an independent Palestinian voice after the 1967 war also served to stir West Bank political thinking.

Then the Israelis helped again, by holding free mayoral elections in 1976. They were won resoundingly by men who publicly supported the PLO and its demand for a Palestinian state.

Ironically, the visit to Jerusalem of President Sadat in 1977 and the Camp David process -- opposed by West Bankers -- pushed the West Bank to its highest peak of political development. With world attention focused on the future of the West Bank, local leaders there were forced for the first time to act in concert and to try to take responsibility for their own future.

But there have been stronger forces at work since then -- directed against the emergence of political and economic independence in the disputed territory.

The Israelis have suppressed prominent mayors by limiting their movements and restricting their funds and, particularly in the last few months, they have cracked down hard on pro-PLO dissent in the area. (At the same time, Israel has been funding a small group of more pliant rural West Bank figures in hopes of fostering a more friendly local leadership.)

A ''national guidance committee'' uniting more militant local political figures flourished briefly in late 1979 and 1980. The Israelis helped undermine it by expelling two prominent West Bank mayors who were active in the committee in May 1980. Two other mayors were maimed in June 1980 in as yet unsolved car bombings.

But, committee sources say, both Jordan and the PLO made it amply, if not always publicly, clear that they also opposed the move to build a truly indigenous West Bank political force in opposition to the Israelis. (Such a force could one day challenge one or both for a role in leading a West Bank state).

The committee's high-water mark was its organization of a walkout in late 1979 by the elected Palestinian mayors, which helped to prod Israel to release one of their number from detention. The PLO, at first, opposed the mayoral resignations, which managed fleetingly to unite traditional rivals among the mayors. (Later the PLO came on board, in an evident bid to co-opt the action.) Committee sources say Jordan and the PLO also signaled opposition to subsequent labor protests organized by the West Bank group.

On the economic front, Jordan and the PLO send funds to West Bankers, some publicly through a Joint Committee in Amman and other money through private channels. But more often than not, complain many West Bankers, PLO money -- and Jordanian funds -- go not to economic projects, but toward buying political supporters. Yet ultimately, West Bank political activists suspect, a major barrier to local economic and political development may be home-grown.

The traditional conservative political structure -- dominated by a few major families -- remains mostly intact. Many of the elected mayors come from these clans. Traditional feuds persist. New ones (on everything from terms for an eventual Mideast peace to the running of a local university) have been grafted onto the old. These splits often thwart areawide West Bank planning and take up energies needed elsewhere.

Economic growth on the West Bank is hindered by the reluctance of major families to risk investing there. They prefer to place their funds in other Arab states rather than at home.

''And most importantly,'' argues a Palestinian professor at Bir Zeit University, the main center of student opposition to the occupation, ''this is still an underdeveloped society, an Islamic society, a peasant society. Where the West may have a sense of nation, Palestinians here have a sense of family . . . of their land . . . or their village.'' Family loyalty can be stronger than any commitment to work for change on the West Bank.

In Haris, Nimr Abul Karim gets upset when he hears that a West Bank university has been closed by the Israeli authorities after students threw rocks at Israeli troops. But when asked whether he would approve of his two sons' participating in such demonstrations -- both are working in the Arab world -- he replies: ''I would tell my sons to study. . . . Allah will take care of the land.'' West Bank's foreign rulers

The Israelis are only the last in a long line of foreign rulers over the West Bank -- a hilly and largely infertile chunk of land about the size of Delaware.

Ancient powers conquered and reconquered the area. Then came the crusaders, then the Islamic Ottoman Turks. After World War I, the League of Nations gave Britain mandatory authority over it and most of the rest of biblical Palestine.

In 1947 the United Nations supplanted the British mandate with a partition plan dividing mandatory Palestine into two states -- one Jewish, one Arab. The Arab world, claiming all of Palestine, took to the battlefield after the state of Israel was formally declared in 1948. The Arabs lost, but held on to part of Jerusalem and to the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Jordan unilaterally annexed the West Bank - a fact that much of the world seems to have forgotten, Israeli officials point out.

In the ''six-day war'' of 1967 the Israelis ousted the Jordanians. Barely two weeks later the Israelis annexed the formerly Arab sector of Jerusalem, its limits unilaterally expanded to include some other West Bank land. And the Israeli military government took control of the remainder of the territory. N.T. Confusion and confrontation

Beit Ijza, Israeli-occupied West Bank

Sabri Ghureib is a small, muscular, quiet man; an unlikely actor in one of the rare head-on clashes over Jewish settlement of the West Bank.

But one day in late October he and his teenage son fought a handful of men from the settlement of Hadasha for a small parcel of disputed hillside earth about six miles northwest of Jerusalem.

The issue is now before an Israeli court.

More quietly, dozens of such disputes have been waged on the occupied West Bank since Jewish settlement of the area began. In most cases, the settlers have won -- often because many Palestinian farmers have only Turkish, British, or Jordanian survey maps to press claims to land Jewish settlers want.

The settlement of Hadasha sprouted in early 1980 when a group of disenchanted settlers split off from the nearby settlement of Givon. They moved to a hill near the town of Beit Ijza. At first the Begin government called the outpost illegal. Then the government changed its mind, saying Jews had purchased land in the area before Israel's 1948 proclamation of statehood. ''Arab squatters,'' officials said, must be kept from farming that land, thus the settlement could go ahead.

It has done so. In one of its cramped prefab houses, a Czechoslovak-born settler says the fight with Sabri Ghureib was regrettable, but was the Arabs' fault. ''Jews purchased land on this site 60 years ago.

''There are 250 dunums [about 60 acres] of it in all. But the[Israeli] court is trying to calculate exactly which land is involved. . . . For now, we are on only 80 dunums.

''The court said no one . . . could work the nearby field until the case was decided.''

Sabri Ghureib rented a bulldozer and started working it. His lawyer had told him the terraced portion in question was not included in the court order.

''I have a Turkish title deed,'' says the sun-toughened Arab. ''My father worked this land. . . . So did my grandfather.''

Hearing the growl of the bulldozer just outside their fenced boundary, a group of Hadasha settlers -- including an armed soldier in residence -- approached Sabri Ghureib and his son.

Hadasha was just seeking ''information'' about what Sabri Ghureib was up to, one settler explained. ''But the Arab started to get arrogant and insulting, . . . so he was taken to prison. This needn't have happened. It was his fault.''

Days later, Sabri Ghureib returned with tools to till the land he claims is his. A group of settlers, including the armed soldier, met him.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. The settlers say the Arab farmer swung a pick at the legs of one of the Israelis. ''The son also jumped one of the men.''

''One of the men opened fire into the air, according to standing instructions ,'' one woman settler says.

''They attacked me,'' rebuts the Palestinian. ''I will give up my children before I give up my land. . . .''

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