Israeli grip tightens on the West Bank
Gaza City, Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip — With the war against the Palestine Liberation Organization continuing in Lebanon, Israel also is accelerating efforts to oust pro-PLO Palestinian mayors from posts in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
''There is no master plan,'' says one Israeli official, ''but we want to reduce as much as possible, if not completely, PLO influence in the territories.''
This hard-line Israeli position is arousing concern in Washington. The United States once looked upon the mayors - the only Palestinian leaders anywhere chosen by popular democratic procedures - as possible participants in talks about the ''full autonomy'' called for in the Camp David accords. And the US is expected to push these autonomy talks again as soon as the immediate crisis in Lebanon is resolved.
Israel, however, has been steadily removing the mayors from their elected posts as part of its ''hard-hand'' policy toward the occupied territories.
On July 9, for instance, Israeli occupation authorities removed the veteran Rashad Shawa from his post as mayor of Gaza City. He was the third mayor to be removed since the war in Lebanon began, and the eighth (out of 24 elected and six appointed mayors) to be ousted this year. Two other prominent mayors were deported to Lebanon in May 1980. Another two were maimed in June that year by bomb attacks.
The mayors were elected in 1976. At that time, the Israeli government called the balloting totally democratic. It now disavows the elections, alleging they were distorted by PLO pressure.
Under President Carter, the US voted for a UN Security Council resolution condemning the deportation of the two mayors in 1980. But under Mr. Reagan, concern about Israeli treatment of the mayors seemed to wane.
Now, however, as the remaining mayors' numbers have sharply diminished, American concern and interest seem to be reviving.
The US State Department has expressed ''deep regret'' at Israel's ouster of Mr. Shawa. Spokesman Dean Fischer said Shawa ''has been recognized as a legimitate representative and moderate spokesman for the concerns of his Palestinian constituents. Leaders with these policies will be needed as we move toward resolution of the Palestinian issue under Camp David.''
The immediate cause of Mr. Shawa's dismissal was a partial stoppage of municipal services instituted by almost all the mayors two months ago in protest against the earlier dismissals. In reality, says Mayor Shawa, the strike was only symbolic as services were operating out of non-municipal offices. But this gave Israeli authorities a cause to sack the mayor, and potentially others.
The departure of Mr. Shawa has special significance. Mr. Shawa was well-known as a supporter of King Hussein of Jordan. He and mayor Elias Freij, of Bethlehem , a pragmatic Christian businessman, were long considered the most moderate of the several prominent mayors from larger towns. Their homes were visited by numerous Israeli Labor Party luminaries who hoped, during that party's time in power, to negotiate the Palestinian problem with King Hussein.
When Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO and of its most moderate faction, Al-Fatah, drew close to King Hussein in 1978, pro-Jordanian moderates in the West Bank and Gaza became official supporters of Al-Fatah. Israel later said this indicated they had turned ''radical.''
Last January, however, mayors Freij and Shawa issued a statement calling on the PLO and Israel to recognize each other - a bold move in an area where individual Palestinians rarely make peace initiatives. Mayor Shawa said: ''Yes, I still support two states side by side and mutual recognition follows.''
But Mayors Freij and Shawa fell afoul of a two-year-old policy of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Likud government to stamp out PLO influence in the West Bank and Gaza and to replace pro-PLO leaders with men more sympathetic to Israel. Toward this end, the Israeli occupation authorities have established six ''Village Leagues'' whose members are armed and given Israeli funds to carry out rural development projects. While League membership appears to be growing there have been violent clashes between members and other villagers.
Israeli officials believe the demise of the PLO in Beirut will result in more members for the leagues once they are free from fear of assassination by the PLO. Out of these members they hope to find takers for autonomy.
''We always wanted to tap into people who would negotiate with Israel, the silent majority,'' says an official in the Israeli civil administration on the West Bank.
Mayor Freij, who fears he may have to resign although he is not striking, sees it differently: ''Before the attack on Beirut you wouldn't have found such people (as the Village League members) in power. Now the collaborators, informers, and opportunists will have a heyday. But who will the Americans talk to on the West Bank?''