West Bank Palestinians: US plan 'is better than nothing'

The Reagan Mideast peace proposals have roused cautiously favorable interest among many of the people whose future they are intended to resolve: the Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Most established Palestinian political leaders are stressing publicly that any decision on acceptance of the Reagan ideas is up to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Many West Bankers are upset that Mr. Reagan ruled out an independent Palestinian state and did not mention the PLO.

But in the heated discussions on the Reagan plan, which can be heard at nearly every West Bank gathering, Palestinians suggest that they should display a new political pragmatism and try to extract gains from the United States proposals.

''If we are able to take something now, it is better than nothing,'' says Muhammad Abid Alyan, a Khader village farmer who has lost six acres of land to Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Some locals nod in agreement.

''It may not be what we have been struggling for, but you have to be a realist,'' says Hanna Siniora, editor of the nationalist East Jerusalem Palestinian newspaper Al Fajr.

Many Palestinians hope the Arab summit at Fez, Morocco, which opened informally Monday, will not simply reject the Reagan plan. ''The majority on the West Bank are ready for a moderate Arab statement at Fez,'' says East Jerusalem journalist Ibrahim Karaen.

West Bankers say there are several reasons why the Reagan plan draws this qualified support:

It publicly defines positions on which they say the Americans previously were either low key or unclear: opposition to Israeli annexation of the occupied territories, negotiations over the final fate of Arab East Jerusalem, and especially opposition to continued Jewish settlement on the West Bank.

For West Bankers, Jewish settlement indicates Israeli intentions to annex their land permanently.

''Our fate, our physical existence is related to settlement,'' says Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, echoing sentiments heard across the West Bank. ''Anyone,'' he continues, ''including President Reagan, who can stop Jewish settlements here will be regarded by the people as a god.''

Freij has openly advocated PLO and Arab support of the US plan and sent President Reagan a telegram of congratulations.

Other Palestinian leaders are unlikely to take such an overt initiative. But Mr. Freij's actions apparently are not opposed by the PLO, whose chairman, Yasser Arafat, delegated Mr. Freij to pay condolences to the widow of former World Zionist Organization president Nahum Goldmann, who was buried in Jerusalem last week.

Some West Bankers contend that had the US taken such strong positions before the war in Lebanon, Palestinians might have been enticed to join the peace process then.

But the war clearly affected the Palestinian outlook. Israel has intensified pressures on West Bankers to win acceptance of Israeli-backed local Palestinian leadership and of local administrative self-rule under projected permanent Israeli sovereignty.

Moreover, the war in Lebanon displayed Arab inability - or unwillingness - to aid the Palestinian cause. The failure of the Soviet Union to help Syria or the PLO further spotlighted the critical US role as the only effective mediator.

At the same time, many West Bankers say the PLO scored a political triumph by isolating Israel internationally and focusing US attention as never before on the Palestinian issue. They are convinced that the US shift was the quid pro quo for the PLO's departure from Beirut.

These West Bankers express an almost mystical belief in Washington's ability to pressure Israel to accept the Reagan plan.

''This is a test of American influence,'' says Bethlehem municipal secretary Jamal Salman. Even as he spoke, the Israeli government announced a decision to establish eight new settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

These new perceptions account for a pragmatism not previously so visible among West Bank intelligentsia and political leadership.

''Reagan's ideas are an opening,'' says one Palestinian journalist. ''We have entered a period of long-range strategy. This war showed that elimination of either Israel or the Palestine nation is impossible and some kind of reconciliation must be achieved.''

Mayor Freij adds: ''This (Reagan) plan is not perfect, but it is the nucleus of the birth of a Palestinian state.''

But West Bankers remain suspicious that the plan fails to mention the PLO and opposes Palestinian statehood. Deposed West Bank mayors Bassam Shaka of Nablus and Ibrahim Tawil of Bireh stressed that the final decision of the plan must come from the PLO. But, like other West Bankers, Mr. Shaka noted PLO foreign minister Farouk Khaddoumi's assertions that the plan had positive elements.

A key component of the Reagan plan calls for linkage between Jordan and self-governing Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Few West Bankers believe that Jordan will agree to enter any negotiating without prior agreement from the PLO. Speculating on the future relationship between the PLO and Jordan, many West Bankers are uneasy over prospects of future Jordanian control of their area.

''We don't want a new occupation,'' said one Palestinian academic, recalling harsher crackdowns on Palestinian activity during Jordan's pre-1967 rule over the West Bank than those occuring now. ''We must work out a relationship of equality between the Palestianians and Jordan,'' he said.

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