For the past three months, Zafer Masri had been obsessed with potholes, crumbling retaining walls, and uneven streets. This was the legacy Mr. Masri said he inherited last December, when he accepted the Israeli occupation's appointment as mayor of Nablus, the largest city on the West Bank.
Although he had stepped into a position fraught with political dangers, Masri said he was determined to focus on restoring services, launching development projects, and improving day-to-day life for the people of his city.
The appointment of Masri, a Palestinian, was Israel's first step toward ``devolving'' more control over civil affairs in the occupied territories to Palestinians. However, Masri said he opposed any Israeli plan for implementing ``unilateral autonomy'' in the West Bank.
``It contradicts my political aspirations,'' Masri said. ``It is an imposed thing. If it is giving me my right to run my institutions -- well, that is my right and it is good. Not to have the Israelis obstructing my life, I accept.''
But if Israel's plans include anything beyond the appointment of mayors, Masri said, ``they just want to reduce the political burden of the occupation on them -- this is anasthesia.''
For three years, Nablus had been run by an Israeli Army officer who replaced Bassam Shaka, the pro-Palestine Liberation Organization mayor who was elected in 1976 and deposed in 1982. Masri, who was head of the Nablus Chamber of Commerce and member of a powerful Palestinian family, said he accepted what he called his ``interim'' appointment because he wanted to get the city working again.
``This step paved the way for normal services and an end to the damage done to the people,'' Masri said.
His appointment raised protests from Mr. Shaka and others, but received the blessings of the Jordanians and the PLO. Despite Masri's killing, mayors are expected to be appointed soon in other West Bank cities such as Bireh, Ramallah, and Hebron. Prime Minister Shimon Peres says that as long as efforts to reach a negotiating table with Jordan remain stalled, he is determined to follow through on his promise made 15 months ago to improve daily life for the 750,000 West Bank Palestinians.
From the time Masri took over, city hall was a whirlwind of activity. He said 650 city workers who walked out in protest when Shaka was deposed came back when Masri was appointed.
``Things have gone better than I expected, in general,'' Masri said. ``And we inherited more problems than I had anticipated.''
His first priority, he said, was reorganizing city hall, a task that was ``80 percent done.'' High on his list of urgent concerns was the issuing of building permits that had backed up while the Army was in charge.
During the interview, Masri said he now had authority to issue any private construction permits -- mostly for housing, but also for commercial projects. The Israelis retain authority over the issuance of building permits for public projects.
Masri had also started improving the city's water-supply system and was studying ways to expand the capacity of the city's electricity plant. Also on his agenda, he said, was a plan to expand the city's boundaries ``to get more land for housing, reclamation, and recreation.'' He had already approached the Israelis with the request, ``and in principle, their response is favorable -- but I'm waiting for a practical solution,'' he said.
Soon after assuming office, Masri traveled to Jordan and extracted a promise that funds the Jordanians froze when Shaka was deposed would be returned to the Nablus treasury. The city of 120,000 residents, including refugees living in camps on the town's outskirts, had a budget of $3 million for fiscal 1985-1986. Masri hoped to double that amount for 1986-1987.
The occupation, Masri said, was still the dominant factor in the lives of Nablus residents. But he thought having a Palestinian mayor and council back in charge might ease the harshness of its impact on their daily lives.
[After Masri's killing, the Nablus City Council appointed Deputy Mayor Hafez Tuqan as Masri's successor and promised to continue the slain mayor's work.]