Israel's now-abandoned effort to deport the mayor of Nablus has left the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip more united than ever, especially in their resolve to resist the Palestinian autonomy plan envisioned in the Camp David accords.
That conclusion emerged today from a collective declaration by Palestinian mayors and municipal leaders and from interviews with them and other West Bank and Gaza political figures.
The Arab leaders, who namely have shown unity in the past, agreed that the month-long effort to deport Mayor Bassam Shaka, which was dropped by Israel yesterday, has resulted in a new dimension to the Palestinian independence movement.
One key Arab figure, Rashid Shawa mayor of Gaza, sain in an interview that the Shaka case "has brought together the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which the Israels have tried to divide since 1967."
Shawa, for years, has had strained relations with some West Bank leaders and even refused to travel to the West Bank on official business. But since Shaka's arrest, he has visited with West Bank mayors several times and has made a point of being seen embracing them.
Not only has the Shaka affair unified the geographically and politically divided West Bank and Gaza Strip in a common cause for the first time in years but it has militant leadership that openly identifies with the Palestine Liberation Organization, at the expense of the traditional leaders who have maintained close ties to Jordan.
Moreover, for the first time since the territories were captured and occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, the political climate appears ripe for the possible emergence of a single national leader around whom Palestinians can rally in their drive for self-determination.
There are still obstacles to the rise of a strong central leader, namely reluctance of the PLO headquarters in Beirut to seat a national figure it could not later easily displace, and the diverse shades of political opinion that still exist beneath the surface among Arab leaders in the occupied areas.
But in the euphoric day after Shaka's release from prison, West Bank leaders speculated on such a possibility. Such talk is rare among the long-fragmented and often quarreling Palestinian leaders.
After more than three weeks of restiveness and tension in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and under intense international pressure, the Israeli government yesterday dropped deportation proceedings and said Shaka could return to his mayoral post.
Shaka was jailed Nov. 11 on the basis of a disputed allegation that he expressed approval of a massacre in March 1978 in which 34 Israelis and nine Arab terrorists died. A transcript of the conversation, held with a military commander, showed that Shaka said he did not identify with such terrorism but felt it was inevitable given the bitterness brought about by military occupation.
In a meeting today in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina, where Jordan's King Hussein had a home before the 1967 war, the mayors who resigned in protest over Shaka's arrest said they will return to work Saturday, and they unequivocally demanded the establishment of a Palestinian state under the auspices of the PLO.
The mayors also declared their "absolute rejection" of the Camp David accords and the proposed autonomy and demanded the dismantling of all Jewish civilian settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Not long ago, such a strong language would have been considered subversive by itself, but today it only served to underscore how much things have changed in the occupied territories.
Later, in interviews, Palestinian leaders said that Israel, by arresting Shaka, had not only unwittingly created a folk hero overnight, but had presented a catalyst for the unification of diverse political elements in the territories.
"The Shaka affair has given a new dimension to the struggle of Palestinian people inside and outside the West Bank and Gaza. I hope that dimension will be considered before any political decisions are put into effect, and I do mean autonomy," said Mohammed Milhem, mayor of Halhoul, near Hebron.
He called Shaka's release a "stimulant that could be the first real influence on unity," adding, "We decided to challenge and we won."
This is much more important than the release of Bassam Shaka."
Shawa said that a major test of Israel's attitude toward the new spirit of unity will come when Ramallan Mayor Karim Khalf and Biera Mayor Ibrahim Tawil go on trial next week on charges of assaulting police officers during a court hearing on land expropriation. Under Jordanian law, which still applies in the West Bank in non-security cases, a conviction would constitute an "offense of disgrace," and the two mayors would have to resign.
Another byproduct of the Shaka affair, some Palestinian leaders said, is a new ability of West Bank Arabs to organize effective strikes and demonstrations on short notice, as shown by the near-paralysis of West Bank cities following Shaka's arrest.
"It taught us the art of organizing, and we're not going to forget it," said one PLO supporter and independence activist. "If we can organize for Shaka this way, we can organize against autonomy just as effectively."
In another expression of unity, 23 West Bank mayors purchased advertisements congratulating Shaka that appeared today in three Arab daily newspapers.
The Ramallah newspaper Al Fajr said in an editorial that Shaka's return from an Israeli prison to Nablus represented a "collective national presence, where erupting national feelings turned into . . an almost religious ritual where men and national home were united into one."