Mayor Karim Khalaf, whose left foot was blown off June 2 in a car bombing blamed on Jewish extremists, returned to the occupied West Bank today to a tumultuous welcome and vowed to continue the struggle for Palestinian independence.
Hundreds of wildly cheering Arabs, singing Palestinian nationalist songs in defiance of a ban against demonstrations, carried Khalaf triumphantly on their shoulders into a jammed municipal building for a rally.
There, Khalaf, 43, raised his arms in a victory gesture and declared, "I give an oath in the name of God to my people, I am going to continue the struggle until we achieve a Palestinian state."
The welcoming ceremony, which military government troops watched from a discreet distance, was the first major Arab demonstration in the occupied West Bank since authorities cracked down after violent incidents last summer.
Some Palestinian nationalist activists said they hoped the return of Khalaf, and the expected arrival in Nablus Sunday of Mayor Bassam Shaka, would signal a partial reconstitution of the West Bank Arab leadership that was dismantled last summer by deportations, assassination attempts and the imposition of strict controls on Arab leaders.
Shaka lost both his legs when a bomb exploded in his car almost simultaneously with the blast that crippled Khalaf. Khalaf. A bomb intended for a third mayor, Ibrahim Tawil, blew up in the face of an Israeli border police officer -- an Arab Druze -- who was attempting to defuse it.
Khalaf, who had been in Houston undergoing treatment and being fitted with an artificial limb, crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan and was driven to Ramallah in a taxi. He had spent the past week in Amman meeting with Jordanian officials, including King Hussein, and discussing West Bank affairs.
As the car approached Ramallah's municipal building, it was mobbed by young Arabs in an emotional, chaotic demonstration. It took Khalaf nearly a half hour to get out of the vehicle, whereupon he was immediately hoisted onto the shoulders of demonstrators and carried through the street.
"With guns, we will liberate our land. By the guns of the fedayeen [commandos] we will return to our land. All our nation waves the guns, for our liberty we sacrifice ourselves," the crowd sang.
Normally, the Israeli authorities break up such Arab rallies, particularly when the crowds begin singing songs of the outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization or raise the PLO flag. But today, Army troops withdrew from the municipal building and let the demonstration continue.
Inside, Kahlaf said he was not surprised that the Israeli security forces had not arrested any suspects in the bombings of the mayors' cars. He also said he would not demand that the case be pursued more vigorously.
"They already know who did it, I'm sure of that. I know who did it.Not the specific people, but it was the extremists. If they [the authorities] want to investigate, they will do it," Khalaf said.
Military government sources say that while no conclusive evidence has come to light, they suspect that ultranationalist Jewish settlers in the West Bank were responsible. The bombings occurred one month after six Israeli settlers were machine-gunned to death in an Arab ambush in Hebron.
Many West Bank Arabs have complained that the Israeli secret security services (Shin Bet) never bothered to interview either the victims or their families, and conducted only a desultory investigation.
In contrast, they said, the authorities launched a massive manhunt for those involved in the Hebron ambush, placing curfews on entire towns and detaining scores of Arabs until suspects were caught and charged.
Khalaf today said he intended to push for the return of two other West Bank mayors, Hebron's Fahd Kawasme and Halhoul's Mohammed Milhem, who were deported for making alleged inciting statements in the weeks before the May 2 Hebron ambush.
"Everybody has a right to come back and live in our country. They [Kawasme and Milhem] did nothing that they should be deported from their country," Khalaf said.
Kawasme and Milhem just ended a hunger strike in a lounge adjacent to the U.N. Security Council.
Shaka, who has been in England for therapy and the fitting of artificial limbs, was due in Amman this week before crossing the Allenby Bridge Sunday. Nablus residents are planning a similar demonstration.