For the first time in its 15-year occupation of the West Bank, the Israeli government has dissolved the municipal council of a major Arab city and supplanted it with a military authority.
About 100 Israeli troops raided the municipal offices of El-Bireh, the West Bank's fourth largest city, and evicted its mayor and city council, replacing them with a three-man military committee.
The takeover was ordered by Menachem Milson, head of the occupation government's civil administration, after El-Bireh Mayor Ibrahim Tawil and his council refused to meet with Milson in military government headquarters for a "working" discussion.
The mayors of the West Bank's two largest cities, Nablus and Ramallah, called protest strikes, but a senior Israeli Army official in Tel Aviv said that such boycotts by other Arab municipal councils could result in their dissolution.
In his order, Milson said dissolution of the El-Bireh government was "necessary for the maintenance of public order and the rule of law." Although it has exercised firm overall control of the West Bank, Israel until now has allowed local Arabs to remain in charge of municipal affairs.
Army command officials said the El-Bireh government has been taken over by Lt. Col. Morris Barkoba and two other officers, who will be in charge of all municipal services in the city. El-Bireh, eight miles north of Jerusalem, has a population of about 25,000.
Tawil, in a telephone interview, called Milson's order a "revenge action against the council because it refused to meet him on principle."
Tawil said he believed the occupation government had invited the council to the "working" meeting in order to set a trap and create a pretext for dissolving all the governments in the West Bank that are headed by mayors who support the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Almost all of the mayors in the West Bank have refused to discuss official municipal business with Milson, who replaced the West Bank-Gaza Strip military commander last year. But El-Bireh was the first municipal council to formally vote on a boycott of the civil administrator. Other mayors have confined their meetings with Milson to ceremonial occasions or pleasantries.
Milson has sought to dilute the influence of militantly nationalist Palestinian mayors by creating a network of "village leagues" headed by rural leaders considered by the Israeli government to be moderate. Earlier this month, the occupation government banned membership in the West Bank National Guidance Committee, which had dominated the Palestinian nationalist movement. Tawil had been a member of that committee.