His lower lip trembling with rage, Abdul-Rahman Seifiddin surveyed the damage caused by strike-breaking Israeli soldiers who forced open his little shop by cutting through the drawn steel shutters with a welding torch.
"They have the freedom to do what they want," he said, explaining away his humiliation as the troops moved on to another shop. "They are the government." After nearly two weeks of violence unmatched in the 15 years since Israel occupied the West Bank, it has become clearer than ever before that Palestinian nationalism--here and in Beirut's guerrilla headquarters--is confronting the possibility that Seifiddin's resigned assessment may soon be the official reality throughout this stone-strewn hill country coveted by two hostile peoples.
The most recent Palestinian uprising, which has left six Arab youths and two Israelis dead since March 18, dramatizes for the outside world the depth of resentment at Israeli occupation. Ironically, it also demonstrates the extent to which Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government can enforce its will on the West Bank despite the widespread popular opposition and attempts to encourage and organize it from Amman and Beirut.
Interviews with leaders of the West Bank's main communities and conversations with people up and down the disputed region bring out a strong sense of disappointment as the protests wind down. It often is accompanied by nationalist bravura, but it is disappointment just the same. In a sense, some Palestinians say, the recent level of violence is the best measure of the frustration.
"People are becoming tired," said Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem, a Christian generally regarded as moderate. "They are becoming desperate."
Since the dismissal of Mayor Ibrahim Tawil of El Bireh on March 18 and the later removal of Mayors Bassam Shakaa of Nablus and Karim Khalaf of Ramallah, Freij is the only well-known, elected West Bank leader still in office. Two others--Mohammed Milhem of Halhoul and Fahd Kawasme of Hebron--were deported May 2, 1980.
After two weeks of sustained protests, Freij and his colleagues point out, the Israeli occupation authorities have restored relative calm, weathered international criticism and, most important, come out of the storm with the three most intractable and prominent Palestinian leaders left in the area deprived of an official forum.
The result, they predict, will be resignations or removals of the remaining mayors who openly support the Palestine Liberation Organization and, eventually, their replacement by more docile Arab officials who will cooperate in new elections designed to staff an autonomy administration molded by Israeli authorities and imposed by them no matter how the U.S.-sponsored Camp David autonomy talks come out.
"Within a month or two, I will no longer be in this office," Freij said, gesturing at his municipal headquarters across Manger Square from the Church of the Nativity. "After one year, Shakaa, Khalaf and Freij: the world will forget all about them."
Khalaf, the dismissed Ramallah mayor interviewed in Jericho, where he is under town arrest in his winter home, described Israeli steps over the last several months as a prelude to annexation, which he said has already happened on the ground despite Palestinian outcries.
"The Israeli aim is to extend their state and to annex the West Bank as they annexed Golan and as they annexed East Jerusalem," he said. "In my opinion, the West Bank is already annexed. They haven't announced it, but it is annexed."
The remaining mayors have discussed joint resignations, but decided against it. Now a new proposal is circulating. One of the mayors involved said the suggestion is for an ultimatum to Israeli authorities demanding that they replace the three dismissed mayors or face a joint resignation designed to embarrass Begin's government.
A Palestinian official closely involved in the consultations said the mayors have sought advice from King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat of the PLO. Once their positions are known, he said, the mayors will decide.
The difficulty faced by the mayors in such relations with PLO leaders in Beirut was illustrated by advice received this week by Mayor Rashid Shawa of Gaza, who also is part of the discussions. Shawa got a call from a man in Europe identifying himself as a representative of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and urging him to go along with the ultimatum idea, the informant said.
Shawa was unsure the caller was qualified to speak for the front, a Marxist-oriented PLO faction headed by Nayef Hawatmeh, he said, and insisted that such a fateful piece of advice should come from the PLO's top leadership--"the old man himself," the nickname given to Arafat by his followers in the guerrilla bureaucracy in Beirut.
Jordan's decree last month condemning Palestinian cooperation with the Israeli-sponsored village leagues in the rural West Bank under threat of property confiscation or even death grew from similar diffculties in coordination, according to Tulkarm's Mayor Hilmi Hannoun.
The village leagues have been operating quietly for about two years, he said. Since they were present mainly in small farm villages where Jordanian influences remains strongest, Hussein's government in Amman gave them financial and political support as a counterweight to towns where PLO sentiment predominates.
After Israel's new West Bank administrator, Menachem Milson, sought to promote the leagues as an alternative to elected pro-PLO leadership in the towns, the mayors began to work against them, Hannoun said. But rural notables in the leagues continued to seek--and, in some cases, to receive--money from Jordan, prompting the mayors to send an envoy to the Jordanian government in Amman with a complaint.
"We told them, 'Are you with the village leagues or not?' " Hannoun recalled. " 'Up to now, it seems you are. And if you are not, you must do something about it.' Of course, the PLO also heard about what was going on and they also got in touch with Jordan, maybe King Hussein himself."
Since Hussein's strong reaction--stronger than the West Bank mayors had expected, Hannoun said--about 50 village league members have resigned. But, despite the assassination of one league leader and attacks on two others, the most prominent league leader, Mustafa Dudeen of the Hebron area, has vowed to brave what he calls "Jordanian terrorism" and arm more of his supporters with the Israeli-issue submachine guns that already have been handed out for protection squads.
Milson's effort to rally support for the village leagues is part of Israeli attempts to form a new leadership on the West Bank in preparation for an autonomous Arab administration that would work peacefully under Israeli sovereignty over the area, pro-PLO mayors say. It is failing, they contend, because the quality of rural notables recruited so far is too low to attract followers and because the West Bank's 800,000 inhabitants generally support the PLO.
Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon brought Milson in as civilian administrator last November as part of a new policy to crush PLO sentiment and reward cooperation with Israeli authorities. Since he took over, West Bank mayors say, restrictions have toughened.
Shakaa, interviewed in the garden of his Nablus home, where he is under house arrest, cited recent refusals by the local military governor to grant permits for home building or adding electrical installations to a downtown business.
Shakaa, whose legs were blown off by a car bomb two years ago, is known for his unwavering support for PLO positions and for his anti-Israeli efforts on the West Bank. But, illustrating the mood as Nablus returned to work under Israeli military guard last week, he voiced little hope of returning to his city hall.
"When they came to dismiss me, what could I do?" he asked. "I said, 'Yes, sir.' We don't have any choice."
Freij, who also supports the PLO despite differences with Arafat's leadership, said he has been frustrated in the last two weeks in his previously successful efforts to bring in money from Jordan for his municipal budget.
Israel closely limits such funds, which come from a joint PLO-Jordanian aid committee administering Arab aid, and recently restricted them further.
Such Israeli moves are greeted with increased suspicion on the West Bank and at PLO headquarters in Beirut as the April 25 deadline approaches for final Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. Once the pullout is over, Palestinians here and in Beirut say, Egypt will have little reason to pursue the autonomy talks, and the whole issue risks slipping toward neglect while Israel carries out its own policies out of the glare of international interest.