Salient. Official Newspaper of Victoria University of Wellington Students Association. Vol 40 No. 22. September 5 1977
Palestinians Support P.L.O
Palestinians Support P.L.O.
Supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization won a sweeping victory in the municipal elections held in the occupied West Bank on April 12, 1976. The traditional leadership of the region, which had generally cooperated with the Israeli occupation, was virtually thrown out of office and replaced by nationalists.
The most dramatic change came about in Hebron, where the mayor for the last 40 years, Sheikh Mohammed Ali Jaabri, was replaced by a young nationalist, Fahd Kawasma, an agronomist. Jaabri epitomizes collaboration with the Israeli occupation and with the rule of the Jordanian monarchy for the 19 years which preceded it. Jaabri led the notables who provided a facade of legitimacy for the imposition of East Jordanian King Abdullah's rule on the West Bank in the wake of the conquest of most of Palestine by the Zionists in 1948. When the Israeli army entered Hebron in June 1967, Jaaori greeted the conquerors with feasts of freshly slaughtered sheep.
During the militant demonstrations against occupation which recently shook Hebron and the rest of the West Bank, the aging mayor apparently sensed that the political tides had turned against him. Rather than accept the humiliation of defeat, he refused to stand for re-election, a tactic also followed by the Haj Mazuz al Masri, then Mayor of Nablus. Although the Israeli occupation officials extended the deadline for registration of candidates to permit al Masri and Jaabri to reconsider, not even the personal intercession of the Israeli Minister of Defense availed to persuade the two realists to enter the race.
Fahd Kawasma became the new mayor of Hebron at the head of a National Bloc slate, after the expulsion of Jaabri's front-running opponent, a leftist who headed the Hebron Hospital. The Israelis deported the Hebron candidate along with a dentist from al Bireh, who was a candidate for office there. The deportations were punishment for involvement in the national movement.
In Ramallah the incumbent mayor Karim Khalf, an outspoken advocate of the PLO, was re-elected despite the actions of Israeli soldiers who ripped down or painted over his campaign posters because they carried the red, white, green and black of the Palestinian flag. His counterpart in Tulkarm, the pro-PLO incumbent Hilmi Hannoun, was also re-elected as mayor. Nationalists won as well in Beit Jala, Beit Sahus, Jericho, al Bireh, Bir Zeit and other towns.
In Jenin, the conservative traditionalist Mayor Ahmad Kamal Sa'adi was returned to office, but half of the municipal council seats went to the nationalists. Only in the town of Bethlehem did the election clearly go against the nationalists; there the incumbent Mayor Elias Freij won and his conservative slate gained 6 of the 11 seats on the municipal council. But even there one council post was taken by a member of the Communist Party and two more by other nationalists.
The newly elected officials have two salient characteristics. First, they are nationalists, some of them militantly so: one of those elected is currently in an Israeli prison on political grounds, and five other new officials have served time in jail for their resistance to occupation. Second, they tend to be drawn from a different sector of the population than the old leadership, which came from the "notable" families of prominent feudalists, some of whom had commercial interests as well. These politicians had generally cooperated with the military government since 1967, and with the Jordanian monarchy for the preceding 19 years.
The repudiation of feudalists at the polls polls can be traced to two factors: one, the PLO, whose great success in agitation and organisation on the West Bank has exposed the politics of collaboration, and second, the Israeli occupation itself. The explicit economic policy of the occupation has been to channel the labour force of the West Bank into the bottom sectors of the Israeli proletariat, and half of the labour force of the occupied areas now crosses the "green line" into Israel proper each day for work. Many of these new members of the proletariat are peasants forced off the land in the West Bank by the pressures of the colonial economy. The process of erosion of the feudal economy has clearly had its political effects.
Another indication of the new political atmosphere on the West Bank was the participation of women in the voting for the first time. Israeli officials liberalised the Jordanian election laws to allow women to vote. The heavy turnout of women—68 percent of eligible women voted, as compared with 72 percent for the entire electorate—may be a sign of the success of the PLO's women's organisation. The women's unions have been among the most enduring and active nationalist formations under the occupation.
The success of the nationalist forces was a serious blow to the Israeli strategy of "self-administration" for the West Bank. This strategy was developed after the PLO's victory at the Rabat Arab Summit Conference, where the Arab heads of state confirmed that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This resolution dashed King Hussein's claims to represent the Palestinians, and similtaneously set back the Israelis, who would have preferred to deal with the pliant Hussein if they were forced to negotiate the status of the West Bank. The post-Rabat strategy of the Israeli government was to nurture a class of collaborators on the West Bank, whom they could present as an "alternative" to the PLO. The intent of the Israeli government in calling the elections was to have this class of collaborators annointed by a victory at the polls.
Although the Israeli government did what it could to have the traditional politicians re-elected, the strategy backfired dramatically. Dr Ghazaleh, a newly-elected municipal council member in Nablus, said that the new officials would foil any Israeli attempt at "legitimizing the occupation in the West Bank or at promoting any type of home rule in the territory." Mayor Khalaf of Ramallah told the Jerusalem Post that the new nationalist mayors have agreed to confine themselves to municipal matters and opposition to Israeli moves in the 'Vest Bank, especially settlement. They will avoid "political deliberations," he said, for the people of the West Bank are part of the Palestinian people "whose political representative is the PLO, not us."