Hebron, Israeli-occupied West Bank
Israel is seeking to take advantage of the demise of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon by encouraging a new political organization on the West Bank willing to negotiate over the future of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Sometime during the next few weeks, seven leagues of rural West Bank villages -- armed and funded by Israel -- will establish a West Bank-wide union whose aim , according to a leading representative, will be to serve as political spokesmen for ''75 percent of the people in the West Bank.'' This is a generous estimate of the rural population.
The union, says Mohammed Dudin, brother of Mustapha Dudin, who heads the strongest village league in Hebron, will be willing to negotiate with the Israelis whether or not long-stalled negotiations on autonomy for West Bank Palestinians ever resume. (Egyptian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Butros Ghali said Aug. 16 that Egypt will not resume autonomy negotiations with Israel and the United States until all Israeli troops are out of Lebanon.)
This union, if formed, will be the culmination of a long process by which Israel has sought to diminish the power of established urban West Bank leadership, both traditional pro-Jordanians and younger elected mayors and municipal officials who support the PLO.
The politics of such leaders varied from those hostile to Israel to those who would publicly recognize the Israeli state. But all publicly endorsed the PLO and called for Palestinian self-determination on the West Bank, a concept the Israeli government has firmly rejected.
Eight elected mayors and the appointed mayor of Gaza were dismissed this year (two had already been deported in 1980), three of them during the war in Lebanon. Some of the mayors, along with several newspaper editors and heads of professional associations, have been under town arrest for several months. A few of them have been under partial or total house arrest.
The headquarters of the Hebron Village League is guarded by a jeepload of Israeli soldiers who relax on the front porch and by several young Hebronites toting Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns. Inside, Mohammed Dudin explains that the several village leagues will soon choose a steering ''conference'' -- his brother Mustapha is expected to become its chairman -- whose members will become responsible for local services. This would form an approximation of the administrative council envisioned under the Camp David formula for West Bank autonomy.
Mr. Dudin said he is exploring ways to add membership from West Bank towns as well, which would make the union's representation of the West Bank complete. ''The Arabs have done nothing for us for 34 years, so we have to take our case in our own hands,'' he said. ''We have no other way except to negotiate with the Israelis.''
After the ''conference'' meets, he said, ''we will have to think hard about whether to wait for autonomy talks or to negotiate directly with Israel.''
Mr. Dudin said the projected union had not been discussed with the Israelis. But a spokesman for the Israeli West Bank Civil Administration said, ''It doesn't come as news to me. It's logical. Our ultimate objective is a political structure which gets into autonomy negotiations.''
The village leagues, begun three years ago, are based on an idea tried unsuccessfully by the Jewish Agency in the 1930s under the Palestine mandate in an effort to win Arab support. Israeli officials explain that Arab politics are based on patronage. Thus, they have attempted to cut off the influx of Arab and PLO money that funded West Bank municipal development (and sometimes entered private pockets) while wooing villages with development money and otherwise forbidden arms.
Membership has jumped since the Lebanon war began. Israeli authorities claim 128 out of 474 villages belong. Two new leagues have recently been added, eight more are on the way. But with the exception of Mustapha Dudin, most of the league leaders are unknown and minor figures.
Israeli officials say the jump in membership is due to the demise of PLO intimidation and death threats (Aug. 12 a projected new village league head was assassinated in Kalkylia). But many village leaders say they have been pressured by Israeli authorities to join the leagues or face denial of all development aid and necessary official permits. Violent clashes have broken out between armed league members and hostile residents in several member villages.
''The Israelis created village leagues so they can say in the future that they represent the people here instead of the PLO,'' says acting Hebron mayor Mustapha Natche. ''But they will fail,'' he added. ''They are armed by Israel and they speak with their master's voice. But Palestinians here and in all other places are pro-PLO.''