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W. Bank Palestinians differ on Jordan's higher profile in area

Just days before it is scheduled to reopen its doors for the first time in more than 19 years, the Cairo-Amman Bank smells of fresh paint, and echoes with the shouts of harried workers. ``I'm sorry, we'll have to go to my office to talk,'' apologizes Samir Jawhuri, who is supervising the restoration. ``The workers are all very nervous right now.''

The workers say they are nervous about more than just finishing their jobs on time. They are also concerned with how the bank -- the most visible symbol to date of increased Israeli-Jordanian cooperation on the Israeli-occupied West Bank -- will be received by the local Palestinian population when it opens its doors for business later this month.

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Israelis, Palestinians, and Western analysts interviewed say that the level of Israeli-Jordanian cooperation in administering the West Bank has risen to unprecedented levels since last February. That was when Jordan's King Hussein broke with the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership.

The Israelis say King Hussein wants to reassert his authority over the territory he lost to Israel in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel supports that effort because it offers a chance to weaken the PLO's grip on West Bank inhabitants.

The Jordanians say they want to counter Israeli land confiscation and Jewish settlement on the West Bank, which they fear are leading toward eventual Israeli annexation. The best way to forestall this is to improve the lives of the West Bank's approximately 750,000 Palestinians, and rebuild the territory's ties to the Arab world, Jordanian officials say.

Whatever the motivation for Jordan's willingness to work within the framework of Israel's control over the West Bank, the results are making themselves felt. In recent weeks:

The Cairo-Amman bank has been scheduled to reopen under joint Israeli-Jordanian supervision.

Palestinian mayors were appointed by the Iraelis to govern towns that for years were administered by Israelis.

A new influx of Jordanian funds is going to institutions and individuals thought to be pro-Jordanian.

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Jordan continues seeking outside funding for a proposed $1.3 billion 5-year development plan for the West Bank.

The Jordanian government now broadcasts a weekly TV show aimed specifically at a West Bank audience. The show stresses what Jordan is doing to help Palestinians living under occupation.

All this activity has sharply divided Palestinian opinion between those who support Jordan's moves as pragmatic steps toward improving daily life and those who oppose the measures as a well-thought-out plan to undermine PLO support and strengthen Israel's occupation.

American officials, who pushed for Israel to allow the reopening of an Arab-owned and operated bank, insist that pragmatism can win out among a Palestinian population tired of economic and political stagnation. The US, one diplomat says, is counting on a ``silent majority'' of conservative Palestinians -- businessmen, merchants, and farmers -- to support the bank and other steps to improve life under Israeli occupation.

The diplomat dismissed a recent poll of West Bank Palestinians that showed an overwhelming majority -- 71 percent -- support the PLO and military attacks on Israeli targets. ``We believe that is what they say to poll-takers, but it is not what they believe in their hearts,'' he said.

``Most of the people are happy with movement because it has been too long living under an unstable political and economic situation,'' acknowledges a Nablus merchant who asked not to be named.

But others, such as former Cairo-Amman Bank employee Burham Abdel Huq, say they worry about the reaction of those Palestinians opposed to anything that smacks of acceptance of Israeli rule. The bank seems an obvious target.

``I ask myself . . . will the people come? Will they be afraid of the political situation?'' says Mr. Abdel Huq, taking a break from sorting bank papers. For him, cleaning the bank is a poignant task. He worked here as a clerk 19 years ago, and is now trying to decide whether to resume his old job. Former employees have been offered the chance to return to their old jobs, Abdel Huq says. When workers began the clean-up two weeks ago, they stepped into a place frozen in time: in old desks there were family photos of babies who now are adults; calendars were open to June 6, 1967; and a gilt-framed picture of a much younger King Hussein hung in the manager's office. The picture, now carefully cleaned, is still on the wall.

Businessmen and others in this West Bank commercial center are optimistic about the boost they expect the bank will give business. But they are uncomfortably aware that Syria, Al-Fatah (the largest PLO faction headed by Yasser Arafat), and rejectionist Palestinian groups have criticized Jordan's steps to improve its standing with West Bank Palestinians.

The assassination of Israeli-appointed Nablus mayor Zafer Masri last March, after Hussein broke with Mr. Arafat over a joint strategy for Mideast peace, is still a painful memory. The Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Syrian-based group which claimed responsibility for Mr. Masri's death, has condemned both the bank and the newly appointed mayors.

The rupture between the King and the PLO has made any Jordanian contribution to the West Bank suspect in the eyes of nationalist Palestinians. From their point of view, the obvious support Hussein's efforts are getting from Israel and the US is ample evidence of a conspiracy.

``We are just average people,'' said another Nablusi merchant, who asked that his name not be used. ``We cannot guess the long-range aims of the Israelis, Americans, and Jordanians in opening this bank, but it seems to us that this is part of a bigger game.''

Indeed, Israeli officials say openly, the fast-paced changes on the West Bank are aimed at pointing out that the King can provide more material benefits to West Bank Palestinians than can Arafat. ``The really significant change on the West Bank is that Jordan has made a decision to support its people in the West Bank in real terms,'' says a senior Israeli Army officer. ``The Jordanians are not forcing local people to break with the PLO, but they are showing the people that Jordan can deliver. It's a long-term effort to build grassroots support.''

On Sept. 28, the Israelis named three Palestinians as mayors of West Bank towns governed by Israelis after the elected mayors had been deposed or deported. The municipalities of all major West Bank towns -- Nablus, Hebron, Ramallah, and Bireh -- are back in local Palestinian hands now. Jordan praised the appointments; Syria, and PLO factions there condemned them.

``I'm sure that there will be attempts made against the mayors,'' the Israeli Army source said. ``But we will do all that is necessary to prevent any harm from coming to them. This policy is in the interest of Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians living on the West Bank.''

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