West Bank leaders uncertain why Israelis ousted them
"Of course, I want to go back. Everybody who was forced out of his country, either the way I was or any other way, wants to go back." The words were those of a former high-school teacher, a father of six teen-agers who in 1976 was elected mayor of his hometown. But Muhammad Milhem's hometown is in Israeli-occupied territory, in the West Bank of the Jordan River, not far from the bustling Palestinian town of Hebron.
On May 2, Palestinian guerrillas ambushed a group of Jewish settlers making for the controversial settlement in the middle of Hebron after their Friday prayers, killing six of them. A few hours later, the mayor of Hebron, the town's leading religious judge, and Mayor Milhem were awakened from their beds.
The religious judge, a voluble black-gowned figure wearing a turban and dark glasses, takes up the narrative:
"They took us directly from our houses, at 1:30 in the morning . . . . We had no chance even to explain to our families that we would be going out for a little while . . . . They look us to the offices of the governor . . . . Then an officer took us to a helicopter. He would say nothing, only that we had to go for a meeting somewhere else.
"The helicopter took us directly to south Lebanon. There, the officer simply told us, 'You are expelled, on order of the minister of defense.' That was all we knew."
Mr. Milhem says he does not know why he and his colleagues were the three chosen for deportation. Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann, Mr. Milhem says , "must have known we had no relation to the ambush. If he had had any indication that we did, he'd have put us on trial, to show us up to the world as bloodsuckers.
"Their choosing us was really a sign of the Israelis' weakness," he adds, "since they could not find those responsible for the operation. They said subsequently that we had incited the population. . . ." Mr. Milhem denied that emphatically.
Shortly after Mr. Milhem and his fellow deportees talked to the Monitor, they obtained the United Nations Security Council resolution they were seeking, calling on Israel to rescind their deportation orders. The three of them then traveled to the King Hussein Bridge in Jordan, but were prevented from crossing back into the West Bank by an Israeli Army unit.
"If we get the Security Council resolution, then we should push to have it implemented," Mr. Milheim had urged. "The Camp David resolutions which have no binding force on us in international law are going to be imposed on us by force -- so why cannot the resolutions of the supreme international body be implemented?"
"What about all the reported differences between the moderates and the radicals on the West Bank?" the mayor of Halhoul was asked.
"Differences in ideologies exist everywhere in the world," Mr. Milhem replied , with a smile, "and the Palestinians are part of this world."
He immediately became serious. "But no two Palestinians differ in resisting colonization, in resisting harassment, in resisting Israeli occupation, or in wanting to achieve self-determination and an independent Palestinian state," he said.
"This is the red line! After this red line there may be secondary issues and differences, but these are all minor issues."
Since Mayor Milhem and his colleagues were deported, the Israeli military have applied a virtually total clampdown on West Bank towns. Mr. Milhem seemed to think such measures might be successful in suppressing the Palestinian ferment there -- but only temporarily.
"New kinds of suppression may be practiced against the Palestinians both inside and outside the occupied territories. But if they are forced in any part of the world to shut their mouths, that would not be a healthy phenomenon. It would only signal a short interval before another uprising, to which no one could calculate the conclusions.
"And this," he says, "is as sure as mathematics. There can only be this one answer to the equation.
"We've been honest to the Israelis, telling them about this question so their calculations can take it into consideration for the future benefit and survival of all generations to come, whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews."
"But," this sturdy municipal leader was asked, "don't you hate them for what they have done?"
He thought a moment. Then: "I don't hate them, honestly. I have friends in the Israeli community no less friendly than the Palestinians. I will never forget that scores of Israelis marched into my office with bunches of flowers on March 31, 1979, when the curfew on Halhoul was lifted after two weeks.
"How could one expect a Palestinian to hate these people?" "True," he added, careful to be honest, "some Palestinians have submachineguns, grenades, or stones in their hands, to hurl at the Israeli occupier. But in their hearts they have all the love for the human element -- precisely because they themselves have stood in need of that love and sympathy."
Mr. Milhem was asked if he expected further Palestinian actions like the ambush in Hebron. "It could be actions like this one, it could be protests, or anything else within the reach of man to express his rejection of oppression and harassment," he said.
"It is difficult to get arms inside. But we can at least say 'no,' and even this will be a spark to inflame the peoples of the world against Israeli oppression."