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Middle East: Firing the Mayor

3 minute read

New clashes on the West Bank

Backed by 50 soldiers, the Israeli official marched into the second-story office of Ibrahim Tawil, the Arab mayor of the West Bank municipality of El-Bireh (pop. 25,000). He handed Tawil a formal document bearing ominous news: the mayor and his seven-man local council were fired. Tawil responded with a laconic “Thank you very much.” After a few seconds of awkward silence, one of the soldiers ordered him to leave his office forthwith. Tawil, who had run the municipality since winning an Israeli-sponsored election in 1976, was immediately replaced by an Israeli lieutenant colonel.

The unprecedented dismissal of one of the West Bank’s 23 elected Arab mayors was, according to Jerusalem, precipitated by Tawil’s behavior. He had consistently refused to deal with the Israeli civilian bureaucracy that was established last November to replace the military administration that had governed the occupied territory since 1967. Like other Arab mayors who favor the creation of an independent Palestinian state, Tawil had denounced Israel’s switchover to civilian rule as a duplicitous ploy that pretended to give the area’s 700,000 residents more autonomy while in fact laying the foundations for indefinite Israeli control.

From its headquarters in Beirut, the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) described the latest Israeli move as the first step in an effort to purge the West Bank of all mayors who, like Tawil, have close ties to the P.L.O. Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s ultimate aim, the Palestinians claim, is outright annexation of the territory, which Begin always refers to by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria.

The Israelis vigorously deny the charge. According to Menachem Milson, head of the new civilian administration, the change was intended to make it easier for Israel to help the West Bank Arabs deal with such local issues as health, sanitation and roads. “I want to see peace between Palestinians and Israelis,” says Milson, a professor of Arabic literature on leave from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I feel we are making progress.”

Israel’s decision to fire Tawil provoked further unrest in the West Bank. Already outraged by Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights last December and the closing of Bir Zeit University last month, local leaders called a three-day general strike that shut down all stores and schools. Late last week, after a series of stonethrowing incidents by youths in El-Bireh, the protests culminated in tragedy. Israeli troops fired on the demonstrators, killing a 17-year-old Palestinian youth and wounding two teen-age girls. Later the same day, Israeli soldiers lobbed tear gas canisters at the funeral procession for the youth. Whatever Begin’s motives, the switch to civilian rule had hardly reduced the Israeli army’s visibility in the West Bank.

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