NABLUS, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Two hard-line Palestinian groups Sunday claimed responsibility for the assassination of Mayor Zafer Masri of Nablus earlier in the day, and the killing quickly cast a pall over whatever slim hopes remained for near-term progress toward Middle East peace.
Masri, 45, was seen as a symbol of efforts to find a new and more moderate Palestinian leadership ready to participate in the peace process.
He was felled by three bullets in the back, fired by a lone gunman, as he walked to work Sunday morning, not long after Jordan's King Hussein, in a series of weekend meetings, had called for West Bank Palestinians to choose more moderate leaders or "reconsider the entire system of their political representation."
An Influential Family
A member of one of the largest and most influential Palestinian families in this city, Masri took over as mayor last December from the Israeli army officer who had been in charge here since 1982. And his murder was seen as a possibly mortal blow to Israeli plans, already far advanced, to appoint new Arab mayors in other West Bank cities as well.
"If they killed Zafer Masri, there is a fear that it will have an effect on others," said Fathi Fahmawi, a businessman who has been organizing an effort by the local chamber of commerce to take over the administration of the West Bank town of Janin. "The fear will spread," Fahmawi added during a visit here Sunday.
Hard-line Palestinian groups oppose the plan to install new West Bank Arab mayors as an Israeli subterfuge to forestall genuine Palestinian self-determination.
The Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said in a statement from Damascus on Sunday that it carried out a "death sentence" imposed on Masri for "dealing with the Zionist-Jordanian reactionary plan aimed at liquidating the Palestinian cause."
"The PFLP, with this execution, reminds (that) anyone who attempts to deal with this surrenderist scheme will meet the same fate as this traitor did--whatever protection he might get from the Zionist occupation authorities," the statement added.
An anonymous caller to a news agency in Paris, meanwhile, claimed that the Abu Nidal group carried out the attack in coordination with two other, unnamed organizations. The group, which also claimed responsibility for last December's simultaneous attacks at Israeli airline counters at Rome and Vienna airports, said the assassination was meant as a warning to Jordan, Israel and Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Abu Nidal is the nom de guerre of Palestinian terrorist Sabri Banna, who has made his headquarters at various times in Iraq, Syria and Libya and who opposes Arafat and his followers in Fatah, the PLO's mainstream faction, as too moderate. About 60 of Abu Nidal's relatives live in Nablus.
The Jordanian government and Arafat's Fatah faction, both of which had tacitly approved Masri's appointment as mayor, condemned his murder Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres told the regular weekly meeting of his Cabinet that Masri's murder "is a blow to the residents of the (occupied) territories and to whoever wishes to see progress towards calm and understanding."
Cabinet Secretary Yossi Beilin quoted the prime minister as adding that "the murder will not deter the Israel government from proposing to the residents of the territories to administer their own affairs."
Cordon Around City
The Israeli army and the paramilitary border guards threw a cordon around this city of 90,000, the largest on the West Bank, within minutes of the shooting. Despite house-to-house searches, however, the authorities had apparently found no trace of the assailant by Sunday night.
Witnesses said the gunman escaped into the crowded Nablus market after shooting Masri on a central square, only about 30 yards from city hall.
Reporters arriving here late Sunday morning found shops throughout the city closed and shuttered. Workmen washed down the floor of the municipal building in preparation for receiving thousands of mourners expected after Masri's funeral, which is scheduled for this afternoon.
Paying Their Respects
Scores of friends and members of the huge Masri family paid their respects to the late mayor's elder brother, Hikmat, at the clan leader's large home on the southern outskirts of the city on Sunday.
Hikmat Masri is a former Speaker of the Jordanian Parliament, and a nephew, Taher Masri, is Jordan's foreign minister.
"It is to us rather as an earthquake," Wahid Masri, a cousin of the slain man, told two American reporters who visited the gathering. "It is a catastrophe."
Wahid Masri's hands trembled and his breathing was shallow as he eulogized his younger relative. At one point he sobbed deeply, and the fingers of his left hand raced nimbly over amber Muslim prayer beads all the time he spoke.