JERUSALEM — In a surprise move, Israel on Sunday appointed Palestinian Arab mayors to replace Israeli military officers in three of the largest towns on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.
The move was sought by the United States and approved by Jordan. However, it is opposed on political grounds by the Palestine Liberation Organization and, apparently, by a majority of the 800,000 Palestinians who live in the area and favor elections for West Bank municipal offices.
The last previous Arab mayor appointed by the occupation authorities was Zafer Masri, a Nablus businessman, who was assassinated last March 2, less than three months after taking over the job. Masri was succeeded by his deputy. No one has ever been arrested for the killing, but two radical Palestinian factions based in Syria claimed responsibility.
Masri's assassination was seen as a warning to other West Bank Arabs against cooperating with what diaspora Palestinian leaders consider to be an Israeli effort to undermine their authority by establishing a more flexible alternate leadership in the occupied territories.
Three previous Palestinian mayoral candidates, fearing for their lives, withdrew their names immediately after Masri's death.
While there were reports recently that Jordan approved of new nominees, at least one such Palestinian again withdrew from consideration--and until Sunday, there was no indication that movement on the issue was in the offing.
A senior source in the Israeli occupation authority agreed that Sunday's appointments came "almost all of a sudden." One of the candidates did not formally apply for the post until two weeks ago, and final discussions with the three new mayors were concluded only on Saturday night, this source said.
The new mayors are Dr. Abdel Mejid Zir, 58, an internist and longtime chief of the city's public health services, in Hebron; Khalil Musa Khalil, 69, a businessman and former mayor, in Ramallah, and Hassan Tawil, 71, the head of his city's most prominent extended family, in Al Birah.
Washington had urged Israel to appoint Arab mayors on the West Bank as part of a program to improve the "quality of life" in the occupied territories pending some final settlement of the Palestinian problem.
Less than two weeks ago, the occupation authorities approved the opening of an Arab bank in Nablus, another priority item in Washington.
Both moves come in the final days of the administration of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who is due to exchange jobs Oct. 14 with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir under a rotation provision in the coalition accord under which Peres' centrist Labor Alignment with the rightist Likud Bloc together form a unity government.
Peres is seen by both Washington and Amman as more likely than Shamir to pursue conciliatory policies on the West Bank.
Jordan, which broke with the PLO earlier this year after a futile, 12-month effort to coordinate Middle East peace efforts, is in the midst of a major campaign to increase its influence on the West Bank by bolstering pro-Jordanian elements there.
West Bank Captured in '67
Sunday's action means that for the first time in nearly a decade, all Arab towns on the West Bank and Gaza Strip are now run by Arab mayors.
Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War. In 1972, when Israel first permitted municipal elections in West Bank towns, the PLO boycotted the balloting, and more moderate pro-Jordanian candidates won most of the top posts.
But in the next election, in 1976, Palestinian nationalists swept the field. Israel ultimately deposed or deported about half the mayors for anti-government agitation, and it has never again permitted free West Bank elections.
Hebron had been run by an Israeli army officer since the acting mayor, Mustafa Natshe, was deposed in July, 1983. Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem, had been run by an army officer since the late Kharim Khalaf was fired in 1981 for his criticism of the occupation authorities. And Al Birah had been run by an Israeli clerk after its elected mayor, Ibrahim Tawil, was deposed in 1982.
Both Khalaf and Tawil were targets of Jewish terrorists who planted bombs in their cars in 1980. Tawil escaped the attempt on his life, but Khalaf lost a leg when the bomb in his car exploded. Another deposed mayor, Bassam Shaka of Nablus, lost both legs above the knee in a third car booby-trap set by the so-called Jewish underground.
In a poll published by the pro-PLO newspaper Al Fajr earlier this month, nearly 74% of 1,000 West Bank and Gaza Strip respondents said they favored free municipal elections. More than 60% said they would reject any alternative--such as Israeli-appointed mayors--while escalating the drive for elections.
Nevertheless, the West Bank administrator, Brig. Gen. Ephraim Sneh, who handed the three new mayors their letters of appointment Sunday, said he thinks that they "will enjoy quite broad popular support."
"I hope they don't have to be afraid," he added.