Azmi Shuaibi is a dentist and a leading member of al-Bira municipal council, now disbanded by the Israeli military government. He comes from a peasant background, from the village of Dayr Ghassana in the West Bank, and was educated at Cairo University. He was elected to al-Bira municipal council on a pro-Palestine Liberation Organization slate in the 1976 election. Since 1977, he also represented the Ramallah-Bira section of the Palestinian Dentists’ Association. In the city council, he was responsible for the public library and its wide-ranging cultural activity, and for the secondary school committee. Shuaibi has been imprisoned several times for his political activity. Until recently he was under town arrest, which prevented him from leaving al-Bira or the West Bank. Among the accusations leveled against him by the military government was membership in the (banned) National Guidance Committee, the highest political body in the occupied territories, which is usually regarded as the political arm of the PLO in the West Bank. Beshara Doumani and Salim Tamari spoke with him in al-Bira in February 1983.
What is the legal structure and electoral base of West Bank municipalities?
The municipalities are local councils, non-governmental institutions, elected directly by the inhabitants who have the right to vote. They provide basic services as outlined in the 1955 Jordanian law governing the municipalities, a law inherited from the British Mandate system. Even though the municipal council is elected directly, most issues of importance have to be approved by official bodies, such as ministries, in the central government. The budget, for instance, has to be approved by the minister of the interior. He has the right to cross out, change or add anything he likes. The municipal council cannot object or appeal. The council must get permission even to open a street.
In addition, the central authority has the right to add two non-elected members to the city council, as well as the right to appoint the mayors. This is important, because the mayor is the only one who works full-time in the council and the only one who can execute the duties of the council.
But protocol has it that the one who receives the most votes becomes the mayor.
This was never applied until 1976, and then not absolutely. This has several consequences. First, because members of the city council are not full-time employees, they act as an advisory committee to the mayor instead of an executive committee. In addition, the mayor receives a token salary, which means that only those who are already financially well-off are able to work in this position. They were usually big landlords, heads of companies or members of rich families. Under such laws, no member of a profession could run for office. Until 1976, there was not a doctor, lawyer, or engineer heading a municipality either in the West or East Bank, with the exception of the lawyer ‘Abd al-Jawad Salah, the expelled mayor of al-Bira.
How much of the municipal budget is covered by local taxes?
The tax structure was such that the municipalities were constantly in the red and had to depend on the central authority for financial help. A medium size municipality such as Ramallah used to pay in the 1970s about 90 percent of its normal budget for employees’ salaries. Of course, 10 percent is not nearly enough for services. About 50 percent of the budget is covered by taxes. However, we have two kinds of budgets. The regular one is the total of expenditures on services, salaries, car expenses, rent, maintenance, and such. The income comes from taxes and municipal fees. The other budget is the development budget, which is whatever is left over after you deduct regular expenses. This budget is for constructing new buildings, schools, business and vegetable markets, industrial areas, central sewage system, and the like. When one says that, after 1967, taxes and fees came to only half of the normal budget, it means that the municipalities were not even able to provide the necessary services without external help, let alone initiate projects which cost a lot of money.
The Jordanian government before 1967 provided loans which kept the municipalities dependent on them. If the Jordanians were satisfied with a certain city council, they would forgive the loans. The Israeli occupation authorities, under the Labor Party, opened up the way for the city councils to get money from the Arab countries through Jordan. When the Labor government offered loans, especially to municipalities not opposed to the occupation, they attached humiliating conditions — for example, that all documents must be in Hebrew, and that only Israeli courts can arbitrate legal disputes. In addition, they wanted to supervise directly how the loan was spent. They wanted to control even the contractors supposed to do the work. They also wanted television coverage of money being handed over, in order to show how much they are helping Arab residents. Most municipalities refused to accept money under these conditions.
What is the electoral base of the municipalities?
Only taxpayers. Since there is no income tax, this means only people who own land, shops or offices. This effectively rules out the workers and poor people. The electoral law also excluded the refugee camps, even though Qaddoura camp is in the heart of al-Bira, and ‘Amari camp is within the al-Bira municipal limits.
Even though they own property or have shops?
Anyone who is a resident of a refugee camp does not have the right to vote unless they own a shop or other property outside the camp.
What about women?
Until 1976, they didn’t have the right to vote. When the military authorities altered the law in accordance with changes in Jordanian law, and allowed women to vote, they did so in order to influence the outcome. The authorities assumed that women in the occupied territories are relatively more backward socially and politically than the men and would vote for the more traditional and reactionary nominees. Illiteracy is much higher than among men, and these illiterate women would be more vulnerable to the slogans of the traditional and religious elements running for elections. The women and men had to place their votes in separate boxes. Ahmad Ma‘rouf, known as a communist, and myself, known as a leftist, came in first and fourth respectively among male votes, and seventh and eighth respectively among women. So the authorities were right to a certain extent. Their alteration of the law had a progressive form but a reactionary intent.
What percentage of the residents have the right to vote?
Out of al-Bira’s 22,000 people, about 5,000 had the right to vote. The authorities also widened the electoral base by lowering the age limit from 21 to 18.
You have often referred to 1976 as a watershed. In what sense?
Before the 1976 elections, near the end of 1975, a new concept emerged in the Israeli Labor Party concerning the occupied territories, a compromise between either making territorial concessions or officially annexing the West Bank. The Labor Party leadership announced the idea of forming a Civil Administration — the municipalities would take care of the citizens’ needs and services, while the military would retain security functions. This would relieve the military from the burden of providing services, and would reduce the intensity of the confrontation between the army and the inhabitants. This confrontation had been escalating since 1973, when the Palestinian people started to crystallize their political objectives by calling for an independent Palestinian state.
This seems close to Dayan’s plan.
Yes, Dayan was the engine for this plan, the one who carried on negotiations with the residents. There were two currents inside the Labor Party. One called for returning most of the West Bank to Jordan except for minor border adjustments and the Jordan Valley. This was the Allon Plan. The other current wanted to keep the occupied territories one way or another, under the framework of a Civil Administration controlled by Israel. This was Dayan’s plan, later adapted by the Likud. The two currents in fact were integrated into the idea of a transitional stage. Depending on what happened, one direction or another could be pursued.
What changes took place in the municipalities as a result of the 1976 elections?
I would say that the nationalist bourgeoisie in the occupied territories proved capable of taking over many of the major municipalities from the traditional reactionary elements. This was true in Nablus, the most important city economically and the base of the big merchants, in Hebron, the reactionary center of the West Bank where the rule of the traditional class is dominant and in Ramallah-Bira, which usually plays a more intellectual and modern role in the occupied territories. It also occurred in Halhoul in the south and ‘Anabta in the north. This was the axis that led the municipalities from 1976 to 1982, when all the councils in this axis were dismissed.
What about other cities and towns?
The only city that did not undergo any change was Bethlehem. This was a result of the strong domination of big capitalists over the social situation, and because of the large number of missionary and religious centers in the city. Also, there is a tradition there that the mayor and vice mayor must come from specific Christian denominations, even though the majority of the electoral bases are from Ta‘amriyya, Bayt Sahour and other newly modernized Muslim villages. Until recently, these had been inhabited by settled bedouin. The big capitalists centered in Bethlehem control these villages. Furayj makes a deal with the head of the Ta‘amri clan, for instance, and he gets all their votes.
What about the countryside?
There are municipalities in some villages that underwent change, but not to the same degree as the cities. For example, in Tulkarm, Qalqilya and Jericho, the traditional elements such as Hilmi Hanoun maintained their position but went along with the nationalist current that dominated the West Bank at that time. There wasn’t enough attention paid by the nationalist movement to the countryside, so the elections took place on a clan basis. Now, however, there is a danger that the councils may be absorbed by the traditionalists.
What are the main features of the period between 1976 and 1982?
Directly after the 1976 elections, the Palestinian bourgeois elements, unlike their traditional predecessors, started to think of ways to bring money into the city budgets. Since the conditions of their people under occupation were difficult, they did not consider raising the taxes and municipal fees. They directed their fundraising efforts towards the Arab countries and towards Palestinians abroad.
Wouldn’t an increase in taxes and fees give the municipalities more independence?
Yes, but the easier solution was to get money from abroad. From this, the idea emerged to twin the municipalities with Arab cities. Money became available, in varying degrees depending on the municipality. Some new development projects were started.
On another level, a political battle faced the municipalities. They had to play a role commensurate with their new responsibilities in confronting the Israeli authorities’ attack on the nationalist institutions in the West Bank and After the “Civil Administration” takeover, 1982. attempts to deprive these institutions of their nationalist content. Since the municipalities were the largest institutions in the occupied territories, they led the confrontation. A feeling existed that the municipalities represented the nationalist position of the people. The municipalities therefore had to coordinate popular actions, which basically were reactions to Israeli provocations like land confiscation, deportations, and so on.
The municipalities played a constructive role in that period. When the Likud came to power in 1977, it began gradually to impose new restrictions on the city councils in order to limit their influence. Economically, they prevented the municipalities from getting money from outside sources under the pretext that they were not efficient or capable of providing services for their constituencies. When the authorities failed to diminish people’s confidence in the municipalities, they had to hit them directly.
Sharon’s version of the Civil Administration basically creates a new division of labor within the Israeli bureaucracy in order to pave the way for the annexation of the occupied territories and tie them directly to the various Israeli ministries. Milson was chosen by Sharon to head the Civil Administration on the basis of Milson’s theory of “taming” the people in order to facilitate the annexation of the occupied territories. Milson intended to hit the “radical” elements — those who refuse to accept Camp David — while providing facilities for the “moderates” — the pro-Jordanian, pro-American current. But this was complicated by the fact that the authorities do not back the Jordanian option. So, Milson thought to open the way for a third current, the collaborationists. These were the Village Leagues.
What led up to the resignation of the municipal councils, and why did some refuse to resign?
We did not resign. We just refused to cooperate with the Civil Administration headed by Milson. The Likud government considered that the military government had failed in the campaign to quicken the annexation of the occupied territories, because the military bureaucracy was not efficient or equipped to pursue certain technical matters such as land confiscation, settlements, forced emigration and all that this entails. These matters need more professional and technical people than military officers. So a part of the responsibilities of the Civil Administration was integrating such personnel who can work full time on such projects, free from the cumbersome military bureaucracy. We saw early on that the Civil Administration started turning out structural regional plans for the West Bank. They introduced new, subtle methods aimed at forcing people to emigrate. The “iron fist” policy started to take on a new meaning. It is not a coincidence that the viciousness of the military towards the people increased. No longer responsible for everyday supervising of civil affairs, they could work full time on “security” matters.
After the deportation of Mayors Muhammad Milham from Halhoul and Fahd Qawasma from Hebron, after the Israelis failed in their assassination attempts on the mayors of Nablus, Ramallah and al-Bira, and after they disbanded the National Guidance Committee, the resistance escalated to a full-scale uprising by March 1982. The authorities tried to put it down with force, and shot 26 people dead. They thought that this would scare everybody, but it backfired on them.
After the National Guidance Committee was disbanded, there was no longer a general nationalist framework. At that time, there were two positions inside the nationalist movement. One position called for all the municipal councils to turn in their resignations, paving the way for a total confrontation with the authorities. The other tendency wanted to stall, keep what is left, and have the surviving councils refuse to deal with the Civil Administration when their turn comes. Of course, the authorities had a plan ready. They moved quickly after al-Bira to Ramallah, where they dismissed Mayor Karim Khalaf. Bassam Shaka‘a followed in Nablus. I myself was arrested at that time and spent the whole period of the uprising in jail.
Were many other members of councils in your position?
Only Khaldoun ‘Abd al-Haqq from Nablus, but town arrests were imposed on most of the mayors. The authorities were not planning to hit further after al-Bira, Ramallah and Nablus, but the non-compromising stands of the municipalities of ‘Anabta, Doura, Qalqilya and Jenin forced the authorities to dismiss them as well.
How did the Israelis fare in administering the municipalities?
They hoped they would find some collaborators, but people were unequivocal and refused to back down. So there was no opportunity provided in al-Bira, Ramallah, Nablus or ‘Anabta for these collaborationist elements to take charge. In spite of all kinds of pressure, the authorities failed, except in Doura, Qalqilya and Jenin, where Village League elements were appointed. The authorities’ objective now, in my opinion, is to create “city leagues,” collaborators like the Village Leagues. They have not succeeded. They tried with certain elements to put out a paper called Taqaddum (Progress), which folded quickly.
The situation will remain this way until they can find enough “cooperative” people. Then they will change the laws and make it impossible for any patriotic elements to nominate themselves in future elections. Meanwhile, the authorities remain unconcerned with all the disruption in the cities caused by the discontinuation of services and improper maintenance of existing facilities. They are trying their best to cover up the corruption and financial scandals. Of course, all the development projects are presently paralyzed.
What has happened with the municipal employees and workers?
They went on strike. Of the 117 employees of al-Bira, 112 are still on strike. In Ramallah, a large number went back to work.
Are there people — merchants, for example — putting pressure on the municipalities to call off their strike and go back to work?
Legally, the dismissed councils can return to office after a year if no elections were held within this period. The authorities have sent feelers to our dismissed council, telling us that we can return if we cooperate with the Civil Administration. Our position is that we have the right both to return and to continue opposing the Civil Administration. We refuse to return under their conditions. We may raise the issue in the Supreme Court, or ask for new elections.
The position of the municipalities depends on the general national position. The Civil Administration’s plan has been foiled politically so far, but it has not yet been fully defeated as an alternative to national independence and as a first stage in annexing the territories. The authorities have successfully forced the people to deal with the Civil Administration in order to carry on their daily lives, to secure travel permits, telephone permits and drivers’ licenses, for instance. They’ve obstructed the ability of the municipalities to provide services in order to force the residents to despair to the point where they would prefer a collaborationist city council to none at all.
What, in your opinion, have been some of the mistakes of the national movement?
First, in spite of a united position against the Civil Administration, there was no common view inside the national movement on how to go about confronting this plan. When the Civil Administration suddenly forced a showdown — starting with al-Bira council and then the other councils just days later — there were no united efforts. Instead, there were many individual efforts to deal with the crisis situation.
Second, when the confrontation took place, the national movement did not work on a comprehensive mobilization against the Civil Administration. The resistance was handled in a top-heavy manner. The logical conclusion to total refusal of the Civil Administration was civil disobedience, but the national movement was not able to escalate its resistance to this level, as happened in the Golan. Students and young people bore the brunt of the confrontation.
What is the role of the municipalities in the current political movement?
The task of the national movement currently is to neutralize the pro-Jordanian currents. The only municipal authorities still in office — Furayj in Bethlehem, Jamal Sabri Khalaf in Jericho, and other Israeli appointees in Jenin and Qalqilya — are the so-called moderates, the pro-Jordanian and pro-American current. They cannot do much by themselves, only in cooperation with other “moderates” not officially in the municipal structure, such as Hikmat al-Masri, Fu’ad al-Zaru, Yasir ‘Abid and ‘Aziz Shihada. This is in spite of the limitations imposed by the Likud government on these people, who are allowed freedom of movement only so long as they serve to undermine the PLO and the nationalist elements.
This current is moving now towards the Jordanian option on the basis of the Reagan plan, benefiting from the lack of coordination within the leadership of the nationalist movement on the one hand and using the desperation and great desire of the people here to get rid of the occupation on the other. They hide under the slogan of “saving what can be saved.”
What do you see for the future?
We need to reestablish the National Front in the occupied territories. The national forces must work together. This is the only way to block the “moderates.” This won’t happen until there is an open contradiction between the PLO and Jordan, which may develop soon. When King Hussein allies himself with the “moderates” as an alternative to the PLO and enters negotiations with the US under the auspices of the Reagan Plan, then the leadership of the PLO will appreciate fully how important it is to reestablish a united National Front.