Israel to Take Measures to Improve Quality of Life for West Bank Arabs

Israel may be about to liberalize its policies on the West Bank and Gaza. Premier Shimon Peres, now visiting Washington, is expected to inform the Reagan Administration of measures to improve the quality of life for Arab residents of those territories.

Peres referred to such measures just before he left for Washington last Saturday night. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was more explicit. At a meeting with Arab Labor MK Abdel-Wahab Darousha at the Defense Ministry a few days earlier he spoke of easing financial restrictions, limiting censorship and the possibility of local Arab residents replacing the government-appointed Jewish mayors of West Bank and Gaza Strip towns.

The timing of these remarks was not accidental. The Reagan Administration, notably Secretary of State George Shultz, has been quietly pressuring Israel for some time to improve the “quality of life” for Arabs in the occupied territories. The term “quality of life” was used to avoid the impression that the U.S. is pressing Israel for political changes in the territories.

So far, only one restriction has been eased. Arab residents of the territories returning home from abroad may bring with them a maximum of $5,000. Hitherto the maximum was $3,000.

FIRST ARAB BANK UNDER CONSIDERATION

But a much more significant step is under consideration — the opening of the first Arab bank in the territories in 17 years.

All Arab banks ceased to function after Israel seized the territories in the 1967 Six-Day War. The sole exception was the Falastin Bank in Gaza which was not permitted to trade in foreign currency. The absence of local banks has been a key factor of slow economic development in the territories.

Now, a group of Arab investors headed by young Nablus businessman Zafer Al Masri want to establish a bank. The government has decided in principle to grant permission. Shmuel Goren, coordinator of government affairs in the territories, is hopeful that the bank will open some time next year.

But the government, which is a delicately balanced coalition of the hard-line Likud and the more moderate Labor Party, must protect its right flank. While measures such as the reduced military censorship of books, the return of Arab municipalities to governance by Arab politicians and even the possible reopening of Al-Najah University, a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism in Nablus, are under consideration, Goren made it clear that the Israeli authorities would continue to wield a “strong hand” against anyone disturbing the peace.

NO FREE ELECTIONS CONTEMPLATED

He stressed that there was no intention to allow the return of two Arab mayors deported from the West Bank in 1980 after a terrorist attack on yeshiva students in Hebron. Nor will Israel consider free elections in the territories.

The last municipal elections, held in 1976, brought into office outspoken nationalists with alleged close connections to the Palestine Liberation Organization. All were subsequently deposed by the Likud-led government and replaced by Jews.

Goren’s comments reflected the government’s fear of further aggravating militant Jewish settlers who are demanding much harsher measures against Arabs in the territories. They insist for example that any Arab caught throwing stones at Jews be summarily deported. The militants, who form the hard core rightwing of the settlement movement, have been an important constituent of Likud.

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