Fighting Words / Far From the Madding Crowd

Bassam Shaka, the former mayor of Nablus who lost his legs in an attack by Israeli extremists, has been keeping his distance from Palestinian politics.

It has been 25 years since the morning of July 2, 1980, when the mayor of Nablus, Bassam Shaka, walked out the door of his home in the western part of the city and got into his car, which was parked in the courtyard. It was 7:45 A.M., the time when he habitually headed for the municipality building. The moment he started the car there was a huge explosion. A member of the city council, the physician Dr. Hatam Abu Gazala, who lives nearby and was one of the first to arrive on the scene, found Shaka sprawled bleeding next to the car. Both of his legs were amputated in the explosion. During those moments there was a similar explosion in the car of the mayor of Ramallah, Karim Khalaf. He lost one foot, a minor injury relative to what Shaka suffered.

The news of the attack on the two mayors spread immediately. Ibrahim Tawil, the mayor of El-Bireh, decided to stay home a while longer. He called the military government and said he was afraid to get into his car, which was parked in a closed garage on his property. The governor sent soldiers to his home. One of them, Druze sapper Suleiman Hirbawi, tried to raise the garage door and an explosive charge went off that wounded him severely; he lost his sight.

Bassam Shaka was the most prominent Palestinian politician in the territories during the 1970s and the `80s. Even after his legs were amputated, he continued to serve as mayor until the Israeli military government deposed him in 1982. He is now 75 years old. Recently, it has been hard for him to walk with his prosthetic legs and he uses a wheelchair. He rarely leaves his home on a hillside that overlooks the Old City of Nablus, above the large buildings of Al-Najah University. Sometimes he goes out to the family grove on the slope leading to the Jordan Valley, and on rare occasions he goes to Ramallah for family events or to visit friends.

Ever since he came out, more than 10 years ago, against the "autonomy conspiracy" (that is what he calls the Oslo agreement), Shaka has hardly been involved at all in Palestinian politics and has kept his distance from the media. In a rare interview, he formulated his world view in a single sentence: "I do not want to control anyone and I don't want anyone to control me." In reply to the question of whether he agrees to the principle of two states for two peoples, he replied: "The State of Israel is not prepared for this. It is carrying out a racist policy and constantly expanding the Jewish settlements in the territories - so there's nothing to discuss about the two-state principle."

If people suggest that he participate in the elections for the Palestinian parliament, will he agree?

"Under certain conditions," says Shaka. His conditions are that people join him in his struggle against the Oslo agreements.

Are there such people? "Of course," he replies, adding with a smile. "Hamas, for example." Then, apparently taken aback by his own answer, he says: "So, I see that you are already making problems for me and are getting me in trouble."

Proponent of unity

Indeed, Bassam Shaka - a member of one of the wealthiest and most distinguished families in Nablus - has never supported a Muslim religious party. As a young man in Jordanian Nablus at the beginning of the 1950s, he joined the Ba'ath ("Revival") Party, a secular national party that propounded the unity of the Arab world. He was persecuted by the Jordanian authorities, went underground and into exile in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. In 1965 he was permitted to return to Nablus, and in 1967 he headed the National Bloc of Palestinian Liberation Organization disciples in the city and was elected mayor, a position he held until 1982.

Shaka was considered the dominant figure in the National Guidance Committee (NGC), a body established in the territories with the help of the PLO to organize resistance to the Israeli regime. In 1979 the military government issued a deportation order against Shaka, after the defense establishment accused him of incitement to murder Israelis. The order was canceled after Shaka petitioned the High Court of Justice and he returned to Nablus a hero.

Shaka relates that in May, 1980, he woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of knocking at his door. In the entrance stood three young Arab men who told him they were a squad of the Fatah organization from Syria and that they had been sent to him by Salah Halaf (Abu Iyad), Yasser Arafat's deputy, to persuade him to help them in their mission. The mission, they said, was to hit mayors in the territories who were not acting in accordance with the PLO line and to organize attacks on Jewish settlements. Shaka was convinced at that time, and is convinced now, that they were Israeli intelligence agents who were trying to trap him, and he refused to help them out.

He does, however, see this nocturnal visit as the first in a chain of events that led ultimately to the attempt on his life. A month later a Fatah squad attacked Jewish settlers in Hebron - five yeshiva students were shot and killed in an ambush near Beit Hadassah. The defense minister at the time, Ezer Weizman, and the heads of the security establishment decided to deport the mayors of Hebron and Halhoul, who were active in the NGC.

Members of what later became known as the Jewish underground and of Gush Emunim decided this was not enough and dispatched the squads that laid the explosive charges in the cars of Shaka, Halaf and Tawil.

Moshe Zer, one of the first settlers in the northern West Bank, was the person who led the Jewish underground "hit team" that tried to assassinate Bassam Shaka. Zer was known as a very active property dealer, who had been wounded at the battle for the Mitla in the Sinai Campaign. After the underground was exposed, Zer was sentenced to three years in prison, but because of the state of his health, he hardly served any time. During the current intifada, in May 2001, his son Gilad Zer, who had been the security officer of the northern West Bank regional council, was killed. He was shot from an ambush near the Jewish settlement of Kedumim near Nablus, and the Gilad Farm outpost was established in his memory - an outpost where, in recent months, evacuation attempts have led to violent incidents.

When he goes out onto his balcony in his wheelchair, Bassam Shaka can see the Jewish settlements on the slopes of the northern West Bank. On a clear day, he can see Gilad Farm.

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