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Few Arabs Mourn ‘Disengagement’ : Jordan’s West Bank Blow Has Little Impact

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Times Staff Writer

Of the West Bank’s hundreds of towns and villages, a person might expect the economic and psychological blow of Jordan’s new policy of “disengagement” here to fall most heavily in this ancient crossroads nestled between the biblical Mounts of Blessing and of Evil.

As the commercial and banking center of the area, Nablus has extensive financial ties to the Hashemite kingdom. More than that, it has deeply personal links.

Literally thousands of residents have relatives on the other side of the Jordan River, and each of the city’s four major clans boasts a minister in the current Jordanian government. King Hussein’s late second wife was from an old Nablus family.

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No Mourning

But even as one of the most onerous elements of Hussein’s policy shift took effect Tuesday--the elimination of thousands of West Bank civil servants from Jordanian government payrolls--there was no mourning and little apparent concern here.

Israeli restrictions on commerce and the flow of money into the area have been much more disruptive than anything Hussein has done, residents said. And despite all the hardships associated with more than eight months of West Bank unrest, the overall mood here is amazingly high, buoyed by a sense of political movement in the longstanding war of attrition over this disputed land.

“We feel, we smell, that we have a Palestinian state now,” businessman Said Kanaan said.

Hussein announced July 31 that his kingdom will cut legal and administrative ties to the West Bank, effectively renouncing any Hashemite claim to the Delaware-sized bulge of land that Jordan annexed in 1950 and ruled until Israel captured the area in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The monarch said Palestinians are entitled to set up their own state in the occupied territory and promised that if they declare their independence, he will immediately recognize their government.

Canceled Aid Plan

In implementing his plan, Hussein canceled a five-year, $1.3-billion development plan for the West Bank. A few days later, he said that as of Aug. 16 he would end about $70 million in annual salaries and stipends for more than 21,000 West Bank civil servants who had been on the Jordanian payroll despite the Israeli occupation.

But what was clear here Tuesday is that the moves were much more dramatic in theory than in practice.

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“Financially, I won’t be affected,” said post office worker Jamal Hassan. As a civil servant for more than 20 years, he said, he will go on a Jordanian pension that is the equivalent of $51 a month.

Hassan’s co-worker, who would identify himself only as Abu Morad, has not worked long enough to get a pension and will lose his entire Jordanian stipend, equivalent to $105 a month. But that was only a supplement to his $435 monthly salary from the occupation authorities anyway, he said, and with his family farm and a small shop, he will survive.

“Freedom is much sweeter than all the money,” Abu Morad, a 42-year-old father of 12, said with a grin. “We are now in charge of our own destiny. Nobody is our guardian and speaking for us any more.”

Similarly, despite the grand scale of Jordan’s canceled development plan, it had actually delivered far less aid than was promised.

‘Hardly Catastrophic’

Medhat Kanaan, manager of the Cairo-Amman Bank here and a cousin of businessman Said, put the actual aid budget for 1988 for all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip at only $16 million. “The loss is hardly catastrophic,” he said, adding, “I don’t know why people are making such a big fuss about it.”

However, he conceded that Palestinians here do worry that King Hussein might carry his disengagement policy further, into more painful measures. There have been reports, for example, that Jordan would place quotas or impose new taxes on agricultural imports from the West Bank. Either step could cripple commerce, which brings a vital $100 million annually into the economy of the occupied territories.

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West Bank Palestinians also are concerned that the king could take away the Jordanian passports that they have long enjoyed.

Meanwhile, a notice in Arabic and English posted at the entrance of Kanaan’s bank by the military authorities served as a reminder of stringent Israeli controls that affect far more people now.

“Dear Customer,” it read, “Security legislation requires that any person receiving monies from abroad, in any amount, must sign a declaration if those monies belong to or are intended for any other person.”

The Israeli controls went into effect earlier this year, ostensibly to prevent the Palestine Liberation Organization from lending financial support to the intifada, or Palestinian uprising. They have been progressively tightened so that now, no single transaction can involve more than the equivalent of $1,200 without special permission, and West Bank residents can receive money from abroad only once every two months.

Banker Kanaan said one result has been the quadrupling of his establishment’s paper work, as friends and relatives in Amman who used to send lump sums of money to West Bank families must now break the support down into several smaller transactions.

Business Nightmare

It has been a nightmare for businesses such as Jordan Vegetable Oil Industries Co., which, with 300 local employees, is one of the largest factories on the West Bank. It exports more than two-thirds of its production to Jordan.

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The problem, said assistant general manager Maher Masri, a brother of Jordan’s foreign minister, is that the occupation authorities are so slow to process exemption requests that the plant has to borrow money locally to meet its payroll and other obligations.

Nablus, the largest city on the West Bank with a population of more than 80,000, has been a principal focus of the intifada almost from the beginning.

Three residents of the Balata refugee camp on the south edge of town became the first West Bank Palestinians to die in the uprising during a clash with Israeli troops last Dec. 11, just two days after the unrest exploded in the Gaza Strip. Since then, records at the city’s Ittihad Hospital show, doctors have treated 1,300 Palestinians wounded in the continuing unrest.

Rudimentary Self-Rule

Today, according to residents, hundreds of so-called popular committees operate in every neighborhood and street in the city as part of a rudimentary form of self-rule.

During one of the dozens of curfews imposed on the city, recalled Said Kanaan, he found several loaves of bread on his doorstep, left there by members of an underground committee whose job is to ensure that food is distributed in an emergency.

“I didn’t need bread,” said the wealthy Kanaan. “I had some in my freezer.” Nevertheless, he said, he saw the effort as “something heroic,” adding, “I was proud.”

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