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Mideast turmoil dooms high-achieving West Bank mayor

BIDYA, West Bank — Something about Bidya doesn't look quite right.

The streets that Mayor Ramadan Shatat tried so hard to keep clean are littered with trash. The taxi stand he planned is still an empty lot. The City Hall bulletin board is blank; no photos of city events, no updates on city business.

And what happened to the mayor himself?

"He's no longer mayor,'' says Billa Assaf, one of Bidya's 10,000 residents.

Today, Bidya is again under the control of the Palestinian Authority and its Fatah Party. Gone is Shatat, who went from ribbon-cuttings to arrest by Israeli soldiers to hanging by his wrists in a Palestinian jail. His offense? Being elected mayor on the ticket of Hamas, rival party of Fatah.

Now back at home, Shatat says his experience shows another face of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, widely viewed as Israel's "moderate'' partners for peace despite their treatment of fellow Palestinians and a questionable commitment to democracy.

"It's not something that makes me proud,'' Shatat says, "but the circumstances of my imprisonment on the Palestinian side were much worse than on the Israeli side.''

A new professionalism

Hamas — whose charter calls for Israel's destruction — is deemed a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. Among many Palestinians, though, it has a reputation for incorruptibility that helped Shatat, imam of Bidya's mosque, and other Hamas candidates win local elections in the West Bank in 2005.

Called Sheik Ramadan as a mark of respect, Shatat jumped into his new job with the instincts of a seasoned pol and the wonkish efficiency of a CPA. He helped Bidya get a new school, a park, a clinic and an ATM.

Chief among his goals was reorganizing a city government seen as a corrupt mess under its former mayor, a Fatah member. Shatat sent every household a report showing exactly how the town was spending its money, down to the last shekel.

"He's much better qualified than his predecessor,'' Tayseer Al Deek, an engineer with a U.S. humanitarian group, told the St. Petersburg Times in January 2006. "When I dealt with him, I didn't feel it was Hamas, but someone who was very professional.''

That month, Hamas swept parliamentary elections and took control of the Palestinian Authority. The United States and other countries cut off direct aid to the new government, sparking a power struggle between Hamas and Fatah and making it harder for Hamas-controlled towns like Bidya to get outside help.

Still, Shatat's administration continued to chalk up achievements, including a bank, a TV station and a branch of Jerusalem's Open University. On the very day in February 2007 when a reporter returned to town, Shatat was greeting Palestinian judges on hand to dedicate a new court.

Caught in power play

In May 2007, Shatat was preparing his annual progress report when civil war erupted between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas seized control of Gaza, and authorities began rounding up Hamas members in the West Bank, including mayors and other elected officials.

At 2 a.m. on May 24 Israeli soldiers knocked on Shatat's door, searched his house and took him away. He and a Bidya council member spent the next two months in Israeli jails, with frequent trips to court in leg irons and handcuffs.

At one point, "they said, 'If you resign from your position you'll be home,' '' Shatat recalls.

"We said, 'It's not good for Israel to ask us to resign because Israel asked for this election and we reached these positions through the democratic process.' "

The Israeli government acknowledges it arrested Shatat and others to put pressure on Hamas to release a kidnapped Israeli soldier and to back off its fight with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

"When Hamas captured one of our people, that was escalation that caused us to respond,'' says Mark Regov, an Israeli spokesman. Though Shatat had no apparent connection to the kidnaping, "if someone is a member of a terrorist organization, you can arrest them so you can question and investigate them,'' Regov says.

After his sixth court appearance, Shatat was released when he signed a statement that he was not a member of Hamas, that he would not speak for Hamas and that he was committed to law and order.

That Israel released the mayor meant "we found no reason to hold him,'' Regov says.

Days of abuse

Shatat's problems didn't end there. Warned against returning to City Hall, he took a vacation.

"While I was in prison,'' he says, "our people were attacked in the presence of (Palestinian) security forces, and they announced that Fatah is taking responsibility for Bidya and any member of Hamas who comes into the municipal building will be responsible for his own life.''

On Feb. 17, 2008, Shatat was arrested again, this time by Palestinians. He was taken to a prison near Ramallah, where guards cuffed his hands behind his back and hung him from an iron bar. He says he dangled that way for hours, with only short breaks for a sip of water, a piece of pita bread.

He was cursed at, he says, for spending money on city projects.

"I was shocked that most of the interrogation was about our achievements in the municipality. One of the questions was, 'Why do you need a court? Why did you bring the Open University?' "

After 33 days, Shatat was released, so gaunt his family didn't recognize him. Then he learned he was no longer mayor.

Rewriting history

Bidya's new mayor is Mostafa Dass, a contractor and Fatah member. He says the city council voted to replace Shatat because he and other Hamas officials accomplished nothing in their nearly two years in office.

How about the bank, the court, the park, the university, the ATM?

"They are liars! They did nothing!'' Dass thundered. "He cared only for his Hamas organization.''

Banished from City Hall, Shatat spends most of his time at home, tending his garden, researching his doctoral thesis on the Islamic economic system and watching his son, 2, while his wife works. His back was so badly wrenched he cannot stand for more than a few minutes.

Unlike many Hamas sympathizers, Shatat acknowledges Israel's right to exist and doesn't believe Palestinians should use violence to press their case for statehood. But he also thinks Hamas should have been given a chance to show it could govern.

Now 36 and unemployed, Shatat has appealed his firing to the Palestinian Supreme Court, though he knows he won't get his job back. His term would have expired anyway in December, and the Palestinian Authority is replacing all Hamas elected officials with Fatah members.

But Shatat still fields calls from Bidya residents frustrated that they can't get answers from City Hall. And he still has admirers.

"He was a good person. He used to work 15 hours a day,'' says furniture store owner Hamza Salam. "He brought the university, the clinic. It's the first time we've had things handled like in a real municipality, and they didn't give him time.''

And what of the new mayor's claim that Shatat did nothing for the people of Bidya?

"That's not true,'' Salam says. "I can say it to his face — that's not true.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

Mideast turmoil dooms high-achieving West Bank mayor 03/01/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 3, 2009 10:22am]
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