Le Monde diplomatique

February 2003


Israel: a new Palestinian diaspora

The repugnant idea of the 'transfer' of the Palestinians - meaning their total expulsion - now appeals to many Israelis. The Israeli army and some settlers are already organising 'mini-transfers' in the West Bank, and any serious new threat to Israel (for example, missile attacks from Iraq at war) could precipitate the brutally enforced expulsion of millions.

A EUROPEAN diplomat spotted a road sign in Israel's Jordan Valley in December, showing that the road had been renamed Gandhi, which was the nickname of General Rehavam Zeevi, founder of the far-right Moledet (Homeland) party. Zeevi, who had publicly called for Palestinians to be "transferred" to Arab countries, was killed in 2001 by a gunman from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Was the sign an example of cynicism or just a joke in bad taste? It stood just before the road cuts east to the Allenby Bridge linking Israel and Jordan, indicating the way Zeevi's "transferees" might have to take.

Just before his assassination, and soon after another Palestinian suicide attack, Zeevi said in a radio broadcast that the only solution to Israel's problems was the "approved transfer" of its Arab population. He clearly felt he then had the necessary support to deliver this unambiguous message, although he had been obliged to keep it secret for years.

The real problem is that Israelis do not view the suicide bombings as part of the Palestinian struggle to end Israel's occupation, nor do they see them as revenge for the aggressive tactics of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). (According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, military action has caused more than 2,000 Palestinian casualties, at least 1,500 of them civilian.) Israelis see the attacks as proof that the Palestinians are determined to destroy the state of Israel, and to kill Jews because they are Jews. In this climate the expulsion of the Palestinians is touted as a security measure, a humane response to an intractable problem. The Israeli authorities are doing nothing to check the momentum of such plans.

Which populations will be "transferred" remains deliberately unclear: Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank? Those in the refugee camps? Or all Palestinians between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river, including Israel's Arab citizens?

Limor Lavnat, the Israeli education minister, legitimised the debate when she ordered schools to observe the anniversary of Zeevi's death. Anti-Arab slogans appeared across the country: "No Arabs, no attacks"; "Transfer equals Peace"; "Palestine is Jordan". One poll found that 20% of Israeli Jews would consider voting for the extreme-right Kach party if it were legally permitted to field candidates. (Kach was founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1973: in the early 1980s it won one seat in parliament, getting just 1.5% of the vote. Kahane was barred from standing for election in 1988 and the party was banned after the February 1994 massacre in Hebron.)

Some 73% of those who live in the Jewish settlements, euphemistically known as development towns (1), believe that Israel should encourage its Arab population to leave. This rises to 76% among Jews from the former Soviet Union and to 87% among religious Jews.

With the assistance of foreign recruitment firms that publish job ads in Arab newspapers, Moledet activists have been encouraging Palestinian workers to find work abroad - to demonstrate that Palestinian emigration is somehow legal, feasible and humane. They acknowledge, though, that "transferring" hundreds of thousands of people voluntarily would be impossible: an operation of that magnitude would have to be compulsory. Professor Arieh Eldad, the IDF's former chief medical officer, is the second candidate on Moledet's electoral list. Eldad makes a distinction between voluntary and approved transfers: the first category assumes that all Palestinians would agree to emigrate, even though Eldad acknowledges that it is unlikely that any fellah would leave his land of his own accord. He also believes that any approved transfer would require international support, which Moledet actively seeks.

Some rightwingers would go even further: they see a link between "transfer" and the intifada. Effi Eitam, who heads Mafdal, the National Religious party, would like to see Israel exert sovereignty over all territories between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean. A Palestinian state would be established in Jordan and the Sinai. The Palestinians would then have to choose their status: either "enlightened" residents of Greater Israel or "obscure" citizens of a Palestinian state. "I wouldn't use the term transfer," Eitam explains. "I don't see it as a political option, nor do I find it morally acceptable." Yet he describes war as a game with different rules (2).

Although Eitam, a former brigadier general, claims not to seek a military confrontation, he believes when war breaks out, "many Arab citizens will not stay here". He also draws parallels between Israel's war of independence and the expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians in 1948-1949.

Zvi Katzover, mayor of the Kiryat Arba settlement outside Hebron, is more upfront. He is one of the founders of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), spearhead of the settlers' movement. In an interview after the Israeli military assault on Hebron, which left 12 Israeli soldiers and three Palestinians dead, Katzover said: "When the big war begins and the Arabs run away from here, sooner or later we'll be back in the [Hebron] houses" (3). He was referring to homes inhabited by Jews before the 1929 massacre of Jewish residents in Hebron.

Most Israelis still view those who back expulsion as a tiny minority with unrealistic and immoral objectives. Newspaper columnists and writers of letters to papers condemn the proponents of "transfer", although more and more Israelis approve their efforts. Likud and most other rightwing parties avoided the issue during the election campaign. But given this minority's attempts to stir up public opinion, one wonders if Israel's political and military leaders have planned for the worst-case scenarios. Are Israel's democratic forces powerful enough to stop the scheme before it is too late?

All Palestinians, whether Israeli Arabs or those in the West Bank or Gaza, remember the 1948 expulsion and unceasingly vow: "This time we won't let them drive us out." The Palestinians are well aware of the danger, though their legal expertise and their links to the international community on both sides of the Green Line separating Israel from the occupied territories provide some protection.

Before the 28 January elections the rightwing-majority central election committee sought to disqualify the list of candidates submitted by the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), an Arab party, together with two individuals: the NDA leader, Azmi Bishara, and Ahmad Tibi, of the Ta'al party (Arab Movement for Renewal). The attorney-general, Elyakim Rubinstein, who denounced Bishara for advocating the destruction of the Israeli state and for supporting terrorism, also tried to ban Kach's former leader, Baruch Marzel, who ran for the far-right Herut (Freedom) party. Herut has toned down its statements on expulsion, though it refuses to condemn those who promote "voluntary transfer" by offering the Palestinians work abroad.

The Israeli left organised rallies to fight the proposed ban affecting Arab legislators. These were sparsely attended even though the civic rights of 20% of Israel's Arab population - the NDA's supporters - were at stake. The supreme court finally stepped in, ruling on 9 January that the NDA could put forward candidates. Democracy in Israel was boosted and a mass Palestinian boycott of the elections averted.

Israel's attorney-general has come out against the "transfer" scheme but has refused to take action against its proponents. This prompted a Labour member of the Knesset to call for an official investigation into "voluntary" emigration, noting that Israel's anti-racist legislation prohibits any distinction between voluntary and compulsory "transfer". Young Labour activists have joined in a campaign to stamp out racist slogans, launched by Courage to Refuse, a group of soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories (4). Some Labour party veterans resent the refuseniks, branding them anti-Zionist traitors.

Others on the left who oppose the refuseniks' efforts are loath to see the Israeli army controlled by the right, and by hardline Jewish settlers all too ready to make "transfer" a reality when the time comes. Several surveys indicate that the number of Jews from the former USSR in Israeli combat units has risen significantly, as has the proportion of religious rightwingers in the upper echelons of the military. Both groups are avid supporters of "transfer".

The presence of military pacifists in the occupied territories has not prevented "mini-transfers". Faced with non-stop harassment from their 500 Jewish neighbours and a round-the-clock military curfew designed to protect settlers, many Palestinians have moved out of the ancient city of Hebron. In the northern West Bank 180 Palestinian villagers in Yanun were forced to abandon their homes and relocate after increased harassment from the neighbouring Jewish settlement of Itamar. Other expulsions have taken place because of the construction of Israel's infamous wall (5). Though such "mini-transfers" have come to the attention of the Israeli public and resulted in demonstrations, the loss of land and homes over the past two years has left the Palestinians feeling dispossessed.

"Internal closure" has meant 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 1 million Gaza residents confined to their towns and villages. The IDF, still trying to quell the violent uprising that broke out in September 2000, has prohibited the Palestinians (except for a few special permit-holders) from using primary roads, leaving their villages or travelling to larger centres. Palestinian towns are hemmed in by roadblocks, fences, iron gates, mounds, tanks and military vehicles. This has hindered movement, but has done little to stop those who enter Israel to carry out attacks. To avoid the checkpoints many Palestinians have moved to the cities to work. Anyone travelling in Israeli-only sections might get the impression that the expulsion has already happened: the roads, Palestinian villages, lands and orchards, are deserted.

Tormented by the fear of more attacks, Israelis still reject the notion that internal closure is a form of collective punishment, which only leads to increased support for the suicide bombers. Senior military officers describe the policy as reversible and say it will be discontinued when the Palestinians finally renounce terrorism. Meanwhile closure dovetails nicely with the "definitive agreement" espoused by the same rightwing parties that have dodged the issue of transfer. Russian Jewish supporters of Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), currently allied with Moledet, have proposed creating isolated prison-like enclaves with no territorial contiguity. The size of the enclaves is the only thing that separates this plan from the Palestinian state envisioned by the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

Some fear that military intervention in Iraq by the United States might create a climate that could lead to the mass expulsion of Palestinians, especially if Baghdad attacks Israel with chemical weapons or if the Palestinians show support for Saddam Hussein. Should either of these happen, things could rapidly get out of control. But to achieve its objectives, the US needs stability in the Middle East, and mass expulsions would have the opposite effect.

Others worry that a Palestinian group will carry out a lethal mega-attack. A senior officer, sounding fearful, expressed doubt that the army would or could stand in the way of local initiatives to expel the residents of Palestinian villages thought to be harbouring terrorists. To illustrate this he recalled how the Israeli authorities and the IDF refused to take action against Jewish settlers who had forcibly prevented Palestinians from harvesting their olive crops.

Yet those Palestinians who send their young to Israel on bombing missions or to launch a possible mega-attack do not seem to understand that such actions could lead to mass expulsion. In extreme circumstances a majority of the Israeli public and many Western nations might look favourably on extreme countermeasures. Palestinian and Jewish fundamentalists have expressed similar beliefs that a great war may be the only way to change history.

Over the past two years the Jordanian government has tightened regulations on West Bank and Gaza residents who enter its territory. Jordan envisages huge influxes of Palestinians fleeing the miseries of Israeli occupation, and other dire scenarios. Its fears are understandable: as the daily Ha'aretz reported on 28 November, Sharon has offered no assurances that Israel will not expel the Palestinians to Jordan, on the grounds that such a suggestion is offensive. This prompted Jordan's prime minister, Ali Abu al-Ragheb, to point out the Israel-Jordan peace treaty prohibits expulsions of any kind. But the proponents of "transfer" take a dim view of treaties.

Until now Israelis and the international community have not shown much interest in the "mini-transfers" and other relocations within the occupied territories. But opposing such illegal and dangerous practices is extremely necessary, since the threat of mass expulsion is all too real. Recent developments in Israel are disturbing: fundamentalist and apocalyptic beliefs are on the rise, moral considerations have disappeared from politics and the IDF has devised new forms of oppression. With international passivity and the absence of Palestinian leaders capable of guiding the resistance to the occupation, these are discouraging signs.

* Amira Hass is the correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. She is based in Ramallah.

(1) These mushroom towns are similar to France's former villes nouvelles (new cities, or suburban housing projects).

(2) Ha'aretz, Tel Aviv; 22 February 2002.

(3) Quoted in a television interview on Israel's Channel One on 27 November 2002.

(4) See Joseph Algazy, "Irael's army refuseniks", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, March 2002.

(5) See Matthew Brubacher, "Israel: walled in, but never secure", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, November 2002.

Translated by Luke Sandford