by Will Youmans
October 12, 2002
In 1989 Benjamin Netanyahu told students at Bar-Ilan University:
"Israel should have exploited the repression of the demonstrations in China, when world attention focused on that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the territories."
Many commentators and the Palestinian public in general are worried that the Israeli government will not miss the opportunity with impending war on Iraq.
Around one hundred Israeli academics wrote a letter warning that talk of transfer, a sanitized term for ethnic cleansing, is increasing within mainstream political discourse in Israel. The letter warned that the "Israeli ruling coalition includes parties that promote 'transfer' of the Palestinian population as a solution to what they call 'the demographic problem'".
It cited a recent interview in Ha'aretz, by chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon. He discussed the possible need for a special "treatment" in the occupied territories. Prime minister Sharon supported his "assessment of reality." The letter also mentioned that, "escalating racist demagoguery" in Israel "may indicate the scope of the crimes that are possibly being contemplated."
In August, 2002, Ali Abunimah published an expose on Gamla, "a group founded by former Israeli military officers and settlers." Its website featured a technical paper entitled "The Logistics of Transfer," which calls for Israel to ethnically cleanse all of the Palestinian territories as "the only possible solution." Besides offering instructional suggestions, it provides a theological justification for those not convinced by the political rationale.
More mainstream voices have considered it in disturbingly acquiescent tones.
On October 3rd, the Guardian featured an essay by the prominent Israeli historian Benny Morris on the history of the concept of transfer as a political tool in Israel-Palestine. Morris seemed to also write this in response to the more frequent discussion of transfer as an option. He cited "Shmuel Eliahu, the chief rabbi of Safad" who "called for the transfer, to 'Jordan, the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union, or Canada,' of Arabs who are unwilling to accept Israel as a Jewish state."
He points out that as shocking as this may seem, even Arab and British officials once considered transfer an acceptable political necessity. He quotes a few private statements of Jordanian and Iraqi officials to that effect.
Morris is warming us up to the idea to the idea of transfer. Since it was a historical option, his essay suggests, it may make sense now. He speculates, "perhaps today's Middle East would be a healthier, less violent place" if Israel had dispossessed all of the Palestinians in 1947-48, as opposed to only the "700,000 of Palestine's 1.25 million Arab inhabitants."
He wrote that ethnic purity would have been the "historically calming result." The logical and unstated conclusion is that the opportunity to achieve purity still remains. Thus the article leaves as its end where it started: that transfer is an option.
That a highly revered historian who helped tarnish Israel's founding myth that the Palestinian refugees were self-created now flirts with ethnic cleansing so comfortably proves that ethnic cleansing is becoming increasingly accepted as an acceptable route in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
If Israel plans on displacing Palestinians during the campaign against Iraq, it will be carefully implemented in order to not upset American designs on Iraq. Premeditated plans in the absence of an overt pretense would be piecemeal - Israel's long preferred way of shifting populations. After all, hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into Jordan may force Jordanian officials to disallow American use of Jordanian airfields, for example.
Displacement en masse could happen after Iraq falls. Observers have speculated that western Iraq may provide a place for Israel to expel Palestinians to. It would give Israel somewhere to dump the Palestinians and would happen after Iraq's chemical arsenal had been fully disarmed.
Transfer could also appear to be a natural response to a "mega-terrorist" attack or if Saddam Hussein launches enough missiles at Israel.
The probable starting point for a program of ethnic cleansing would center on the new security wall complex Israel is building in and through the outskirts of the West Bank. With a 5-6 meter-high fence, trenches, mine fields, a sand patch to detect footprints, watchtowers, and an electrified fence, this complex will snake around the inner portions of the Palestinian side of green-line. So far, 43 miles of it has been built. In the end it will run the entire length of Israel's de facto border with the West Bank (a map of the project is available at B'Tselem's website).
The long and winding complex drops deep into parts of the West Bank in order to bring settlements into the Israeli side of the wall. So far, 10,000 Palestinians in 8 towns and villages have also fallen on the west-side of the wall, separated from the rest of the West Bank, according to a report by the Israel human rights group B'Tselem. Also, "thirty-five Palestinian families residing along the northern edge of Bethlehem are expected to remain on the northern side of the barrier in south Jerusalem, due to the decision to include Rachel's tomb inside the barrier."
Besides the fact that this impinges on Palestinian lands, involves the bulldozing of homes and farmlands, separates families, violates the basic rights of mobility and work, and further disjoints Palestinian rootedness in the land, it leaves in limbo the fate of over ten thousand Palestinians. They could be the most attractive targets for ethnic cleansing.
On a practical level, all of Israel's security mechanisms, from the checkpoints, curfews, and closures, to this new wall, regard all Palestinians as potential terrorists. Given the broadness of most of these arrangements, will Israel really allow over 10,000 Palestinians to remain on the other side of this wall? The wall complex is immensely popular in Israel and moves to bolster its efficacy will be well received by most Israelis.
Israeli officials know that it will give the Palestinians even more to be angry about. The Financial Times reported that farmers have lost direct access to their fields, people's homes have been commandeered for military use, and schools and other edifices have been demolished just for being too close to the wall complex's vicinity.
At a deeper level, Israeli officials across the ideological spectrum read the Palestinians as a demographic threat. That is, by their very existence Palestinians challenge Israel's dominant historical mythology. They are the noxious footnote to Zionism's colonizing slogan that declared Palestine "a land without people for a people without a land."
However, the extent of any forthcoming ethnic cleansing is indeterminable. It could be limited to the more than 10,000 Palestinians who escaped containment by Israel's wall security complex, or it could be the "full-fledged ethnic cleansing" the 100 Israeli academics warn of.
Further ethnic cleansing is a realistic possibility given the centrality of transfer in Israel's history. Benny Morris affirms what every Palestinian knows: "The idea of transfer is as old as modern Zionism and has accompanied its evolution and praxis during the past century." Other circumstances point to transfer as well: Israel is in an economic and political crisis, the ruling coalition is made up of parties calling for transfer, Sharon is running out of ideas and his raison d'etre is not peaceful diplomacy but military action premised on Israel's security obsession.
Like the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the next war on Iraq may be a period of relaxed international scrutiny of Israel's actions. Already we have seen Israel use the wake of the September 11th attacks to enhance its operations against the Palestinians by extending and aggrandizing its violent incursions into Palestinian populations. Sharon's comment that "the concern now is not about a few Scud missiles, but suicide bombers everywhere" offers no solace.
The contemporary path to the moment of transfer is paved with Israel's recent expulsions of the Palestinian fighters who were in the Church of Nativity, and families of suicide bombers. Reports that Iraq facilitates suicide bombs and would encourage them more in the event of an attack further links the war on Iraq with Israeli security. When combined with Israel's security premise that all Palestinians are potential terrorists, this formula hints at the Palestinian "demographic threat" that once left Golda Meir sleepless at night and now serves as the subject of obsession for Israeli conferences and nervous policy analysts.
The Israeli academics' letter calls for "the international community to pay close attention to events that unfold within Israel and in the occupied territories." International activists must "make it absolutely clear that crimes against humanity will not be tolerated." It also recommends, "concrete measures to prevent such crimes from taking place."
Anti-war activities should include messages to this effect. Anytime an Israeli spokesperson takes questions, they should be asked about this. This idea must enter into the media via op/eds, letters, and so on. Confront and deluge congressional representatives with this suspicion. The goal should be to force Israeli spokespeople to take a position now and to recognize that the world will be watching them. Activists should establish our own preemptive doctrine. Let's act now, and not react after Israel has established new facts on the ground.
Will Youmans is a 3rd year law student at University of California, Berkeley.