Wednesday, October 9

MCC Palestine Update #62

MCC Palestine Update #62

October 9, 2002

"No one should say they weren't warned." So ended a recent opinion piece in the leading Israeli daily Ha'aretz entitled “Preemptive Warnings of Fantastic Scenarios,” penned by former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti. The "fantastic scenario" under consideration: the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by Israeli military forces during a US-led war on Iraq.

Surely this is indeed a "fantastic scenario," one immediately objects, something outside the realm of possibility. Has Benvenisti, a seasoned journalist, veteran Israeli politician, and author of critically acclaimed books, succumbed to paranoia or become a practitioner of fearmongering?

Sadly, no, for, as an American-led war on Iraq draws ever closer, more and more Israelis committed to peace are warning of the danger of "transfer," the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the occupied territories. Benvenisti argues that, while Israel prepares for a "worst case scenario" of an Iraqi biological or chemical attack against Israel, another, more realistic, "fantastic scenario" cannot be dismissed, specifically, the collapse of the Hashemite regime in Jordan and an Israeli decision to execute "the old 'Jordanian option'—expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians across the Jordan River." It should not be forgotten, of course, that, while he does not say so publicly at present, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been a long-time advocate of the position that Jordan is and should be the Palestinian state.

On September 23 a group of nearly 100 Israeli academics (among them Daniel Boyarin of the University of California-Berkeley and Paul Mendes-Flohr of the Hebrew University and the University of Chicago) added their voices to Benvenisti’s, issuing an "Urgent Warning" under the title, "The Israeli Government May be Contemplating Crimes Against Humanity." "We are deeply worried," the signatories wrote, "by indications that the 'fog of war' could be exploited by the Israeli government to commit further crimes against the Palestinian people, up to full-fledged ethnic cleansing." Israeli peace activists such as Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Uri Avneri of Gush Shalom have issued similar warnings.

The warning has also been taken up by non-Israelis. Henry Seligman, senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, painted a grim picture in the International Herald Tribune of the future of Palestinians in the occupied territories, accusing members of the Sharon government (including the supposedly “dovish” Labor Party) of becoming "full partners not only in the obliteration of the Oslo accords but in paving the road for the eventual expulsion of the Palestinian population."

How have we arrived at a point where Israelis committed to peace and justice feel it necessary to warn that "fantastic scenarios" of mass expulsion of Palestinians might become a reality? Palestinians would observe that mass expulsions under cover of war have precedents in Palestinian history, specifically the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 by Israeli troops, with smaller-scale, but still sizable, expulsions in 1967. Contemporary warnings of mass expulsions during the looming war against Iraq unfold against this history of dispossession. These warnings, however, also relate to two interconnected phenomena which have grown stronger within the Israeli political scene over the past couple of years: worry about the "demographic balance" between Palestinians and Israelis in all of Mandate Palestine (Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) and calls for "unilateral separation" from Palestinians, calls now being translated into reality.

The relative growth of the Palestinian population inside Israel specifically and in all of Mandate Palestine generally vis-à-vis the Jewish population has been viewed with alarm by most Israeli politicians and pundits, from the center-left to the right. More Palestinians means a threat to the Jewish demographic majority. By 2010 at the latest, most analysts agree, the number of Palestinians will equal the number of Jews in Mandate Palestine, with those Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip denied basic citizenship rights: in short, the recipe for an apartheid regime. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, of course, argues that Israel sought to end this reality at the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000; other participants and observers at the Camp David negotiations, such as Robert Malley, cast doubt on Israel's willingness truly to end the occupation and to acquiesce to the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state.

For present purposes, this debate can be left to the side. Rather, what should be stressed is that, barring a viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future presents three scenarios. One would be the gradual emergence of a binational state in all of Israel/Palestine; at present, this possibility appears distinctly remote. The other two scenarios are bleak and morally outrageous: "unilateral separation" and "transfer." The first, an Israeli "unilateral separation" which maintains Israeli control over the occupied territories while enclosing Palestinians—through twenty-five foot high guard walls (such as the one beginning to surround Qalqilyah), trenches, barbed wire, and checkpoints—into ever smaller pieces of territory, forms the current Israeli policy. Avi Primor, former official in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and currently a vice president at Tel Aviv University, correctly describes this policy of the current Israeli government as "Sharon's South African Strategy." "According to this policy, the West Bank and Gaza remain in Israeli hands and their Palestinian residents are turned into 'citizens' of a 'foreign country.'" Palestinians might be allowed to call these separated territorial islands a "state," but such a designation would only disguise, not alter, the reality of turning Palestinian cities into economically-dependent reservations (or, to extend the South African analogy, Bantustans). This strategy is without a doubt one of having one's cake and eating it too: Israel remains in full control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip while creating the illusion that the occupation has ended. Palestinians are "virtually transferred," kept out of sight, out of mind, behind barbed wire, cement guard walls, and trenches.

"Unilateral separation" in practice has meant accelerated Palestinian dispossession: more land confiscations, more demolished homes, more destroyed agricultural land. It can be viewed as "transfer" in miniature, a policy which could set the stage for larger-scale dispossession. Meron Benvenisti sharply observes that the Israeli political climate of "hatred and revenge" which underwrites collective punishment in the occupied territories creates a reality in which wholesale house demolitions "are not considered reprehensible steps toward a criminal ethnic cleansing."

The regular statements by Israeli politicians such as Knesset member Benny Elon in the Israeli media urging "transfer," be it "voluntary" or forcible, are disturbing enough. More worrying still are recent comments by Israeli military officers. Eitan Ben Eliahu, a former commander of the Israeli Air Force, opined during a discussion on Israeli television about the "demographic balance" in the region that "we can't go on like this, because in another five, 10 or 20 years we will be a minority here. So we have to step up immigration immediately and in some way also thin out the number of Arabs here." Palestinians, on this nature metaphor, are like plants or animals whose numbers can't be allowed to proliferate lest they overrun civilization. Neither the moderator of the TV discussion nor any of Ben Eliahu's fellow panelists commented on or criticized his recommendation. Ben Eliahu did later concede that "The choice of that phrase [thinning out] wasn't successful"; he refused to elaborate on how the demographic "problem" might be addressed. Ben Eliahu's "thinning out" metaphor echoed the current Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon's description in an interview with Ha'aretz of Palestinians as a "cancerous manifestation" on which the "chemotherapy" of military action was currently being applied. Ya'alon, whose analysis was endorsed by Ariel Sharon, did not rule out more radical "treatment:" extending the pathological metaphor implies an excision of the tumor.

Last spring, in the April 28 issue of the British newspaper The Telegraph, the leading Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld outlined a scenario which "could easily come about," one in which Israel would use the cover of a US-led war on Iraq to drive out Palestinians from the occupied territories using heavy artillery which would make "the damage caused to Jenin" look "like a pinprick in comparison." Ariel Sharon might not be acting as if he has a plan for the future, but van Creveld insisted that Sharon "has always harboured a very clear plan—nothing less than to rid Israel of the Palestinians." Van Creveld noted that "some believe that the international community will not permit such an ethnic cleansing. I would not count on it," he countered.

Perhaps scenarios of "transfer" will indeed turn out to be "fantastic scenarios." For that we can fervently hope and pray. The world's deafening silence, however, in the face of today's curfews, barbed wire, and settlement expansion does little to assuage fears that even worse things could be possible. As a war against Iraq looms, all who desire a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike would do well, therefore, to join the call of Israeli academics and peace activists upon the international community "to make it absolutely clear that crimes against humanity will not be tolerated, and to take concrete measures to prevent such crimes from taking place." No one should say they weren't warned.

--Alain Epp Weaver

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