JERUSALEM — ISRAEL moved yesterday to expel 418 Palestinians to Lebanon in an extraordinary response to this week's kidnap-murder of a Jewish policeman by the Muslim fundamentalist Hamas movement.
The expulsions, which were delayed for judicial review at press time, would be for a two-year period and represent the largest mass transfer of Palestinians since the 1967 Six Day War. The swiftness of the government's move seemed aimed at circumventing Supreme Court review of each individual case. But the move also disrupted Arab-Israeli peace talks in Washington.
Palestinian peace delegation leader Haider Abdel Shafi said the Palestinian delegation would boycott the last day of talks scheduled for yesterday, and that continuing them was "in question."
The Israeli move "radicalizes public opinion, gives more credibility to Hamas, discredits the peace process even more in the eyes of Palestinians, and casts more doubt on Israel's commitment to the peace talks," Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi told the Monitor. "You can't talk peace and wage war against the Palestinian people."
The Palestinian prisoners are said by the government to be associated with either Hamas or the Islamic Jihad, another extremist organization. They were bused to the Israeli border in a secret overnight operation that followed an Israeli government decision Wednesday to carry out the expulsions. But a midnight-Wednesday court appeal put a temporary halt to the operation.
Within Israel, the expulsions put the center-left government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin into dramatic confrontation with Israel's Supreme Court. The Court in 1980 ruled in a precedent-setting decision that Palestinians slated for deportation may appeal individually both to a military panel and the high court.
As the Palestinian prisoners waited handcuffed and blindfolded in buses at the northern town of Metulla on the Israeli-Lebanon border yesterday, the Supreme Court heard an emergency appeal by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel against the government move.
SPEAKING yesterday to a courtroom packed with foreign press and television crews, Army Chief of Staff Ehud Barak defended the expulsions as "temporary and reversible" because Palestinians could pursue appeals even after being sent across the border.
Mr. Barak argued that immediate expulsions were necessary to prevent future attacks. He noted that the Hamas movement, a Palestinian group opposing any accommodation with Israel, had called for a further escalation of attacks on Israelis this week after claiming responsibility for the kidnap-murder of policeman Nissim Toledano near his home in the Israeli city of Lod.
Despite outcries by both Palestinian and Israeli Human Rights groups, the deportation move appeared to bolster the sagging prestige of the center-left government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the eyes of Israelis, who are outraged by the increasingly bold Hamas attacks on soldiers and civilians.
Yossi Sarid, a leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, which has traditionally opposed deportations, declared, "It's either the Hamas or us."
Mr. Sarid, however, called on the Rabin government to open a direct dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which unlike Hamas has said it is ready to accept Israel's existence. There were growing calls from prominent Israeli politicians, including the Likud mayor of Tel Aviv, to open a dialogue with the PLO as a way to bolster moderate Palestinian elements.
Right-wing leaders lauded the government moves as a "step in the right direction," but called for stronger measures. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, head of the Likud party, said PLO activists should be deported too and that he saw little "distinction between the PLO and Hamas." But Avigdor Feldman, a prominent Israeli civil rights lawyer, said the government's effort to shortcut the usual legal procedures had thrown Israel's judicial system into "crisis."
Ziad Abu Zayad, an adviser to the Palestinian delegation, said any expulsions would "incite the street against the peace process and against all of those who are for the peace process. It gives the impression that you are using the peace process as a way to hit at other groups."
In Washington the crisis triggered by the kidnap-murder by Hamas and Israel's deportation order was taken as yet another reminder of how vulnerable the peace process remains to external events. It is also seen as a warning to the new Clinton administration to do everything possible to sustain the talks' momentum.
"If the talks stall they risk being overtaken by events and forces of extremism," prominent Jewish and Palestinian spokesmen warned in an unusual joint press conference in Washington earlier this week.