Israeli expulsion idea gains steam

The Moledet party's media blitz for the mass expulsion of Palestinians is gaining momentum.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Spurred on by public despair, Israeli advocates of a mass expulsion of Palestinians are gaining strength and legitimacy as the toll of Palestinian attacks inside Israel continues to rise.

Tourism Minister Benny Elon of the far-right Moledet party this week launched a campaign advocating "transfer," a euphemism for expulsion, which he says can also connote an agreed relocation of Palestinians.

In addition to Mr. Elon's push for transfer in a series of interviews on Israel's television channels and in major newspapers, Moledet has put up billboards in Tel Aviv saying that "Only transfer will bring peace."

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The idea of a removal of Arabs - voluntary or otherwise - is almost as old as Zionism itself, but today it is taking on fresh legitimacy with the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the demise of the implicit bargain of land and eventual Palestinian statehood for peace.

Elon says that under conditions of war, Israel has the right to bring upon the Palestinians "another nakba," or catastrophe, similar to 1948, when an estimated 700,000 of them were expelled or fled during the Arab-Israeli war.

"There is great disappointment and confusion. People are saying we have had enough, we have seen wars and we have seen the Oslo agreement with all of its bloodshed," says Elon. "I want to remind them of this platform and to remove the taboo from public discussion. It is intolerable that the Arabs should think that, every time, they can drain our blood and then we will negotiate with them."

The transfer idea is dismissed outright by Likud Justice Minister Meir Shetreet, who often reflects centrist Israeli opinion. "It is unacceptable to us in every form. We want to live with the Arabs in peace and quiet," he says.

But significantly, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not repudiated the idea of a mass expulsion. Sharon, says his spokesman, would like to expel the Palestinians, but does not believe this can be carried out under the present conditions.

"There is a difference between wishful thinking and realpolitik," explains Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin. "If the Palestinians would have a change of heart and move elsewhere, OK, but Sharon realizes transfer cannot be done because of the stance of the Israeli public. What Elon is saying is not something that today seems possible."

Mr. Sharon appeared to endorse mass expulsions of Palestinians in October. In a Knesset speech, he lauded assassinated Tourism Minister Rehavam "Gandhi" Zeevi of Moledet, whose career was based on the transfer idea, as a true heir of Zionist founding fathers and vowed: "Gandhi, we will be victorious."

Ha'aretz newspaper called on Sharon Sunday to expel Elon from the coalition or else be tainted by "the disgrace of the transfer idea."

Intensified espousal of extremist solutions on the right is coinciding with increasingly strident voices at the other end of the political spectrum: doves who argue that it is the Jewish settlers, not the Palestinians, who should leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

They have been boosted by a protest letter from 50 reserve officers and soldiers who announced two weeks ago that they would refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because of moral difficulties with army practices.

Dozens more have since signed on to the letter, which derides the fighting as "the war for the peace of the settlements."

According to Israeli media, the number of soldiers refusing to serve had reached 147 at the start of the week. A Likud minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, has called for the soldiers to be stripped of their ranks and released from the army.

The heightened espousal of the "transfer" idea also parallels a surge of extremism within Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and an increase in Palestinian support for Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that advocates Israel's replacement by an Islamic state.

Mr. Elon is part of a seven-member bloc in the Knesset known as the National Union-Israel Beiteinu, among whose legislators statements of sympathy for the idea of expelling Arabs have been increasing in recent months. Right-wing rabbis allied to the settler movement have also issued a series of writings advocating expulsions and, in one case, levelling entire Palestinian villages as a deterrent to suicide bombings.

And within Sharon's Likud party, a plan has been put forward by legislator Michael Eitan to erect high fences around each of the Palestinian self-rule enclaves. "We are not talking about ghettos, people will be able to enter and exit through a security gate," explains Yossi Yair, an aide to Mr. Eitan.

Tom Segev, a left-wing commentator, says "the idea of transfer is very embedded in original Zionist ideology and was very much on the minds of some of the fathers of modern Israel, such as David Ben-Gurion. The idea has been very central, but usually it was not conceived of as violent."

He says Chaim Weizman, a Zionist leader prominent in the 1930s and 1940s, played with the idea of raising money to pay Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia to take the Palestinians in. The transfer idea receded after Israeli statehood and during and after the 1967 Middle East war there was a sense that the expulsions of 1948 should not be repeated, Segev says.

Segev says frequent Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians since the latest confrontation broke out in Sept. 2000 "have made it legitimate for Israelis not only to hate Arabs but to wish them away. I'm afraid this idea does have a chance to catch on."

Sharon, he says, "is capable of initiating transfer as part of a war. He can expel whole populations. He will say this is necessary and that the Arabs brought it on themselves."

But Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrachi, pointing to the letter of the army reservists, says there is "no way" a mass expulsion could be carried out. "They won't have an army to do it. Even if only 10 percent of the soldiers refused, it would paralyze the army."

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