THE best way to understand why the Israeli proposal to deport nine West Bank Arabs has become so heatedly controversial is to start with the word alien. Who is an alien? He is a citizen of some other country.
No law prevents the deportation of unwanted aliens. The United States does it every day. A government always has a right to ship an undesirable alien back to his or her own country - provided the country will accept said alien. Cuba is being difficult on that point right now.
But there is no right to deport a native-born citizen from his own country of birth. This applies in the case of occupied territory.
The Geneva Convention of 1949 specifically provides that citizens of the occupied country are protected against any deportation. They are not aliens. They are in their natural home. They must not be shipped elsewhere, no matter what they may have done.
Who is a native and who is an alien in the territories occupied by the soldiers of Israel today? Who owns that territory?
When Menachem Begin was prime minister of Israel, he referred to the West Bank by its ancient biblical terms. To him the West Bank was ``Judea and Samaria.'' He insisted that Jews had an inalienable right to settle in ``Judea and Samaria.'' He pursued energetically a policy of building new towns in the West Bank and settling Jews in those towns. Something over 60,000 Jews live today in Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Some settlements have moved into Gaza, despite the density of the Arab population there.
An unofficial accompaniment to the policy of settling Jews on the West Bank was unofficial pressure on Arabs to leave. Life was made unpleasant for them. Often their lands were confiscated, usually on the ground of ``security.'' Whole villages of Arabs were emptied that way.
Sometimes Arabs were encouraged to go away by cutting off their water supply. Arab citrus groves changed hands by this device. A Jewish owner would get water, an Arab owner could not.
In the minds of the Jewish settlers ``Judea and Samaria'' are Jewish lands. Arabs are aliens. There have been deportations before.
But the West Bank by international law is not Jewish land. It is ``occupied territory.'' Title can be transferred by a peace treaty. But there is no peace treaty. The Arab citizens of the West Bank carry Jordanian passports. The land was part of Jordan before the 1967 war. It is still part of Jordan under international law, unless title is transferred by a formal peace treaty.
The nations of the world, assembled in the United Nations, have drafted a basic plan for such a peace treaty. It is called UN Resolution 242. It calls for the withdrawal of Israel from ``occupied territories'' in return for a recognition of Israel by the Arabs.
The Arabs have for 20 years regarded UN 242 as their title to ownership of the ``occupied territories.'' They assume that someday Israel will withdraw from them and allow Arabs to govern themselves in their own native homelands.
What is the reality?
Will Israel withdraw, or will it expand the Jewish settlements and crowd out the Arabs until the occupied territories are part of Israel?
The Arabs will never make peace without regaining the occupied territories.
For Israel to deport native-born residents of the West Bank is an assertion of Jewish ownership of those territories. For others to let Israel deport native-born Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza would be to accept the ultimate transfer of sovereignty over those territories to Israel.
The issue over the deportations is therefore not just a matter of the fate of nine Palestinians. It is the issue of ultimate ownership of the occupied territories. On this point the US, which helped to draft UN 242, must side against Israel or lose any influence in the Arab community. Incidentally, Israel was also a signatory of UN 242.