The Expulsions and The Peace Talks

WITHIN 48 hours of the news that there would be retaliations for the murder of an abducted Israeli border policeman, 415 Palestinians were packed into buses and expelled from their homeland. Deported to the inner border of Lebanon, they will join the diaspora of a people communally punished by an unjust occupation system. And prospects for regional peace will surely recede.

What is Israel doing? Does the Israeli government which offered these expulsions believe this will somehow benefit anybody, least of all the dead man's family? Will it answer Israeli rage at the abduction, or growing Palestinian despair? Will it deter further violence by Palestinians, or by Israelis for that matter?

The hasty deportation by Israel, completed with a pro forma legitimization in court, with mass emotional public backing, may well be considered a folly after it is too late. It may also reveal whether the Middle East policy of the incoming Clinton administration in the United States is likely to have any spine.

It was not so long ago, well after the beginning of the intifadah uprising, that the Hamas Islamic movement began to grow in popularity among young Palestinians. In its infancy, Hamas ironically enjoyed some protection from Israeli authorities. It was seen then as a controllable alternative to the rebelling crowds of a PLO-led intifadah.

Hamas gained membership among the swelling ranks of Palestinian prisoners, who sought a way to protect their dignity and identity. "They came out of prison and into the mosques," say friends who were shocked to see unobservant Muslims converted through their prison experience. Many Palestinians, noting how little their negotiators at the peace talks have been able to accomplish, turned to armed struggle, under Hamas's leadership. Since October, 11 Israeli soldiers have been killed, the same number to die

in all previous years of the intifadah. These killings, along with the recent kidnapping death, underscore the rising militancy in the occupied territories and the declining appeal of civil disobedience methods. If Israel wants to see this trend deepen, its expulsion orders are certain to help.

Palestinians are not naive about the retaliatory actions Israel takes when its people are killed. They will be harsh. But will they deter? Communal punishment, long practiced by Israel, arouses more anger and bitterness; in turn, these emotions swell the ranks of those searching for alternatives to faltering negotiations.

The current crisis arrives at the end of the eighth round of peace talks in Washington. A few months ago, these same talks were jeopardized by another expulsion order, of 11 Palestinian suspects. That time, negotiations were kept on track only when the newly installed government of Yitzhak Rabin repealed the deportation order. What can be expected now?

The peace talks are more vulnerable than ever today, partly because they lack the firm leadership of former US Secretary of State James Baker III. Who will see the negotiations through now? Bill Clinton?

Israel, by its expulsion decision, may be testing the will of the incoming administration. Mr. Clinton has hinted at his policy toward China; he endorsed US troop deployment to Somalia. On the Middle East, however, he has remained largely silent - though he did express some concern that the deportations might imperil the peace talks. We need to hear much more.

If Israel's deportations are allowed to stand, with no US intervention to change the situation, this could signal the unwillingness of the new administration to continue its predecessor's activist Middle East policy and work for real peace between Israel and its neighbors.

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