Many commentators and the Palestinian
public in general are worried that the Israeli government will not miss
the opportunity with impending war on Iraq.
Around one hundred Israeli academics wrote a letter warning that talk
of transfer, a sanitized term for ethnic cleansing, is increasing within
mainstream political discourse in Israel. The letter warned that the
"Israeli ruling coalition includes parties that promote 'transfer'
of the Palestinian population as a solution to what they call 'the demographic
It cited a recent interview in Ha'aretz, by chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon.
He discussed the possible need for a special "treatment" in
the occupied territories. Prime minister Sharon supported his "assessment
of reality." The letter also mentioned that, "escalating racist
demagoguery" in Israel "may indicate the scope of the crimes
that are possibly being contemplated."
In August, 2002, Ali Abunimah published an expose on Gamla, "a
group founded by former Israeli military officers and settlers."
Its website featured a technical paper entitled "The Logistics
of Transfer," which calls for Israel to ethnically cleanse all
of the Palestinian territories as "the only possible solution."
Besides offering instructional suggestions, it provides a theological
justification for those not convinced by the political rationale.
More mainstream voices have considered it in disturbingly acquiescent
On October 3rd, the Guardian featured an essay by the prominent Israeli
historian Benny Morris on the history of the concept of transfer as
a political tool in Israel-Palestine. Morris seemed to also write this
in response to the more frequent discussion of transfer as an option.
He cited "Shmuel Eliahu, the chief rabbi of Safad" who "called
for the transfer, to 'Jordan, the Muslim republics of the former Soviet
Union, or Canada,' of Arabs who are unwilling to accept Israel as a
He points out that as shocking as this may seem, even Arab and British
officials once considered transfer an acceptable political necessity.
He quotes a few private statements of Jordanian and Iraqi officials
to that effect.
Morris is warming us up to the idea to the idea of transfer. Since it
was a historical option, his essay suggests, it may make sense now.
He speculates, "perhaps today's Middle East would be a healthier,
less violent place" if Israel had dispossessed all of the Palestinians
in 1947-48, as opposed to only the "700,000 of Palestine's 1.25
million Arab inhabitants."
He wrote that ethnic purity would have been the "historically calming
result." The logical and unstated conclusion is that the opportunity
to achieve purity still remains. Thus the article leaves as its end
where it started: that transfer is an option.
That a highly revered historian who helped tarnish Israel's founding
myth that the Palestinian refugees were self-created now flirts with
ethnic cleansing so comfortably proves that ethnic cleansing is becoming
increasingly accepted as an acceptable route in the Israel-Palestinian
If Israel plans on displacing Palestinians during the campaign against
Iraq, it will be carefully implemented in order to not upset American
designs on Iraq. Premeditated plans in the absence of an overt pretense
would be piecemeal - Israel's long preferred way of shifting populations.
After all, hundreds of thousands of refugees
pouring into Jordan may force Jordanian officials to disallow American
use of Jordanian airfields, for example.
Displacement en masse could happen after Iraq falls. Observers have
speculated that western Iraq may provide a place for Israel to expel
Palestinians to. It would give Israel somewhere to dump the Palestinians
and would happen after Iraq's chemical arsenal had been fully disarmed.
Transfer could also appear to be a natural response to a "mega-terrorist"
attack or if Saddam Hussein launches enough missiles at Israel.
The probable starting point for a program of ethnic cleansing would
center on the new security wall complex Israel is building in and through
the outskirts of the West Bank. With a 5-6 meter-high fence, trenches,
mine fields, a sand patch to detect footprints, watchtowers, and an
electrified fence, this complex will snake around the inner portions
of the Palestinian side of green-line. So far, 43 miles of it has been
built. In the end it will run the entire length of Israel's de facto
border with the West Bank (a map of the project is available at B'Tselem's
The long and winding complex drops deep into parts of the West Bank
in order to bring settlements into the Israeli side of the wall. So
far, 10,000 Palestinians in 8 towns and villages have also fallen on
the west-side of the wall, separated from the rest of the West Bank,
according to a report by the Israel human rights group B'Tselem.
Also, "thirty-five Palestinian families residing along the northern
edge of Bethlehem are expected to remain on the northern side of the
barrier in south Jerusalem, due to the decision to include Rachel's
tomb inside the barrier."
Besides the fact that this impinges on Palestinian lands, involves the
bulldozing of homes and farmlands, separates families, violates the
basic rights of mobility and work, and further disjoints Palestinian
rootedness in the land, it leaves in limbo the fate of over ten thousand
Palestinians. They could be the most attractive targets for ethnic cleansing.
On a practical level, all of Israel's security mechanisms, from the
checkpoints, curfews, and closures, to this new wall, regard all Palestinians
as potential terrorists. Given the broadness of most of these arrangements,
will Israel really allow over 10,000 Palestinians to remain on the other
side of this wall? The wall complex is immensely popular in Israel and
moves to bolster its efficacy will be well received by most Israelis.
Israeli officials know that it will give the Palestinians even more
to be angry about. The Financial Times reported that farmers have lost
direct access to their fields, people's homes have been commandeered
for military use, and schools and other edifices have been demolished
just for being too close to the wall complex's vicinity.
At a deeper level, Israeli officials across the ideological spectrum
read the Palestinians as a demographic threat. That is, by their very
existence Palestinians challenge Israel's dominant historical mythology.
They are the noxious foot-note to Zionism's colonizing slogan that declared
Palestine "a land without people for a people without a land."
However, the extent of any forthcoming ethnic cleansing is indeterminable.
It could be limited to the more than 10,000 Palestinians who escaped
containment by Israel's wall security complex, or it could be the "full-fledged
ethnic cleansing" the 100 Israeli academics warn of.
Further ethnic cleansing is a realistic possibility given the centrality
of transfer in Israel's history. Benny Morris affirms what every Palestinian
knows: "The idea of transfer is as old as modern Zionism and has
accompanied its evolution and praxis during the past century."
Other circumstances point to transfer as well: Israel is in an economic
and political crisis, the ruling coalition is made up of parties calling
for transfer, Sharon is running out of ideas and his raison d'etre is
not peaceful diplomacy but military action premised on Israel's security
Like the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the next war on Iraq may be a
period of relaxed international scrutiny of Israel's actions. Already
we have seen Israel use the wake of the September 11th attacks to enhance
its operations against the Palestinians by extending and aggrandizing
its violent incursions into Palestinian
populations. Sharon's comment that "the concern now is not about
a few Scud missiles, but suicide bombers everywhere" offers no
The contemporary path to the moment of transfer is paved with Israel's
recent expulsions of the Palestinian fighters who were in the Church
of Nativity, and families of suicide bombers. Reports that Iraq facilitates
suicide bombs and would encourage them more in the event of an attack
further links the war on Iraq with Israeli security. When combined with
Israel's security premise that all Palestinians are potential terrorists,
this formula hints at the Palestinian "demographic threat"
that once left Golda Meir sleepless at night and now serves as the subject
of obsession for Israeli conferences and nervous policy analysts.
The Israeli academics' letter calls for "the international community
to pay close attention to events that unfold within Israel and in the
occupied territories." International activists must "make
it absolutely clear that crimes against humanity will not be tolerated."
It also recommends, "concrete measures to prevent such
crimes from taking place."
Anti-war activities should include messages to this effect. Anytime
an Israeli spokesperson takes questions, they should be asked about
this. This idea must enter into the media via op/eds, letters, and so
on. Confront and deluge congressional representatives with this suspicion.
The goal should be to force Israeli spokespeople to take a position
now and to recognize that the world will be watching them. Activists
should establish our own preemptive doctrine. Let's act now, and not
react after Israel has established new facts on the ground.
Youmans is a 3rd year law student at University of California,
Berkeley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.