The State of Israel has reached an important crossroad. For some months now the nationalist camp, aided by the media, has been trickling into the public discourse the idea of expulsion — branded in Israel as “transfer” — despite the fact that it is antithetical to both international norms and human rights covenants. There are, of course, various formulations for how the transfer of the Palestinian population should be carried out, ranging from the aggressive version proposed by ex-minister Avigdor Lieberman, through the ‘soft’ version of “voluntary transfer” according to the right wing party “Moledet,” and all the way to the idea of abrogating the political rights of the Palestinians and transferring them from their land and homes “only at a time of need,” as suggested by Minister and inner Cabinet Member Efi Eitam.
Accordingly, the idea of expelling Palestinians from their land is already deeply entrenched in the political discourse, and has acquired legitimacy within broad sectors of the Israeli public. Labor Party Minister Ephraim Sneh’s new plan, which proposes territorial exchange of Arab localities in Israel with West Bank Jewish settlements, suggests that even segments within the Israeli peace camp are prepared to adopt political programs inspired by the “transfer” idea.
Recently, the transfer proponents have been handed the chance to begin implementing an expulsion at the expense of a particularly weak Palestinian population, the cave inhabitants living in the South Hebron region of the occupied West Bank. The impact of such an expulsion, particularly as a political and legal precedent, cannot be overstated. A “small” transfer now is likely to sanction more extensive expulsions in the future, just as the first entry of the Israeli military into Area “A” during summer 2001 prepared the ground for the massive and deadly invasion dubbed “Defensive Shield.”
Here are some of the facts. The cave dwellers live off of agriculture and tending flocks, and have preserved a unique cultural way of life since the early 19th century. After the 1948 war they lived under Jordanian rule, while losing all their land located on Israel’s side of the border. Following the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, Israel set up military bases on parts of their property and closed off a whole section for training purposes. The inhabitants’ living space was accordingly already small when the government began (in the early 1980s) to establish Jewish settlements in the region — such as Carmel, Maon and Susiya — a considerable number of which were founded in an attempt to create territorial contiguity beyond the Green Line. During the 1990s, particularly when Ehud Barak was prime minister, Jewish ranches were established alongside the settlements, causing additional friction with the Palestinian population.
In May 1999, Barak’s government, in coordination with settler leaders, carried out the first organized expulsion, in which 750 local residents were driven out of their homes on the pretence invading state land. Despite a Supreme Court injunction permitting the Palestinian residents to return to their land, the cave dwellers continued to be exposed to pressure from the Israeli military and Jewish settlers; pressure that included the destruction of houses, tents and caves, ruining water holes, uprooting olive trees, and preventing the residents from reaching their land for purposes of cultivation and grazing. Simultaneously, the government continued to expropriate more land, setting up illegal Jewish outposts and issuing writs limiting the stay of Palestinian residents in the area. The principle was to establish facts on the ground.
It was Shakespeare who wrote somewhere that “there is method behind the madness.” And indeed, all these actions were carried out by the military — whether the Defense Minister was Arens, Barak or Ben-Eliezer — with the aim of exhausting the residents and forcing them out. It seems that the Defense Ministers acted according to a premeditated plan whose practical purpose is to annex the whole area to Israel “clean” of Arabs in order to create a corridor from Be’er Sheva to the Jewish settlement Kiryat Arba. This claim is not a figment of our imagination, since it appears on the maps the Israeli delegation presented the Palestinians during the Camp David talks.
The threat of transfer has been hovering over the cave dwellers’ heads even since the 1999 expulsion, and it is at the end of this June that the Supreme Court is scheduled to convene in order to discuss their status. Underlying the verbal ‘laundering’ of ‘security considerations’ or ‘illegality’ is a vital question: Will the Supreme Court permit the Sharon- Ben Eliezer -Eitam government to carry out a “population transfer.” If the Court decides to expel the Palestinian residents it will create a dangerous precedent, essentially granting legal, political and moral legitimacy to transfer. A decision of this sort will shake the precarious barriers still holding back the expulsion option, and the inevitable horrific consequences of escalating the bloody conflict. It is with great apprehension that we wait to see whether the Supreme Court will turn a blind eye to the cave dwellers’ plight or whether it will prevent the further deterioration of ethnic relations in this troubled land.
Oren Yiftachel is the head of the Geography Department and Neve Gordon is a lecturer in the Politics and Government Department, both at Ben Gurion University, Israel. Their emails are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.