On December 16, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin issued Order 97, authorizing military commanders to “expel inciters from among the population of their locality.” Israeli forces that day seized, bound and blindfolded 418 Palestinian men and threw them onto buses which then headed north. The military censor forbade the broadcast or publication of information concerning the operation. Israeli civil rights lawyers, though, learned of the plans and secured a temporary restraining order from a high court judge in the middle of the night. When the court lifted the restraining order late on December 17, the buses moved across the border. Troops confiscated from the men all Israeli-issued identity cards and pushed them off into barren territory between Israeli and Lebanese army lines. Over the following days, Israeli and Israeli-controlled Lebanese forces shelled and shot at the men and mined the area to prevent their attempts to return.
Rabin claimed this was warranted by the “terror” attacks of the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas over the previous weeks, which killed five Israeli soldiers. What struck panic in the Israeli political establishment, including Rabin’s leftist Meretz partners in the cabinet, was that these attacks were not terrorist by any reasonable definition. They were successful armed attacks on military units. In one case, Hamas militants kidnapped a Border Policeman and then killed him when their political demands were not met. This was a war crime, not terrorism.
Who were the expelled “inciters”? When Rabin first asked his security services for a list of those they would recommend for deportation, he was handed six names; when he asked for more they added a seventh. Order 97 allowed for a mass roundup. According to Middle East Watch, about a third of those expelled had been at liberty, taken from their homes and families; of those already in detention, most had been among the estimated 1,600 Palestinians seized over the previous two weeks, incarcerated without charges; only a few had been convicted in court of any offense, and nine of these had been scheduled for release within weeks or even days. The deportees included at least 15 university professors and 14 medical doctors, as well as schoolteachers. businessmen, workers and students. About half were prayer leaders, religious scholars or religious court judges.
Their crimes were thought crimes, crimes of political affiliation. If Hamas were to participate in any elections that might come out of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, a great number of the deportees are precisely the sorts of persons who would stand in such elections. During a January high court hearing, Justice Aharon Barak asked government legal adviser Yosef Harish if he had “any estimate of how many people in the Gaza Strip are members of terrorist organizations?” “I think they all are,” Harish responded. During the day spent on the Israeli side of the border, 35 of the 418 were taken off and returned to Israel. In some instances, Israeli authorities reportedly felt they had strong enough cases to get convictions in court — an indication of the flimsy accusations against the hundreds who were expelled. Apparently not wishing to send the buses to the border with empty seats, the Israelis helicoptered in 32 “replacements” as they awaited the high court ruling.
This expulsion was not an incidental consequence of a larger cataclysm, such as the massive displacement of people triggered by the Gulf crisis. It is not even the same as Kuwait’s purposeful, mean-spirited deportation of tens of thousands of Palestinians in the wake of the Gulf war. Israel’s deportees were not immigrants whose papers were not in order. These “undesirable aliens” are people native to the place. For parallels in the region one must invoke Kuwait’s denial of return to its own “stateless” bidun population, or Iraq’s expulsion of tens of thousands of allegedly “Iranian” Shi‘a after 1979. Or Israel’s own record of wartime expulsion of Palestinians and the “transfer” project of the Israeli right.
The expulsions presented the Clinton administration with an opportunity to define for itself a policy that would reinvigorate the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians and at the same time chart a constructive approach vis-a-vis the Islamist tendencies in the region. Washington had supported UN Security Council Resolution 799, requiring Israel to take back the deportees. In the face of Rabin’s intransigence, though, the response of the Clinton team has been shameful. The only virtue of the American-Israeli “deal,” under which Israel will take back 100 of the deportees now and the rest by the end of the year, is that it makes transparent the illegitimacy of the expulsions. But the other party to the conflict, the Palestinians, were dismissively shut out.
This whole sequence — the Hamas attacks, the Israeli expulsions, the US deal to “modify” the expulsions — does not occur in a political vacuum. A major factor in the ascendancy of the Islamist rejectionist tendency has been the failure of the “peace process” to move toward an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The combination of Israeli intransigence at the talks and escalating violence on the ground — killing demonstrators on an almost daily basis, demolishing homes and even neighborhoods in Gaza — has seriously eroded the legitimacy of the secularist leadership of the intifada and the PLO, a legitimacy that was not seriously challenged when the talks began in October 1991. If the Israeli and American governments were truly interested in countering the appeal of the Islamists, the recipe has been obvious: Make the talks productive, negotiate seriously. The expulsion has had precisely the opposite effect, and has set back the possibilities for a reasonable political settlement to a dangerous degree.
For Rabin and his cohorts, Hamas’ armed militancy has great utility. It keeps the PLO off balance, and all the “terrorist” horrors and atrocities that used to be attributed to the PLO or “the Palestinians” can now be attached with impunity to Hamas and “Islamic fundamentalists.” In a world without a rationale for a US-Israeli “special relationship,” Rabin proposes that Israel’s fight against Hamas is part of the battle for Western civilization. “Just as the state of Israel was the first to recognize the Iraqi nuclear danger,” Rabin told the Knesset in the days after the Hamas expulsion, “thus we stand first today in the line of fire against the danger of extremist Islam.”
Rabin’s lines might have been scripted by his friends at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. As luck would have it, WINEP’s founder-director Martin Indyk found himself a new job on Clinton’s National Security Council, responsible for the Middle East. On January 27, just days before the US announcement of its “deal” with Rabin, the New York Times dedicated much of its op-ed page to Israeli television commentator Ehud Yaari, known for his access to Israeli intelligence sources and his availability to promote the line of the week — in this case, that the deportees constituted Hamas’ “command network” in the territories and that their return would invariably lead to further terrorism. Yaari, who is a WINEP associate, outlined a provocative but typically unverifiable sketch of Hamas’ funding network and “command center” based in the US. The inference is clear: Israel, by deporting the 415, is also defending America. And the media agenda is no longer Israel’s deportation but Palestinian fundraising in the US.
Outside funding surely exists, but it does not explain the strength of the movement. To the extent that Hamas does have patrons, they are a curious lot. When Yaari tried to peddle his line on Israeli TV earlier this January, he was greeted with derision from many there who are familiar with Israeli indulgence of the Islamists over the past 15 years. Rabin was defense minister when the government authorized an Islamic university to be set up in Gaza, but refused permission for a secular institution of higher learning. US (and de facto Israeli) allies Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and more recently Iran, have been among the prominent outside funders of Hamas.
Hamas and other Islamist groups are not run on expense accounts. What sustains them politically is the policy of denial and imposition that the US practices itself and supports in its chief ally. The new administration in Washington seems to have decided that the immediate need is to keep Rabin in power, as the Israeli politician most attuned to US priorities in the region. Playing the Islamist card along the lines recommended by the Indyk-Yaari crowd may serve that end for the moment. The Palestinians are the immediate losers, but it is bad policy for people of the region, including Israelis, and for the possibility of any reasonable and lasting peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.