The transfer of the Palestinians has begun. Piling their furniture and personal belongings into a truck, the last residents of Yanoun abandoned their West Bank village on October 18, 2002. “Our life here is more bitter than hell,” said one villager, lamenting years of attacks, recently intensified, from Israeli settlers living nearby. Over the past months, rampaging bands had smashed windows, destroyed water tanks, burned the village’s electric generator, stolen sheep, beaten villagers and shot at workers in the fields. (1) The Israeli government implicitly endorsed this act of ethnic cleansing, failing to return the Palestinians to their homes, or even to condemn the settlers’ aggression verbally. To the contrary, in Yanoun as elsewhere, the police and army have sided openly with the marauding settlers. Five village men subsequently eturned to the village with the help of peace activists, but it is unclear how long they will be able to hold out. (2)

“Transfer,” the euphemism referring to expulsion of Palestinians from Israel-Palestine, enjoys more legitimacy today than it has since 1948, the year of the state of Israel’s creation and the first Arab-Israeli war. For many decades, Jewish Israelis declined to speak publicly about the underside of the 1948 war: Israel’s responsibility for creating 750,000 Palestinian refugees, whose descendants have yet to be repatriated or compensated. In the early 1980s, Rabbi Meir Kahane, the far-right leader of the Kach Party, broke the taboo by promoting the eviction of Palestinians from Israel and the Occupied Territories, but in 1988 his party was banned as racist and anti-democratic. The idea of evicting the Palestinians found new life in Rehevam Ze’evi’s Moledet Party. Ze’evi, a product of the mainstream Labor Party, explicitly cited the war of 1948 as a precedent for his agenda. Ironically, Ze’evi’s version of Zionist history agreed with that advanced by Israel’s “new historians,” who during the same period compiled detailed evidence of Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem. Ze’evi celebrated this history, while the “new historians” offered a more critical appraisal, yet both found themselves accused of distorting “authentic” Zionist history.

In the wake of the 1993 Oslo accords, however, concern over the fate of the Jewish state brought transfer into the Israeli mainstream. Especially since the outbreak of the current intifada, moments of Palestinian dispossession — 1948 in particular — have been openly invoked as models for quelling Palestinian resistance. At no point since the establishment of the state has there been so ambient an understanding of the Zionist movement’s role in evicting the Palestinians. Two years into the intifada, with the Israeli army unable to defeat the Palestinian uprising decisively, the call to “let the army win” has morphed into the demand to “finish the job” begun 55 years ago. The eviction of the Palestinians is no longer a Zionist heresy but rather the truth of Zionism; ethnic cleansing is the openly declared history and potential future of the state. To use a phrase coined by new historian Ilan Pappé, the “demons of the nakba (the Arabic word referring to the Palestinian dispossession of 1948),” have returned to haunt Israel. These “demons” have even seduced the first new historian who exposed them: Benny Morris recently sang the praises of transfer in the Guardian.

“Miracle Solution”

As unapologetic awareness of transfer has increased, the notion of transfer itself has grown more expansive. When Rehavam Ze’evi first advanced the idea in the 1980s, he advocated the displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Today, the notion of transfer has ramified into a variety of forms, including those that target Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Politicians on the Israeli left, center and right agree that the “transfer of citizenship” offers a solution to the “demographic problem” within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. As Minister of Infrastructure Effi Eitam said, “As far as Arabs are concerned, if you don’t give them the right to vote, you don’t have a demographic problem.” (3)

Yet focusing attention on outlandish statements by right-wing politicians distorts the extent to which a wide array of Israeli Jews supports disenfranchising the Palestinians. A substantial portion of the Israeli public agrees that the very presence of Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank constitutes a threat to the future of the Jewish state. In a March 2002 poll administered by Tel Aviv University, 46 percent of Israeli Jews supported the transfer of Palestinians from the West Bank and 31 percent advocated the same treatment for Palestinian citizens of Israel; 60 percent said they supported “encouraging” Palestinian Israelis to leave Israel; and a full 80 percent objected to the inclusion of Palestinian Israelis in decisions of national importance. (4) Many believe that these numbers underestimate public support for transfer since many Israeli Jews are embarrassed to admit support for an unethical policy. “The results of the poll unfortunately reflect the reality I encounter almost every day,” reports Member of Knesset Yuli Edelstein, “I hear it everywhere, and not just at funerals. The public is in a state of such distress and dread that any miracle solutions suggested are immediately welcomed warmly.” (5)

The impending war in Iraq could create the conditions for such a “miracle solution,” yet Israel’s existing war against the Palestinians already has made transfer a reality. Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank have already been “silently transferred” as were the residents of Yanoun. Within Israel itself, racial discrimination is effectively transferring Palestinian Israelis out of the public sphere. As bombing attacks have turned Israeli cities into a front in the fighting, urban space has become a frontier from which Palestinian Israelis are often excluded. On posters and billboards, in taxi cabs and living rooms, and on radio and television, ethnic cleansing is advocated not only for suppressing Palestinian resistance in the Occupied Territories but also for neutralizing the calls of Palestinian citizens of Israel for equality. Even if mass deportations never occur, the discussion of transfer itself constitutes a weight on Israel’s Palestinian citizens, reminding them at every turn that they are but temporary residents in their own land.

Under Cover of War

While force has always been a prerequisite for Zionist settlement, regional wars were necessary for Zionists and Israelis to realize their fantasy of living in “a land without a people.” The 1948 War was only the first step in the process. On the eve of the 1956 Sinai campaign, the Israeli army drafted plans for the expulsion of Palestinian Israelis from the area of north-central Israel known as the Little Triangle. (6) In the 1960s, Ariel Sharon, then a colonel, ordered his subordinates to investigate how many buses would be required to transfer 300,000 Palestinians out of northern Israel in the event of war. (7) Advance planning bore fruit during the 1967 war, when 200,000-300,000 Palestinians fled and were expelled from the West Bank, some transported in buses marked “Free Passage to Amman.” Others, specifically those in the Latrun area, left on their own power after being threatened, according to Uzi Narkiss, the head of Central Command in 1967: “We came in the morning and said, ‘Everybody go to Ramallah…. Afterward, we leveled the villages and today we have Canada Park there.” (8) Now, 35 years after the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the threat of two overlapping wars — the intifada and Iraq — hangs over the Palestinians.

During the past two years, the Israeli government has taken advantage of Palestinian militancy to justify the displacement of Palestinians within the West Bank and Gaza. Home demolitions, missile strikes, individual deportations and revocation of residency and citizenship have on occasion given way to the displacement of entire neighborhoods. The most infamous example is Jenin, where entire quarters were razed during Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. In Hebron, Palestinian residents and merchants have been removed from a quarter of the market in order to make room for Jewish settlers. According to Shlomo Lecker, lawyer for the displaced residents, this has been done on the pretext of security needs, although the only incident to mar the tranquility of the quarter was an arson attack perpetrated by the same settlers that now occupy the area. The largest planned population transfer to date targets the hills of the Yatta region, south of Hebron, where the Israeli government is trying to expel 750 families from their homes. While the state claims the land for military training zones, Israeli negotiators’ maps reveal that Israel plans to annex the hills of the Yatta region into a future settlement. The expulsions aim to create a stretch of “empty” land linking the settlement of Kiryat Arba to Israel at the southern tip of the West Bank.

The Yatta expulsions are still tied up in court, but the army is reportedly crafting plans for forced evacuations that will not be subject to judicial review. These will be justified by declaring entire areas to be “closed military zones,” thereby permitting the immediate expulsion of the residents “for their own safety.” (9) A less elegant option proposes “creating waves of refugees inside the territories,” (10) presumably by repeating the tactics employed during Operation Defensive Shield. In the course of rooting out “hotbeds of terrorism,” the army ordered Palestinians to leave their homes in Nablus and the Jenin and Balata refugee camps, then destroyed entire neighborhoods and sent thousands of Palestinians fleeing. Sharon could use this tactic to implement his “peace plan,” which calls for concentrating Palestinians into three separate enclaves comprising no more than 50 percent of the West Bank.

The impending war in Iraq bodes ill for the Palestinians. In the long term, with the US mimicking Israel’s national security policy in which open aggression passes for legitimate defense, Palestinians will find themselves in a world in which sovereignty and self-determination have little meaning. In the short term, the war promises to diminish international oversight in the Occupied Territories even further, possibly setting the stage not only for internal transfer but for mass expulsions as well. In the past, the US has balked at the prospect of the regional instability that such a move could invite, yet now, with the US seemingly intent on reconfiguring the map in the Middle East, the prospect of regional instability looms regardless of Israeli actions. If King Abdallah of Jordan totters during the war, or if war breaks out with Syria, the Israeli government could conclude there will never be another moment so propitious to settle the conflict with the Palestinians. As Eitam put it, in a slightly different context, “I can definitely see that as a consequence of war, not many Arabs will remain here.” (11)

Heightened media attention to Israel and Palestine, in combination with international sensitivity to ethnic cleansing, seems to militate against such a drastic course. The events of the past two years, however, belie the notion that documentation of Israeli war crimes is sufficient to provoke international intervention. Despite the unanimous agreement of human rights organizations that Israel has intentionally targeted civilians, Israel, with US support, has been successful in portraying its actions as a regrettable but natural consequence of war. As Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri said after an Israeli raid in Gaza killed fourteen people in October 2002, “If damage was caused to innocent civilians, we can be sorry, but what can you do? This is war.” (12) The Palestinians have demonstrated their ability to resist Israeli moves, yet there can be no doubt about Israel’s overwhelming military power. In another 55 years, will scholars describe the expulsion of the Palestinians from the remaining 22 percent of historical Palestine as a lamentable yet understandable product of the twin wars in Israel-Palestine and Iraq?

Where Is There?

Shortly after the conclusion of the 1948 war, the new Israeli government briefly considered denying citizenship to Palestinians living within the state’s borders. In the end, the government decided not to risk international opprobrium by apportioning citizenship along ethnic lines. Yet as a Jewish state, Israel did not grant its Palestinian citizens full rights, subjecting them instead to nearly twenty years of military rule. Fifty years later, there are once again voices clamoring for a pure Jewish state without Arab citizens.

Transfer as an official political platform dates to 1986, when Rehevam Ze’evi began drafting plans for the founding of Moledet. Ze’evi took care to note his differences with Meir Kahane’s Kach Party, which sought the unilateral expulsion of all Palestinians west of the Jordan River. By contrast, Ze’evi specified that he sought “transfer by agreement,” that is, the exodus of Palestinians within the framework of negotiations with Arab states. Of course, no Arab government ever agreed to such an idea, nor did any Arab state have the authority to terminate Palestinian claims to Palestine. But the rhetoric of “agreement” served for Ze’evi, as for previous generations of Zionists, as a convenient cover for the forcible ejection of Palestinians: “I am not proposing to sit around and wait until we reach transfer agreements in the framework of peace agreements,” he explained. Meanwhile, the Israeli government ought to create “conditions of a negative magnet that will bring the Arab population to prefer to emigrate.” (13)

The Oslo accords appeared to represent a defeat for Ze’evi and the extreme right, yet ironically, less than ten years later many on the Israeli left have accepted a version of his hawkish ideas. For a short period following the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, Palestinians and Israelis seemed to be inching toward peace and reconciliation. Palestinian citizens of Israel were optimistic that the agreement would normalize their position within Israeli society. In 1994, Arab political parties for the first time played a crucial role in supporting Yitzhak Rabin’s government, Palestinian towns were included for the first time in industrial planning, and budget gaps between Palestinian and Jewish municipalities began to decrease.

At the same time, however, Oslo forced Israeli Jews to confront the question of Israel’s national identity. The permanent state of emergency that justified the co-presence of democracy and ethnocracy threatened to evaporate. The hope for peace, combined with Israel’s neo-liberal economic realignment, convinced Israeli Jews to grant Palestinians greater personal rights, yet Jews never relinquished their conception of Israel as a Jewish state. Labor’s 1992 campaign slogan, “Us Here, Them There, Peace with Rabin,” summed up the Israeli understanding of Oslo. The slogan bore a striking resemblance to that of Moledet in 1988, “We Are Here, They Are There and Peace in Israel.” As Ze’evi himself commented at the time, “The only difference [between me and Rabin] is ‘Where is there?'”

Exactly where Palestinian Israelis fit into the Oslo landscape was at first unclear, but by the end of the 1990s, they had become a primary target of Israeli demographers. Maintaining a Jewish state necessitated a Jewish majority, and since the West Bank and Gaza were slated to pass to some form of Palestinian self-rule, the “demographic debate” increasingly addressed Israel proper. In the words of Arnon Sofer, professor at the University of Haifa, “You should remember that on the same day as the Israel Defense Forces is investing efforts and succeeding in eliminating one terrorist or another, on that very same day, as on every day of the year, within the territories of western Israel, about 400 children are being born, some of whom will become new suicide terrorists!” (14) A December 2000 report published by the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya indicates that in the clash between demography and democracy, the former has clearly won out. (15) The institute regularly brings together top figures in the security, academic, media and business establishments to generate policy recommendations for Israeli’s political leadership; both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon have availed themselves of its expertise. The final report of the conference reflects the Israeli establishment’s acceptance of transfer as a policy option, recommending that Palestinian Israelis be given the choice either to confirm their second-class status in the Jewish state or to abandon their Israeli citizenship. At the same time, the report recommended that “Israelis who permanently reside abroad should be allowed to participate in Israeli elections by absentee ballot.” Pairing Palestinian Israelis residing in their own homes with Israeli Jews living in a foreign country further suggests how Palestinian Israelis are seen as strangers in the own land.

The report of the mainstream Herzliya Conference closely mirrors Moledet’s “peace plan.” In the spring of 2002, Benny Elon — who took over as head of the party following Ze’evi’s assassination — launched a campaign based on “transfer of rights.” Palestinian citizens of Israel who refused to declare their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state would be stripped of their citizenship and issued citizenship in another country. Should Palestinian Israelis rebel against these terms — for instance, by demanding equality with Jews in Israel — they would be expelled to “their” state. Unlike Elon’s plan, the Herzliya participants endorsed a Palestinian state in the West Bank, yet both plans recommend that Palestinian Israelis be given the choice to leave Israel or accept permanent second-class status.

On the supposedly opposite end of the political spectrum, the Zionist left has its own version of the Herzliya Center and Elon plans. Ephraim Sneh, the Labor Party’s Minister of Transportation, presented a plan in March 2002 to incorporate areas of the Little Triangle into a future Palestinian state. Sneh’s plan, like the Herzliya and Elon plans, would effectively transfer Israel’s Palestinian citizens out of Israel without actually removing them from their homes. This suggests that while Israelis might differ on where to draw Israel’s final border, the Zionist right, center and left agree on the need to rid Israel of its Palestinian citizens. Sneh’s idea polls well among Israeli Jews, garnering 50-60 percent support. Palestinian Israelis, who were never consulted about the plan, evince less enthusiasm. In a recent poll, only 18 percent say they would agree to live in a future Palestinian state. (16)

Other members of the Knesset have put forward their own transfer plans. Avigdor Lieberman, head of the parliamentary faction “Israel is Our Home,” has proposed a “political arrangement” in which Palestinians — including Palestinian citizens of Israel — would be confined to three small enclaves. Calls for “voluntary transfer” abound as well. MK Michael Kleiner, for instance, has proposed offering immigration incentives to anyone who moves to an Arab country and permanently relinquishes Israeli citizenship or residency. “My proposal, unlike transfer, is not a racist proposal,” claims Kleiner, “because it is not aimed only at Arabs. Any Jew who wants to move to Morocco would be eligible for the emigration incentive.” (17) The Knesset legal adviser did not agree, dubbing his proposal racist and recommending its disqualification. (18) Although Kleiner’s proposal to encourage immigration was new, efforts at promoting voluntary transfer have been ongoing for years. Moledet offers scholarships for study abroad to Palestinians who sign an agreement never to return to Israel. Some Palestinian Israelis report receiving phone calls from mysterious organizations, each time with a different name, offering to facilitate immigration to the US or elsewhere.

Transfer in the Urban Landscape

Popular Jewish support for ridding Israel of its Palestinian citizens has altered the urban and national landscapes in Israel. The campaign launched by Moledet in February 2002 has greatly increased the public visibility of the party’s message. Surfaces of all kinds have been drafted in the service of the campaign: walls, fences, traffic signs, dumpsters and bus stops proclaim “Kahane was right” and “Expel the Arabs!” In summer 2002, tracks of posters declaring that “Transfer = Security and Peace” appeared throughout the country, even in cities such as Haifa that have a reputation for relative tolerance. A second wave of posters soon joined the first, announcing that “Jordan Is the Palestinian State.” The government did nothing to remove them, leading Haifa city council member Ayman Awda to lodge a complaint with the mayor. Since the Attorney General ruled illegal a previous set of posters that read “No Arabs, No Attacks,” Awda hoped that the recent posters might also be deemed outside the law. Yet since the Attorney General earlier ruled that calls for “voluntary transfer” are not illegal, (19) it is difficult to hold out hope that the government will involve itself in removing the posters. Showing that opposition in Israel is not completely moribund, some posters have been defaced with “1941,” thereby equating transfer with Hitler’s Final Solution. Others have been creatively vandalized so as to make them read “Palestinian State = Security and Peace.” The lack of any organized effort to remove the transfer posters, however, has made Israeli public space even more inhospitable to Palestinians.

The articulation of racial concerns in the language of security is hardly a new phenomenon in Israel, yet recently, urban space has been racialized to an unprecedented degree. Ambulances have refused to enter Palestinian villages in Israel, forcing the sick to meet the ambulance in the closest Jewish area. The Israeli Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon, recently termed the Palestinian threat a “cancerous” one that requires “chemotherapy,” a characterization subsequently endorsed by Ariel Sharon. (20) Jews defiantly state on the op-ed pages that, fearing a bombing attack, they leave restaurants rather than sit next to Arabs. (21) In Jerusalem’s Old City, the International Herald Tribune delivers only to the Jewish Quarter. Residents of the city’s other quarters, who comprise almost 90 percent of the Old City’s population, do not have access to the paper because, as one IHT representative phrased it, “we do not control those areas.” Arabs are not permitted to enter the Israeli Ministry of the Interior unless accompanied by a security escort. (22) Discrimination and incitement against Arabs accelerated after the arrest of a number of East Jerusalem residents and Palestinian Israelis on charges of planning and carrying out bombings in late July and early August. “This Is Not New” and “The Truth Is No Surprise” pronounced the two most popular Israeli dailies in the wake of the arrests. The Hebrew media’s judgment was widely echoed among Jewish Israelis: “I used to think that Israeli Arabs were different than Palestinians,” commented one taxi driver, “but they’re all the same.”

As the violence has grown more intense, Jewish racist sentiment has been dissociated from any pretense of concern with security. As a Palestinian resident of Ma’ilya remarked, “Transfer used to be the solution to a particular problem, like the demographic problem. Now the Jews want transfer because they want a pure state. That’s what they say on television: ‘We want a clean state.’ How is that supposed to make me feel? That makes me feel dirty.” Instances of the “cleansing” of Palestinians from the Jewish urban fabric are popping up everywhere. Dozens of Israeli firms have signed a pledge not to employ Arabs. Offices of Palestinian professionals practicing in Jewish towns have been destroyed, in some cases repeatedly, by arson. Demonstrators in Safad, led by the city’s chief rabbi, have demanded the expulsion of Palestinian Israeli college students, claiming that they “endanger the city’s residents not only in terms of security, but also morally.” (23) Flyers have been distributed in Haifa calling on Jewish citizens to boycott Arab businesses. In Safad and Upper Nazareth, religious and city officials have urged the Jewish population not to rent or sell apartments to Palestinians. An educator in Tel Aviv refused to administer a matriculation exam to the Palestinian students. (24) The Arabic press carries regular reports about hate crimes against Palestinian Israelis; the Hebrew press, by contrast, rarely addresses the issue.

The exclusion of Palestinians from Jewish space sometimes reaches Jim Crow proportions, with Palestinians denied access to spaces and businesses on the basis of accent and name. Examples overheard in casual conversation: A Palestinian Israeli couple from the village of Taybe waited to enter a club in Tel Aviv. As they approached the door, the security guard engaged them in conversation. When the guard heard their Palestinian accents, he turned them away, claiming, “We’re having a private party tonight, the club is closed.” A Palestinian Israeli woman from Jerusalem, who speaks Hebrew with an Ashkenazi (European Jewish) accent, tried to make a reservation in a hotel in Tel Aviv. The receptionist at first told her there were plenty of rooms, but when she gave her name, the receptionist’s response changed: “I’m sorry, I made a mistake. We have no rooms available that night.” Another Palestinian Israeli called to reserve a rental car, but was told there were none available. Suspecting discrimination, he called a radio station to complain. The Jewish radio host called the car company, broadcasting the conversation on the air. She had no problem reserving a car.

On the Edge

The radio host’s willingness to expose racial discrimination indicates that Jewish Israelis do not favor segregation uniformly. The Knesset has weighed in on this matter, passing a law in 2001 that explicitly criminalizes racial discrimination and mandates stiff financial penalties for violations. Several institutions have similar rules. The Egged bus company, for instance, prohibits its drivers from refusing to pick up Arabs. Yet enforcement of these regulations, at both the national and the institutional level, is virtually non-existent, despite court cases that have reaffirmed the illegality of discriminatory behavior. Pervasive, casual discrimination has become an accepted facet of daily life in Israel, no longer provoking outrage.

As a result, Palestinian Israelis feel as if they live, in the words of a civil engineer from Ramleh, “‘ala kaff al-‘afrit (on the edge).” Despite their status as Israeli citizens, their presence seems temporary and unstable, like guests who have worn out the welcome of their Jewish hosts. No Palestinians are safe from the wrath of their Jewish compatriots. When MK Issam Makhoul criticized the Interior Minister’s decision to strip the citizenship of Palestinian Israelis accused of planning bombings, MK Uri Ariel replied: “If you continue like this, you [Palestinians] will wind up with things much worse than the revocation of citizenship, you will wind up with mass expulsions. If you don’t stop this way of yours, the Jewish majority will simply scatter you to the winds.” (25)

Palestinian MKs find themselves under no less pressure than their constituents. Several are under indictment for their outspoken support for the intifada and their uncompromising calls for equality with Jews in Israel. In addition, the Islamic Movement in Israel, which represents about 20 percent of Palestinian Israelis, has been targeted recently by Jewish lawmakers. If any of the major Arab parties or politicians are declared illegal, Palestinians may boycott the next Israelis elections en masse. This would amount to “political transfer,” leaving no avenue except mass action for political expression. With Palestinian politicians under fire, rampant calls for ethnic cleansing and the increasing segregation of urban space, it is small wonder that many Palestinian Israelis perceive transfer as an ongoing reality, not a mere possibility.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Shira Robinson for invaluable research assistance.



 [1] Associated Press, October 19, 2002.

 [2] Palestine Monitor, October 21, 2002.

 [3] Ha’aretz, April 9, 2002.

 [4] The complete poll can be found at

 [5] Ha’aretz, March 19, 2002.

 [6] Ha’aretz, April 5, 2002.

 [7] Ha’aretz Musaf, September 2, 1988.

 [8] Ha’aretz Musaf, October 21, 1988.

 [9] Kol Ha’ir, July 26, 2002.

 [10] Ha’aretz, June 19, 2002.

 [11] Ha’aretz, April 6, 2002.

 [12] Ha’aretz, October 7, 2002.

 [13] Ha’aretz, October 8, 2002.

 [14] Quoted in Ha’aretz, June 28, 2002.

 [15]  The report has been excerpted in the Journal of Palestine Studies 31/3 (Autumn 2002).

 [16]  Arab Association for Human Rights, Weekly Press Review 95, October 9, 2002.

 [17] Ha’aretz, March 19, 2002.

 [18]  Ha’aretz, 22 November 2001.

 [19]  Ha’aretz, 24 June 2002.

 [20]  Ari Shavit, “My Idea of Winning,” Ha’aretz Magazine, August 30, 2002.

 [21]  Ha’aretz, August 22, 2002.

 [22]  Kol Ha’ir, August 30, 2002.

 [23]  Kol Ha’ir, August 16, 2002.

 [24]  Ha’aretz, June 23, 2002.

 [25]  Ma’ariv, September 11, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Robert Blecher "Living on the Edge," Middle East Report 225 (Winter 2002).

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