Of war and population transfer

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Following the onset of the second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 and the concomitant collapse of the Oslo negotiations process, the idea of population transfer as a means of solving the “Palestinian problem” has moved increasingly from the margins towards the center of Israeli public discourse. Prime ministers, cabinet ministers, military officials, the attorney general, intellectuals, educators and activists have all weighed in on the utility of population transfer.

For some, transfer holds the immediate promise of ending the “troubles” in the 1967 occupied territories. For others, it is regarded as the only way to preserve the Jewish character of the state of Israel through a permanent Jewish majority and permanent Jewish control of the most of the land. Israel “is a country in which the streets are plastered with posters calling for a population transfer,” comments Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, “and no one bothers to remove them or to indict those who put them up.”

An increasing number of voices within and outside Israel are also asking whether the threat of population transfer is lurking in the shadows of a seemingly imminent United States-led war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. How real is the threat of population transfer? The answer lies somewhere in the annals of history of the Zionist movement and in the experience of Palestinians themselves.

Transfer is not new to the Zionist movement. As Israeli historian Benny Morris recently noted in The Guardian, “The idea of transfer is as old as modern Zionism and has accompanied its evolution and praxis during the past century. And driving it was an iron logic: There could be no viable Jewish state in all or part of Palestine unless there was a mass displacement of Arab inhabitants.” Relying on Zionist archival materials, Palestinian historian Nur Masalha has documented nearly a dozen separate transfer plans prepared by various members of the Zionist movement from the beginning of the British mandate until the 1948 conflict and war in Palestine (see “Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of Transfer in Zionist Political Thought 1882 – 1948”) and a further half dozen plans spanning the years from the formation of the Jewish state until the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 (“The 1967 Palestinian Exodus,” in The Palestinian Exodus, 1948-1998).

More recently, Moledet Knesset representative Benny Elon and the right-wing organization Gamla have produced transfer plans. The transfer “business” seems to generate as much paper – if not more – as the lucrative “business” of coming up with new regional peace plans.

Transfer is certainly not new to the Palestinian people. During the first half of the 20th century foreign intervention in the guise of the British mandate and Zionist colonization led to the displacement/eviction of tens of thousands of Palestinian peasant farmers, punitive demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes, and the forced migration/expulsion of tens of thousands of other Palestinians actively opposed to foreign rule and colonization.

Just short of half a million Palestinians were displaced between December 1947 and the beginning of the first Zionist/Israeli-Arab war in May 1948. By the time the war ended, approximately 800,000 Palestinians had become refugees. More than 500 Palestinian villages with a land base of 17,178 square kilometers were erased from the map in a process described as “cleaning up the national views.”

Then, between the end of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and the beginning of the second war in 1967, tens of thousands of Palestinians who remained inside what eventually became Israel were transferred internally, forced across armistice lines and deprived of their lands. It is estimated that by the sixties Israel had expropriated some 700 square kilometers of land from the indigenous Palestinian community that remained within the borders of the Jewish state.

In 1967, some 400,000 Palestinians were displaced – half of them for a second time – during the second Arab-Israeli war. Israel thus acquired immediate control of more than 400 square kilometers of land in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Throughout the post-1967 period, Palestinians remaining in areas of their historic homeland have been subject to continued displacement and dispossession through a process that includes deportation, revocation of residency rights and demolition of homes. It is estimated than more than three-quarters of a million Palestinians have been affected by these measures, as Israel has acquired control of an additional 300 square kilometers of Palestinian land inside Israel and more than 3,000 square kilometers of land in the occupied territories.

At the beginning of the British mandate, the indigenous Palestinian Arab population comprised approximately 87 percent of the total population of Palestine and owned approximately 93 percent of the land. By the end of the 1948 War, half of the indigenous Palestinian Arab population was displaced with 35 percent displaced outside the borders of their historic homeland. The Palestinian population was dispossessed of some 70 percent of their land. An estimated 65 percent of the Palestinian housing stock inside the territory that became the state of Israel was destroyed, while an estimated 32 percent of the remaining housing was expropriated and occupied by Israeli Jews.

Less than two decades later, after a second wave of mass displacement, the percentage of displaced Palestinians had risen to two-thirds, with nearly half of these displaced outside their homeland. Ongoing displacement resulted in the loss of an additional 16 percent of Palestinian-owned land.

Today, it is estimated that more than half of the Palestinian people are displaced outside the borders of their historic homeland, while Palestinians have access to just 10 percent of their land. As such, the Palestinian people lay claim to one of the largest and longest standing unresolved cases of displacement in the world today. Approximately one in three refugees worldwide is Palestinian. In total, 6 million Palestinians – more than two-thirds of the Palestinian people worldwide – are refugees or displaced persons.

The lack of geographical and temporal limitations on the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people for over five decades points to a clear policy of population transfer or in more common parlance – ethnic cleansing. While some commentators are reluctant to use to the term “ethnic cleansing” as descriptive of Israeli policies and practices, it is worth remembering that the modern origins of the term (“etnicko ciscenje” in Serbo-Croatian), which conjures up images of concentration camps and mass graves in the former Yugoslavia, initially referred to administrative and non-violent policies in Kosovo, fully a decade before the mass displacement and slaughter of the civilian population in Bosnia and Kosovo. The causes of population transfer in the Palestinian case are both dramatic, as in the case of armed conflict in 1948 and 1967, and subtle and insidious – a kind of “low-intensity transfer” practiced through decades of discriminatory legislation, planning and th! e administration of “justice.”

How real is the threat of population transfer in Palestine-Israel today? The fact is that population transfer is ongoing, with or without a US-led war against Iraq, through the revocation of residency rights, destruction of thousands of Palestinian homes over the past two years, the recent suspension of family reunification for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the deportation of relatives of those accused of carrying out attacks against Israeli civilians and military personnel.

That, however, is not to dismiss the threat of mass population transfer. While much of the debate about the mass displacement or transfer of Palestinians in 1948 has revolved around whether or not there was a Zionist master plan, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe noted in an October article in Between the Lines that, “Far more important for ethnic cleansing is the formulation of an ideological community, in which every member, whether a newcomer or a veteran, knows only too well that they have to contribute to a recognized formula.”

That atmosphere is certainly present in Israel today. In part, that consensus explains the widespread looting and vandalism carried out by Israeli soldiers in Israel’s massive military assault on West Bank towns, villages and refugee camps this spring. In Israeli discussion, there no longer exists a legitimate Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence, as this very human undertaking has been collapsed into the much broader “war against terror.”

The international community’s response to the transfer of the indigenous Palestinian population from their historic homeland over the past 50 years does not provide a great deal of assurance against the prospect of another wave of mass transfer in Palestine. The international community has and continues to be complicit in the transfer of the indigenous Palestinian population out of their historic homeland. For example, the 1937 Peel Report, which investigated the “disturbances” of 1936-1939, recommended the transfer of the Palestinian Arab population out of parts of Palestine. A decade later the majority of the members of the United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of partition despite unresolved legal questions about the UN’s authority to recommend partition of a country and warnings that partition raised the very real danger of mass population transfers. Today, prominent experts and institutions continue to promote various forms of transfer, from shifting the existi! ng refugee population around the region (Donna Arzt, “From Refugees into Citizens”) to shifting the borders of Israel to transfer Palestinians out of Israel (International Crisis Group), as a means of resolving the historic conflict in the Middle East.

Is transfer imminent? The history of transfer in the Zionist movement, the extent of Palestinian displacement and dispossession over the past five decades, the current public discourse inside Israel, the fact that Israeli society has yet to accept responsibility for what happened in 1948, let alone over the course of the past 50 years, and the complicity of the international community all suggest that the threat of transfer, especially as America gears up for war, should be taken very seriously.

Terry Rempel is a research coordinator at BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

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