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Threat of mass expulsion adds to Palestinian woes


Daily life for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories grows continually more oppressive. Curfews for several days a week, sometimes many days in succession, have become routine.

Curfew has now become house arrest. People cannot leave their homes even to go across the street or into their gardens. Their plants and animals die. Farmers cannot work in their fields to plant, care for or harvest crops. People can be shot simply for standing in open doorways. Twenty-four hour curfews on every Friday prevent the Muslim population (the vast majority) from going to the mosque. Access to hospitals is blocked. Children are prevented from going to school. Many people can’t get to jobs. About 60 percent of the population is unemployed. More and more are living at a starvation level. The number of malnourished children is growing.

The Israelis typically arrive in villages with dozens, even hundreds of tanks. Houses are demolished or ransacked. People are harassed and humiliated. Injuries and deaths by shooting occur every day. The leadership class is being systematically eliminated through targeted assassinations, which often kill bystanders. The ministries of an incipient Palestinian state have been largely destroyed and the Palestinian Authority rendered nonfunctional. The entire Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories has been literally imprisoned in fragmented territories divided from each other and from Israel by walls, trenches and checkpoints.

Since Sept. 11, the Sharon government has closely allied itself with the United States by portraying its treatment of the Palestinians as “fighting terrorism.” While the Bush government initially made some statements supporting a Palestinian state to curry favor with the Muslim world for its intended invasion of Afghanistan, it has since virtually given a green light to Sharon to carry out any measures of repression that he wishes. The United Nations, the European Union, the Arab nations have been silenced and do nothing in regard to the Palestinians, rendering them isolated under Israel’s iron fist.

What is the purpose of this extreme repression of Palestinians as a total population in the Occupied Territories? Clearly the design of such treatment is to render daily life intolerable and to force people to leave. There has, in fact, been a steady trickle of people leaving the area, especially the middle class, but most Palestinians do not have the means to leave or refuse to leave. Consequently there is now increasingly open talk of forcible expulsion or “transfer.” Posters have sprung up with slogans such as “Shalom plus transfer equals security,” thereby paralleling shalom (peace) and transfer as the joint means to security for Israel.

Mass expulsion, or “ethnic cleansing,” of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories in Palestine is increasingly being advocated by the Israeli government, political pundits and journalists. These Israelis look to the possibility of a U.S. war with Iraq as a “cover” under which to carry out this ethnic cleansing. Recent polls show that 40 percent of Israelis are in favor of it, while almost a third favor expelling Palestinians who are Israeli citizens as well. Palestinians have even been referred to in frankly genocidal language as a “cancer” for which a “second course of chemotherapy is needed.” The first incomplete course was the forcible expulsion of a million Palestinians in 1948.

In October, 98 Israeli academics sent a cry of alarm about this possibility of a mass expulsion of Palestinians to the world community. They wrote: “We members of Israeli academe are horrified by the U.S. buildup of aggression against Iraq and by the Israeli political leadership’s enthusiastic support for it. We are deeply worried that the ‘fog of war’ could be exploited by the Israeli government to commit further crimes against the Palestinian people, up to full-fledged ethnic cleansing.” The Israeli ruling coalition includes parties that promote “transfer” of the Palestinian population as a solution to what they call “the demographic problem.”

Politicians are regularly quoted in the media as suggesting forcible expulsion. Escalating racist demagoguery concerning Palestinian citizens of Israel may indicate the scope of the crimes that are being contemplated. The international community must pay close attention to events that unfold within Israel and the Occupied Territories, and make it absolutely clear that crimes against humanity will not be tolerated and to take measures to prevent such crimes from taking place.

American citizens must realize that the responsibility for this extreme oppression of Palestinians lies as much with Washington as with the Sharon government in Jerusalem. It is our government that allows this to happen and is deaf to any critical response. American citizens must insistently confront their state and national representatives and demand that they take a clear stand opposing both the daily oppression and the possibility of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Americans should take this appeal of the academics in Israel and use it to demand that their elected representatives openly take a stand against any such ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland in Palestine by the Israeli government.

This cannot wait until these events have already happened, only to express some shock and light taps on the wrist to rebuke the Israeli government for having engaged in such crimes. What is needed are clear statements now that such crimes will not be tolerated and that the U. S. government is prepared to take steps to protect the Palestinian people from such ethnic cleansing and to prevent the Israeli government from using any possible war in Iraq or any other events to carry out such crimes. Clear sanctions must be enunciated in advance to forestall such crimes from happening.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002