Although the level of violence seems to have decreased following the withdrawal of most Israeli forces from the occupied West Bank, Israel has once again 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 expelling Palestinians--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" promulgated by the right-wing party Moledet, 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 cabinet member Efraim Eitam.
Accordingly, the idea of expelling Palestinians from their land has acquired legitimacy within broad sectors of the Israeli public. Recently, 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 the Occupied Territories during the summer of 2001 prepared the ground for this year's massive and deadly invasion dubbed "Defensive Shield."
The cave dwellers live off farming 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 '80s) to establish Jewish settlements in the region.
In November 1999, Ehud Barak's government, in coordination with settlers, carried out the first expulsion, in which 750 local residents were driven out of their homes on the pretense they were invading state land. Despite a Supreme Court injunction permitting Palestinian residents to return, the cave dwellers continued to be exposed to pressure from the Israeli military and Jewish settlers, including the destruction of dwellings; ruining water holes; uprooting olive trees; and preventing residents from reaching their farming and grazing land.
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 a new reality on the ground.
Indeed, all these actions were carried out by the military--whether under Defense Ministers Moshe Arens, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer or Barak--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 was to annex the whole area to Israel, "clean" of Arabs, to create a corridor from Be'er Sheva to the Jewish settlement Kiryat Arba, the same area that appears on maps the Israeli delegation presented to Palestinians during the Camp David peace talks.
The threat of transfer has been hovering over the cave dwellers ever since the 1999 expulsion. At the end of June, the Supreme Court will convene to discuss their status. Underlying the talk of "security considerations" and "illegality" is a vital question: Will the Supreme Court permit the Sharon government to carry out a "population transfer"?
If the Court decides to expel the Palestinian residents, it will create a dangerous precedent, essentially conferring political and moral legitimacy to population transfer. Such a decision will shake the precarious barriers still holding back the expulsion option and inevitably escalate the bloody conflict. In the past months, the Court has rejected more than 30 appeals filed by human rights organizations in the name of Palestinians who have suffered atrocious violations. It is with great apprehension that we wait to see whether the 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 and Neve Gordon teach at Ben-Gurion University.