Al-Ahram Weekly – 25 July 2002
Israel’s latest plan for cracking down on suicide attacks managed the seemingly impossible: it lined up the whole international community, from the Arab League to the United States, against Israel and its policy of exiling the families of Palestinian militants.
For several weeks the Israeli security cabinet and the army had been secretly discussing ways to deter suicide bombers. The proposals included trying to block the transfer of money from Arab states to the bombers’ families and arresting Palestinian clerics who support attacks against Israel.
The hard-liners in both the cabinet and the military, however, were seeking harsher and more direct retaliation against the families, including deporting them abroad, possibly to Jordan, and extending the military practice of demolishing their homes. Some officers argued that this was the only way to make Palestinians think twice before enlisting on suicide missions.
The calls for deportation reached a crescendo last week in the immediate wake of two attacks: the shooting dead of nine Israelis close to the settlement of Immanuel in the West Bank, and a double suicide bombing in the centre of Tel Aviv that killed three.
The attacks, coming after nearly a month of quiet for Israelis, were a severe jolt. The army now effectively controls the whole of the West Bank and could not credibly blame Yasser Arafat or what is left of his security forces for failing to prevent the strikes.
But the chief legal officer, Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein, warned the government that deporting families abroad would exact accusations that it was breaching the Geneva Conventions, which forbid transferring members of an occupied population out of their country.
Rubinstein, however, did agree to support the deportation of families from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, arguing that legally the two areas could be considered parts of one Palestinian territory. The army was satisfied with the solution, believing banishment to Gaza would cut families off from their extended support networks and that the security fence around Gaza would make it virtually impossible for them to infiltrate Israel or return to the West Bank.
A Justice Ministry spokesman, Jonathan Beker, said that the deportations would be applied against male next-of-kin — fathers, brothers and sons.
Although Israel deported more than 1,500 Palestinians between 1967 and 1992, all were political activists or suspected of personally launching attacks against Israel. This was the first time Israel had considered holding people culpable based on their blood ties to a suspect.
Given the green light, the army selected its first candidates for deportation early on Friday morning, storming the homes of two fugitive men believed to have organised last week’s attacks. Some 21 relatives were rounded up near Nablus in the two separate operations.
At Tel village, the army destroyed the house of Nasser Asida, a leader of the Hamas’s military wing the Ezzeddin Al- Qassam Brigades, before arresting men from his family, including his elderly father. Israel claims Asida was behind the attack on the bus near Immanuel.
And in Askar refugee camp soldiers blew up the house of Ali Ajouri, leader of Tel Aviv bombings.
One eyewitness, Hassan Hamdan, a medical charity worker from Nablus, said that in Askar camp several neighbouring houses were also badly damaged in the blast.
But house demolitions, which breach international law by collectively punishing a whole family rather than the suspect, have become a familiar if controversial element of Israeli military strategy in the occupied territories. Israel’s High Court has previously given the policy legal sanction by ruling that it “forcibly deter[s] terrorists from perpetrating murderous attacks”.
It was on this principle of deterrence already approved by the courts that Rubinstein based his decision to back the deportations.
However, the international community was not so easily persuaded. A spokeswoman for United Nations Secretary- General Kofi Annan declared: “The secretary-general wishes to make clear that self-defence cannot justify measures that amount to collective punishments.”
And in a bigger blow to Israel, the US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: “We expect Israel’s actions in its campaign against terror to be based on information related to an individual’s culpability and not on personal or family relationships.”
Rubinstein, caught off-guard by the strength of opposition, backpedalled furiously. By the weekend he was arguing that there would be no deportations unless family members could be shown to have “direct links to terror organisations”, or to have publicly supported suicide attacks.
He also began fighting a rearguard action over the fate of the 21 men being held by the Israeli army. It had been assumed by international observers and Israeli human rights groups that they would be summarily deported to Gaza. Several organisations including Hamoked, an Israeli human rights group, filed petitions with the High Court to halt the expulsions.
But Rubinstein said Israel’s deportation policy had been misunderstood and that there was no intention to collectively banish the men. Each case would be dealt with on an individual basis. After promises that there would be 12 hours warning before any of the men were deported, to leave time for appeals, Hamoked withdrew the petitions.
An editorial on Monday in the right-wing daily newspaper The Jerusalem Post neatly summed up Rubinstein’s predicament: “If anything, Israel has so thoroughly and pre- emptively hamstrung its own policy that it is hard to imagine it being implemented in more than a handful of cases.”
Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit, however, appeared on television to defend the more hard-line policy. “If such a large percentage of any European country’s population had been killed in terror attacks, the Europeans would expel the terrorists’ families, friends and everyone they ever knew,” he said.
Sensing an Israeli government on the run, Palestinian militant groups stepped up their rhetoric. Hamas said that if the expulsions were implemented it would “send explosive messages to the Zionists everywhere we can”. And the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades issued a statement warning that it would “retaliate by striking the families of Israeli officials”.
Talk of deportation touches a raw nerve among Palestinians, especially as it has echoes both of the mass expulsions that occurred during the 1948 War and of “transfer”, a policy of ethnic cleansing that has captured the imagination of an increasingly large segment of the Israeli electorate.
But Rubinstein’s about-turn posed as many questions as it answered. Although he maintained that deportations would occur only if the Shin Bet security services could prove the direct involvement of a family, it was unclear what standards of proof would be required. All the men arrested on Friday were being interrogated at the time of going to press. Confessions alone may be enough evidence on which to base an expulsion order.
Since the start of the Intifada human rights groups have warned that Israel has widely reintroduced torture during the interrogation of Palestinians. Suspects have also had their rights to legal representation severely curtailed.
And, as Yossi Volfson, a lawyer with Hamoked, pointed out: “If there is real evidence that family members have broken the law by involvement in terror attacks they can be prosecuted in the courts and imprisoned. So why does Israel need a deportation policy?”
He also observed that even under Israeli military law spouses cannot be tried for failing to report or prevent a crime. “This is based on the principle that no one can be expected to betray their husband or wife. Only a Big Brother state believes it should be able to break the intimate trust of a marriage.”
And then there is Rubinstein’s threats against family members who voice support for suicide attacks. “How can he say a father or brother who expresses support for a bombing should be deported when most Palestinians support such bombings? On what principle other than their biological relationship to the suspect is the expulsion in such circumstances based.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli parliament was due to vote this week on a bill to ban compensation for Palestinian non-combatants injured by the Israeli army. Known as the Intifada law, the legislation will deny compensation even in cases where a civilian was injured through the negligence of soldiers.