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31 January 2007

Is ethnic cleansing really an option for Israel?

Is ethnic cleansing really an option for Israel?
John Sigler, January 21, 2007


Today, a number of factors have resulted in an ever increasing number of people reaching the conclusion that the ethno-separatist “two state solution” is no longer a viable option for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among these factors is the demographic reality whereby Palestinians now constitute a numerical majority between the River and the Sea [1], the continued Israeli expansion of the settlements [2], and the continued desire of Olmert and his Kadima supporters to simply impose a unilateral settlement on the Palestinians [3].

Subsequently, the options are reduced to two; either some sort of bi-national option politically unifying the land currently controlled by Israel, or out right ethnic cleansing, euphemistically referred to by its advocates as “transfer.” The former – the one state option – has been articulated in two recent books by Prof. Virginia Tilley [4] and Ali Abunimah [5]. The alternative view – in favor of ethnic cleansing – has most recently been boosted by the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s “Minister of Strategic Threats” [6].

As these two options have come to play ever increasing roles in the discourse, there has developed something of a “conventional wisdom” perspective arguing that between these options, Israel will inevitably opt for ethnic cleansing before sacrificing the ethnocentric notion of the “Jewish State.” As is always the case with “conventional wisdom” arguments, on the surface this appears reasonable supposition and is even somewhat substantiated by public opinion research in Israel [7]. Nevertheless, when one goes to the trouble of actually examining the mechanics of forced ethnic cleansing as advocated by Lieberman and his friends, it becomes readily apparent that such an option is not really as viable as the “conventional wisdom” suggests.

The notion of “soft” or “creeping” transfer, i.e. expelling the Palestinians through attrition by steadily making life utterly impossible, has been a reality since the start of the first Intifada in 1987 [8]. Though such policies have managed to force out some Palestinians, as a method of expelling enough to relieve the demographic pressure on Israel, it has completely failed. Therefore, it has to be understood that when one sees the Israeli Right arguing for “transfer” they are not referring to slow, gradual, “transfer by attrition” but to dramatic and deliberate ethnic cleansing. When one examines the requisites required for such a program, it becomes considerably more difficult to see this as an option that Israel could implement despite the worst intentions of the “transfer” advocates.

The first problem is simply the spatial requirement of such a program. None of states bordering Israel have any interest in simply opening their borders to literally millions of heavily politicized and angry Palestinian expellees for the sake of Israel’s ethnic purity. In that none of Israel’s neighbors are inclined to voluntarily serve as a “dumping ground” for millions of Palestinians, Israel would first have to invade and occupy one of its neighbors to secure a destination for the expellees. Beyond the inevitable ramifications of such an act from the international community in general, on a more localized level, the actual mechanics are next to impossible.

Due in part to its post-World War I history, in part to its current demographic make-up (already having a Palestinian majority), and in part to the popularity of the Israeli Right-wing notion that “Jordan is Palestine”; Jordan is often seen as the “logical” destination for the Palestinians in an ethnic cleansing scenario. Nevertheless, Jordan is one of the two Arab states to have a full peace treaty with Israel, has strongly aligned itself with the United States, and due to the complex – and often confrontational – history of interaction between the Hashemite monarchy and the Palestinian people; it can be safely assumed that the Hashemites would do anything and everything possible to resist such a move by Israel. Further it appears quite likely that the United States, which is likely to remain mired in Iraq for years to come, would simply not allow Israel to invade and occupy Jordan.

Further, in such a scenario, it would be virtually guaranteed that the Hashemite monarchy would be overthrown and replaced by a radical Palestinian regime with the ability to freely import weaponry from elsewhere and open an entirely new “hot” war with Israel. To prevent this, Israel would have to remain in control of Jordan, thereby actually expanding the permanent occupation of Arab territory and bringing literally millions of new Arabs under Israeli control. Such a scenario would not only completely fail to end Israel’s security and demographic problems but would effectively increase and complicate them.

Most of the same factors also come into play if one were to substitute Egypt or Lebanon for Jordan. Of course Egypt has the ability to fight back and regardless of the outcome Israel would still be forced to radically expand the territory – as well as the number of Arabs – under more or less permanent occupation. A massive influx of Palestinian expellees probably would not result in the overthrow of the Egyptian government, but such an act would not be necessary as the Egyptian government and people would voluntarily take up arms to defend itself against Israeli occupation even if it is just the Sinai. In the case of Lebanon, in view of the current tensions within the state and the war of last summer, again such a move would result in nothing more than an increased occupation as well as a swelling of the number of Arabs under Israeli control.

Syria is a bit different in that both the United States and Israel are actively hostile to it. In fact it has been convincingly argued that during the summer war between Israel and Hizb-ut-Allah of 2006, the United States was actively encouraging Israel to attack Syria proper [9]. Nevertheless, the problem for Israel is that Syria is not defenseless and does maintain a particularly vicious “mutually assured destruction” option should they be pushed into a scenario where they have nothing left to lose. Specifically, Syria has a well developed – and perfectly legal – chemical weapons program [10] as well as a massive arsenal of SCUD missiles on mobile launchers to deliver such weapons [11]. In a no-holds-barred conflict between Israel and Syria, most analysts agree that Syria would be utterly destroyed, but it has the means to do the same to Israel proper should it be forced into a corner and convinced that it has nothing to lose. The result is that Syria has no choice but to tolerate minor Israeli assaults such as the 2003 Israeli bombing [12], but if faced with full invasion and occupation, it has the means to take Israel down with it.

So the first problem with the ethnic cleansing agenda is where is the destination for the expellees and how can this territory be secured? As discussed above this is not an easy question to answer, nevertheless, in that none of Israel’s neighbors will voluntarily accept the role of “dumping ground” it is one that has to be addressed. The second complicating factor in such a program relates to the Palestinian people themselves as they exist today.

Unlike the first ethnic cleansing of 1948 [13], the modern Palestinian people are not easily frightened fellahin under the mistaken impression that if they leave their homes they’ll be allowed to return later. Quite the contrary, if one lesson has been learned in the most brutal of fashions by the modern Palestinian people, it is that if they leave chances are very good that they will never be allowed to return and have nothing to look forward to beyond a future as a displaced – and largely unwanted – refugee. Perhaps one of the most graphic examples of this tenacity was the Palestinian refusal to flee during Israel’s 2002 “Operation Defensive Shield” that largely focused on attacking Palestinian refugee camps [14]. In part this was because they simply had no where to flee to, but in part it was also because of the certain knowledge that what little stability they have under Israeli military rule would be lost – possibly permanently – should they flee.

The point is that the relative ease of the 1948 ethnic cleansing whereby a series of massacres and psychological operations [15] effectively drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians away will not be repeated. Instead, any systematic ethnic cleansing campaign will require “hands on” removal, physically removing millions of Palestinians kicking and screaming and otherwise resisting every inch of the way. Beyond the inevitable international outrage – rendered largely impotent through U.S. protection – such a program would require a full Israeli national mobilization, which brings us to another significant obstacle.

In the absence of any significant international pressure, due largely to U.S. patronage, the role of internal Jewish dissent – both among Israelis and the larger Jewish community – plays a major role in curtailing Israeli excesses. This factor severely complicates the possibility of outright ethnic cleansing in three primary ways: a) such an effort would require a full national mobilization, which seems unlikely; b) it would require a massive support campaign abroad, which also appears unlikely; and c) it would have to be done in a way that would not discourage immigration or encourage emigration.

With respect to a full national mobilization among Israeli Jews, anyone familiar with Israeli politics and society in general is perfectly aware that Israelis rarely reach consensus on anything, much less something as dramatic and undeniably brutal as “transfer.” Even in the 2006 summer war that a majority of Israelis viewed as deliberately provoked by Hizb-ut-Allah and therefore fully justified, literally thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest Israel’s assault on Lebanon [16]. While polls do show that a significant number of Israeli Jews would support “voluntary transfer” [17], when one asks about “forced transfer” – i.e. the only realistic model for large-scale ethnic cleansing – less than half of Israelis support the idea [18]. While the fact that 46% would support “forced transfer” does not speak highly of Israeli society as a whole, it also significantly undermines the suggestion that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews could be rallied behind such a program.

With respect to the international Jewish community, such an Israeli effort would literally force people to choose between defending Israel in the face of utterly undeniable brutality on par with the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, or to renounce and denounce Israeli atrocities. Despite the enormous hypocrisy that comes into play when discussing Israel and Palestine, most Western Jews are fundamentally liberal in their general outlook and attitudes. The hypocrisy towards Israel and Palestinians is only possible because most Western Jews deliberately turn a blind eye to Israeli oppression and atrocity and myopically focus on the worse excesses of Palestinian reactions to their situation. However, in the modern information age, where photos, videos, and written/audio accounts of atrocity flash around the world within hours, this ability to ignore Israel’s behavior has been significantly undermined. In the face of the stream of reports and images of Israeli atrocity that would be the inevitable result of an ethnic cleansing campaign, it is highly unlikely that a majority of Western Jewry would be able to maintain their hypocritical stance. Jewish mobilizations against the summer war of 2006 in Europe and the United States, some of which were rather dramatic [19], substantiate this supposition.

Finally, there is the issue of immigration. Israel finds itself confronted with two fundamental dilemmas regarding the demographic requirements of maintaining the “Jewish State.” While it is beyond the scope of this essay to go into much detail on these dilemmas, they can be briefly summarized as follows:

a) In that most Israelis are well educated and welcome as immigrants in most of the Western world, Israel has to maintain a First World standard of living for its Jewish population in order to curb emigration [20]. However this results, as is the case in all First World countries, in a very low natural birth rate [21] thereby making increased immigration a demographic necessity.

b) The second dilemma is that a majority of ethnic Jews – Israelis and non-Israelis – living abroad reside in the United States and play a vital role in maintaining U.S. support for Israel; so on the one hand they desperately need these Jews to immigrate to Israel to offset the low birthrate while at the same time they need these Jews to stay in the United States to maintain the pro-Israel propaganda against the ever growing number of Americans – of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, including many Jews – that are speaking up against Israeli policies and even the ethnocentric ideology of Zionism itself.

Assuming a government came to power in Israel that would be willing to launch an ethnic cleansing campaign; there would be almost immediate demographic ramifications. Namely, those Israelis Jews radically opposed would probably leave Israel, thereby decreasing the Jewish population through emigration. At the same time, many of the Jews abroad would probably renounce whatever ostensible connection they have to Israel (as discussed above), thereby reducing the chances of any significant Jewish immigration to Israel in the future. When these demographic probabilities are coupled with the necessity of an expanded military occupation and an increased number of Arabs under Israeli rule as discussed previously, the net result of ethnic cleansing would more than likely result in an even quicker demographic decline than Israeli Jews are facing presently.

The above does not even take into account the possibility that the United States would find an ethnic cleansing campaign beyond the pale of acceptability or that the world community at large – and especially the European Union – would be outraged enough to take unilateral action outside of the U.N. framework and therefore bypass U.S. veto. Further, it does not take into account the internal economic ramifications that stem from forty years of Israeli economic exploitation of the Palestinian people [22].

When one looks at the threat of ethnic cleansing realistically, it becomes much less likely than the “conventional wisdom” tends to suggest. The advocates for such a program rarely go into the dynamics of how it could be done, apparently deluding themselves with the notion that the ethnic cleansing of 1948 can simply be repeated, which is most assuredly not the case. For those opposed to such a program, again we tend to afford the agenda more practicality than is really deserved. Of course “soft” or “creeping” transfer has been a de facto reality for the last twenty years, but plainly isn’t effective enough to satisfy the demands of maintaining the “Jewish State”, thus the only ethnic cleansing that could possibly satisfy the Israeli Right is dramatic and forced. However, as hopefully this article has illustrated, as a practical matter it is extremely unlikely that ethnic cleansing presents viable option despite the rhetoric.

Notes:

*John Sigler is a writer and activist based in Denver, Colorado, and active with both the Colorado Palestine Solidarity Campaign (http://colorado-palestine.blogspot.com/) and the Jewish Friends of Palestine initiative (http://www.jewishfriendspalestine.org/).

[1] Michael Brown, Ali Abunimah, and Nigel Parry, “Palestinian population exceeds Jewish population says U.S. government,” Electronic Intifada, 1 March 2005, http://electronicintifada.net/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi/11/3649

[2] Sylvie Lanteaume, “Israel announces settlement expansion as Rice meets Olmert,” Middle East Online, 15 January 2007, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=19169

[3] Hillel Fendel, “Israel Again Impatient to Make Peace - Even Without Partner,” Arutz Sheva, 21 January 2007, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/news.php3?id=119925

[4] Virginia Tilley, “The One-State Solution: A breakthrough for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock,” (University if Michigan Press, 2005), http://www.amazon.com/One-State-Solution-Breakthrough-Israeli-Palestinian-Deadlock/dp/0472115138

[5] Ali Abunimah, “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse” (Metropolitan Books, 2006) http://www.amazon.com/One-Country-Proposal-Israeli-Palestinian-Impasse/dp/0805080341/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_b/102-0236011-8285713

[6] Hillel Fendel, “Strategic-Threats Minister: Arabs Don´t Object to Trading Areas,” Arutz Sheva, 12 January 2007, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/news.php3?id=119323

[7] Boris Shusteff, “Transfer Means Peace,” Gamla Online, 18 November 2003, http://www.gamla.org.il/english/article/2003/nov/b1.htm

[8] For example: Jerry Levin, “’Creeping Transfer’ Continues,” Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, February 1990, http://www.washington-report.org/backissues/0290/9002045.htm

[9] Yitzhak Benhorin, “Neocons: We expected Israel to attack Syria,” YNet News, 16 December 2006, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3340750,00.html

[10] Federation of American Scientists “Syria - Special Weapons”, 12 May 2000, http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/syria/index.html

[11] David Eshel, “Syrian Ballistic Missile Arsenal,” Defense Update, 16 April 2003, http://www.defense-update.com/2003/04/syrian-ballistic-missile-arsenal.html

[12] Amy Goodman, “Israel Bombs Syria for the First Time in 30 Years in Major Escalation of Conflict,” Democracy Now, 6 October 2003, http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=03/10/06/1552204

[13] For more: Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre Foundation, Al Nakba Website, http://www.alnakba.org/

[14] For a series of articles and reports on “Operation Defensive Shield” see: “’Operation Defensive Shield’ (March/April 2002),” Electronic Intifada, http://electronicintifada.net/bytopic/200.shtml

[15] Benny Morris, “The Causes and Character of the Arab Exodus from Palestine: The Israel Defence Forces Intelligence Branch Analysis of June 1948,” Middle Eastern Studies. Vol. 22, 1986

[16] Attila Somfalvi, “Tel Aviv: Thousands rally against war,” YNet News, 22 July 2006, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3279792,00.html

[17] Robert Blecher, “Living on the Edge: The Threat of "Transfer" in Israel and Palestine,” Middle East Report, 225 - Winter 2002, http://www.merip.org/mer/mer225/225_blecher.html

[18] Helena Cobban, “Fenced In,” Boston Review, Summer 2002, http://bostonreview.net/BR27.3/cobban.html

[19] See, for example, the “Jewish Conscience” blog at http://jewishconscience.blogspot.com/

[20] This is an effort that has been failing significantly in that roughly 760,000 Israelis are in fact already resident abroad. See, Gideon Alon, “760,000 Israelis have left the Promised Land,” Ha’aretz, 19 November 2003

[21] Phillip Longman, THE EMPTY CRADLE: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What to Do About It, (Basic Books, 2004), http://www.amazon.com/EMPTY-CRADLE-Birthrates-Threaten-Prosperity/dp/0465050506

[22] Editorial, “The Bluff of Economic Separation,” Challenge, no.58, http://www.challenge-mag.com/58/edit.htm


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