Sign #1: 7 Reasons Why Ethnic Cleansing Is No Longer a Viable Option for Israel


This is the first of my nine Signs of Hope. You can read an introduction to this series here.

Since the beginning of the Zionist project, the idea of ethnically cleansing Palestine of its non-Jewish inhabitants was a desired outcome for enabling the Jewish state to exist and thrive. Desiring to make a democratic state conflicted with giving equal rights to the indigenous people who were, and possibly could become again, a numerical majority. Wishful slogans like “a land without a people for a people without a land” mixed with fanciful plans to “spirit away” the local population and find them a home elsewhere. Consistent with this mindset was an insistence on denying that Palestinians constituted a distinct entity (as opposed to “Arabs”) and the continued reluctance to countenance a Palestinian state anywhere in Eretz Yisrael.

In 1948, ethnic cleansing was indeed practiced on a major scale as the majority of Arabs in Palestine (around 750,000) were expelled to the surrounding areas[1]. Revisionist Israeli historians, including Benny Morris and Illan Pape, have brought to light many archived documents that show this displacement was a deliberate strategy of the early Zionists.[2] They prove that a group of their leaders, including Ben-Gurion, created Plan Dalet to militarily achieve that objective and “sweep away” as many of the Arabs as they could during the fighting.[3] Once their eviction was accomplished, the borders were sealed and the refugee population was prevented from returning. Repeated United Nations calls for the return of the refugees to their homes (starting with Resolution 194) were routinely ignored. Arab villages were then destroyed to prevent any hope of return for these Palestinians. To this day, calling for a Palestinian right of return is viewed as a call for the destruction of the state of Israel, as the demographic balance would tilt against a Jewish majority.

In 1967, at the age of 15 I personally witnessed this cruel outcome of the Zionist agenda. During the first days of the Six Day War, as the victorious Israeli army rolled into the West Bank I witnessed a long stream of Palestinians making their way on foot out of Bethlehem, through the Judean desert, towards Jericho and the Jordan River. They hoped to cross over before the Israeli forces captured the town. I also saw them thankfully make their way back to their homes in Bethlehem as Jericho fell to Israeli forces, thus blocking their “escape route.” Others were not so fortunate, and two to three hundred thousand Palestinians, some of them refugees for the second time, made it across the river. [4] They became Naziheen (displaced), as Israel promptly sealed the border at the Jordan River and prevented their return to the West Bank.

Soon after the war ended, some, including my own mother, were lured into making a trip to visit their relatives in Jordan with a promise they could return in ten days. They were not allowed back and were shot at or turned away when they tried to cross into the West Bank at shallow crossing points near Jenin. My mother miraculously managed to cross back since she and a friend, burdened with my infant sister, had been separated from a larger group who were caught and denied entry. Palestinians in Gaza, then as now, had nowhere to run to other than the forbidding Sinai desert, and no significant exodus occurred there.

Those who managed to stay once the confusion had settled were issued residency cards by the Israeli military authorities after a census was taken and became acknowledged as “legal” residents of the occupied West bank and Gaza. Their residency cards (Hawiyyeh) became their most valuable possession, and attempts to maintain that residency status or acquire it for family members became a constant struggle for each of them. Such struggles were a daily reminder of the demographic imperative of the Zionist project that wanted the land but not the people of Palestine. Those who left for lengthy periods of time or married non-residents were in danger of losing their status. Others were threatened from time to time with revocation of their status and deportation. This also held true for East Jerusalem residents, though not for Israeli citizens.

As the struggle between Palestinian nationalism and Zionist ambitions continues to fester, and the prospect of a peaceful resolution along the lines of a two-state solution continues to disappear, voices for mass expulsion of Arabs continue to be heard, especially in right wing circles. When Israelis talk of Jordan as being the real “state of Palestine,” Palestinians—reminiscent of a not-too-distant past—are terrified by the possibility of another mass expulsion. The fear is that in the heat of a major military conflagration, whether real or deliberately manufactured, atrocities would be committed and Israel would create a panic. In so doing, they would seize the opportunity to rid themselves of large numbers of Palestinian Arabs, particularly from the West Bank, thereby improving their demographic position.

Such fears arose during the Second Intifada. At one point, Palestinians felt there was a danger of massacres by settlers or the army, and many of them wanted to flee. However, when they did flee from the Jenin refugee camp and surrounding villages, they went towards Nablus and the city centers rather than towards the Jordan Valley and the borders with Jordan; therefore, no mass exodus resulted.

As Israel becomes more and more right wing, and as those publicly advocating expulsion of Palestinians have ceased to be a fringe ideological minority and instead are taking important positions in the government, it is perhaps legitimate to revisit this question: Could the fear of another ethnic cleansing in fact be realized?

While there is no doubt in my mind that there are those in Israel—including in positions of power and authority—who would love to be rid of substantial numbers of non-Jews from the occupied territories, I do not believe such a resolution is possible any more. The reasons are as follows:

1. Mass expulsion—occurring during periods of military strife, confusion, and panic—drives civilians away from the impacted areas; civilians, however, always run away from an advancing military threat but never towards well-fortified, mined, and guarded borders. The Jordan Valley has been for years a well-guarded boundary between Jordan and Israel and is bounded by electric fences, minefields, and vigilant forces on both sides of the border. It has also been largely restricted and inaccessible to the majority of West Bank Palestinians. No panicked, or “voluntary,” mass exodus across the Jordan River—or any Israeli border for that matter—can be manufactured under these circumstances, no matter what the provocation.

2. Even if we supposed a deliberate mass expulsion at gunpoint were to happen, the logistical requirements would be too great. If the Israeli army provided trucks and buses, rounded up civilians, and sent them forcefully to border points, such an operation would take weeks and months to implement for any substantial number of expellees. Expelling a mere fifty or one hundred thousand civilians in this fashion would require massive logistical effort. It could not be easily conducted in the face of the expected international outcry, and even if it were a success, it would not significantly alter the demographic picture in any strategic way. Numbers beyond those figures are unimaginable.

3. The presence of the internet, satellite television, and mass communications would make this sort of forced exodus immediately known throughout the world and would lead to such an outcry that it could not be sustained for very long. No matter what unrest or military event is taking place, the exodus itself would become the major story and would be impossible to sustain. No matter what the provocation, Israel would have no more than 24-48 hours to complete any such operation, and as stated in point 2, it is impossible for significant numbers of people to be deported in this manner.

4. Jordan, the potential recipient country, would be vehemently opposed to such an operation, and would both place physical obstacles to its implementation and lead international efforts to block it.

5. The current residents of the West Bank all hold Israeli-issued identity cards which distinguish them from “Palestinians refugees” and give them legal and political status in demanding immediate repatriation, both under Israeli and international law.

6. Israel can do much to surround, corral, and restrict Palestinians within the occupied territories, but to force them across international borders out of its area of control is an entirely different proposition. No country, including the United States, would tolerate it. If such an event were to occur, the US would be hard pressed to veto a unanimous binding resolution at the Security Council under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. The last time Israel attempted a deportation (of about 450 Hamas operatives who were airlifted by army helicopters to Marj El Zuhour in Lebanon), the international outcry forced Israel to permit them to return.

7. Such a mass exodus, were it to occur, would only reignite the issue of the right of return for all Palestinians, including those expelled or who fled in 1948 or 1967. It would also throw into question the Israeli Hasbara line about Palestinians being responsible for their own exile in 1948.

In summary, it appears that despite the tremendous power imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians and the apparent impunity with which Israel is seen to act, at least that one option (mass expulsion), however desirable it may be from an ideological point of view, is off the table and could never be implemented. As a result, other solutions must be sought. Or to put it another way: Israelis and Palestinians, whether they like it or not, must find a way to live together in this land. Glum as the prospects for peaceful coexistence in Israel/Palestine may seem at this time, this at least is a certainty and a sign for Hope.



[1] This figure is consistent with the writings of historians, and with primary sources such as the Final Report of the United Nations Economic Survey Mission for the Middle East published by the United Nations Conciliation Commission, December 28, 1949.

[2] See Ilan Pappé’s 2006 book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Oneworld Oxford; or 1948: A History of the First Arab–Israeli War, by Benny Morris, published by Yale University Press in 2008.

[3] According to Illan Pappe, Plan Dalet was a “blueprint for ethnic cleansing” (Pappé, 2006, pp. 86–126, xii).

[4] P.81 – Bowker, Robert P. G. (2003). Palestinian Refugees: Mythology, Identity, and the Search for Peace. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

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