“Why do you think that Sharon may exploit the American attack on Iraq in order to carry out transfer in the occupied territories?” a journalist asked me, after we published a warning to this effect in his paper. “Aren’t you crying wolf?”
I could have given him the list of quotations from members of the present government, who openly advocate the mass expulsion of Palestinians. I could have cited rumors. I could have told him that a creeping transfer is going on all the time, by making the life of the inhabitants intolerable through wholesale destruction of homes, closure, curfew and starvation. But I preferred to tell him about some occurrences to which I was an eye-witness in the past.
It happened in 1967, after the Israeli army had conquered the West Bank. Immediately afterwards the writer Amos Kenan, who was a soldier serving in the Latrun area, came to me. He put on my desk a report about what he had seen with his own eyes. (I was at the time a Member of the Knesset and the editor of Haolam Hazeh newsmagazine.)
In the shocking report Kenan described how the inhabitants of four villages in the Latrun area had been evicted from their homes. Men and women, children and old people, had been forced to walk, in the stifling heat of over 30 degrees Centigrade, towards Ramallah, a distance of 30 km. Immediately afterwards, the army had begun to destroy the houses.
I hastened there. The four villages é Imwas, Yalu, Bet-Nuba and Dir-Ayub é were already almost obliterated. I saw the bulldozers flattening the last houses. When I tried to take photos, the soldiers drove me away.
From there I went to the Knesset and begged senior officials to intervene. After they contacted whoever they contacted, they told me that it was too late. The demolition was finished.
Why these villages? Why in such a hurry? This area of the West Bank forms a bulge that dominates the old road from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, which had been cut off in 1948. The government was convinced that the world would force Israel to give back all the territories it had occupied, as happened in the previous war, 1957. They thought that if the four villages were erased without leaving a trace, Israel would be able to keep this area, at least.
No pressure on Israel materialized, of course, and Israel was left in possession of all the occupied territories until now. The refugees still linger in the camps of Ramallah. On their land the “Canada Park” was created, to the greater glory of that humanist and liberal country, which accepted the honor gratefully.
While the tractors worked in the Latrun area, something similar happened in Kalkilya. After the town was conquered, the army started to systematically dynamite a central neighborhood. The inhabitants were expelled and forced to walk to Nablus, some 25 km away. There they were lying around in public parks.
I received the information at an early stage. I drove there in order to make sure that it was true, and proceeded to the Knesset. I buttonholed several ministers, including Menahem Begin, who had just been appointed minister without portfolio, and Israel Barzilai, the Mapam minister of health. I found some officials who could transmit the information directly to the Prime Minister, Levy Eshkol.
I don’t know whether this helped. But the demolition stopped suddenly. The inhabitants were allowed to go home and the neighborhood rebuilt.
Why Kalkilya? Because of all the West Bank towns, it was the closest to Tel-Aviv. From a hill near the town, Jordanian field artillery had shelled the Tel-Aviv metropolitan area. Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defense, wanted to “straighten” the border.
Years later I heard that at the same time, in neighboring Tulkarm transfer had begun, too. Ra’anan Lurie, the renowned cartoonists, who at the time was an army officer, was present when the order was received to expel the inhabitants to Jordan. Far from being a leftist, he refused the order, which he considered manifestly illegal. In spite of that, buses were brought in and inhabitants were forced to mount. They were brought straight to the Jordan bridge and driven across. Lurie testified to this later on.
But by far the biggest expulsion in that war took place in Aqabat-Jabr and the other giant camps of the 1948 refugees near Jericho, the largest in the Middle East. They were completely emptied, to the last man and woman, and all the inhabitants expelled to nearby Jordan. In those camps were at least a hundred thousand refugees. When I visited them immediately after the war, they were ghost towns.
After the war, some of these refugees tried to sneak back by crossing the Jordan river by night. One day a soldier came to my office in an obvious state of shock and told me that all these refugees, when caught, were shot on the spot.
I asked him to sign an affidavit and sent it to the Chief-of-Staff, Yitzhaq Rabin. His aid answered in writing that the C-of-S has read the document. A day or two later, the slaughter stopped.
I had another devastating experience. After the visit of the refugee camps, I drove back on the steep road leading from Jericho to Jerusalem. In the sizzling heat of the Jordan Valley, approaching 40 degrees Centigrade, hundreds of dusty people dragged themselves along the road towards to Jerusalem. They had been induced to flee from Jerusalem and Bethlehem to Jordan by threats and rumors about atrocities, but before crossing into Jordan had been allowed to go back. Among them were women carrying on their heads heavy loads of clothes, blankets and utensils and dragging little children and old people walking with the help of sticks. Most of them were faint with fatigue and thirst. We did the little we could to bring them water. It was terrible.
According to various estimates, between 100 and 260 thousand Palestinians were expelled in this “little Nakba”. In Oslo it was agreed that a joint Israel-Palestinian-Egyptian-Jordanian committee would find ways to bring them back. It was never convened.
General Matti Peled once told me that before that war, when he was commander of the Jerusalem area, he one day encountered on his staff two officers who were unfamiliar to him. When he interrogated them, they disclosed that they belonged to a secret unit that was preparing mass expulsion for some future opportunity. Peled, of course, sent them packing.
In the 1957 war, no transfer was carried out, because the war was against Egypt only. During the 1973 war, no one had time to think about it. In Lebanon, Israel had no plans for annexation.
In no previous war did Israel have a government, whose ministers openly debated mass transfer. When a “separation fence” is being built that leaves several Palestinian villages isolated between it and Israel proper, Palestinians, of course, fear that they will be evicted. They also fear that adjacent towns and villages to the east of the wall will be emptied.
Can I tell them that their fears are unfounded?