“Understandable” Expulsions

by Nabeel Abraham
Lies of Our Times
January-February 1993
pp. 3 – 5.

When Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin ordered the expulsion of 415 Palestinians to southern Lebanon in mid-December, he undoubtedly expected it would go the way of all previous expulsions – the deportees would fall into a political black hole never to be heard from again.

Instead of oblivion, the Palestinians turned their plight into a replay of the Palestinian tragedy in miniature, all under the gaze of the international news media.

How did the mass expulsion play in America’s pre-eminent paper? News coverage was surprisingly robust, considering that it placed the Palestinians in a favorable light. The New York Times published 28 news stories in the 27-day period between December 18 and January 13, many filed by Jerusalem bureau chief Clyde Haberman. Editorial comment, however, was vintage Times (see below).

In general, the news stories were largely devoid of the over pro-Israeli slant longtime readers have come to associate with Haberman’s immediate predecessors – Joel Brinkley and Thomas L. Friedman. But the stories suffered, nevertheless, from a recurring flaw-they relied heavily on official government sources. Although Haberman allowed that “nearly all those deported are theoreticians, fund-raisers and heads of Islamic institutions, not gunmen,” he and other Times reporters parroted the official Israeli line that the deportees were “militant Islamic fundamentalists” (December 18, 1992, p. A1).

Precious little about the deportees – their names, backgrounds, and why and how they were rounded up – ever made it onto the pages of the Times . This void lent credence to Israel’s claim that the expulsions were “a necessary blow against Islamic fundamentalists.”

In contrast, the Israeli Hebrew-language press published some revealing insights about the exiles that undermined the official line. For example, the entire academic staff of the Islamic University of Gaza was deported, resulting in the closure of the university (Israel Shahak, Report No. 115, December 23; c/o Middle East Data Center, 15108 Alaska Road, Woodbridge, VA 22191). Several deportees were chronically ill; some were even “fetched from hospital beds.” None of the sick men were “provided with medical treatment en route to Lebanon,” nor were they allowed to take any medicines with them, further indication of the vindictive nature of the action.

Christian “Islamic Fundamentalists”

The selection of the deportees was “completely haphazard and arbitrary,” Shahak found. Apparently, anyone sporting a beard, a symbol favored by many Islamic fundamentalists, was in danger of being deported. Israeli journalist Yoram Binur reported that a certain bearded Armenian was nearly deported until he managed to convince the Shin Bet, the Israel secret police, that he was an Armenian, and therefore by definition a Christian (Hadashot, December 21).

A Palestinian friend who recently returned from the West Bank reports that it is common knowledge there that a number of Palestinian Christians were among the 415 deported “Muslim extremists.” Just how many, no one is sure, but the error is so colossal as to completely undermine the Israeli claim that the deportations were “necessary to strike hard, especially against the militant fundamentalist group Hamas” (Haberman, December 18). At last count, the Rabin government admitted to having expelled 15 Palestinians “by mistake.” Aside from brief mention that a 16-year-old boy was deported in error, the Times has yet to identify or otherwise provide any background about these individuals or the boy. Might the 15 be bearded Christians mistaken for Muslim fundamentalists? If the Times knows, it isn’t saying.

Of the 28 news stories the Times published in the period under review, only one is based on a visit to the exiles’ camp in southern Lebanon (Ali Jaber, “Ousted Arabs Shiver and Wait in Lebanese Limbo,” December 24, p. A3). Jaber took it for granted that the exiles were “Islamic fundamentalists,” without bothering to attribute the claim to Israeli sources. He did, however, mention in passing that there are “four deported doctors” in the camp, along with a pharmacist, but made little effort to learn anything else about them or the others.

Curiously, the Times also ran two stories from Ramallah and Bethlehem, two West Bank towns with substantial Christian populations. Surely someone must have brought up the embarrassing news that some Christians were among the “hundreds of reputed leaders of Hamas and the Islamic Holy War” organizations deported to Lebanon (Joel Greenberg, “Oustings by Israel Raise Arab Militants’ Esteem,” December 20, p. A14). Greenberg visited Ramallah, where apparently the only disquieting news he heard as far as Palestinian Christians were concerned was a declaration by a “young man” who, volunteering his feelings about Hamas, said: “I’m Christian but I feel sympathy for them.”

On Christmas Eve, Clyde Haberman visited the little town of Bethlehem, where Christians constitute 40 percent of the population. Haberman found that the town’s Christians were as outraged as its Muslims by the mass expulsions. The reason was simple enough: “Twenty-five of their own townsmen were among the 415 exiles,” Haberman noted (December 25, p. A14).

Haberman didn’t say whether any Christians were among Bethlehem’s 25 deportees, or whether he even looked into the possibility. Doing so might have raised some inopportune questions about Israel’s official claim of striking only at Muslim extremists. Because all Palestinians – Muslims as well as Christians – fear mass deportation more than virtually any other Israeli measure, the probable intent behind the recent expulsions was to cow the entire population by rising the specter of further mass expulsions should armed resistance to the occupation continue.

Editorial Bias

The shortcomings in news coverage of the expulsions paled next to Times editorial commentary. Mercifully, commentary was limited to one editorial and a couple of opinion pieces. In a remarkable demonstration of the confluence of elite opinion, Times commentary coincided with the official pronouncements of both the outgoing Bush and the incoming Clinton administrations. To wit: “Mr. Rabin’s mass deportations of Palestinians, though understandable in the face of outrage in Israel, will only inflame the confrontation” and hurt the peace process (editorial, “Don’t Orphan the Peace Process,” December 18; emphasis added).

“Political Survival,” explained Anthony Lewis, “is the reason” why the deportations are “understandable.” He elaborated: “The Hamas killings had terrified and outraged Israelis The government understandably felt it had to do something” (December 21, p. A17). In other words, Rabin’s government was so embarrassed by the attacks on its armed forces that -- for reasons of political expediency – it felt compelled to punish the Palestinians under its rule without any regard for elementary justice or international law.

Lewis, it should be recalled, fancies himself a civil libertarian. Imagine his reaction if someone of his stature declared that the Turkish government’s recent bloody repression of Kurdish rebels was “understandable” on grounds of political expediency. Or, a more analogous example, if someone found the expulsion by the Indonesian army of 400 East Timorese, picked largely at random, “understandable” because deportation “was better than possible alternatives, such as relaxing the rules on when soldiers patrolling in the occupied territories may fire” (Lewis).

The Horror of Hamas

In their zeal “to fight the horror of Hamas” (Lewis), Times editors broadened the definition of “terrorism,” normally limited to attacks against civilian targets, to include attacks against an occupying army. The editors: “The Arab-Israeli peace talks are imperiled by terrorist murders carried out in Israel by Islamic militants and by Israel’s retaliatory expulsion of some 400 Palestinians yesterday” (December 18; emphasis added). Similarly, Lewis referred to Hamas “terrorists” who “murdered four Israeli soldiers and a border policeman,” but he would never use similar language to describe Kurdish attacks on Iraqi forces (emphasis added).

In PC terminology, Palestinians are never murdered by Israeli troops; rather they are “shot,” “killed,” and “felled” by soldiers who by definition are only “defending” themselves (usually from unarmed demonstrators). Moreover, Israel does not engage in state terrorism because it is not designated a “terrorist state” by the U.S. State Department. The same terminology applies to victims in other U.S. client states – Turkish Kurds, East Timorese, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, etc.

Had Rabin deported 415 women and children to a Siberian-like exile, the task of blurring the gross immorality and illegality of his act might have been more difficult. But since he exiled mostly nameless and faceless “Islamic fundamentalists,” he could count on the “understanding” and cultural biases of his audience. The Times , for example liked to point out that Hamas “aimed to disrupt the Middle East peace negotiations” (Lewis), in contrast to Israel’s “new and pragmatic Prime Minister” who is “willing to make territorial concessions” (editorial, December 18).

Lost behind this legerdemain are two elementary points. First, whatever “crimes” Israel felt the Palestinians committed, expelling them from their native country – even temporarily – is indefensible under any internationally accepted moral or legal standards. Secondly, if Israel today faces an armed Islamic fundamentalist resistance in the Occupied Territories (and in southern Lebanon), it is only reaping a harvest sown by years of brutal repression.