NEW YORK — A war against Iraq could have devastating consequences not only for the Iraqi people but for the course of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as well. A statement by 187 Israeli academics — later joined by several hundred from overseas — calls attention to the possible “transfer” of Palestinian civilians once war with Iraq erupts. In the context of the Middle East, “transfer” is the euphemism for the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories to other countries. Unless the Western democracies make Israel understand that this is unacceptable behavior under any circumstance, the possibility exists the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF, will perpetrate a new war crime.

According to international law, expulsions are illegal and constitute a serious breach of article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In their statement, the Israeli academics warn, “We are deeply worried by indications that the ‘fog of war’ could be exploited by the Israeli government to commit further crimes against the Palestinian people, up to full-fledged ethnic cleansing.”

In a recent interview with the Ha’aretz newspaper, Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon described the Palestinians as a “cancerous manifestation.” Ya’alon, who calls himself “a humanist, a liberal, a democrat and a seeker of peace and security,” equated military actions in the Occupied Territories with “chemotherapy,” and suggested that a more radical treatment could be necessary. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon backed Ya’alon’s “assessment of reality.”

The rationale for the idea of “transfer” is that there cannot be a viable Jewish state in all or part of Palestine unless there is a massive displacement of its Arab inhabitants, who are considered a potential enemy in their midst.

In 1989, Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told students at Bar-Ilan University, “Israel should have exploited the repression of the demonstrations in China, when world attention focused on that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the territories.”

Recently, in an interview published in Israeli newspapers, Shmuel Eliahu, the chief rabbi of Safad and son of Israel’s former chief Sephardi rabbi, Mordechai Eliahu, called for the transfer to “Jordan, the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union or Canada, of those Arabs unwilling to accept Israel as a Jewish state.”

And Eitan Ben Eliahu, the former air force commander, stated that “eventually we will have to thin out the number of Palestinians living in the territories.”

According to Uri Avnery, a former member of the Knesset and head of Gush Shalom, one of the most vocal Israeli peace groups, the organization has a copy of decree 61/02/T, signed by Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, commander of the IDF in the “Judea and Samaria” area. The decree orders the expropriation of 61 parcels of land and states: “I declare that these lands will be taken over for military needs. I hereby order the demolition of the buildings for military needs.”

Avnery believes that the purpose of the decree is to create a “territorial contiguity” between the settlers in Kiryat-Arba and those in the center of Hebron. However, in the absence of an urgent military need this act could be considered a war crime under international law. Avnery warns that Sharon is putting pressure on the United States to attack Iraq so as to take advantage of the chaos that will follow “to carry out his old plan to expel the Palestinians from the whole country.”

One cannot but ponder the terrible consequences for the Palestinians and for peace in the region if — as opinion polls indicate — Sharon is re-elected prime minister later this month. Between the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and again in 1967, more than a million Palestinians were forced from their homes.

To think of adding millions more to those displaced shows not only a lack of morals but also the possibility that the attitudes that led to the Holocaust could be repeated on another people.

It says a lot about Israeli democracy that it allows the voice of Israeli academics to be heard. That voice of alarm, however, should be joined by that of Jews everywhere who want a just and lasting peace with the Palestinians.

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