NEWS

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January 10, 2003

American profs take stand in West Bank

An open letter demanding vigilance in ensuring that Israel does not forcibly expel Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza has drawn the endorsement of nearly a thousand American academics, including eight at the University of Chicago.

The letter, adopted from one circulated by Israeli academics, cites Israeli politicians who publicly support removing Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and relocating them into neighboring Arab countries. The "fog of war [with Iraq] could be exploited by the Israeli government to commit further crimes against the Palestinian people, up to full-fledged ethnic cleansing," the letter reads.

The letter began circulating in America last fall when a group of American professors, experts on the Middle East, came across an Israeli letter calling on the international community to pay close attention to Israel during the unfolding of the Iraq situation.

Now it contains 981 signatures from academics across America in fields as varied as Japanese culture and mathematics.

"The precedent is there [to forcibly expel Palestinians], and it behooves us to make sure it does not happen again," said John Mearsheimer, co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University and one of the letter's signatories.

Mearsheimer endorsed the letter because he sees significant evidence that Israel might use force to expel the three million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and perhaps also the 1.2 million Palestinians living inside the borders of pre-1967 Israel. Mearsheimer cites as evidence a March 2002 poll conducted by Tel Aviv University which found that 46 percent of Israel's Jews favored expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank while 31 percent supported expulsion of the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens.

Another concern of Mearsheimer's is that forcible expulsion of Palestinians by Israel will have negative repercussions for America.: "Because Israel and the United States are very close allies, expulsion would significantly increase hostility towards America in the Muslim world, which, in turn, would make terrorism an even greater threat to the United States," he said.

The letter has garnered such a strong backing because of the moral imperative to oppose what Israel may do to the Palestinians, according to Alison Weir, director of If Americans Knew, an alternative media outlet which is now handling the letter. She said that the need to monitor Israel's actions is red-flagged by increased discussion of Palestinian expulsion in the Israeli media.

"Everyone is hoping these indications are wrong," Weir said. "But the moral position is that we present it. The idea is to make it an unfulfilled prophesy."

In discussing the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, Weir drew a comparison to the political climate in Germany directly before the rise of Nazism: "I've spoken with many survivors of 1930's Europe; before it happened, very few of them believed what horribly came to pass would be so extreme. You just don't know in a situation like this."

David Roet, Deputy Consul General of Israel to the Midwest, called the letter an unsubstantiated attack on Israel.

"Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the leaders of the Israeli government have repeatedly declared that they have absolutely no intention of transferring Palestinians from the disputed territories," Roet said. "This petition is a political ploy organized by people who wish to attack Israel. The organizers are attempting to deceive the public into thinking that Israel intends to do something that is not even up for discussion."

Weir could not confirm whether the letter's organizers had directly contacted Israel before they began to circulate the letter.

The letter's assertion that Israel may be considering expelling Palestinians rests on its observation that "the ruling coalition includes parties that promote 'transfer' of the Palestinian people," and also its citation of two proponents of "transfer" recently quoted in the news, both of whom lead parties that have openly rejected peace negotiations.

While a representative from the Israeli consulate's office in Chicago said support for forcible expulsion lies only in the extreme right parties and therefore does not constitute a viable force for passing legislation, Weir said the violence of the last two years has recentered the political spectrum, transforming the topic of expulsion from extreme to acceptable.

"It has become not so fringe," she said. "It has become a topic for political debate."

Mearsheimer expressed the same message, saying Palestinian suicide bombings are pushing Israel to contemplate forcible expulsion, and acting on this sentiment would be a grave blunder. "Many Israelis believe that they would not have a terrorism problem if there were no Palestinians in Israel. 'Transfer equals Security and Peace' and 'No Arabs, No Attacks' say the posters," he says.

"Israel is likely to become another South Africa if this policy continues. Not surprisingly, expulsion of the Palestinians is often discussed as a solution to this conflict between democracy and demography."