Anyone staying long enough in the West Bank comes to realise that the apparatus of the Occupation (prevention of free movement, house demolitions, indefinite administrative detention – just to mention a few of its features) disrupts civilian life beyond any possible security concerns and has a further unstated, though clearly identifiable, goal. For the observer it is clear that the burdens of Occupation aim, among other goals, to make the life of Palestinians so miserable that they would find relocation a desirable option. This could very well be inspired in the approach put forward in very similar terms by the late Israeli general Rehavam Zeâ€™evi. This unofficial policy of the Occupation, that Zeâ€™evi cynically labelled â€œvoluntary transferâ€, has been used to achieve the overall aim of getting as much land as possible with as few Arabs as possible.
Today, after more than 40 years under Occupation, Palestinian towns and villages are still thriving in spite of economic collapse and the relentless expansion of the settlements. Although Palestinians by the thousands, especially many from the Christian community, reluctantly opted for the bitter path of exile, many more have stayed and their numbers keep growing due to the high birth rate. In the face of this state of affairs, Zeâ€™eviâ€™s â€œvoluntary transferâ€ has been proved a failure. The reasons for this failure are manifold (robust solidarity networks based on the extensive family, persistence of a peasant consciousness that emphasises the bond with the land, development of a culture of resistance and political awareness) but even if Palestinians did not care at all about their land, probably little would change. With the fourth generation of refugees filling the camps to bursting point and the neighbouring Arab regimes looking down on Palestinians with unwelcoming countenances, the fact is that for the masses in the West Bank and Gaza there is nowhere else to go.
In the wake of the failure of the policy of displacement, the subsidiary policy of separation that already was in place has been upgraded and expanded into the main guideline to deal with Palestinians. This represented a crucial shift in Israeli political history: the dream of Greater Israel has been abandoned (except for radical rightists on the fringes) and the new focus has turned towards keeping Israel plus the main settlement blocks as a Jewish state. The imperatives of Realpolitik have finally defeated the wild flights of ideology. No other figure epitomises this paradigm shift as well as Ariel Sharon. It was under his leadership that two major schemes in this new direction were carried out: the removal of settlements from Gaza and the onset of the building of the Wall.
The Wall has been the most iconic instrument for the enhanced policy of separation and domination that people like President Jimmy Carter, Special Rapporteur for the UN Commission on Human Rights John Dugard and Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu have likened to apartheid. As the Wall nears completion, there is mounting evidence that the Israeli government wants to declare it the final border of the state. The main obstacle to this happening is that the Wall does not run along international borders but incorporates the main settlement blocks. In order to make this acceptable to the Palestinian Authority and the international community, Israeli officials do not speak anymore about returning the whole of the West Bank but an area equivalent to 100% of the West Bank. In other words, a land-swap.
If land-swap is going to be on the table, as all the signs suggest it will be, one of the main questions coming from Annapolis is which lands on the Israeli side are going to be exchanged. It is interesting that although the land-swap option has been occasionally mentioned in the media, there is little or no discussion at all about which lands west of the Green Line are available for swapping. There is a lack of public debate on this issue but if there is a man in Israel passionately willing to jump into the gap it is Avigdor Lieberman. As the land-swap option gains momentum, Lieberman and his supporters can see a window of opportunity opening to get rid of a considerable portion of the Arab population living in Israel. Now they see a chance, albeit small, to turn a land-swap into a population-swap.
Although Yisrael Beiteinu grew in the 2006 elections from 3 to 11 Knesset members and Lieberman was later brought into the governing coalition, the party positions on the transfer of 1948 Palestinians living in the Triangle area to the Palestinian Authority are not backed by most Israelis. Still, if according to the Israeli standpoint land-swap is the way forward, the configuration of circumstances would provide a unique chance to make the transfer somehow acceptable to larger parts of the Israeli public. As has already been described, we must remember that there would be no need for a land-swap if it wasnâ€™t for the Wall, and there would be no need for the Wall if Israeli politicians from left and right were not committed first and foremost to keep Israel a Jewish state. If in the process of safeguarding Israel as a Jewish state it becomes necessary to strip away the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs, this would not go against the Jewishness of the state but powerfully boost it.
It is worth mentioning that the residents of the Triangle area have repeatedly voiced their opposition to the idea of moving the Israeli border to the west of their homes. One could argue that they show little allegiance to Palestinians on the other side, but after the fiasco of Oslo, who can blame them? Who can assure them that once they have been traded off to the Palestinian Authority, all the fancy schemes to make a Palestinian state bloom will not end in ashes and, sooner rather than later, they will find themselves living under Occupation, struggling against economic disaster and dispossessed of the most basic human rights? Besides, 60 years after the foundation of Israel the people in the Triangle have their family and social ties not in Jenin or Nablus, but in Nazaret, Haifa and Jaffa. In any case, no matter the reasons, the residents of the Triangle oppose any plans to be transferred. The will of his fellow citizens makes no difference to Lieberman. It is precisely in the undemocratic, intimidatory slant and the racist component of his party’s policy that anyone can recognize the ugly face of a poorly disguised form of ethnic-cleansing.
In the world according to Avigdor, support for Israeli membership in the EU (also a part of his party’s manifesto) is compatible with a policy for palatable ethnic cleansing. In the world according to Avigdor, Israel should not only be a Jewish state but a state for Jews only. In the narrow world of Avigdor, the land-swap coming out of Annapolis is the opportunity of a lifetime.
Oriol Poveda is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker.