JERUSALEM (Dec. 22)
Israel has dug in its heels against the return of 415 Moslem fundamentalists it expelled from the administered territories last week, insisting that the peace process will continue despite international condemnation of the unprecedented move.
In a demonstration of that resolve, Israel on Tuesday boosted its forces along the edge of the no-man’s land in southern Lebanon where the deportees are encamped.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s tough stance received a strong boost of support Tuesday from the High Court of Justice, which refused to order the government to backtrack on the expulsions. In a unanimous decision, the court said the Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists expelled by Israel at the end of last week were now under Lebanese sovereignty and control.
The ruling came after the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, told the court the men were physically safe in their present location between Israeli and Lebanese army checkpoints in southern Lebanon.
Barak told the bench it was “impossible anyone could have been hurt” Monday when troops of the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army began shelling several hundred yards away from the deportees as they walked toward an Israeli checkpoint, attempting to cross into the Israeli-controlled security zone.
They took the walk at the instruction of the Lebanese authorities, who have also banned relief agencies from providing them with aid.
News reports said four of the deportees were injured by shrapnel as they headed for the security zone in the range of television cameras.
Prime Minister Rabin told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that had personally approved the shelling to frighten the men and make them move back. Rabin, who also holds the defense portfolio, said no one’s life had been endangered.
Nevertheless, the IDF on Tuesday sent in five tanks and an armored personnel carrier to replace SLA forces at the line. Israeli forces were also equipped with anti-riot gear, including clubs, tear gas and smoke bombs.
In his remarks to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Rabin said the crisis over the deportees should not prevent the resumption of peace negotiations after Bill Clinton’s inauguration as U.S. president on Jan. 20.
He said Arab delegates to the talks have privately said as much but feel they must at this time join in condemnation of the deportations.
Rabin dismissed as “nonsense” a suggestion by Knesset member Ariel Sharon of the opposition Likud bloc that the Moslem activists should have been sent into Jordan, rather than across the Lebanese border. He said Jordan is itself engaged in a difficult war against the Hamas movement.
The United Nations, meanwhile, plans to send an envoy to Israel to help “find a solution” to the deportation crisis.
U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali phoned Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Tuesday to inform him of the impending arrival of U.N. Under Secretary-General James Jonah.
Boutros-Ghali was acting on a request made in a Security Council resolution adopted last Friday night that condemned Israel for the expulsions.
Rival Palestinian groups are following up on their joint condemnation of the expulsions by going ahead with a planned summit in Tunis. The secular Palestine Liberation Organization and the fundamentalist Hamas said they will coordinate future measures.
In Amman, Jordan, Hamas leaders said they hoped that, together with PLO leader Yasir Arafat, they would bury the peace talks” and escalate the intifada.
Until now, the PLO has supported the peace talks, though it has called for a suspension of Palestinian participation until the deportees are returned.
The deportees have also received support from some of Israel’s 750,000 Arab citizens.
But a one-day general strike called Tuesday to protest the expulsion received far less than total support. Municipal services and schools were closed, but several thousand workers showed up at their jobs in the Haifa Bay area.
In the Gaza Strip, Israel partially lifted a curfew Tuesday, but only about 2,000 workers crossed into Israel proper. Tension remained high in Gaza, where six Palestinians were killed in weekend riots after the ambush killing of Israeli soldiers by Hamas fundamentalists last week.
The crisis over the deportees has soured relations between Israel’s governing coalition and its tacit Arab allies in the Knesset. The three members of the Hadash Communist party have informed Labor they will vote against the government in next week’s budget debate.
Labor Party Secretary Nissim Zvilli has asked them to reconsider, promising decisions over the next few days that will “reaffirm the determination of the Rabin government to press on with the peace process.”
Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers of the left-wing Meretz bloc are trying to shore up their position with a party rank and file unhappy over their decision to support the deportations.
Yossi Sarid, chairman of the Meretz parliamentary caucus, said support for the expulsions was meant to be balanced out by inauguration of direct talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Failure to do so might mean collapse of the peace talks, Sarid said Tuesday at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
In their efforts to accommodate sentiment within their party, Meretz leaders also came out with a new initiative this week designed to improve the quality of life in the administered territories.
Prime Minister Rabin promised to review their proposals to release Palestinian prisoners who no longer pose a security risk and to further relax regulations governing reunion of families.
Within the Labor Party itself, concern ebbed Tuesday that Foreign Minister Peres might distance himself from the expulsions, which were approved by the Cabinet while he was away on a visit to Japan.
Their concern followed Peres’ statement that the decision had been made in his absence and it was too late to change it. A spokesman later said the remarks were not intended as criticism.
Indeed, Peres told visiting Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes that the action was targeted not only at past actions of the deportees but at what they had planned to do.
He cited plans by the Islamic Jihad to assassinate Palestinian moderate Faisal Husseini and to kill pupils at a Jerusalem yeshiva.
In New York, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a strong statement Monday assailing the hypocrisy of the “international outcry against Israel’s action.”
“In excluding the leaders of Hamas from its midst, Israel has acted to protect itself against a ruthless and extremist cult sworn to destroy it. In doing so, it has served the cause of peace and stability in the Middle East,” the umbrella group said.