Yitzhak Rabin’s offer to allow 100 deported Palestinians to return from their freezing camp in Lebanon was the result of pressure, not just from the Clinton administration, but from within his own cabinet. With hindsight, dovish ministers in the Labour-led coalition regarded the deportation of more than 400 Hamas supporters as an incredible blunder. A poll conducted by Israeli television last week showed that a majority of ministers would support the return of the deportees. Prime Minister Rabin, who clearly believed the dramatic expulsions would improve his flagging standing in the opinion polls, has managed instead to boost the popularity of the fundamentalists among Palestinians.
Ministers who, in opposition, had always opposed deportations as contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention, inexplicably supported the action. One explanation is that they did not realise the scale of the operation. They may have thought it would help the PLO in its struggle against the fundamentalists. But the most plausible explanation is that it was part of a deal with Rabin to repeal the law that made it a criminal offence for Israeli citizens to have “contact” with the PLO.
The deportations have also rejuvenated the Israeli peace camp. The left-wing coalition parties Mapam and Ratz opposed their ministers’ support for the deportations, while Peace Now held a torchlit protest march.
As for the marginalised PLO leader Yasser Arafat, the deportations gave him an opportunity to seize the initiative from the Palestinian delegation at the peace talks by swinging the PLO behind the deportees. It also allowed him to prevent popular support from coalescing around a hardline “Coalition of Ten” rejectionist organisations, including Hamas, which met in Damascus last autumn to condemn the peace talks, and pledged to continue the armed struggle.
Hamas has opposed Palestinian secularism in the occupied territories. It has set fire to buses that do not segregate the sexes, and attacked women who fail to cover their faces. The Israeli left-wing daily Al Hamishmar recently reported a meeting in London at which Israelis, Palestinians, with representatives of some Arab states and the United States, allegedly discussed the problems of Islamic militancy. Arafat was said to be strongly opposed to this dialogue.
The Supreme Court ruling that individuals could appeal against expulsion gave ministers a lever to use against Rabin. Whether or not any deportees accept his offer, the affair may in fact move him a step nearer to negotiations with the PLO—if only because Arafat could come to seem the lesser of two evils.
New Statesman 5 February 1993