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Making Things Worse

December 30, 1987

The mass arrests, the wholesale trials and the threat of a new wave of deportations of Arabs from the territories occupied by Israel are stirring deep anxiety among the friends of Israel.

Israeli leaders are depicted as resentful of criticism. "The state of Israel knows how to defend its peace and security," Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Tuesday, rejecting official U.S. criticism and adding that "we will behave according to our own understanding." The trouble with this is that Israel has not demonstrated an infallible knowledge of how to defend itself, and its own "understanding" of events has led it into detours from the path to a negotiated peace in the region.

The death of more than 20 unarmed Arabs, shot by Israeli troops using live ammunition to quell the recent riots, measures the excesses of the occupation--now acknowledged by the military decision to begin riot-control training for the army. The military court trials now under way are also troubling--and, even more, the threat of deportations. That raises questions of human rights and international law.

From the practical standpoint, to what nation are the deported Arabs to be sent? The peopleof Gaza have been stateless since the Egyptian administration of the territory was ended 20 years ago. Those on the West Bank are nominally citizens of Jordan, but Israel itself denies the legitimacy of Jordanian sovereignty of that land. Neither Jordan nor Egypt will accept them. And to send them to south Lebanon would only undermine Israeli efforts to pacify and neutralize that troubled area.

Beyond those practical questions, there is an issue of international law. Israel claims legal authority to deport Arabs under rules of the British mandate that applied before Israeli nationhood was decreed by the United Nations 40 years ago. It seems to us that the United States is right in arguing that what really applies is the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and its explicit prohibition of the deportation "for any reason whatsoever" of civilians from territory under military occupation. Israel disputes the applicability of the convention to these Arab lands while applying selectively some elements of the convention. Israel's own supreme court, which decides disputed deportation orders, has sustained that authority. But few others share that view.

Nearly 1,000 Arabs have been deported from their own lands in the years of the occupation. That may have bought a restoration of order in the short term. But it has not contributed to the process of peace in the long term. Nor will it if it is repeated now.

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