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Siblings Set to Be Exiled to Gaza

Mideast: Palestinians accused of aiding their brother in terror act are to be deported under new Israeli ruling. Rights groups cry foul.

September 04, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Sometime today, Kifah and Intisar Ajouri are to be deposited on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip to begin a two-year exile in that Palestinian-ruled backwater miles from their home.

The brother and sister are the first Palestinians to be deported under a new Israeli Supreme Court ruling that allows the army to "relocate" relatives of militants from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.

In a unanimous decision by a panel expanded to include nine judges, the court, however, limited the army's power by saying there must be proof that the relatives acted as accomplices to the terrorist act and pose a potential security threat.

The decision carries enormous repercussions by enshrining the forced transfer of people not convicted of crimes and marks the first time in a decade that Israel will expel Palestinians as policy.

For the Ajouris, the court accepted the argument of the Israeli army and government that the two had assisted their brother Ali in orchestrating a suicide bombing in July. Kifah allegedly served as a lookout for Ali, while Intisar was accused of sewing the explosive belts used by suicide bombers. The Ajouris denied the charges.

A third Palestinian who also was part of the decision, Abed Nasser Assida, will not be banished because the state failed to establish his connection to his brother's alleged terrorist operations, the court said.

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, seeking ways to crush a nearly 2-year-old Palestinian uprising, had in recent weeks reinstituted the demolition of Palestinian homes and added the threat of deportations to its arsenal. The measures are designed to dissuade other Palestinians from attacking Israelis, the government argued.

In the past, Israel's highest judicial body has been reluctant to challenge the military in security matters. On Tuesday, however, the court said it was trying to strike a balance between human rights and the security concerns of a nation that sees itself at war.

"In this balance, human rights cannot receive complete protection as if there were no terror, and state security cannot receive complete protection as if there were no human rights," Chief Justice Aharon Barak wrote.

"A delicate and sensitive balance is required," he added. "This is the price of democracy."

Critics and proponents alike found something to embrace and something to condemn in the ruling.

Palestinian officials and leading human rights organizations such as Amnesty International branded the expulsion practice a war crime. In court, attorneys for Assida and the Ajouris argued that forced transfer is a collective punishment barred by the Fourth Geneva Convention governing the behavior of an occupying state.

"This is a sad and black day," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.

"We lost," said Jessica Montell, director of the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, "but the decision of the high court will deter the state from using deportation [readily]. It's clearly not going to be the effective deterrent measure that the state was looking for. That's the silver lining."

The government argued that the Geneva Conventions allow "assigned residency" of people within the occupied territory. Because the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are part of one entity, the state argued, transfer from one part to the other is allowed.

But human rights attorneys countered that since the West Bank and Gaza are not contiguous territory, and since Israel bars Palestinian travel between the two areas, expulsion from one to the other is tantamount to expulsion to a separate entity.

Gaza is easier for the Israelis to control because, unlike the West Bank, it is fenced in.

Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit praised the ruling for adding a weapon to the nation's arsenal. It proved, he said, that the "justices of the court are in tune with the Israeli people." There is wide support among Israelis for expulsions and other tough measures.

Hard-liners said the ruling didn't go far enough.

"The intention behind the relocation was that the suicide bomber whose mother knows about his intentions will know that she would be left without a roof over her head," said Gideon Ezra, deputy internal security minister and a former intelligence official. "Instead of putting these people in jail, they will now be able to sew explosive belts in Gaza. There's no doubt that today's ruling will tie the security establishment's hands in its war against terror."

The court delayed the Ajouris' expulsion by a day, granting a request that they be allowed a final meeting with their families at the Ofer military base, just north of Jerusalem, where they are being held. Later today, the army will transport the siblings to a crossing point into the Gaza Strip and presumably deliver them to Palestinian security officials.

"They are terribly worried," said Dalia Kerstein, director of a human rights law organization representing the Ajouris. "They were asking lots of questions. Will they be accepted? What do they do, where do they go? They don't know anyone in Gaza."

In the Askar refugee camp outside Nablus where the Ajouri family lives, the siblings' mother, Rashida, and other relatives received the news with bitterness.

Israel accused Ali Ajouri of dispatching two suicide bombers who killed five people in Tel Aviv in July. Two days after the bombing, army bulldozers demolished the home of the mother, her five sons, their families and Intisar, who is single.

A few days after that, Israeli forces hunted down and killed Ali.

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