Middle East: Rabin finds backing for 'iron fist' in court

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AT 11am yesterday Lt-Gen Ehud Barak, Israel's Chief of Staff stood before a seven-judge panel of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem to justify the most draconian deportation orders since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As he rose before a packed courtroom, 383 Palestinians, all alleged to be supporters of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, were sitting, bound and blindfolded, in 22 buses near the northern Israeli town of Metullah, waiting to hear if their deportation to Lebanon would go ahead. Not one of them had been charged with any crime. None had been given access to a lawyer or right of appeal. They had been driven to the border in secret. The government had even conceded that the deportees were largely suspected of political action and were not the military hard core.

Lt-Gen Barak nevertheless told the judges that Israel's security was at stake and a deterrent was needed. The country was in a state of war against Hamas, after rising attacks on Israeli targets, including the recent killing of four soldiers, and the kidnapping and murder of a border guard. He listened patiently to the arguments of human rights lawyers. But Lt-Gen Barak said human rights considerations did not apply, and nor did the Fourth Geneva Convention which, under article 49, bans the 'forcible transfer as well as deportation of protected persons from occupied territories . . . regardless of motive'.

Israel has never recognised the application of the Geneva Conventions in relation to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Furthermore, Lt-Gen Barak said, if the court held up the deportations the action would be interpreted as weakness on the part of Israel and the violence would escalate.

It took the judges another eight hours to tear up the country's limited, but hard-won civil rights protections for Palestinians. More than 1.7 million Palestinians live under military law. If they wish to challenge this they can, in theory, appeal to the Israeli High Court and Supreme Court. Over the years precedents have been set and safeguards enacted relating to the right to a fair hearing before a deportation, for example. In a handful of cases the Israeli courts have lifted deportation orders.

With his words ringing in its ears, and the knowledge that the Prime Minister, his cabinet and the vast majority of Israelis would condemn them otherwise, the court's decision was in the end inevitable: deport. The 'iron fist' used so often by Yitzhak Rabin in the past, could not be restrained now. It was a dramatic decision. Whatever Lt-Gen Barak argued about national security the deportations smacked of revenge.

For two days Israel had waited to see what Mr Rabin would do in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of Nissim Toledano, the 29-year-old border guard seized by Hamas gunmen on Sunday, and found stabbed to death on Wednesday after Israel refused to release the Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

What had clearly riled Mr Rabin, and struck fear into Israelis, was the almost cocky way in which the gunmen had dared to steal into the heart of Israel to kidnap Mr Toledano, and succeeded with such devastating ease. Mr Rabin, the man who promised to break the bones of the Palestinians during the intifada, clearly did not relish an image of impotence.

Mr Rabin immediately ordered the mass arrests of suspected Hamas supporters, rounding up more than 1,200 in the past two days. Gaza and the West Bank have been put under curfew, and residents confined to their homes.

At a full cabinet meeting on Wednesday, amid blanket security, Mr Rabin proposed the mass deportation of up to 400 of the detained Palestinians. The plan was far tougher than most present had expected. Since the beginning of the intifada in 1987 Israel has deported 66 Palestinians. But it was not only the number which shocked some cabinet members. Mr Rabin proposed by-passing the Israeli courts, whisking the Palestinians over the border in the dead of night, and presenting the country with a fait accompli. All the cabinet except the Justice Minister, David Libai, backed the decision. Mr Libai abstained. Censorhip was immediately imposed on the press. At about 2pm on Wednesday the emergency military order was passed.

Shortly after the order was laid, the Palestinians were put into 22 buses and driven north through the driving rain and sleet to Metullah on the Lebanese border. En route the word got out that the deportation plan was under way.

Joshua Shoffman, a defence lawyer representing the deportees, was called at home at 10pm on Wednesday. He and others alerted the duty Supreme Court judge, calling for orders delaying the deportation. The orders were granted and a court hearing convened for 10am yesterday.

Mr Rabin, however, angered that word of the plan had got out, and eager to avoid a lengthy delay, ordered an earlier hearing. Three judges sat first in emergency session at 5am yesterday. They, however, adjourned, ordering a seven- judge court to convene at 11am, and further ordering Lt-Gen Barak to give evidence. Within an hour of the court's decision, the buses began to roll into Lebanon.

Leading article, page 18

(Photograph omitted)