The latest masterstroke from the “new historian” Benjamin Netanyahu continues to find followers. The prime minister declared recently that the evacuation of the colonial settlements in the occupied territories — which have the characteristics of racial segregation and are illegal under any international legal standard — woud be ethnic cleansing.
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The latest on his list of acolytes is Moshe Arens, who wrote, “Ethnic cleansing is the forced removal of ethnic or religious groups from a particular territory with the intent of making it ethnically or religiously homogeneous” (“Ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Gaza and elsewhere,” Haaretz, September 19). From this, he concludes that whenever Jews were removed from their homes against their will — starting with the residents of Gush Etzion in 1948 through to the Gaza Strip settlers in 2005 — ethnic cleansing took place and its victims were Jews. This is nonsense that has absolutely no basis in accepted legal definitions.
Ethnic cleansing is a new concept, one that broke into the legal and public discourse in 1992 during the Bosnian War. The Bosnian Serbs attacked Muslims in Bosnia, with the intention of removing them from the territory in which there was a mixed population, to areas in which there was a homogenous majority of Bosnian Muslims.
The Serbs themselves first used the term in 1981, when Serbs in Kosovo were attacked by Albanian Muslims there. In the international lexicon in the 1990s, the term was identified with the war in the former Yugoslavia, when the armies of ethnic groups attacked other minorities (Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Kosovars, Bosnian Muslims), with the intention of forcibly moving them to different areas where members of the same minority lived: Croats to Croatia, Serbs to Serbia, Kosovar Albanians to Albania, etc.
Since then, the term has been put to the critical test by legal experts and researchers, because it is often used as a euphemism for cases that should actually be labeled genocide.
The phenomenon of ethnic cleansing is not easily defined. On one hand, it is different from applying pressure to emigrate and population transfers; and on the other, it is also different from genocide. There is widespread agreement in the research field that ethnic cleansing is a form of forced migration — which can become violent and murderous — of an unwanted population from a specific territory because of a racial, ethnic, religious, political, strategic or ideologically based hostility.
This is exactly what happened in 1948. Israeli historian Benny Morris determined that most of the Arabs in the country, over 400,000, were encouraged to leave or expelled in the first stage of the war — even before the Arab nations’ armies invaded. A few researchers have speculated that the Arab attack on Israel actually began because Israel had adopted a policy of ethnic cleansing. This is because it was difficult to make sense of the massive military purge of almost 500,000 Palestinian residents, and the justification for their expulsion that the areas on which they lived were intended to be the Jewish state according to the UN Partition Plan.
Morris claims that over half a year before the Arab invasion began, the Jewish leadership tried to expand the territory designated for the establishment of the Jewish state, and to minimize the number of Arabs who would live in its territory. In other words, about half a million Palestinians were cleared by force from the territory where they lived, because they were an unwanted population from an ethnic, racial, religious, strategic perspective, or from all these perspectives together.
The hundreds of communities in which the Arab population lived were razed to the ground or given over for Jewish settlement at the end of the war. Arab property worth tens of millions of Palestinian pounds was stolen and confiscated. Those who tried to return were forcibly expelled or shot. The ethnic cleansing carried out in Palestine in 1948 was one of the most successful of the 20th century.
The method of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians is also true of the Jewish population that lived in the Gush Etzion settlements. But we must remember that there were only four communities and a few hundred Jews there. There are other fundamental differences between the ethnic cleansing carried out against the Palestinians and the ethnic cleansing in Gush Etzion and Gush Katif, which those applauding Netanyahu’s interpretation of the term are ignoring.
In 1992, the UN Security Council established a Commission of Experts whose goal was to propose an agreed-upon definition for ethnic cleansing, and to give the international legal system tools to define the crime and punish those responsible for it.
In a footnote, the commission described ethnic cleansing as being “calculated to bring about” a group’s “physical destruction in whole or in part.” And later, the removal of people from one area to another in “such circumstances as to lead to the death of the whole or part of the displaced population — if, for example, people were driven from their homes and forced to travel long distances in a country where they are exposed to starvation, thirst, heat, cold and epidemics.”
The purpose of this wording was to examine the points where ethnic cleansing and genocide met, and to examine under what conditions ethnic cleansing develops into the crime of genocide. But if we examine what the Commission of Experts determined, we can see that the claim — that the evacuation of Jews from communities the government decided to evacuate is ethnic cleansing — is complete nonsense.
First, because we have seen that a country cannot carry out ethnic cleansing on a population that belongs to the same ethnic group. It can carry out genocide (as the Khmer Rouge regime did in Cambodia), but the evacuation of a population from a specific ethnic group and its resettling among a population from the same group is not ethnic cleansing. This is what the government decided to do with the evacuees from Gush Katif in 2005 and the evacuees from the Sinai settlement of Yamit in 1982.
Secondly, there is nothing further from the truth than describing those evacuated from Yamit or the Gaza region with the term that describes a miserable population that was uprooted from its home and has been left hungry, thirsty and exposed to existential danger.
Israel promised to look after the families who were evacuated and budgeted enormous sums to that end. If settlers are evacuated from the occupied territories in the future, the government will again provide a safety net for them, which will allow them to restart their lives comfortably in Israel.
The Palestinians are the ones who, since the ethnic cleansing done to them in 1948 and until today, have remained exposed to hunger, deprivation, violence and further expulsion from their homes. And they are the ones living in poverty in the huge ghetto of Gaza and the refugee camps in the West Bank. All the baseless interpretations of Netanyahu and his supporters will not hide any of this.
The writer is a Holocaust historian and head of the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.