Israel deports almost 400 Palestinians High court refuses to block expulsions; Arabs stay away from peace talks


JERUSALEM -- The Israeli Supreme Court allowed the government yesterday to go ahead with the controversial deportation of nearly 400 Palestinians, provoking disruption in the Middle East peace talks and complaints that the transfer violated international law.

A statement read by Chief Justice Meir Shamgar said the government had 30 days to explain why it had issued a deportation order unprecedented in its scope and swiftness.

But within 15 minutes of the high court ruling, 22 Israeli buses escorted by armored vehicles trundled across the border into Lebanon from northern Israel, where the Arab deportees had been kept blindfolded for 18 hours while opponents fought over their fate in court.

Israel rejected criticism. "We have chosen the path that least damages human life and property," Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said last night.

Israel said the deported Palestinians were supporters of Hamas, a Muslim fundamentalist group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and murder of an Israeli border policeman earlier in the week. Hamas claimed the kidnapping was an attempt to free its leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

In just over a week, the abduction-murder has threatened the peace talks, caused Israel to spurn international condemnations, seen liberals applaud crackdowns and hawks speak favorably of the Palestine Liberation Organization -- at least in comparison with the Islamic fundamentalists.

Yesterday's Supreme Court hearing prompted a high-powered debate about the country's security, and interfered with the Israeli government's attempt to secretly drop off the Palestinians in Lebanon before dawn yesterday morning.

The Palestinians were taken last night into the "security zone" of southern Lebanon controlled by Israel and its Christian-dominated allies, the South Lebanon Army. It was unclear if they would face difficulties going from there into the area controlled by the Lebanese government.

Each of the detainees was to be given about $50, a jacket and a blanket. Earlier yesterday, about 35 of the 418 Palestinians were returned to jails because of separate legal appeals, and it was unclear if they will be deported.

Israel said the expulsions would be for no more than two years.

Israel's plans for the largest peacetime mass expulsion of Arabs prompted quick international response.

In Washington, the Arab delegates to the peace talks refused to attend yesterday's negotiating session. Later, the PLO in Tunisia declared there would be no more Palestinian participation in the talks unless the deportees were returned.

The White House and President-elect Bill Clinton criticized the .. deportation. Britain criticized the move, and Egypt, a go-between in the peace talks, warned that the negotiations may be threatened.

Israeli authorities acknowledged their sweeping arrests of 1,500 Hamas supporters this week and the attempt to deport 418 of them was a maneuver to weaken the organization, a staunch opponent of the talks.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the kidnapping Sunday of Israeli border policeman Nissim Toledano. His body was found Tuesday, as Israeli authorities were engaged in an unprecedented roundup of Hamas supporters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Israel's attempt to quickly and secretly move 418 of them into Lebanon Wednesday night was foiled when Israeli lawyers representing Palestinians heard rumors of the deportations, and raced to the Supreme Court for an injunction.

The Hebrew daily Ha--ot yesterday reported that in planning the deportation operation, senior military officials doubted it was legal. They imposed secrecy and censorship to try to finish the job before it was challenged, the newspaper said.

The Israeli Supreme Court faced a dilemma when a three-judge panel met in an extraordinary pre-dawn session to hear the matter yesterday.

Israeli officers acknowledged they had devised unusual procedures for this deportation, but argued the deportation had gone too far to be stopped.

Adding to the legal drama, the panel decided to invite four more justices to sit on the case, and demanded to hear from Ehud Barak, the Israeli chief of staff. He urged the justices not to order the return of the buses, then parked near Metulla at the Lebanon border.

"To return to detention facilities would cause extensive damage that could undermine the security," Mr. Barak said. "It is likely to be an important moral and spiritual victory for them."

Lawyers for the Palestinians argued that the mass expulsion was a step toward the far right-wing call to force Arabs out of the occupied territories, a policy called "transfer."

"If it is possible to deport 400 people then there is no guarantee that 40,000 won't be deported," said Joshua Schoffman, an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

"This little deportation is, in fact, a transfer," said lawyer Leah Tzemel.

In a rare court appearance, Joseph Harish, the Israeli attorney general, called the charge by the lawyers for the Palestinians "stupid and vicious."

"This is only a temporary deportation to keep them out of the area," he contended.

Deportations are barred by the Geneva Convention that prohibits the transfer of indigenous inhabitants under occupation. But Israeli officials contended putting a two-year term on the length of the deportation avoided that stigma.

Despite the international protests, Israel's liberal left wing supported the deportations in surprising numbers.

"Means of force are justified," said Yossi Sarid, chairman of the liberal Meretz Party. "We need to gain some time. The battle against extremists is justified, and will help on one condition: That the moderate Palestinians are encouraged."

Israel finds itself in the ironic position of trying to shore up support for the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which supports the peace talks. Yasser Arafat, the symbol of Israel's Palestinian enemy, heads Fatah.

Amnon Rubenstein, another Meretz member of the Knesset, or Parliament, said: "We all agree that we cannot accept the increase in Hamas' power. I think there has been a significant change. Hamas . . . has declared war against the very Jewish existence in Israel."

But Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations showed unusual unity in condemning the deportations.

Collective punishments and forced transfers from one's homeland "are immoral and illegal," the human rights groups said. "It is a gross and grave violation of international law."

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