JERUSALEM - A Palestinian brother and sister, handcuffed, blindfolded and spirited away in Israeli jeeps and tanks, were deposited yesterday in a vineyard in the Gaza Strip in the first court-approved expulsion of relatives of suspected terrorists.
The Israeli Supreme Court approved the transfer of Kifah and Intisar Ajouri, siblings of dead West Bank militant Ali Ajouri, from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip after finding Tuesday that the two assisted their brother in acts of terror. The court order, which cited national security as its basis, upheld a controversial Israeli army decision.
Human rights organizations called the forced transfers a violation of international law and likened them to deportation, even though the pair was moved from one Palestinian territory to another.
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said the military was looking at expelling other relatives of terror suspects.
The Ajouris, who lived in a refugee camp in Nablus all their lives, said they were taken by jeep and tank for nearly two hours to an unsettled new beginning in Gaza. They said they were surprised yesterday at midday when Israeli soldiers released their handcuffs, handed them a few hundred dollars worth of Israeli shekels and told them to get out and start walking.
The two, who had been jailed for about three months, had had little idea where they were, Intisar Ajouri said later at a news conference in Gaza City. A Palestinian cameraman found them walking along under rows of grapevines.
"We kept walking until we saw a farmer and his wife. We approached him and asked for help," said the 34-year-old woman. "The man told us: 'What are you doing here? This is a very dangerous place. You are very close to a settlement. Four days ago, four Palestinians were killed here.'
"I told him who we were. He understood, shook his head and took us into his home," she said, looking weary.
The expulsion order, the latest measure that Israel has imposed in the face of Palestinian terror attacks, demands that the Ajouris remain in Gaza for two years. The decision can be reviewed, under military law, every six months.
Another West Bank man, the brother of a Hamas militant, avoided such a transfer when the Israeli high court deemed any links to his brother's actions as negligible.
Raji Al-Surani, a lawyer and chairman of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, said yesterday that he did not know where the Ajouris would live, and the Palestinian Authority had, as yet, made no provision for the couple.
The authority had protested the court order Tuesday and, according to the Ajouris, was hoping to stop the transfer at the main checkpoint leading to Gaza, known as Erez Crossing.
Al-Surani said he viewed the court decision as simply "giving cover" to a crime.
"Israel wouldn't dare to take such a step without the political cover and support by the United States and the silence of Europe," Al-Surani said "We will keep struggling for the return [of the Ajouris] and to stop this policy forever."
Intisar Ajouri was calm during much of the news conference but grew adamant when asked whether she had, as the Israeli army charged and the court held, sewn explosive belts used in terror attacks planned by her brother. Kifah Ajouri had been found to have acted as a lookout for Ali Ajouri.
Israel says Ali Ajouri sent two suicide bombers into Tel Aviv on July 17, where they blew themselves up, killing two Israelis and four foreign workers. Ali Ajouri was killed later in an Israeli military strike.
"We had nothing to do with this," Intisar Ajouri said of the accusations. "We did not share in anything. All that the Israelis are doing are kind of sadism. They are trying to make us an example for everyone who would dare to think to resist the occupation."
Christine Spolar writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.