Friday, July 21, 2006

Buffer Zone or Ethnic Cleansing?

Israel is trying and mostly succeeding in clearing Lebanese civilians out the area south of the Litani. It intends to create a buffer zone there. Is this ethnic cleansing?

The long answer is Probably yes, but not for the usual purpose.

Ethnic cleansing is commonly understood as the removal of some group, defined by a ethnic, religious, political, racial or social category, from a particular geographical area. Its purpose is to enable or increase the power and homogeneity of the remaining population in that area. The expulsion and mass murder of Bosnian Moslems during the collapse of former Yugoslavia is the episode for which the term was coined, but it can equally apply to earlier episodes such as the expulsions of German ethnics from eastern Europe, after World War II, of Palestinian Arabs from Israel in 1948, and of Jews from Arab countries in the early 1950s. As a category, ethnic cleansing covers a range of explicit or implicit policies ranging from forced population transfers, as in the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1948, to deportations and genocide as in the Holocaust. Most public opinion considers any of these policies contemptible, inhumane and illegal. They are banned by internal treaties.

Israel has already induced the Lebanese to leave the area south of the Litani through radio announcements, leaflets, bombings and privation caused by the destruction of the infrastructure there. Israeli army units will probably act soon to drive out those who have not yet left – about 30% of the original population. Israel leaders and generals intend these measures to depopulate completely the area and turn it into a buffer zone which can be monitored by Israeli ground patrols and air reconnaissance. Israel probably cannot drive all the Hezbollah fighters out of the area, without sustaining very costly losses itself. But under this policy, it does not have to. When almost all the civilians have left, anything moving in the area will be assumed to be Hezbollah units and open to attack.

Israel will claim the creation of the buffer zone is legitimate self-defense. It will deny that it is ethnic cleansing because it will not involve an Israeli occupation of the territory itself, much less the introduction of Israeli settlements and perhaps not even the permanent garrisoning of Israeli troops. On the other hand, the United States probably cannot accept the permanent depopulation of this entire area. So these allies are likely to haggle over the depth of the buffer zone.

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