Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the government's expulsion of 415 suspected Muslim fundamentalists from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, freeing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from the danger that his much-criticized action would boomerang in a further domestic controversy.
Chief Justice Meir Shamgar said the deported Palestinians are now on Lebanese territory, no longer within the court's jurisdiction and not Israel's responsibility. The special, seven-judge tribunal unanimously dismissed appeals for their return.
Civil rights lawyers had argued that the government's action had placed the deportees in jeopardy because Lebanon refused to accept them, that skirmishes were occurring around them in the no-man's-land of southern Lebanon and that an Israeli-controlled militia had already wounded several with warning shots.
But Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the Israeli chief of staff, told the court, "In my opinion, there is no danger to the health or safety of the deportees, as long as they do nothing unreasonable." He made clear, however, that if they tried to return to Israeli-controlled territory they would be pushed back.
"The deportees are now in a territory that is under Lebanon's control, and the fact that they are not being permitted to move north does not detract from this fact," Shamgar said. "Under these circumstances . . . we see no room for our intervention."
Rabin thus survived the last, and probably most serious, domestic challenge to his decision to strike hard at the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, which have led an upsurge in armed attacks on Israeli security forces in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank.
On Sunday, Rabin won Cabinet approval a second time, with the full impact of the action understood, for his crackdown. This happened despite clear misgivings of the left-wing Meretz group in the coalition. On Monday, he won a parliamentary vote of confidence, despite rightist criticism that he had been slow and lenient in his moves; there were also leftist concerns that the Middle East peace effort had been damaged.
The international condemnation, including that of the United States and the U.N. Security Council, was of little consequence to Rabin, as he told the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday. He said he is confident that when the Mideast peace talks reconvene in Washington in February, all the Arab parties will be present.
Rabin underscored his personal responsibility throughout the action by acknowledging that he had directly ordered that shells be fired near the Palestinians on Monday to deter them from trying to return to the Israeli "security zone" and Israel itself.
Consequently, there was a triumphant feeling among senior government officials when the court announced its decision late Tuesday after repeated delays.
"If the ruling had gone against the government, it would have had the most serious consequences for Israelis and pragmatic Palestinians interested in the peace process," Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet said, "for it would show that government decisions could be set aside. The government's hands would be tied, and it would not be able to do what it thought necessary for security."
Among Israeli liberals, however, the disquiet over the deportations deepened.
Chaim Cohen, a former Supreme Court justice, declared after the decision: "Deportations are illegal, but these are immoral. There is nothing more cruel, less humane than taking a man from his home. We must not become like our murderers. Don't do unto others what you don't want them to do unto you."
Israeli Arabs, who number 900,000 in the country's population of 5.2 million, demonstrated their support for the Palestinians with a strike. With offices, shops, stores and government agencies closed in Arab areas, it was one of the strongest showings yet of solidarity by the Israeli Arabs--Palestinian except for Israeli citizenship--for residents of the occupied territories.
Among Palestinians, the gloom was great. "If Rabin brought the peace process to its deathbed, then the Supreme Court buried it," said Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation at the Washington peace talks.
But some sympathetic commentators argued that, by responding boldly, dramatically even, to this gathering crisis, Rabin has strengthened his domestic political base and so improved Israel's position for the peace negotiations.
Lebanon, having made its stand against the Israeli action, should now admit the deportees, Israeli officials said, because there is no hope that their expulsion will be reversed and no possibility that they will be able to infiltrate the security zone, which has been reinforced with Israeli soldiers.
In southern Lebanon, the deported Palestinians spent the day at their barren, snowy encampment in the no-man's-land near the Lebanese army lines with their future under debate elsewhere. The Lebanese government banned all humanitarian assistance to the group and, to dramatize its stand, turned away two U.N. trucks bringing drinking water and two Red Cross ambulances carrying medicine.
"They are Israel's responsibility," a Lebanese military spokesman said of the deportees. "Israel deported them, and Lebanon has refused to accept them. They should be supplied through Israel."
Times special correspondent Marilyn Raschka in Marj Zohour, Lebanon, contributed to this report.