From the 1948 Nakbah to events in the occupied territories today, Israel's aims and supporting myths have been remarkably similar, writes Salman Abu Sitta* to carry out the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by transferring the Arab population.

What has made Sharon, a man with an unusually bloody record, pour out his wrath on the Palestinian refugee camps? After all, these camps in no way constitute a military challenge, and are, indeed, in many cases more like concentration camps, where tens of thousands huddle in tiny dwellings, their everyday lives depending on the jailers surrounding them in fortified positions.

Nevertheless, the Israeli attacks on the camps have been incessant, and the excuses for them variable. Palestinian refugee camps in Balata, Rafah, Khan Younis, Jabaliya, Kalandia and Dehaisha have been attacked repeatedly by Israeli tanks, armoured vehicles and bulldozers. Jenin has been attacked, earning the title of "fortress of resistance".

Why, then, this Israeli venom? The reason for it is simple: the murderer cannot rest until the body of his victim has been disposed of, that body testifying by its continuing existence to his crime. As long as the victim–whether killed, wounded or in chains–is still visible, the crime risks being found out, crying for justice such that the murderer cannot sleep.

Thus the story continues, with the Nakbah being not "an accident of the 1948 War", as Benny Morris, the Israeli "new historian", tells us, but a deliberate process that has left its mark on present developments and has continued in modified form until today. Today, however, it bears a different name, that of "ethnic cleansing". Morris, of all people, should recognise this, since he has himself provided irrefutable proof of it.

Zionist ideology in Palestine has always been consistent, based on one strategic goal and many myths. That goal has been to occupy as much as possible of Palestinian land and to expel all the Arabs from it, or as many as it is possible to expel. Certain myths were necessary in reaching this goal, since the Zionist enterprise had little physical presence in Palestine, and it has no legal justification to be there. Creating myths, therefore, has been indispensable for the cause.

One of these myths was to invent an imaginary place, where Palestine would be "a land without a people for a people without a land", as Zionist mythology has it. By force, conspiracy and political connivance, the land was taken by Jews in 1948, expelling the Arab population from it. However, the moment this foundational myth became reality, Palestine really becoming a land without a people thanks to Israeli violence, it was discarded in favour of a new one.

Now, it was said that the Palestinian refugees had left at their own accord, not as a result of expulsion, massacres and intimidation. The refugee problem, therefore, was not Israel's responsibility; rather, it was the Arabs'. The refugees should be resettled in the surrounding Arab countries, the logic being that when the members of the older generation who still remembered their homeland died, the younger generation would forget Palestine. Like gun cartridges, when each myth is spent, a new one is invented to replace it. Israeli action was responsible for the first chapter of the Nakbah in 1948. Over 530 Palestinian towns and villages were depopulated by Israeli aggression, 89 per cent due to military operations and the rest due to various forms of psychological warfare. The expelled population comprised 85 per cent of the Palestinian population of the land that became the State of Israel after 1948, their land making up 92 per cent of Israel's total area. This was truly a catastrophe of mammoth proportions for the Palestinian people; it was a Palestinian holocaust.

However, if the Palestinian tragedy in 1948 was a result of war, why were the refugees not allowed to return to their homes once that war was over? The fact is that they were not so allowed, the Zionists devising a multitude of ways to deny the Palestinians the right to return, while confiscating their land and property. Those who did return were branded "infiltrators" and were shot and killed on the spot. They are still being shot and killed, only now they are called "terrorists".

First, the Israelis declared the Palestinian refugees to be "absentees", not refugees, or those who had been illegitimately expelled from their land by military force. They confiscated the property of these "absentees", and even if a Palestinian remained in Israel, even becoming a citizen of that state, he still became only a "present absentee", his land still being confiscated.

Israel created a fictitious legal web to give this plunder an air of respectability. To repopulate the now empty land, Israel took from the Palestinians every right of nationhood, creating an Israeli "Law of Return" and "Citizenship Law", which granted every Jew, and every person who could claim Jewish ancestry–back to someone whose grandfather's wife had been Jewish–immediate entry to the country and instant citizenship.

By a mixture of Israeli promises and coercion, a total of 2.9 million immigrants has been imported into Israel over the past 50 years, in order to replace the Palestinians who are the rightful national majority and owners of the country. Words cannot be more eloquent than these figures in showing the reality of the policy of ethnic cleansing that Israel has carried out over the past half century, a policy that saw but its latest episode in the horrific atrocities lately committed in Jenin.

Israel's record here is damning. In the 1940s, before the State of Israel was created, Weitz, chairman of the first "Transfer Committee" set up to oversee the expulsion of Palestine's Arab population, stated that the "the only solution is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries. Not a single village or a single tribe must be left"

In August 1948, during the second truce of the 1948 War, Weitz chaired a second Transfer Committee whose task was to block the return of the refugees and to confiscate their property. This was even before the Israeli occupation of the Negev and of Galilee, and it followed the first report of the UN mediator, Count Bernadotte, which insisted on the right of the refugees to return to their homes.

Weitz's committee issued a report entitled "Regarding the Solution to the Arab Refugees", which, running into hundreds of pages, was presented to Ben Gurion on 26 October 1948. This report has recently been translated into Arabic, but Ben Gurion noted its main features accurately enough:

We shall claim, he said, that] the Arabs themselves are guilty of their plight;

The refugees should not be allowed to return because this will affect the state's security and character;

The Arabs who remained [we will say] should be treated as equal citizens;

The Arabs who "fled" should be settled by Arab governments in Syria, Iraq, Trans-Jordan and Lebanon;

The resettlement costs should be paid by the UN and by international institutions;

The Jews in Arab countries must be imported.

Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it should, for this is almost the same Israeli "offer" that was presented 53 years later in Taba in December 2000. It was on this basis that the Israelis, together with some Arab officials, claimed that they had come "close to an agreement" at Taba. Yet, while some cosmetic changes have occurred to Israel's position over the last 53 years, the substance of Israel's commitment to ethnic cleansing remains the same.

The Weitz report went on to suggest a plan in the event that the UN forced Israel to accept the return of the refugees, something that even then was only a distant possibility. In this event, Israel's strategy would be as follows:

No return to a border strip 8 km wide;

No return to Jerusalem or its environs;

No return of landless (tenant) farmers;

No return to the smaller cities, such as Lydda, Acre, Tiberies and Safad, in order to eliminate the presence of Arab cities in Israel;

Return to Haifa and Jaffa would be possible, but only provided that the number of the refugees did not exceed 20 per cent of the population and that the returnees were either land owners, were professionally qualified or were skilled labourers;

The total returnees should not exceed 200,000, or 20 per cent of the population;

The selection of the returnees would be at Israel's discretion, and their return may not be to their places of origin.

This plan resembles that presented by the Barak government during the much-discussed Beilin-Shaath talks at Taba in December 2000 half a century later, and it testifies to the continuity of Zionist aims. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have been castigated for rejecting this "generous offer" that came "so close" to an agreement! But this offer only proved that ethnic cleansing was still alive and well in Israel, with Sharon subsequently exposing the real face of Israel after the end of the Barak government, carrying out horrific acts of barbarity on the Palestinian population of the refugee camps.

His barbaric policy of destruction of Palestinian life and property has no other explanation, neither military, economic or to ensure Israel's security. It is ethnic cleansing, pure and simple, a policy that has been continuous since 1948.

The demolition of Palestinian villages went on for 19 years between 1948 and 1967, first by the Israeli army and the Kibbutzim, then by an organised programme run by the Jewish Agency and the Israel Land Administration. Yet, while the remains of the villages may have been covered by the "forests" planted by the Jewish Agency, like cactuses, the refugees' determination not to be forgotten and conveniently swept away refuses to die.

The Israeli Kibbutzim inherited the Palestinian refugees' land, receiving large areas of arable land at very modest cost and more than half the quantity of water available at subsidised prices. Nevertheless, even with the water and land resources made available to them, the Kibbutzim still failed economically and ideologically, contributing only about 1 per cent of Israel's total GDP. New recruits to the Kibbutzim are now scarce, and the Kibbutz movement, once the mainstay of Zionist ideology, is now dead.

Yet today, instead of allowing the Palestinian refugees to return to their land, now abandoned by the Kibbutzim, Israel is transforming social Zionism into capitalist Zionism. Public institutions are being privatised, as is land formerly owned by the Kibbutzim. This land, however, can only be sold to Jews–any Jew, even if he or she is not an Israeli citizen. Thus, the land that was once described as being held "in trust" is now being slowly sold off, reinforcing Palestinian ethnic cleansing and removing even the memory of the Palestinian population from the land.

Plans to "transfer" the Palestinian population in the refugee camps are now being debated publicly, not only by the extremist Moledet Party, but also by Labour Party figures and academics at the Herzelia Conference in January 2001. However, this is taking place in Israel even as the refugees themselves are mobilising, the Right of Return movement sweeping Palestinian communities across the world, whether in the refugee camps, in the Arab countries of exile, in the capital cities of Europe, or in the USA.

As a result of this movement another Israeli myth has been exposed, since these mostly third-generation refugees, confident, articulate and well-versed in their rights, are the ones who are today carrying the banner of return. Thus, the call for return has not died with "the old man who remembered Palestine", as Zionist myths claimed that it would.

There is also an uncanny resemblance between the stubborn determination of the older generation of refugees from 1948 and their descendants in 2002. For example, a report I recently saw in the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) archives in Philadelphia, USA, written by the AFSC Gaza Unit and dated October 12, 1949, clearly shows the spirit of resistance born in 1948. The AFSC was the first relief committee to provide services to the Palestinian refugees in 1948.

The report says:

Since it is difficult for the refugees here to communicate with the outside world, we have an obligation to convey what we can of their opinions and thinking at the present time...

Above all else, they desire to go homeback to their lands and villages which, in many cases, are very close. Apparently, they do not hesitate to go back to the changed culture which is growing in Israel. This desire naturally continues to be the strongest demand they make; sixteen months of exile has not diminished it. Without it, they would have nothing for which to live. It is expressed in many ways and forms every day. 'Why keep us alive?'is one expression of it. It is as genuine and deep as a man's longing for his home can be. In the minds of the refugees resettlement is not even considered.

The document is remarkable both for its clarity and its perception, and it is remarkable, too, for the fact that the Palestinian refugees continue to speak today in exactly these terms. Many years before today's glossy talk of coexistence, the refugees' desire to return to their land far outweighed the perils of the new Israeli sovereignty, showing that resettlement schemes have always been an exercise in futility. Perhaps above all, though, it shows that Israeli efforts made over half a century to destroy, expel and disperse the Palestinian refugees have always been doomed to failure, being met by a greater determination to stay alive and to fight for the right to return home.

Today, Sharon, true to his bloody record, is attempting to dispose of the body of Israel's victim and to exonerate Israel of its original sin against the Palestinians. These attempts, however, have failed: the body is wounded and exhausted, but as long as it is still alive it will continue to fight back.

Thus, we have a stalemate, with a weakened victim determined to fight to the end against a barbaric opposing force. Three possibilities therefore exist for the future, with either a major external force eventually tipping the balance one way or another, the Israeli government deciding to commit open genocide against the Palestinians, or a continuing war of attrition.

Should Sharon's government choose the second option, then the consequences of the decision would spill over into Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and possibly Iraq. It would lead to a disaster of major proportions, and Europe and the USA would not be spared, conflict also being ignited in the Gulf, in Iran and Iraq and in India and Pakistan. However, this terrible prospect is not so very far from becoming reality, as the French ambassador in London recently warned: "I fear this little state, Israel, that will drag the world into a third world war".

Should the third scenario come about, with a continuing war of attrition on the present model, then this war will surely intensify, locking the Palestinians and Israelis into a deathly embrace. Many Israelis, those whose ties to the country are most nebulous, would probably emigrate to greener pastures, leaving the remaining population split into a minority willing to live in peace with the Palestinians and to shed Israel's racist laws, and a majority determined both to fight among themselves and to fight the Palestinians.

However, by this time concerns over Israel's abuses of human-rights, exposed by global communications and the media, would surely have made Israel the pariah of the world. Even the current support that Israel enjoys in the West would have dried up, turning instead to pressure, it is to be hoped, on the pariah state.

Whatever the final outcome to the 50-year tragedy of the Palestinian Nakbah might be, we may be sure that though Palestinian suffering may continue, the Palestinians will not give up their rights, and the racist Zionist enterprise will not last for ever.

* The writer is president of the Palestine Land Society, London.