National Imperative vs. Civil Rights

The uprooting of the settlers in Gush Katif and northern Samaria constitutes a clear violation of their civil rights, bringing into play the question: What is the imperative that justifies this violation?


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on January 4, 2005.)

Looking for parallels – from other times, in other places – to the government’s disengagement plan, which involves the uprooting of families in Gush Katif  and northern Samaria, we naturally avoid comparisons  with the mass transfer of populations carried out by totalitarian rulers practicing what is euphemistically called “social engineering” with demographic objectives in mind. We are looking for an example of a government violating the civil rights of some of its citizens in the name of the common good.

We have, of course, one example close to home – namely, the evacuation of Israelis from the Sinai peninsula in 1982. But that was a commitment Israel undertook as part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979. The disengagement plan is a unilateral step to be taken by the government in what it judges to be Israel’s best interests at this time.

Under different, but nevertheless somewhat similar circumstances, a large-scale, forced evacuation was carried out by the U.S. government in 1942, during World War II. U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry, many of them  American citizens, were forced to leave their homes on the West Coast from an area that had been declared a military zone. Less than two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with rumors rife that the Japanese were going to follow up with an attack on the West Coast, and suspicions aroused that some residents of Japanese origin might by working as spies for Japan, President Franklin Roosevelt, on February 19, 1942, issued Executive Order No. 9066, “authorizing and directing the Secretary of War to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commanders may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded.”

On March 21, 1942, the U.S. Congress passed an act imposing penalties on “whoever shall enter, remain in, leave, or commit any act in any military area or military zone prescribed under the authority of an Executive Order of the President.”

Lieutenant General John De Witt was appointed to carry out Executive Order 9066. By June 12, 1942, De Witt announced that the removal of 100,000 Japanese Americans from Military Area No. 1 had been completed.

A Japanese American, Fred Kurematsu, who was found guilty of remaining in a military area, appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in a majority decision, upheld the conviction, maintaining that military necessity justified the relocation. Three judges dissented. Justice Murphy wrote that the relocation went beyond “the brink of constitutional power”; and Justice Roberts wrote, “I think the indisputable facts exhibit a clear violation of Constitutional rights.”

The uprooting of the settlers in Gush Katif and northern Samaria constitutes a clear violation of their civil rights, bringing into play the question: What is the imperative that justifies this violation?

The argument that this step is important for Israel because of demographic considerations hardly passes even superficial scrutiny. Its effect on the demographic balance in Israel will be essentially zero. Only if it is carried out as part of an agreement with the Palestinians can it be argued that it is an important step leading  toward peace in the area.

As a matter of fact, the only argument in favor of uprooting the settlements that might have merit is that protecting these settlements constitutes too heavy a burden on the Israel Defense Forces, and that withdrawing the IDF from Gush Katif and northern Samaria would mean shortening Israel’s line of defense, and thus make the defense of the country more effective.

This argument, albeit somewhat dubious, has to be respected if it is the considered judgment of those responsible for Israel’s defense. But that by no means implies that the Israeli citizens living there have to be forcefully removed from their homes. If they choose to remain after the IDF has withdrawn, that is a decision that is best left to them.

The U.S. admitted that the evacuation of Japanese-Americans during World War II was a mistake only 46 years after the fact. In 1988, Congress passed legislation apologizing to them for their travail at that time. Fred Kurematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former president Bill Clinton. The citation read in part, “Fred Kurematsu challenged our nation’s conscience, reminding us that we must uphold the rights of our own citizens even as we fight tyranny in other lands.”

Hopefully, Israel’s conscience will be awakened before the civil rights of its citizens in Gush Katif and northern Samaria are violated.

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