Israel Expels Two Palestinians

Israel expelled two Palestinians Wednesday from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip -- an unprecedented court-sanctioned step hailed by the military as a powerful deterrent against suicide bombings and condemned by human rights groups as a violation of international law.

Intisar and Kifah Ajouri, brother and sister of a militiaman who dispatched two suicide bombers to Tel Aviv in July, were driven by Israeli troops into the Gaza Strip on backroads, to avoid journalists waiting at the main Erez crossing into the strip.

The Ajouris' lawyers said the two later called from a gas station south of Gaza City where they had been dropped off. They each had been given 1,000 shekels ($212) given to them by Israel as an "adjustment grant" for their two-year exile in Gaza. Relatives said the two -- Kifah is a house painter and Intisar a pharmacist -- would try to adjust to their new lives.

Israel's Supreme Court paved the way for the expulsions when it decided in a landmark ruling Tuesday that the military can force relatives of Palestinian terror suspects out of the West Bank, as long as it proves they pose a security threat.

The court ruled that Intisar and Kifah Ajouri helped their brother, Ali Ajouri, dispatch two suicide bombers to Tel Aviv on July 17. Three foreign workers and two Israelis were killed in the attack. The judges said Intisar sewed the bomb belts and Kifah stood watch as his brother moved explosives between hiding places. Ali Ajouri was killed in an Israeli military strike Aug. 6.

The military argued that expulsions create a powerful deterrent, while human rights groups said the court decision validates a practice that amounts to collective punishment and violates international law.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Wednesday that the military might expel additional relatives of terror suspects.

On Wednesday morning, the Ajouris were driven in a convoy of jeeps and prison vans from two Israeli prisons to a military base in the West Bank where they bid farewell to relatives. The two were led into the backyard of the base, where soldiers removed their shackles and handcuffs.

Kifah Ajouri embraced his three children, who were crying, said a sister, Amal.

"It was an emotional meeting because it is so difficult to say goodbye," Amal Ajouri said in a telephone interview. She said the wife and children of Kifah would try to move to Gaza as well.

Expulsions are one of the measures the Israeli military is trying out to stem the tide of suicide bomb attacks that has swept over Israel during two years of fighting. More than 250 Israelis have been killed in more than 70 suicide attacks. The last one was Aug. 4.

Israeli military commanders say the threat of expulsion, together with the destruction of family homes of bombers, creates a deterrent. They say there have already been cases of families stopping Palestinians from carrying out attacks for fear of Israeli punishment.

Human rights lawyers say they fear the court ruling could open the door to a creeping population transfer to Gaza, which is fenced in and much easier for Israel to control. All suicide bombers in the past two years have come from West Bank, from which Palestinians can still reach Israel on backroads, despite closures.

Lawyer Leah Tzemel, who represented two of the petitioners, said the court decision might get Israel entangled with the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

Human rights lawyers said expulsion violates the Geneva Conventions, which forbid "deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power or to that of any other country."

The court accepted the state's argument that the West Bank and Gaza constitute one territory, and sending West Bankers to Gaza did not amount to deportation. Israel has never acknowledged that the Geneva Conventions apply to the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Wednesday that the Palestinian Authority will ask the U.N. Security Council to hold a debate on the expulsions.

On May 10, 26 Palestinian militants were expelled from the West Bank town of Bethlehem to the Gaza Strip at the end of a 39-day Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity. However, that differed from the current case in that militants themselves, not relatives, were expelled, and it was done by agreement, without a court test.