In 2005, I travelled from the US to visit relatives in Palestine, but my trip was cut short when the Israelis denied me entry to Gaza. I tried again the following year. This time I was detained at the Erez crossing and held in a gated area for around twelve hours. I conceded defeat and set off via the West Bank to Jordan, from where I was to fly back to the US. My mother suggested I should take advantage of the stopover in Jordan to meet my great-uncle Mahmoud. All she knew about him was that he had spent several years in South America. He now lived near the Coca-Cola bottling factory in the industrial suburbs of Amman. As my taxi pulled up, he was waiting in the street: tall, friendly, in his mid-fifties. He showed me into his flat to meet his family – he had four children, teenagers at the time. I asked him why he’d been in South America. He said he’d been ‘messed around’. Perhaps he was hoping to leave it there, but I was inquisitive, and it wasn’t long before he told me that he had been involved in an ethnic cleansing experiment dreamed up by the Israelis after the 1967 war, intended to remove as many Palestinians as possible from the newly occupied territories.
Mahmoud’s family came from Qastina, a village about 25 miles north of Gaza City in Mandate Palestine. His father, whose parents died when he was young, had been raised by an aunt in the port city of Yaffa, where he remained until 1948, when the family were driven off their property by Zionist militias, and taken by boat to an encampment in al-Qantara, in the Egyptian Sinai. Mahmoud was born there. The following year, they were resettled with nearly 200,000 Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, then administered by Egypt. In 1967, when Gaza came under Israeli military occupation, Mahmoud was in his late teens. The occupation was ruthless and the local economy was systematically run down in what Sara Roy has described as an Israeli strategy of de-development. As a result, many young Palestinians left to work abroad. Mahmoud’s older brother went to Germany; some of his friends went to the Gulf states.
Mahmoud had just completed carpentry training at a vocational school for Palestinian refugees set up by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, when he heard about a work programme in Brazil. It was said that those who enrolled would make a substantial amount of money. They would travel on a UN laissez-passer, work for between one and two years in Brazil and then return to Gaza. Mahmoud signed up in 1969. ‘We were young, we didn’t understand the world,’ he told me. He and several other recruits were sent to Patra, an Israeli travel agency in Tel Aviv, which arranged their flights. But when the plane landed in Brazil, they weren’t allowed to disembark: the plane flew straight on to Paraguay. They were put up at a hotel in Asunción, joining a number of other Palestinians who had been there for a while. They quickly realised that the work programme did not exist.
They had no money for flights home and were left to fend for themselves in a place they had never heard of. Mahmoud and some other Palestinians asked Arab consulates for help. He started learning Spanish, and found work trading clothes and other goods for Lebanese and Syrian merchants in the Tri-Border Area between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. The Israeli government kept on sending Palestinians to Paraguay. In May 1970 the existence of the transfer scheme was exposed when two of the new arrivals – ‘Talal and Khaled, young men’, Mahmoud told me – were involved in a confrontation at the Israeli embassy in Asunción; there was an altercation and they opened fire. Edna Peer, a consular secretary, was killed and a Paraguayan member of staff was injured. Israeli government officials described it as a terrorist operation orchestrated by the PLO; there was no reference to the scam that had led the Palestinians to be there in the first place.
After our meeting, I tried without success to verify Mahmoud’s story and kept asking him questions about it in the years that followed. He wasn’t the only dispossessed member of my family. I was a stateless refugee for the first 22 years of my life, a status I inherited from my grandparents, who were forced to leave Gaza in 1948. My mother was born in Saudi Arabia, as was I, but non-Saudis do not qualify for citizenship. We moved to the US when I was two, but I had to wait another twenty years to become a US citizen. I identified with Mahmoud, and of course the elaborate deceit of the transfer scheme troubled me, the fact that its victims were young, susceptible Palestinians whose stories were forgotten while the people who dreamed up the scheme are still heroes in Israel.
In 2013 I began a PhD in anthropology: I had access to archives, libraries and an array of generous teachers and colleagues. When I told an Israeli refusenik classmate that I was researching the Paraguay transfers, he shared a document that he had come across by chance in the Israeli state archives and photographed on his phone. It was a statement of approval by the Israeli government for an operation to transfer sixty thousand Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to Paraguay:
Decision Shin.Taf/24 of the Ministerial Committee for the Administered Territories, May 29, 1969, Arab Immigration:
Approve Mossad suggestion as to the emigration of 60,000 Arabs from the administered territories according to the following arrangement:
a) The Israeli government shall be responsible for the costs of the travel to Paraguay
b) The Israeli government will make sure that each émigré will be equipped with $100 meant to cover initial costs of stay
c) The Israeli government will pay the government of Paraguay $33 for each émigré
d) With the approval of the agreement, a sum of $350,000 will be paid for the emigration of 10,000 people.
There was very little about the Paraguay project in the Palestinian histories I was reading at the time. It cropped up briefly in the work of the Palestinian historian Nur Masalha, and in ‘A History of the Concept of “Transfer” in Zionism’ (1989), an essay by the anti-Zionist scholar Israel Shahak which argues that the expulsion of Palestinians has always been foundational to Zionist thought. Shahak referred to ‘A Final Solution of the Palestinian Problem?’, a 1988 newspaper article by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv exploring the debate among Israeli officials about how to ‘dilute’ the Palestinian population in the post-1967 occupied territories. In Melman and Raviv’s account, Israel’s then prime minister, Levi Eshkol, was for full ethnic cleansing: ‘I want them all to go, even if they go to the moon.’ Israeli historians, including Tom Segev, have written about the many destinations dreamed up by Israel for an inconvenient, indigenous population. The need to rid Palestine of Palestinians became all the more urgent after Israel expanded beyond the Green Line. Segev explored the topic in 1967: Israel, the War and the Year that Transformed the Middle East. His findings were based on an extensive review of Israeli state archives, but he makes no mention of Paraguay. Neither does the Israeli scholar and journalist Avi Raz in The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War, even though he ‘read every pertinent document in every available archive’.
But then, in 2011, John Tofik Karam, a young scholar working on the Arab diaspora in Brazil, published a piece in Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies. Karam had come across the Paraguay programme while researching Arab migrations to South America. He was relieved to hear from the niece of one of the deportees: without my account, he told me, hardly anyone would believe what he’d written. He had found eleven testimonies from transferees in the Paraguay state archives and several newspaper reports about the trial of the two Palestinians involved in the embassy shooting, Talal al-Dimassi and Khaled Darwish Kassab (Khaled’s family name is a guess made by Paraguayan journalists). In 2013 he published a longer piece about the deportations in the Journal of Latin American Studies; he sent me his findings from the archives and contact details for al-Dimassi, whom he had tracked down.
There was something perverse about Israel’s choice of Asunción as a destination for dispossessed Palestinians. Alfredo Stroessner had been running Paraguay as a military dictatorship for fifteen years when the transfers began. It was also where Nazi war criminals – Josef Mengele is the most famous – had gone to hide. More interesting for Palestinians is the under-reported legacy of indigenous resistance in the country. Guaraní, an indigenous language repressed in schools for decades, is spoken by 90 per cent of the population. Today it is recognised in the constitution as a national language alongside Spanish.
I arrived in Paraguay in June 2014, and went to meet Talal, a cheerful, charismatic figure in his seventies. He spoke fluent Spanish and Guaraní; he was married to a Paraguayan; he was a grandfather. He had an astonishing range of friends, including his former prison warden. He lived in a working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Asunción and worked as a halal butcher in a German-owned beef processing facility. Like Mahmoud, he was a child of 1948 refugees and grew up in the camps in Gaza. He had trained in UNRWA’s vocational schools as an electrician, though unlike Mahmoud, he didn’t volunteer to go to South America: he had just opened his own shop in Gaza City when he was arrested for resisting the Israeli occupation. He was carted off to the Patra travel agency, which arranged his expulsion. When his flight took off, he told me, the pain was hard to describe: ‘Your heart feels like it’s leaving your body.’ My uncle, he added, must have felt the same.
In Asunción, Benyamin Weiser Varon, the Israeli ambassador, fixed up Talal and a number of other deportees with Brazilian ID and promised them work. He then arranged for them to be sent to the Tri-Border Area, in the hope that they would vanish. Talal and Khaled weren’t prepared to be fobbed off so easily, and made their way back to Asunción to confront Varon at the embassy. They were told Varon was out, but they knew they were being lied to. They made their way into the building, where they were challenged by armed guards. As Talal remembers it, they wrestled the weapons from the guards and opened fire on the ambassador, who was sheltering behind Edna Peer, the consular secretary. After the shooting, Varon parroted the Israeli line that it had been a PLO-orchestrated operation. Two decades later he wrote in his memoirs that he was aware of Palestinians arriving in Paraguay, but feigned ignorance as to the reason. Edna’s widower, Moshe Peer, who handled consular affairs, was instructed by Mossad not to talk about what happened for thirty years. In 2004 he finally spoke out. Thousands of Palestinians, he said, had been transferred to Paraguay. Other Israeli operatives argued that the numbers were much lower. Either way, the shooting brought the operation to an abrupt halt.
Talal and Khaled’s trial dragged on for nearly two years. The Paraguayan newspapers called it the ‘Palestinian case’ and followed it closely. Israel demanded that the men be extradited, but nothing came of it. According to Talal, there were three Israeli-sponsored attempts to kill him in prison, one of which involved a poisoned cake. The guards moved him to a more secure area and he was put in charge of maintaining the prison’s electrical system. He and Khaled had been sentenced to thirteen years, but only served eight. Talal now argues that Israel owes him financial reparations and that he should be allowed to travel to Palestine, a right he has so far been denied. He doesn’t know what became of Khaled or the other Palestinians.
Perhaps it was the shooting at the embassy that made my uncle decide to get out of Paraguay. Mahmoud had heard that there was a Palestinian diaspora in Chile (it has the largest Palestinian population outside the Middle East). He found work in the textile industry in Santiago and Valparaíso, and stayed in the country for about fifteen years, before heading back to the Middle East.
In 2015 I interviewed Yossi Melman, co-author of the piece that broke the transfer story in 1988. He told me that a central role in the operation was played by Ada Sereni, an Italian Zionist from a wealthy Roman family. In the wake of the 1967 war, she was hired by Levi Eshkol to ‘persuade’ Palestinians in Gaza to emigrate: it was hoped that her links with the Italian establishment would facilitate transfers to Libya. Whatever became of that idea, the Israelis settled in the end on Paraguay. Melman thought Sereni was an amateur, incapable of carrying out a plan for tens of thousands of transfers. He also argued that the Paraguay project was conceived in haste and doomed to failure. During our conversation, he told me that he had been serving in Gaza with the Israeli military at the time but had no idea of the scheme’s existence.
Sereni is much admired in Israel. She has been commemorated on an Israeli stamp; she is the subject of several books and a TV series. She and her husband, Enzo, were committed Zionists and anti-Nazis. After Enzo was murdered at Dachau in 1944, Ada, a member of Haganah, played a key role in the clandestine Zionist networks that brought Italian Jews to Palestine by ship. The cargo included weapons, and many of the passengers were Zionist militants. Her experience as a people smuggler was probably a factor behind Israel’s decision to assign her to the Palestinian transfers. She effectively oversaw the deportation racket. As the memo states, Stroessner’s regime received $33 from Tel Aviv – about $250 in today’s values – for every Palestinian dispatched to Paraguay.
The Patra travel agency, which existed before the founding of Israel, still operates in Tel Aviv. The agency and its owner, Gad Greiver, are named in nearly all the testimonies of the Palestinian deportees in Paraguay’s state archives. In 2018, an Israeli colleague visited Patra and made inquiries on my behalf. An elderly woman in the office regaled him with stories about the agency’s long involvement in human smuggling and arms trafficking. She gave him Greiver’s phone number. Later my colleague called him while I listened in. Like the woman at the agency, Greiver was proud of Patra’s clandestine work, but at the mention of Paraguay, he ended the call.
I suspect that Israeli silence about the Paraguay experiment has to do with the fact that it was a failure. Israel tends to glamorise its clandestine successes in hindsight and downplay its failures. It has no guilt about paying a right-wing dictatorship in Latin America that sheltered Holocaust criminals, and none whatsoever about the fate of Palestinian deportees. Patra still has offices in a chic neighbourhood of Tel Aviv, and is run by Greiver’s son. Most Israeli historians agree that the expulsion of Palestinians was necessary for the creation of Israel. ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,’ Benny Morris said in 2004. Mahmoud died in 2021. His children and grandchildren remain stateless and scattered.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.