Unclassified minutes of a secret Israeli cabinet meeting held 51 years ago reveal that Israel planned a massive transfer of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to the tiny Latin American country of Paraguay.
The protocols of the May 1969 government vote exposed an Israeli-Paraguayan agreement to “encourage the emigration” of 60,000 Palestinians from territories Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War.
The transcript, revealed on Tuesday, detailed each nation’s commitments, including Israeli funding for flights transferring Palestinians who agreed to leave the Gaza Strip, a $100 grant per deportee, and a payment of $33 per person to the Paraguayan government, which in turn promised the refugees permanent residence and a four-year path to citizenship.
At the time the accord was ratified, Paraguayan tyrant Alfredo Stroessner was 15 years into what would become the longest dictatorship in Latin American history and was better known for sheltering top Nazi officers than for welcoming refugees. Notorious SS doctor Josef Mengele was among the Third Reich élite who fled to Paraguay after World War II. Stroessner’s interest in the Palestinian immigrants was likely connected to his nation’s urgent need for agricultural workers who could help pull his cash-strapped and resource-poor nation into subsistence.
Details of the scheme confirm long-held Palestinian claims that Israel, from its inception, wanted only to rid itself of the native Arabs living on land under its rule.
Kamal Cumsille, a University of Chile professor of Arab studies and an expert on Arab migration to Latin America, told The Daily Beast, “There is no doubt Israel maintained a hostile policy aimed at Palestinians leaving,” but said he “never heard of an actual agreement” for the transfer of Palestinians until the exposé, which was first revealed in a broadcast by Eran Cicurel, foreign editor for the Israeli Kan News.
The shock does not stop there. Despite its importance, the Israeli-Paraguayan scheme appears to have been stymied by poor planning, blundering Mossad agents, and a quickly overlooked terrorist attack that left one Israeli dead and helped launch the wave of Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) terror against Israeli targets that characterized much of the '70s and '80s.
It is unclear how many Palestinians emigrated to Paraguay within the short-lived plan’s framework. In a 2004 interview, Meir Novik, a police commander involved in the operation, said “a few dozen Palestinians” had moved. Speaking with Cicurel, Paraguayan authorities concurred.
But Moshe Peer, an Israeli diplomat who in 1970 served as Israel's consul to Paraguay and as the Israeli embassy’s first secretary, said in a 2004 interview that thousands had been transferred.
On May 4, 1970, a year after the Israeli government formally approved of the plan, two Palestinian transferees armed with rifles forced their way into the Israeli embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay, with the aim of assassinating Ambassador Benjamin Varon.
When told Varon was out that day, Khaled Derwish Kassab, 21, and Talal al-Demasi, 20, instead shot and killed Edna Peer, 34, the ambassador’s secretary who was also the diplomat Moshe Peer’s wife and a mother of three.
Two years later, a Paraguayan court sentenced the pair, identified as PLO members, to 13 years in jail.
By then, Israel had become the target of much more ambitious attacks by PLO terrorists, including the 1972 massacre of its Olympic team in Munich.
The strikes didn’t stop, including two now infamous attacks perpetrated by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a far-left faction of the PLO. In 1976, an Air France jet destined for Tel Aviv was hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda. Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed while commanding the successful rescue mission. In 1985, the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship sailing from Egypt to the Israeli port of Ashdod, was commandeered, resulting in the death of American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, 69.
Cicurel unearthed the damning 1969 protocol in a tranche of recently declassified documents. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. “It appeared to be a massive conspiracy that not coincidentally was concealed from public view.”
Allusions to a transfer plan have slipped out over the years, but never any information hinting at its true dimensions.
In 1969, with Israel still basking in the euphoria of its 1967 victory over the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, the nation’s leaders had no idea how to proceed regarding almost one million Palestinians now under their rule.
Israel had evaded the issue of Palestinian refugees displaced by its 1948 war of independence. According to Tom Segev, the preeminent Israeli historian and expert on the nation’s establishment, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, envisioned “a Jewish state in the land of Israel, with maximum territory and minimum Arabs.”
Of the estimated 950,000 Arabs living in the British-controlled land which became Israel, close to 80 percent fled or were expelled during the war. About 150,000 remained, becoming Israeli citizens.
“Maximum territory doesn’t mean all the land,” explained Segev, whose most recent book is the 2018 Ben Gurion biography A State at Any Cost. “It never has. In 1948, Ben Gurion ordered the army not to extend to east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, not because we didn’t have the force to conquer it—we did—but because so many Arabs lived there. His aim was as much land as possible, with as few Arabs as possible living on it. Whenever the possibility of an Israeli expansion to land with a major Arab population came up, the answer was no.”
Yet 19 years later, Prime Minister Golda Meir confronted the conundrum of the fate of the same stateless Palestinians, who, she said in an interview, “have nowhere to turn for their needs than us.” About 300,000 of them lived in Gaza.
Meir weighed various options, including asking Egypt and Jordan, who ruled over the West Bank and Gaza until the 1967 war, for help.
“For many years, Israeli diplomats stationed from Australia to Brazil were charged with handling the matter of refugees, with the aim of settling them elsewhere,” Segev says. “It was the desire of the state of Israel to solve the problem this way. So for Golda, this plan was just another in a long line of similar schemes.”
Little is known of other initiatives to transfer Palestinians, but the Paraguay plan was singularly concrete and ambitious. And, according to Moshe Peer, it was also a botched “security failure.”
“If they knew a group like this was coming to Paraguay, why was the embassy not secured?” he asked in a largely unnoticed 2004 interview with the Israeli newspaper Maariv. In what appears to be the only public statement he ever made on the events, Peer disclosed an excruciating coincidence: he was the diplomat responsible for implementing the Palestinian resettlement plan.
Three weeks before the embassy shooting, Peer found himself rescuing a Mossad agent who was arrested after complaints from a few of the transferred Palestinians, who sensed they’d been abandoned without money and without work.
Mosssad agents provided the operation’s backbone, scouting out possible émigrés in Gaza and promising resettlement in Paraguay.
In the week after his wife’s murder, one of them made Peer swear not to breathe a word of the plan for at least 30 years.
Peer said that Gazan refugees “were assured they’d become landowners, that this was their promised land. The Mossad agent who accompanied them promised he’d return in two or three weeks to see how they were doing, and never came back. They were told ‘start working, you’ll get the money later.’ They felt they’d been set up.”
“They looked for the ambassador and when they couldn’t find him, they shot my wife,” he concluded. “My family was the victim of this transfer.”