Israel was awash with fears and rumours of a new conflict in the summer. The Israeli air force carried out a military exercise which was a dry-run to prepare for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. In the preceding months, the military elite seriously discussed a new invasion of Gaza as rockets from the territory continued to be fired at Israeli settlement towns like Sderot.
The prospect of increased bloodshed then receded as a ceasefire between the Israeli state and the Gaza militias, brokered by the Egyptian regime, came into effect in June.
KEVIN SIMPSON looks at the present situation in this conflict-torn region of the Middle East, summarises the roots of the conflict, and touches on the Socialist Party’s views on what is happening and how there can be an end to the suffering and insecurity of the people on both sides of the divide.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert triggered new talk about peace negotiations with the Palestinians when he said that he thought Israel had to give up most of the West Bank and Gaza, and return the Golan Heights to Syria: “Time to reach a deal is so short, it’s distressing”, he stated.
This view represents the fear of part of the Israeli ruling class and sections of the imperialist powers that events may slip totally out of control. In the cycles of increased and reduced conflict, this danger is always present. In between these phases, the imperialist powers and their regional representatives raise the prospect of more negotiations – and under some circumstances may consider more serious concessions.
But whatever the concessions, all the capitalist and imperialist peace deals have been unable to fulfil the aspirations of the Palestinians for an end to their economic and national oppression. They have also failed to give security to Israeli Jews.
Imperialism’s talk about peace is to prevent an explosion of anger amongst Palestinians and the wider Arab population about the poverty and oppression that they experience daily.The Annapolis peace negotiations in the US last year were intended to bolster Palestinian Authority president Mahmood Abbas and the PLO as well as increase the pressure and western capitalist sanctions against the islamist Palestinian party Hamas.
The unfolding world economic crisis will have far reaching effects, but particularly in regions like the Middle East. The situation is already catastrophic for the poorest sections of Palestinian society. Mass movements against price rises, growing poverty and the corrupt elite could develop. Some Palestinians may have had illusions that Barak Obama as US president might have meant a change. Instead Obama has promised the Israeli regime $30 billion in aid and Joe Biden, his running mate, declared at a meeting of American Jewish supporters: “I am a Zionist”.
Events from afar may look calmer but tension is beginning to rise across the Middle East. The ceasefire between Hamas and the Israeli regime will run out in a few weeks time. While Hamas won the elections in January 2006 as a result of widespread disgust at the record of the PLO in power, its policies haven’t led to an easing of Palestinian suffering.
Palestinians see Hamas leaders as much less corrupt than their PLO counterparts and more militant in their rhetoric against Israeli aggression. But Hamas has reactionary theocratic policies which ultimately will set back the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Its regular support of rocket attacks and suicide bombings against Israeli citizens increased support amongst Jewish workers for their ruling elite. The Socialist Party opposes these methods.
However, we support the right of the Palestinians to defend themselves with armed action if necessary. The defensive action should be under the democratic direction of the wider population, organised through grassroots committees, rather than by secretive militia that often degenerate into criminal extortion and that can be infiltrated by the Israeli security services.
Disunity continues between Fatah, that heads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas, that controls the Gaza strip, with both sides blaming each other for lack of progress towards a ‘unity’ government. Fatah-led unions have recently organised strike action in Gazan schools and hospitals against decisions taken by Hamas. Hamas has persecuted Fatah supporters in Gaza and Fatah has taken similar action against Hamas supporters in the West Bank.
One Gazan woman gave voice to the frustration felt by many Palestinians when she said: “I’m fed up with all the factions. I have a house of ten children and who is feeding us? Hamas or Fatah? No one, of course!”
In Israel there is also growing instability. Tzipi Livni, leader of the ruling Kadima party following the resignation of Ehud Olmert, has failed to assemble a new governing coalition. So a general election is likely early next year and it is possible that the right-wing Likud party led by Benjamin Netanyahu could gain more seats than Kadima.
Right-wing politicians and media are whipping up a campaign of anti-Arab propaganda. A group of Jewish teenagers lynched two Palestinians in Jerusalem on the last holocaust memorial day. Recently clashes broke out between poor Israeli Jews and Arabs in Akko, a mixed city in northern Israel. One Israeli journalist commented: “Both sides, the Jews and Arabs feel like they are being screwed up, abandoned and weak; there are many poor people and great distress in Akko – this is the war of the poor against the poor”.
These events show what could happen if no working class alternative is built to struggle against poverty and oppression. There have been many struggles on both sides of the national divide; what is needed is a socialist explanation of the cause of war and how society could be run in a different way.
The Socialist Party believes that genuine peace is achievable. However this is only possible if working people – both Israeli Jewish and Palestinian – negotiate such a deal on the basis of recognising their common interests, and building a socialist alternative as a way to achieve them. Many would regard this as a utopian dream. However, every capitalist ‘solution’ has in fact led to more conflict.
Movements need to be built amongst Israeli Jews and the Palestinians which fight against capitalism and the corrupt regional elites and in defence of the national rights of all working people. These movements should defend the idea that all working people should benefit from the wealth of the Middle East.
In this way, trust and cooperation could be built between the two sides, opening the way to real, genuine peace. The alternative is stark – a continued cycle of bloody conflict.
The Socialist Party supports:
– The immediate withdrawal of the Israeli army from the occupied territories. The establishment in the Palestinian territories of grassroots committees, to provide the basis for genuine and democratic workers’ leadership. For the right of these committees to be armed, under the control of the majority, for the purposes of defence.
– A mass struggle of the Palestinians, under their democratic control, to raise their standard of living and to fight for genuine national liberation.
– An end to the use of Israeli soldiers as cannon fodder by the Israeli government and army generals.
– A socialist Palestine alongside a socialist Israel as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East, with the right of return of refugees and guaranteed democratic rights for all national minorities.
Living under siege
The Oslo accords brought about the Palestinian Authority, ostensibly to ‘govern’ areas of the West Bank and Gaza. However, these areas are in reality an open air prison camp made up of besieged enclaves of Palestinian communities living in destitution.
The Israeli government is building a separation wall which aims to surround the West Bank and protect the main Israeli Jewish settlements around Jerusalem. Up to now it is:
* 488 kilometres out of a 845 kilometre long wall/fence which, with its military exclusion areas, is 60 metres wide and sometimes up to nine metres high.
* Completely cutting off some Palestinian areas from their surroundings – nearly 12% of the entire area of the West Bank has been affected including 497,000 of its Palestinian residents.
In addition, there are now 609 Israeli army road blocks and barriers throughout the West Bank, which is an area one quarter the size of Wales. As a result of the restriction of movement, 45% of the population lives in poverty.
The Israeli army withdrew from Gaza in 2005. However, the Israeli regime has implemented a policy of military and economic strangulation of the territory since then in response to rocket attacks against towns like Sderot and the Hamas election victory in January 2006. This has involved several land invasions and repeated bombing raids.
The Israeli government has refused to pass on tax receipts to the Palestinian authorities. Over 95% of local industry is closed and 80% of Gaza’s population rely on aid to survive. In the year following April 2007, according to the World Health Organisation, 51 Gazans died because the Israeli army refused to allow them to travel out of their territory to get medical treatment.
Over 600 rockets were fired on Israel from Gaza from 2005 to the most recent ceasefire, killing 11 Israeli Jews. In that period, 1,333 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli armed forces, 233 of them children.
Poverty in Israel
Israel’s Arabs have always lived in poverty conditions. However, Israeli Jewish workers and their families have seen their living standards plummet over the last two decades. The welfare state which protected the poorest Israeli Jews from destitution and encouraged support for the state through guaranteed jobs for those who completed their army service, has gone for ever.
As well as pursuing a policy of brutal military oppression against the Palestinians, the Israeli ruling class has implemented harsh neo-liberal measures which have slashed the social safety net to ribbons. This means:
* Up to 15% of the working population are employed by manpower agencies on poverty wages with absolutely no job security or rights to organise.
* Over 60% of the population earned less than $1,450 a month in 2006.
* 1.6 million Israelis, half of them children, live in poverty.
* One third of all holocaust victims live below the official government poverty line because of cuts in benefits and price rises.
As a result of these attacks, wealth polarisation has increased exponentially, with the top 5% of Israeli society earning 7.5 times that of the bottom 5%. Anger and tension have risen in tandem. The last year has seen strikes by teachers, railway workers and taxi drivers amongst others.
There has been a collapse in the authority of the institutions of capitalist rule. Why? In large part, because corruption and scandal has become a way of life for the elite. During the last couple of years the justice minister was convicted of sexual assault; and the army chief of staff, the police commissioner, the president, the head of taxation and now the prime minister, Olmert, have resigned because of scandals.
Roots of the conflict
Why is war and conflict part of modern capitalist history in the Middle East?
The main cause is the political, military and economic intervention of the major western imperialist powers to defend what they regard as their political and economic interests, in particular oil. Western imperialism, using the carrot of economic aid and the sticks of ‘diplomatic’ isolation, sanctions and military threats, has obtained the open support of sections of the Arab elite and the whole Israeli capitalist class to do this.
Historically, Arab people (including the Palestinians) lived under feudal regimes whose leaders were puppets of the Turkish Ottoman empire and then British and French imperialism. This experience saw the development of Arab nationalist ideas from the end of nineteenth century which called for an end to foreign domination.
Jewish people, like many minorities, faced periodic state oppression in the countries they lived in in Europe and tsarist Russia during periods of economic crisis. Governments whipped up fear and prejudice about minorities to divert the anger of the rest of the population away from the real causes of economic crisis.
Zionism developed in the nineteenth century, with its main support amongst the Jewish middle classes and academics, as a reaction to this oppression. It was based on the idea of creating a national homeland for the Jews. This home was to be Palestine, regarded by the movement’s founders as: “a land for a people [the Jews] for a people without a land”.
However, Palestine was very much inhabited – by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. When Jews migrated there from the end of the nineteenth century onwards, tensions and clashes soon developed with the Palestinian Arabs who lived there.
The Ottoman empire finally disintegrated as a result of the First World War, where Turkey sided with the German elite against the allied powers. Arab leaders were promised an independent Arab state by British imperialism after the war if they led an uprising against the Turkish Ottoman empire in support of the allied nations’ war aims. However British and French imperialism came to a secret agreement (Sykes Picot) which divided the Middle East up into spheres of influence under their control. The promise of Arab independence came to nothing.
With the development of fascism and the coming to power of Hitler in Germany, Zionism gained widespread support amongst Jews internationally. The allied powers did nothing to prevent socialists and communists, trade unionists, gays and lesbians, and then six million Jews from being butchered in Hitler’s concentration camps.
The holocaust was a huge impetus for Jewish migration to Palestine. Fleeing the horrors of war and capitalist economic depression, many Jews had radical ideas and saw their new homeland as a secure place where poverty and oppression would be forgotten.
But these ideas did not take into account the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinians who lived there. Clashes developed between Jewish migrants and Palestinians. The former developed armed militias that through fear, intimidation and military action drove the majority of the Palestinian population from their homes following the declaration of the independent state of Israel in 1948. The United Nations, which had decided that Palestine should have an independent Palestinian and a Jewish state in 1947, responded by recognising Israel. By supporting the creation of an Israeli state based on the dispossession of the Palestinian people, imperialism allowed the creation of a conflict which has lasted to this day.
The forerunners of the Socialist Party opposed the creation of Israel and warned that rather than guaranteeing the security and economic well-being of Israeli Jews, it would become a bloody trap for them.
US imperialism stepped up economic aid to Israel in the 1950s as a result of the revolutionary movements that swept the Arab world, threatening capitalism’s long term interests in the regions’s oil reserves. Israeli capitalism has received an average of $4 billion a year in US loans and economic aid from that time.
Israel’s ruling class encouraged Jewish immigration from all over the world with promises of physical and economic security for those who came. Israel had one of the best welfare states in the world for its Jewish population, to ensure its cohesion. This was necessary because they had to be prepared to fight to defend the Israeli state in wars against surrounding Arab nations. In reality this meant defending the Israeli ruling elite’s power and prestige.
Since Israel’s formation, there have been five wars and two Palestinian uprisings (intifadas). In 1967, Israel attacked surrounding Arab countries and occupied Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), formed in 1964, was the organisation that most Palestinians came to regard as the main force committed to their national liberation. However the PLO, led by Yasser Arafat, combined ineffectual policies of diplomatic pressure, with military attacks on Israeli citizens. Its leadership grew comfortable in exile and wasn’t accountable to the Palestinian people it claimed to represent.
This didn’t stop the Palestinian working class and poor from being prepared to undertake mass struggle against the oppression they faced. This in part explains the development of the first and second intifada.
Following the first Gulf war, US imperialism pressurised Israel and the PLO leadership into ‘peace’ negotiations which resulted in the two sides signing the Oslo peace accords in 1993. These accords, portrayed as a first step to Palestinian statehood, made the PLO the new oppressors of the Palestinians. The occupied territories were carved into numerous disconnected enclaves, separated by ever-expanding Israeli Jewish settlements built on the most fertile land, with the best water supply.
Despite propaganda about peace, it is clear from all the negotiations that have taken place amongst regional and world leaders that they cannot provide long lasting solutions to the problems of the Israeli and Palestinian working and middle classes. In fact, conditions for the majority have worsened immeasurably and tension in the region has increased.