Middle East - On a Knife Edge

Socialist Voice Summer 2001

For the people of Israel/Palestine the hopes raised by the Oslo Agreement and the peace process are a distant memory. The drift of events is towards increased conflict, possibly to war, certainly not in the direction of peace.

By Peter Hadden

In the Territories there are elements of civil war in the almost daily clashes between the various Palestinian militias and the settlers. There is the danger of similar sectarian clashes within Israel itself. And beyond this there is the added danger that these events could spill out of control triggering a regional war involving Israel and the surrounding Arab regimes.

Could it come to this? Certainly the events of the last few months have shown how the situation could unravel. Since April we have had the temporary reoccupation of parts of Gaza by the IDF, the death of five people in a suicide bomb in the coastal town of Netayna, F16 fighters used in retaliatory attacks against targets in Gaza and the West Bank and then the horror of the suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv night-club that left 20 dead.

The Sharon cabinet went into emergency session after this incident but under pressure from the US administration, held back from immediate retaliation. While leaning mainly on Israel, US imperialism still wants to play a balancing act in the region, leaning also on the compliant Arab regimes. Bush has backed the Mitchell proposals for a cease-fire by all the Palestinian groups, for an end to new settlement building, and the opening of a door to future negotiations.

A regional war?

The ruling elites of Syria, Jordan and Egypt do not want a war that would arouse their own populations and destabilise the region. And for the Israeli ruling class a war to reconquer Gaza and the West Bank or to seize any further Arab territory makes no sense.

Two decades ago they were able to smash their way to Beirut only to discover that it is one thing to use their vastly superior military might to grab territory; it is another thing to try to hold it against a hostile local population. Just over 12 months ago the Israeli Defence Force was forced to beat a hasty retreat from Lebanon.

The background to Oslo was the seven years of the first Intifada. The stone throwing youth of Gaza and the West Bank could not militarily defeat the IDF, but neither could the IDF crush this rebellion.

The purpose behind Oslo, from the Israeli point of view, was to cede a few parcels of land to Arafat and allow him to create a Palestinian security apparatus that would do the job of containing the Palestinian youth that the IDF was unable to do. A new war that ended with the reoccupation of Palestinian Authority territory would leave the IDF where they were before Oslo, trying to contain a hostile population with the added complication that this time the area is bristling with weapons.

The fact that the vested interests of imperialism and of the local rulers is not for war does not mean that they will be able to prevent war taking place. The Western powers did not want war in the Balkans but were unable to avoid it.

Attacks on Palestinians

The fact that all sides of the conflict have in words accepted the Mitchell plan does not mean that any of them will be able to put it into effect. After Oslo the Israeli ruling class continued, even accelerated, the building of settlements. Now Sharon says he will comply with Mitchell over settlements. Yet in late June he announced proposals for new housing in Maaleh Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank. The excuse that this is merely the natural demographic expansion of existing settlements doesn't stand up given that there are some 20,000 family units unoccupied in the existing settlements.

This issue is a running sore with the Palestinians. For the people living in the occupied territories the settlements are just another of the promises broken since Oslo. The Oslo accord was never going to measure up as a solution. Arguably it might have had a longer life if the Israeli ruling class had been prepared to follow it up with at least some concessions on those issues left over for the negotiating table.

Instead of concessions all that the Palestinians got was more of the same: no movement on settlements, the ongoing attempt to turn Jerusalem into a Jewish city and the same discrimination on water.

Within the cantons of territory that were ceded the Palestinians got the corrupt and undemocratic rule of Arafat and his cronies. While the restrictions on working in Israel, the corruption and the starving of funds made things worse for the Palestinian masses the elite rulers were able to supply themselves with new cars and other luxuries. Much of the money meant for services ended up in the pockets of this elite. Their priorities were seen in the decision to build a casino in Jericho while health services are so starved of funding that 63% of primary health care is still provided by NGOs.

The brutal response of the Israeli government to the second Intifada has worsened this situation. Entry permits to 81,000 Palestinians to allow them to work inside Israel have been withdrawn. Unemployment in the territories has shot up to 38%. Over one million people in these areas now live below the poverty line.

Intifada inside Israel

The mood of the Palestinian youth is - understandably - for conflict, not peace. Arafat might offer a cease-fire and arrest of militants but his ability to deliver any of this is seriously in question.

It may be that the present situation of relatively low intensity conflict, punctuated by sporadic upsurges of more intense violence and by periodic attempts at negotiation, may continue for a period. Within this context the possibility exists that the violence could escalate out of control leading to war.

It is possible that it could be the million-strong Palestinian population within Israel who upset the present delicate political and military balance. The Israeli ruling class have been extremely fortunate that, up to now, their policy of viciously repressing this community has, by and large, been successful. With notable exceptions, such as the 'land day' movement, the Palestinians in Israel have remained relatively quiescent. They stood apart from the first Intifada.

Now there are signs that this population have had enough and that a new and much more confrontational mood is starting to develop. When the Intifada began last autumn it ignited a movement within Israel.

At the beginning of October there were violent clashes in Arab towns, notably Umn-al-Fahm to the north. 13 Palestinians were killed. In some areas clashes developed between Jews and Palestinians.

More recently, after the Tel Aviv disco bomb, a number of incidents took place that showed the more determined, less servile mood of Palestinians. A mosque close to the scene of the bomb was stoned by a crowd of Jews. In the past the Arabs inside would have cowered for their lives. This time they came out to fight back and defend the mosque. When news spread to the nearby, mainly Palestinian, town of Jaffa, Jewish cars driving through were stoned.

The Palestinians in Israel are a tinderbox ready to explode. And if an explosion comes it is easy to see how it could quickly take the form of inter-community fighting. Last October the outlines of what might happen were briefly apparent. Then, looking into an abyss, there was a drawing back on both sides. The government, in a reverse of previous policy, announced that funds would be put into Palestinian areas.

This U-turn, which in any case has not been properly implemented, has been too little and too late. The problem now for the Israeli rulers is that an escalation of the Intifada, or a vicious military clampdown in the territories, or both, might have the effect of triggering a new movement inside Israel.

The possibility of an internal as well as an external Intifada, and that the elements of civil war already present in the territories would spread to Israel, is a nightmare scenario for the Israeli ruling class. Under these circumstances the regime might go for a different military solution: unilateral withdrawal from the territories, a retreat behind 'defensible frontiers' and the expulsion of the one million Palestinians from Israel.

This idea, which has always been an option in Israeli military thinking, would not bring stability. As in 1948 it would produce a wave of refugees who could not be incorporated either into a Palestinian state or into the surrounding Arab regimes. There is no possibility of lasting stability in the region under capitalism. In reality the ruling elites on both sides have failed the people of the region, Arab and Jew. The Israeli ruling class are incapable of delivering either the security or the decent standard of life that the Jewish population want.

Growth of fundamentalism

Neither Arafat nor the rulers of the Arab states are capable of delivering a genuinely independent Palestinian state, let alone a state that offers the Palestinian masses a reasonable standard of life. Arafat has no strategy for the Intifada, seeing it only as a bargaining chip to allow him to put some pressure on the Israelis during negotiations.

As Arafat loses support, the fundamentalist groups, notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are gaining ground especially among the youth. These groups are now adopting the methods of struggle of the PLO in the past, particularly the tactic of terrorist attacks inside Israel.

When carried out by more secular groups like Fatah and the PFLP such methods proved counterproductive, succeeding only in driving the Jewish working class to close ranks and support their rulers. A new war against Jewish civilians carried out by fundamentalist groups is likely to provoke even fiercer opposition within Israel and will have no better results.

Anything that the Palestinians have achieved has been through the pressure of the mass uprisings of the youth, not through individual terrorism. The way forward is to develop the Intifada as a mass movement. Rather than a struggle headed by unaccountable militias it should be democratically controlled with an elected leadership.

But military means alone will not bring a Palestinian state. To defeat the Israeli ruling class the Palestinians would need to divide the Jewish population and to win the working class Israelis to support the withdrawal of the IDF from the occupied territories.

This cannot be done through attacks on Jewish civilians. Nor can it be done if the struggle is for an undemocratic capitalist state like the surrounding Arab regimes.

Were the Intifada to develop into a struggle against the corrupt rulers of the PA as well as against the IDF, and for a socialist Palestine it would have a huge effect inside Israel. An appeal to the Jewish working class and to the conscript ranks of the IDF, not to oppose this struggle but to stand alongside the Palestinian masses to bring about a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel would change everything.

There are those on the left internationally - groups like the Socialist Workers Party in Ireland - who dismiss any prospect of winning any section of the Jewish population to a socialist struggle exactly as they previously dismissed any prospect of ever winning Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Class divisions in Israel

Their attitude to the Jewish working class is as ill-informed as their past attitude to Protestants. The Jewish population is not one homogeneous reactionary mass. In fact it is an extremely stratified population. The Sephardic Jews - those of Middle Eastern origin - suffer discrimination to the degree that the living standards of many are much closer to those of Israeli Palestinians than to the elite rulers.

Class anger runs deep in Israeli society. In recent years it has been expressed in a series of important strikes and in a massive movement, including a series of general strikes, against privatisation.

The effects of the world economic crisis are starting to be felt. The textile industry has been decimated. The IT sector, which up to recently was hailed as the new hope for the economy, is also experiencing crisis with cuts and job losses.

On top of this the government has recently announced a 4% cut in public spending across all departments in order to meet the increased military costs of suppressing the Intifada.

The Versailles ballroom disaster in Jerusalem, in which 23 people at a wedding celebration lost their lives, produced an enormous wave of anger. This was one of the worst atrocities ever inflicted on Israelis but it was inflicted by Jews, not by Palestinians.

The ballroom floor collapsed because the cheap construction method was unsafe, because the owner removed supporting pillars so he could pack more people in and because the licence to function was gained by the greasing of palms.

As the reality of what had happened and why it had happened began to sink in there was a sense of outrage among ordinary Israelis. Their anger was directed against the Israeli establishment who were held to be responsible. When members of Maavak Socialisti, the Israeli section of the CWI, took to the streets of Jerusalem to protest they got a huge response.

Had a leadership been there to give expression to this anger this could have developed into a massive movement of ordinary people against the corrupt Jewish establishment. Unfortunately the Tel Aviv bomb one week later defected the angry mood, demonstrating the real role of individual terrorism which is to lower the consciousness of the working class.

Those who write off the Jewish working class will object that while there may be class anger on economic questions there is a closing of ranks and a universally reactionary mood when it comes to the national question. In fact there is a great deal of uncertainty among Jews, including among the working class, on this.

Socialist alternative

People can see that the peace process has failed and that war is increasingly likely. But there is also an understanding that war will solve nothing. The idea of short wars and quick victories now belongs to past generations. The more recent experience is of two Intifadas and of retreat from Lebanon.

Far from a closing of minds, a big section of the population are searching for an alternative to the twin dead ends of capitalist peace or capitalist war. The socialist alternative put forward by Maavak Socialisti - a socialist Israel and a socialist Palestine existing within a socialist confederation of the region - is the only way out.

The main objection raised is not that this is a bad idea, but that it is too far off. The answer to that is to bring it closer by building a powerful socialist movement among Jews and Palestinians to fight for it.

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