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Palestine: a step back from civil war?

PALESTINIAN SOCIETY is disintegrating, with two processes feeding off each other. One is a burgeoning social and economic crisis of devastating proportions. This is caused mainly by the financial strangulation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) by western imperialist powers and their regional client, Israeli capitalism, as well as by continuing Israel Defence Force (IDF) attacks in Gaza and the West Bank. The second is the development of huge tensions between Hamas, now in government, and its ousted rival, Fatah, resulting in what could become an open civil war.

Western powers and the Israeli regime have bolstered these tensions by openly supporting president Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah movement. On a recent visit to France, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, commented: "We will do our best in order to give him [Abbas] the power to lead". (, 14 June) Imperialism wants to force Hamas to accept the right of the Israeli state to exist, implement previous peace agreements, and announce an indefinite ceasefire.

This is an attempt to entrap the Hamas administration, to use it to hold back the Palestinian masses who are increasingly enraged by their suffering. It would be a first step to forcing Hamas out of government and bringing back Fatah as a senior partner in a so-called government of national unity, as part of a US-engineered ‘creeping coup’.

The dramatically worsening situation follows the January election triumph of Hamas. This was a major blow to US imperialism’s plans in the region. Rather than choosing a government which could be cajoled into supporting US interests in the Middle East, the Palestinian masses voted for Hamas – as far as rhetoric is concerned, one of the most consistently anti-US imperialism parties in the PA. The vote was a protest against twelve years of corrupt rule by Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation and their betrayal of the Palestinian national liberation struggle, rather than conscious support for Hamas ideology and programme.

Although, currently, Hamas has a better record on corruption, this does not mean that its election was a step forward for the Palestinian masses. Despite its anti-imperialist rhetoric, Hamas policies are fundamentally anti-working class and undemocratic. Its long-term aim is to create a theocratic state on Gaza and the West Bank. This would be hostile to workers seeking to take independent action and would be a big step back for women’s rights. Already, Hamas has cut jobs and sold off property when it has controlled local councils.

The response of Israel and the western powers has been to try and create a social and economic crisis which would whip up popular discontent to such an extent that Hamas would be forced to resign. Abbas and the Fatah leadership have been willing allies in this strategy.

Financially, the PA is bankrupt. Its monthly running costs are around $175m. Just over $35m of this is raised directly by the PA through taxes; $60m is collected by Israeli border authorities in taxes and tariffs. The remaining $80m comes through other sources, some from aid from the European Union (EU), the USA and the Arab world, but any shortfall has to be raised by selling PA assets and borrowing.

Since Hamas’s victory, all aid has been cut. The Israeli regime refuses to hand over tax receipts. US imperialism has halted other aid payments. The main PA bank account in Amman, Jordan, has been frozen. Emergency aid from the Arab League has not reached its destination for the same reason. The two Israeli banks which provided hard currency in the PA have threatened to cut off supplies, as have the main Israeli petrol companies.

As a result, the economy has ground to a halt. Families have spent their savings. The Gaza gold market is awash with customers selling family heirlooms. People queue to sell household appliances and mobile phones. Telecoms companies report widespread cut-offs and supermarkets are cutting credit.

The approximately 172,000 PA employees have not been paid for three months. Conservative estimates suggest that one million Palestinians are normally supported by these employees. At least 70,000 are members of various security agencies, almost all Fatah members or ex-members of Fatah militias hostile to the new administration. It is amongst these layers that armed opposition to Hamas has been built.

In the election aftermath, Abbas attempted to reassert control of what remained of the PA apparatus: the Palestinian Monetary Authority, Investment Fund and broadcasting company. Abbas instructed presidential security forces to take control of border crossings, previously a government role. In the atmosphere of growing economic crisis and an international propaganda campaign against the ‘terrorist’ Hamas administration, Mashaal, one of the main Hamas leaders in exile, accused Fatah of being in league with western imperialist powers to overthrow the government.

Matters escalated further when the Hamas government announced on 20 April the formation of the 3,000-strong Executive Force, a new security force made up mainly of Hamas militiamen. The former commander of the Popular Resistance Committees (one of the most anti-Israeli independent militias in the Occupied Territories), Jamal Samhadana, was placed at its head, seen by Abbas as a calculated provocation.

In May and June, parts of the West Bank and Gaza looked like a war-zone as militias traded gunfire. Ten Palestinians were killed in May and seven in the first ten days of June in tit-for-tat attacks. If a senior Hamas or Fatah official had been killed, a full-scale civil war could have begun.

It is this perspective that has forced the Quartet powers (USA, EU, UN and Russia) to discuss providing $50m emergency aid. Even this has been done in a way that will increase tensions since the money will only go to health service workers and be distributed through presidential offices, not the government.

At times, Palestinian society has teetered on the brink. The prime minister’s office was torched by Fatah militias and on a number of cases the Legislative Council (parliament) has been forced to stop its meetings.

The IDF intervened into this maelstrom, stepping up military attacks. On 9 June it assassinated the head of the Executive Force. On the same day, however, it killed seven Palestinian civilians picnicking on a beach. In two other incidents, a further 13 civilians, including young children, perished. As a result, Israel’s open support for Abbas has undermined Fatah’s position even further. The majority of Palestinians see the present catastrophe as caused by the western imperialist powers and Israel acting in concert with Abbas and Fatah.

Fatah and Hamas have taken matters to the brink and then drawn back. But, behind a façade of ‘national unity’ talks, each side aims to strengthen its position tactically and prepare for future clashes. Unfortunately, it will be the majority of the population, the Palestinian working class and poor peasantry who are now observing from the sidelines, who will suffer if this eventuality comes about.

Abbas used a document signed by representatives of Hamas and Fatah prisoners on 11 May to attempt to bolster his position. This document called for a national unity government, for a Palestinian state based on Israel withdrawing to pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and discussions on the right of return of all refugees. This implies implicit recognition of the Israeli state. Abbas’s next move was to call a referendum on the prisoners’ document for the end of July if Hamas refused to agree to its main demands.

There have been rumours that Abbas is pushing for a millionaire businessman to form a new government but Hamas is unlikely to agree. It is possible that some agreement will be reached for a government of national unity which will include Hamas, but with a smaller number of ministries than it has now. This seems more likely since the Hamas leadership has reportedly accepted those parts of the Prisoners’ Initiative which imply recognition of the state of Israel.

The danger has not passed. Both sides have strengthened their militias and recruited new members. Abbas’s presidential guard has taken delivery of four US-made armoured vehicles costing $100,000 each. The Israeli army provided an armed escort for a convoy from Israel delivering 3,000 US-made M-16 rifles to Abbas’s security forces in June. Hamas is involved in smuggling arms across the border from Egypt.

The threat of civil war is directly related to the absence of a mass independent working-class force in Gaza and the West Bank which can unite the working class behind it. Building such a movement, and raising socialist ideas within it, including that of a socialist confederation of the region, is literally a life and death question now.

Kevin Simpson


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