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Issue 56

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Issue 56, May 2001

On the road to a wider conflict?

    Sharon steps up repression
    Where now for the Intifada?
    Regional reverberations

The invasion of Palestinian Authority territory by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on 15 April has taken the present conflict in the region to a new level. In future years this event could be looked on as a decisive step towards a wider conflict. KEVIN SIMPSON writes.

EVEN THOUGH THE Israeli tanks, which thundered into three areas of the Gaza strip, returned to Israel within 24 hours, the first ever invasion of Palestinian Authority (PA) territory represents a qualitative stepping up of tension. In any other part of the world it would be regarded as a declaration of war.

The IDF, its elite undercover units, and reactionary, racist Jewish settlers, have unleashed a campaign of terror and brutality to crush a largely unarmed Palestinian population. The bulldozing of houses and olive groves, the bombardment of civilian areas, the use of undercover assassination squads, and the daily humiliation of Palestinian people at Israeli military checkpoints, goes largely unreported in the world's press. A doctor from Bethlehem said: "Even people like me who are not involved politically are going to be involved soon. You are checked every 100 metres, humiliated at every checkpoint. It is an insult to an ordinary human being" (Guardian, 13 March 2001).

Yet the attempt to intimidate the Palestinian masses has failed and has led to an increased determination to end the hated occupation. Hundreds of Palestinian youth have sacrificed their lives to defend the ideal of national and social liberation armed only with stones against the firewall that has confronted them.


The complete failure of the Oslo accords to answer in even a minimal way the national aspirations of the Palestinian masses paved the way to this second Intifada. Since the signing of the accords, social and economic conditions in the PA territory have collapsed. The level of repression has increased.

top     Sharon steps up repression

THE INVASION IS part of an accumulation of events since the latest Israeli National Unity government was formed in early March. The election of Ariel Sharon, a former army commander who led many brutal attacks against defenceless Palestinians according to his motto 'always escalate', represented a huge provocation to the Palestinians. Another was the inclusion of the reactionary Moledet party in the coalition. Its leadership wants the expulsion of the three million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza as well as the Israeli Palestinians. Avigdor Lieberman, the new infrastructure minister and leader of another reactionary party, has called for Israel to bomb Egypt's Aswan dam, while the spiritual leader of Shas recently stated: 'It is forbidden to be merciful to them (Palestinians). You must send missiles to them and annihilate them'.

The failure of IDF actions to quench the fires of the Intifada has led to a change in tactics by dominant sections of the Israeli ruling class and army generals. The more extreme Palestinian groups, like Hamas, have stepped up suicide bombings inside Israel and the use of mortars on Israeli settlements and towns. This has led to a hardening of attitudes on both sides of the national divide, opening up a continued spiralling of violence and tension.


Talk by representatives of European Union countries, the Jordanian and Egyptian regimes, and even the USA, of restarting negotiations between the PA and the Sharon government clashes with the reality on the ground. In addition, there is the growing feeling amongst the Arab masses that US imperialism, despite its rebukes of the Sharon government, supports the Israeli ruling class's murderous campaign. This feeling has increased with the perception that the new Bush administration is pursuing a more aggressive anti-Arab approach. There is a huge subterranean reservoir of hatred towards US imperialism in the region which could explode at any moment.

Sharon campaigned for election on the basis of 'peace through security'. His advisers attempted to portray him as a benevolent grandfather of the nation - a strongman who had the courage to make peace. However, it was clear that because of the failure of the Oslo accords, the development of the Intifada, and his increased reliance on extreme, right-wing and reactionary parties in government, he was likely to prosecute a much more repressive approach to the Palestinian uprising.

This was signalled by Sharon's insistence that a precondition for talks was that the PA leadership had to 'cease all violence' and take action against 'terrorism' and 'violence'. Ordinary Palestinians saw this as an order to halt the Intifada. Sharon stated that negotiations would not be bound by previous agreements made by the Israeli side. This was simply not acceptable. The majority of Palestinians wanted far more than the hollow proposals which came out of the Oslo accords.


The aim of the Israeli ruling class is to brutally crush the Palestinian uprising through economic and military measures. It wants to force a defeated PA, perhaps with a more pliant and intimidated leadership, to the negotiating table. The PA as a vanquished foe would be forced to accept terms of surrender thinly disguised as a new 'peace agreement'. This would involve the creation of a cantonised and emasculated Palestinian 'state' surrounded by IDF bases sub-divided by Israeli-controlled roads which, as recent events have shown, could be used for reoccupation at a moment's notice. A 'Palestine' of this sort would be completely dependent on Israel for trade and water supply. This would in no sense qualify as an independent Palestinian state but merely constitute a series of impoverished, drought-ridden prison camps in which to dump the Palestinian masses, guarded by the IDF on the outside and controlled by a corrupt PA on the inside.

The plans of the Sharon government represent a modern day equivalent of the 'Iron Wall' strategy of more right-wing sections of the Israeli ruling class since the State of Israel was founded in 1948 - the 'revisionist Zionists' grouped around Jabotinsky, predecessors of the Likud party.

The revisionist Zionists reasoned that because the formation of Israel involved the forced dispossession of the Palestinians, Israel had to use brutal military repression (the Iron Wall) to crush the will of the Palestinian masses. Once this was achieved, more 'moderate' leaders would emerge and accept whatever crumbs were offered them. Historically, the ideologists of the Labour Party - the traditional party of the Israeli ruling class - publicly rejected this approach because it endangered support from the imperialist powers who wanted stability in the region because of its strategic importance. Whenever the rule of the Israeli ruling class was threatened, however, particularly in war situations, they adopted fundamentally the same approach. Even if Ehud Barak had been re-elected as prime minister in the last elections he would have adopted, perhaps after a longer period of time, much the same policy as Sharon.


This policy has been implemented through the physical cutting-off of all main Palestinian towns and villages, and increasingly brutal military measures to crush any signs of opposition from the Palestinians.

The siege of Palestinian towns and villages further subdivides what little territory has been ceded to the PA and has brought all movement and economic activity to a halt. Over the last few weeks the IDF have constructed a trench completely surrounding the Palestinian city of Ramallah, reinforced with huge ramparts made of earth. This has imprisoned 60,000 Palestinians in the city and prevented the movement of a further 160,000 from surrounding areas. The PA area has been further subdivided into 60 smaller cantons. The vast majority of Palestinians are barred from travelling between these cantons. Poverty levels have rocketed. This siege and earlier consequences of the conflict have caused over $2 billion in losses to the Palestinian economy and seen unemployment levels soar to 48%.

Militarily, the Israeli ruling class has not merely reacted to direct attacks but has taken 'preventative' action. A Syrian radar station in the Lebanon was bombed after Hezbollah attacked targets in northern Israel. The use of assassination and snatch squads within the PA area have also been stepped up. Heavy bombardment by tanks and artillery from the air, sea, and land has obliterated areas of towns which the IDF claim are used to 'harbour' those who have launched mortar rocket attacks on Israeli targets. This culminated in the land invasion of sections of the Gaza strip under PA control.


However, the abrupt retreat of IDF tanks as a result of huge US pressure has opened up serious divisions inside the Israeli ruling class. The Israeli commander who stated that the IDF could remain there for 'days, weeks or months' has been criticised by Sharon's government for misunderstanding his orders. Israeli generals have reacted angrily. They see this as another humiliating retreat from the stated position of dealing with any attacks on Israel in the 'sharpest possible manner', this time purely to please Israel's backers, the USA. Sharon's position has been weakened as far as the reactionary Israeli Jews are concerned. They argue that he is not prepared to deal with the Palestinian threat because of US pressure - the US provides up to $4 billion a year in military and economic aid. The Palestinian masses, on the other hand, will view the forced withdrawal from Gaza as confirmation of the fact that the US could push the Israeli state to concede much more if it was genuinely interested in Palestinian national liberation. In the eyes of the Palestinian masses, US imperialism is complicit in all the acts of repression carried out by the Israeli regime.

top     Where now for the Intifada?

THERE HAS BEEN a growing debate amongst Palestinian activists on how to take the Intifada forward. The initial mass movement has been replaced in recent months by an increasing number of suicide bomb attacks by individual Palestinians and mortar attacks by small groups. This has fuelled discontent because the IDF take vicious retributive action without the Intifada significantly moving forward. The Palestinian leadership has had to take this into account. Marwan Barghouti - leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement on the West Bank and closely associated with the semi-autonomous Tanzeem military units - announced a name change for the Intifada leadership from the 'National Islamic' leadership to the 'Popular Committee of the Intifada'. He called for more non-violent mass protests.


This demonstrates a partial recognition on an empirical basis by some leaders of the Tanzeem that the strength of the Intifada was its mass character. History has repeatedly shown that military force - no matter how overwhelming - cannot ultimately crush a mass national liberation movement. Despite the heroism of its participants, however, the Intifada cannot defeat the IDF or force fundamental concessions from US imperialism and capitalism with its present tactics. For a successful struggle one of the strategic goals must be to split decisive sections of the Israeli Jewish working class from its present support for the Israeli regime's continued repression of the Palestinian masses.

There is a need for the Intifada to be armed in self-defence. But a vital issue is the type of struggle that will help weaken the social foundations of support for the Israeli regime. This would mean the organisation of a mass movement with a clear political strategy and tactics. One of its aims would be to expose the class nature of Israeli (and Palestinian) society.

Palestinian activists should direct propaganda towards Israeli Jewish workers and youth explaining that the only way to end the cycle of bloodshed would be by answering the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. If not, the mass opposition would continue. Such material should explain that the US-sponsored, capitalist Oslo accords did not bring genuine peace because of the class interests of all those who negotiated the deal. That is why the security fears of the Israeli Jewish working class remained unanswered. It should also outline that during the 'peace process', conditions for the Israeli working class worsened under social and economic attacks by the political representatives of Israeli big business. The record of the Sharon government is clear: since the beginning of the year, 50,000 Israelis have lost their jobs; and NIS8 billion ($1.92bn) of cuts in public spending are being discussed. For Palestinians the corruption of the PA leadership meant that their conditions deteriorated further. The failure of Oslo to answer the Palestinian people's national aspirations meant that Israeli conscripts were being killed while big business was making super-profits. These ideas could be linked to the necessity of defeating capitalism in the region and of creating a socialist alternative which would release the resources to eradicate poverty and guarantee their national rights. On this basis, working-class representatives from both sides of the national divide could negotiate a genuine agreement in the interests of the masses of the entire region. This road will never be taken, however, by even the most radical sounding leaders, like Barghouti, as their position would be threatened by the democratic control of mass struggle.


In the brutal conditions of the IDF occupation and because of the complete absence of a strategy for genuine liberation by the PA leadership, many Palestinian youth have looked towards the more extreme groups like Hamas for a way out. This is out of desperation for change and lies behind the increase in suicide bomb and mortar attacks on Israeli Jewish civilians. These tactics are not aimed against the Israeli ruling class who are the instigators of the occupation and Palestinian oppression but against the Israeli working class and youth who should be won over to the idea of ending the conflict through a working-class alternative. Whilst the burning desire to end the occupation is understandable, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets should not be part of the armoury of workers and youth fighting for national and social liberation. The use of such tactics indicates that sections of activists - no matter how self-sacrificing these individuals are - face a certain cul-de-sac as far as tactics and strategy are concerned. Such tactics always strengthen the oppressors rather than undermine them, solidifying the Israeli population behind the Israeli ruling class and its generals.

top     Regional reverberations

THE National Unity government's hope that increased oppression will force the Palestinian masses to replace the PA leadership with a more moderate one is the deluded fantasy of an Israeli ruling class out of touch with reality. In addition, the continued use of force and increasing Israeli fatalities with no solution in sight, will begin to open up divisions in Israeli Jewish society, undermining the existing appearance of national unity. The invasion and withdrawal debacle and the resultant splits within the ruling class are a foretaste of bigger divisions in Israeli society. Already, groups of Israeli reservists have been demanding more benefits for serving in the army. The appearance of these divisions could lead to independent struggles of the Israeli Jewish working-class against their ruling class. However, such movements can be cut across if individual attacks intensify the perception of an 'external danger'.


At present, the dominant sections of the Israeli ruling class do not have an alternative. Their power and prestige are under threat because of the changed balance of forces brought about by the second Intifada. The Palestinian masses are no longer prepared to accept the mirage of independence. The intensity of the Intifada indicates that they masses are prepared to struggle to the death in support of genuine liberation and independence. But this is something that the Israeli ruling class will not concede and US imperialism will not countenance for strategic reasons. It would mean an end to their economic and military domination of the region, with its huge oil reserves, and could open up mass anti-imperialist movements to overthrow the Arab regimes in the Middle East. The contradiction between what the Palestinian masses want and what US imperialism and the Israeli ruling class are prepared to concede, is one factor which lies behind the drift to a wider conflict.

Despite this, US imperialism will attempt to pressurise the Arab regimes and Israeli ruling class not to go to war. The effects of war would lead to a much more unstable situation in the region and possibly the rest of the neo-colonial world. Many Arab regimes rely on the US for funding and political support. But faced with mass protest from their own populations which threatened their own rule, they may be dragged into conflict. Two Arab summits have been held in the last six months. As the Middle East International commented: "Like previous Arab summits, this one was handicapped by the contradiction between each government's perception of its own interests and that of their populations. It is doubtful whether either... gathering... would have taken place were it not for the popular outrage at events in Palestine and Iraq" (6 April). Some Middle Eastern regimes have attempted to forge closer ties, with appeals from the Iranian and Syrian regimes for closer links with Saudi Arabia. This is partly in preparation for a possible widening of the conflict.


The Bush administration has a more open and blatant unilateralist approach, prioritising narrow US interests, which could vastly increase tension in areas like the Middle East. It sees the major cause of instability as the continued existence of Saddam Hussein's regime rather than the running sore of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Consequently, it is attempting to assemble a new alliance of Arab countries, along the lines of that used for the US invasion of Kuwait and Iraq in the Gulf War. But the world has changed enormously since then. There has been a huge shift towards anti-imperialist sentiments within the Middle East. Launching new attacks - verbal or otherwise - against Iraq will enormously boost Saddam's standing and will be seen as an indirect attack on the Palestinian masses. A Jordanian politician conceded that Saddam 'impresses the ordinary man and makes other leaders look submissive and cowardly'.

There are a number of potential flashpoints. A columnist in Cairo's al-Ahram newspaper wrote: "The collapse of the peace process has brought the whole region perilously close to the brink of war, not as a function of conscious decision but as a result of the situation spiralling out of control, even by mistake". Further attacks by Hezbollah on Israel's northern border could lead to more determined retaliation by the IDF against Syrian targets in Lebanon, forcing the new Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, to take action. Military manoeuvres by the Iraqi regime close to the Jordanian border could provoke the Israeli air force into retaliatory bombing missions. The continuation of the brutal repression of the Intifada and IDF re-occupations of PA territory could lead to uncontrollable demonstrations in different Arab countries. The most reactionary settlers in places like Hebron could go on the rampage and massacre local Palestinians. Sustained events like these could lead the Israeli government to go for unilateral separation - in spite of US pressure against this course of action. This would mean the Israeli ruling class imposing borders between Israel and a Palestinian 'state'. This could result in a civil war situation within Israel between Palestinians and Israeli Jews.


Faced with these prospects, US imperialism may succeed in forcing a new round of negotiations which even might lead to an interim paper agreement. The imperialist powers are terrified of the instability a new wider Israeli-Arab conflict would cause and so will attempt to force the two sides into talks. Even the continuation of the conflict at present levels threatens regional instability. If peace negotiations are restarted, however, they will break down over time and lead to further conflict. This is because capitalism and imperialism have no solutions to the thorny problems, such as the future of Jerusalem, water rights, and the plight of millions of Palestinian refugees.

War poses the greatest test to socialists and revolutionaries. On both sides of the national divide, but particularly amongst Israeli Jews, there is huge social pressure for the nation to unify against an outside threat. This pressure undermines genuine activists' class approach to the situation. But it is precisely in war conditions that a socialist approach is necessary. It is the only way to end the slaughter and provide a means by which the national aspirations of the Palestinian masses can be fulfilled, and the security fears of the Israeli Jews answered. Such an approach requires a struggle against Israeli capitalism and the PA, as well as the corrupt, undemocratic Arab regimes. It necessitates the formation of a socialist confederation of the Middle East, involving a socialist Israel and the creation of a genuine, independent, socialist Palestinian state.


This may appear to clash with the point of view of the majority at the moment. It is vital, nonetheless, to struggle for these ideas now in order to attract the most class-conscious elements who are searching for a long-term solution. Otherwise, activists can be swept away on the tide of reactionary, religious ideas that are gaining an increasing grip on both sides of the divide in the absence of a mass working-class, socialist alternative. These layers, only present in small numbers, represent the basis of future mass protests as the death-toll rises and the self-centred interests of the Israeli ruling class and the PA leadership are exposed. Convincing the most class-conscious layers of a genuine socialist alternative now will speed up this process and lay the basis for a mass movement that will lead to the end of the decades-long cycle of poverty, repression and war that has blighted the Middle East.

The CWI stands for:

  • Withdraw IDF forces from all Occupied Territories.
  • For a mass revolutionary struggle by the Palestinians - armed in self-defence - to end the IDF occupation. Elect popular committees for the running of all aspects of daily life in the PA. For the incorporation of all armed groups into self-defence committees. Such committees to be under the democratic control of the masses to chart a commonly agreed strategy for the Intifada.
  • For the right to freedom of expression and the right to organise in the PA.
  • Support the right of all Israeli Jews to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. Build a mass, socialist working-class movement to end the drift towards war and the continued attacks on Israeli working-class living standards by the Israeli National Unity government. For a mass, democratic Israeli workers' party with a socialist programme
  • No imperialist intervention in the Middle East.
  • For an end to all discrimination and oppression based on national, religious and ethnic background.
  • For an end to Israeli and Arab capitalism and the creation of a socialist Israel alongside an independent socialist Palestine. For a socialist confederation of the Middle East.

    This is an edited version of a Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) statement, published on April 25, the full text of which can be seen on the CWI website at:

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