|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Gathering momentum towards war
The assassination of Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the brutal response by the Israeli army, brought the Middle East to the brink of war. The heightened regional tensions risk the collapse of the shaky ‘war against terrorism’ coalition. KEVIN SIMPSON reports on recent developments.
FOLLOWING THE 11 September atrocities in the US, Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, portrayed Israel as being in the same situation as the US with Arafat as the country’s ‘own bin Laden’. He believed that the position of the Israeli ruling class had been strengthened in its struggle to crush the second Palestinian intifada.
For a few days, the situation threatened to spiral out of control. This would have had disastrous consequences for US imperialism’s attempt to contain the conflict and move to new negotiations between the Israeli government and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA). It would have plunged the area into a bloody conflict in which the main casualties would have been the working class and poor of Palestine, Israel and even the other Arab countries in the Middle East.
Osama bin Laden issued a searing condemnation of US imperialism, the Israeli regime and the Arab elites, and their complicity in the brutal oppression of the Palestinian masses, in his video broadcast at the start of the war on Afghanistan. This crystallised the mood amongst Arab and Muslim peoples of hatred towards imperialist domination of their countries – epitomised by the plight of the Palestinians. Not only here but across the world sympathy for the Palestinian struggle for genuine statehood became widespread and entered popular consciousness. US imperialism was forced to take these moods into account. In order to maintain the support of Arab and Muslim regimes for the ‘coalition’ and war against bin Laden and the Taliban, George W Bush came out more clearly in support of a Palestinian state and attempted to force the resumption of negotiations. Sharon was forced to reconsider and the Israeli regime’s position was weakened.
Sharon used Ze’evi’s assassination to revive his previous position of portraying the Palestinian Authority as a ‘terrorist entity’ and demanding that Arafat hand over all those responsible for Ze’evi’s assassination. The Israeli regime’s policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders, however, and its brutal reaction to Ze’evi’s killing, is a policy of ‘state terrorism’. Six out of the eight main Palestinian cities were surrounded and sealed off. In many cases the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) invaded towns setting up new military outposts. IDF chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, correctly called this "the most widescale ground operation undertaken to date against the Palestinian Authority". (Ha’aretz, Israel, 22 October) Twenty-five Palestinians were killed, including four women and a child of ten. A curfew was announced leading to food shortages as Palestinians found it impossible to go about their ‘normal’ lives. Water supplies and electricity were cut as Israeli tanks knocked over electricity poles and cracked water pipes. Tanks, armoured personnel carriers and mortars were used on a widespread basis. Covert Israeli security forces carried out missions to abduct and assassinate (through sniper fire and car bombs) Palestinians it suspected of ‘terrorism’.
Responding to huge US pressure, Arafat condemned the assassination and arrested 20 PFLP members. In stark contrast, most ordinary Palestinians felt that Ze’evi had met an end he justly deserved. He was one of the most reactionary politicians in the Israeli cabinet, referring to Palestinians as ‘cancer’ and ‘lice’ and demanding their transfer to other Arab countries. Nevertheless, the tactic of assassinations of even reactionary Israeli politicians does not advance the struggle for Palestinian national liberation. A similarly reactionary politician will fill Ze’evi’s position. Such actions are no replacement for a mass struggle of the Palestinian masses to overthrow capitalism in the region.
Brutal military reaction
FOLLOWING THE INCURSION, IDF spokespersons said they had no intention of maintaining their reoccupation indefinitely but gave no time limit for the operation. Israeli commentators pointed out that the same commitment was given in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, ostensibly to deal with the threat of cross-border raids on the state’s northern frontier. It took 19 years for Israel to withdraw. Such analogies must have sent a collective shudder down the spines of Bush’s Middle East advisers. A decades-long occupation, though, is not on the agenda, since the world situation is entirely different. But this does not mean that peace is about to be declared. In fact, war at a certain stage is rooted in the situation. In response to further attacks, the Israeli regime could make repeated incursions into Palestinian Authority territory in much the same way as the US is conducting its war in Afghanistan.
Ze’evi was the first member of an Israeli cabinet to be assassinated by a Palestinian group acting inside the borders of the state in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This explains the brutal military response. The Sharon government and wide sections of the military establishment regard it as the most open and direct challenge yet to their power and prestige in the region. The response even reflects the fears many corrupt Israeli politicians have for their personal security. ‘If it can happen to Ze’evi, it could happen to us’, must have been the first thought that flashed through their minds. These politicians live in conditions far removed from the violence and bloodshed found at the second intifada’s flashpoints. They also enjoy economic wealth and power which is a world removed from the poverty faced by the majority of Israeli workers and youth. That is the way they want it to continue. Their anger – and fear – at the killing of Ze’evi is undoubtedly far greater than when tens of ordinary Israeli Jews died as a result of suicide bombings at the Jerusalem Sbarro pizza restaurant and the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium disco earlier this year.
In contrast, the response of some ordinary Israeli Jews to Ze’evi’s killing was more muted. In the cold light of day, they understood that the IDF assassination of the PFLP leader, Abu Mustafa (alongside many other prominent Palestinians), would lead to reprisals. This mood was partially offset by a government-inspired mass media campaign to mourn Ze’evi’s death and further exacerbate security fears of ordinary Israeli Jews. Ha’aretz reported that "the Interior Ministry, which oversees issuance of gun licenses to Israeli civilians, was to markedly ease its licensing criteria, making it much easier for Israelis to legally buy and carry firearms". (22 October) Reactionary parties and organisations have also attempted to whip up the mood following Ze’evi’s assassination and held a demonstration of thousands in Jerusalem under the slogan ‘Remove Arafat. Fight terror’. The increased confidence of reactionary settlers to act with impunity was shown two days later when six Palestinians were injured in a drive-by shooting carried out by an Israeli Jewish vigilante group on the West Bank.
Echoing Bush’s statements following the 11 September atrocities, Sharon remarked of Ze’evi’s assassination: ‘Nothing will ever be the same again’. But using the same rhetoric does not indicate a similar strategy for the Middle East. Bush’s senior advisers demanded Israeli withdrawal from the areas of the Palestinian Authority they had occupied. Israeli government officials tersely replied: "We are sticking to our positions. We will only leave when we have accomplished the goals of the operation… we respect the United States, but we are acting as any normal county would act. We are not apologising and not bowing our heads". (Ha’aretz, 23 October) The Sharon government lost no time in pointing out the hypocrisy of the US, which supports the destruction of the Taliban and the al-Qa’ida network and yet opposes the Israeli regime taking action against its own ‘terrorists’. Sharon demanded that all ‘terrorist’ organisations are outlawed with those responsible for the assassination handed over to Israeli security officials. In a similar vein, the Israeli security cabinet set a deadline of one week for these demands to be fulfilled or else, in the words of one of its spokespersons, Arafat "would be treated in the way in which the US treats the Taliban". (The Times, 19 October)
Splits in the Israeli ruling class
AND YET NOT two days before, Sharon agreed in principle to the idea of a Palestinian state and restarting negotiations, although under strict conditions! Increasingly, Sharon’s policy has zigzagged between outright brutal repression and – as a result of huge US pressure – occasional comments about a Palestinian state and new negotiations.
Among the main reasons for this are the conflicting pressures impacting on Sharon’s cabinet. On the one side, there is massive US pressure to at least contain the conflict with the outward appearance of a move to new negotiations for a final settlement for Palestine. This is a position which sections of the Labour Party, led by Shimon Peres, publicly aspires to and once again demonstrates the role this party has played as the historical representative of US imperialism and Israeli ruling-class interests in Israel. On the other, Sharon faces mounting pressure from the reactionary parties inside Israel. They have increasingly exposed the prime minister’s contradictory position of promising to be hard-line on security issues while repeatedly acceding to US pressure. With increasing tension in the region, these pressures may force Israel to go to war against the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, the ‘national unity’ government which Sharon leads is anything but united in terms of the approach outlined by its different representatives.
Following Ze’evi’s assassination, Sharon claimed that an all-out war was possible and that ‘the Arafat era is over’. But foreign minister Peres was interviewed at the time during a visit to the US: "We are not conducting a personal war against Arafat…We don’t want the downfall of the Palestinian Authority, we would like to see them being successful, enjoying freedom and prosperity [sic]". (Ha’aretz, 22 October) On the same day, a Ha’aretz editorial summarised the conflicting pressures: "The government is torn between those who want to evict Arafat and topple the Palestinian Authority and those who see Arafat as the preferred partner for negotiation, despite everything".
Even the ‘hawks’ in the Israeli cabinet have different approaches. There are those, probably supported by some IDF generals, who believe that only brutal military pressure, linked to a threat to overthrow the Palestinian Authority, will force Arafat back to the negotiating table, cowed and prepared to make even more concessions. Sharon is preparing for this eventuality. During the recent occupation he put forward a plan for a ‘state’ for the Palestinians which makes a complete mockery of their national rights, involving a long-term interim agreement with no timetable and the postponement of any agreement on Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee question. A Palestinian state would be declared before any agreement on the disputed issues and such an entity would be demilitarised, with Israeli control of the airspace and borders with Jordan and Egypt.
Such a plan, a massive retreat on the meagre offerings of the Oslo ‘peace process’, would be completely rejected by the Palestinian masses. An agreement on this basis could see Arafat removed or completely isolated. Some more reactionary elements in Israel’s military and political elite welcome this. Even the coming to power of a Palestinian regime dominated by Hamas, would be, according to them, a better scenario since the leaders "would not be greeted with red carpets in foreign capitals, as Arafat is". (International Herald Tribune, 23 October) Given Hamas’s stated position of the destruction of the state of Israel, this would be a recipe for a war between Israel and the Palestinians and would be used as such by the more reactionary sections of the Israeli ruling class and military elite.
Wars and warlike situations have their own momentum, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fact that conflict is on the agenda demonstrates that imperialism, the Israeli capitalist class and the Arafat regime have partially lost control of the situation by their inability to answer the fundamental problems of the Palestinian masses through the conduct of politics by ‘normal means’. Once again, events have sharply demonstrated that capitalism is incapable of solving the national question in the Middle East. Under these circumstances the stakes for the Israeli ruling class and the Palestinian Authority are extremely high. Their power and prestige are under threat because of the intense mood of the Palestinians for an end to occupation and repression and for genuine national liberation. Rather than subduing frictions and tensions, conflict brings them to the surface with great force. The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) has raised the possibility of a wider conflict and war for over a year now. Whether it will develop sooner or later is open to question. The situation that exists does not preclude a return to negotiations and even the possibility of some paper agreement being worked out. The conflict, however, will return at a more intense level over a much shorter period of time than, for example, after the signing of the Oslo accords in 1994. What is clear is that there has been a general ratcheting-up of tension in the region. Any flare-up of violence threatens to spill over into a wider conflagration, as the response to the Ze’evi assassination showed.
The Palestinian movement
THE UNDERLYING REASONS behind the friction have to be understood, not just their outward appearance. For example, there was little Palestinian opposition initially to the Israeli invasion of the Palestinian Authority. This partly reflects a certain tiredness amongst layers of the Palestinian masses who have concluded that a year of sacrifice has led to no visible progress towards an independent Palestinian state. It has seen a catastrophic worsening of social and economic conditions and dramatic increases in IDF and Palestinian Authority repression. It also flows from the demobilisation of mass action (which characterised the beginning of the uprising) by local Palestinian leaders. Suicide bombings and armed actions by small groups (methods used by parts of Hamas and PFLP) against the IDF and Israeli targets have replaced mass protest. Initially at least, the Palestinian Authority leadership used the recent favourable coverage by the international media of Arafat’s visit to Europe, and the hope that diplomatic pressure could force an Israeli withdrawal, to hold back local Palestinian retaliation to this latest IDF invasion.
Even all these factors, however, will not be enough to halt a mass or semi-mass opposition developing to Israeli incursions, particularly if they last for more than a few days. Fear and anger at the prospect of the return of the hated occupation will drive the masses into action once again. If this is blocked from above by the Palestinian Authority leadership or local Tanzeem and Hamas groups, protest could develop in the form of clashes within the Palestinian Authority area and splits amongst those parties and groups which have led the armed resistance to the IDF at local level. A hint of the development of mass opposition to the reoccupation was shown by a demonstration of at least 6,000 Palestinians in Bethlehem five days after the original incursions, which forced aside IDF soldiers and tanks as it approached a newly set up Israeli army outpost. Although this demonstration was organised by local churches as a peace protest it provided an arena for the mass of Palestinians to express their opposition to the reoccupation and to return to the scene of struggle.
If US imperialism had forced an IDF withdrawal on the basis of a mere promise of action against ‘terrorists’ by Arafat or the temporary closure of PFLP, Hamas or Islamic Jihad offices then this would have been seen as a blow to the prestige of Sharon and Israel’s military elite. This is why an Israeli pull-out was delayed for a short time, accompanied by more brutal military action just outside Ramallah, one of the occupied towns. Sharon and the military chiefs have ‘saved face’, as they see it. The retreat by the IDF, however, will increase the sometimes public divisions between Sharon, on the one side, and sections of the IDF generals and the reactionary parties in the coalition, who will see these concessions as an unacceptable compromise. This friction will impact on Sharon’s day-to-day decision making. It is therefore likely that further attacks on Israel will lead to repeated and longer lasting incursions into the Palestinian Authority. This will escalate tension further.
If Arafat implements a general crackdown under Israeli government pressure then opposition to his continued rule will appear rapidly and in a sharp form involving street protests and clashes between ordinary Palestinians and his security forces.
The conflicting pressures are already beginning to tear apart the ‘national unity’ government. Ze’evi’s party – Yisrael Beteinu – had already decided to pull out of the coalition before his assassination. The Labour Party is now discussing whether to withdraw. This is not on the basis of a principled opposition to the occupation but because the majority of the Labour Party leadership is attempting to enhance its position within the coalition and within the political elite as a whole. Peres has opposed this but purely for personal reasons. He is only a caretaker leader of the party and he would in all likelihood lose his cabinet position if general elections were held. If the Labour Party was to fulfil its threat and leave the coalition then Sharon will attempt to form a narrow right-wing coalition government which will further polarise the situation.
Middle Eastern regimes
A WIDER CONFLICT in Israel and Palestine would probably bring all the simmering discontent amongst the Arab masses to the surface. This would put huge pressure on a number of the corrupt ruling Arab elites and could, as a serious possibility, lead to the overthrow of king Fahd in Saudi Arabia, king Abdullah in Jordan and even president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt if they continue to ally themselves with US imperialism. It is clear that senior advisers to Bush have begun to consider a war and the overthrow of corrupt Arab leaders as serious possibilities. Such a prospect fills them with horror and US imperialism will do its utmost to prevent such an eventuality. However, it could prove impossible to do so because of the powerful forces that have been unleashed in the region.
Saudi Arabia saw national income levels in 1994 at a third of the levels they were eleven years earlier. They have undoubtedly fallen further. The ruling House of Saud, widely known for its corruption and flagrant display of huge wealth, is identified with the West and US imperialism. Islamic fundamentalist groups have grown rapidly as a result of this and the disastrous economic conditions. The kingdom will face a contest for who will replace the present ageing monarch. Under these conditions, sections of dissidents within the royal family could unite with hostile elements in the army and security forces, with the backing of Islamic fundamentalists, to bring to power a new regime implacably opposed to US imperialism.
Newly installed king Abdullah of Jordan, reliant for his survival on US economic aid to the country, rules over a population which is over 60% Palestinian. Continued support for the US intervention in Afghanistan and his refusal to take any real action to oppose the Israeli regime’s continued brutal oppression of the Palestinian masses, combined with further economic collapse, can quickly lead to mass protests against his regime.
Mubarak presides over a situation where Egypt has debts of $30 billion to the West and the population is increasing by over one million each year. There is no popular support for his regime and Mubarak relies on the army to maintain power, yet the infiltration into all levels of the army by Islamic fundamentalist groups is at an all time high. As in other Arab countries, the continued US war in Afghanistan could spark widespread public protests which could impel sections of the military to act to remove Mubarak.
Despite the sombre prospects for the region, there is a desperate search for an alternative by workers and youth on both sides of the national divide as they are repeatedly driven to the brink of open conflict. In Israel, although an opinion poll published during the re-occupation showed 38% in favour of declaring war on the Palestinian Authority, the same percentage was in favour of accelerating the peace process. In the Palestinian Authority areas, a recent opinion poll showed 20% support for Hamas (a figure which is probably larger by now) and 27% for Fatah – the pro-Arafat organisation within the Palestine Liberation Organisation. This means that the majority of those interviewed supported none of the political alternatives in the Palestinian Authority and shows the huge vacuum that exists. Even the demonstration in Bethlehem in the teeth of occupation by the IDF shows that there is a basis for developing the mass movement of Palestinians against national oppression in the region.
It is to these layers that socialists must orientate in order to speed up the development of an independent working-class solution to regional conflict. The only way to fulfil the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a genuine independent state and achieve peace and stability in the region is through the struggle to overthrow Israeli capitalism and the corrupt Arab regimes. This requires the building of an independent movement of the working class and poor peasantry committed to struggling for a socialist Middle East.
The CWI fights for:
* The immediate withdrawal of the Israeli army from all areas of the Occupied Territories.
* An end to the blockade of Palestinian towns and villages.
* For a mass struggle of the Palestinians under their democratic control to fight for genuine national and social liberation.
* For the establishment of popular, grass-roots committees, that will provide the basis for a genuine workers leadership. The right of these committees to be armed for the purposes of defence organised under the democratic control of the masses.
* A struggle of Palestinian workers and youth in Gaza and the West Bank against their double political and economic oppression by Israeli and Palestinian capitalism, and for raising their standards of living.
* An end to the use of Israeli soldiers as cannon fodder by the Israeli ruling class and army generals. For conscript soldiers to be paid the state minimum wage and to have trade union rights.
* For a struggle by Israeli Palestinians against institutionalised racism and their treatment as second-class citizens.
* For an end to mass unemployment and poverty. For a massive increase in public spending in Israeli Palestinian towns and villages in infrastructure, job creation, health, housing and education and for writing off all local council debts.
* For a struggle of the Israeli working class – both Jewish and Palestinian – to overthrow capitalism.
* For a socialist Palestine alongside a socialist Israel as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East with guaranteed democratic rights for all national minorities.
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