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What way out from the carnage?
Can there be a solution to the escalating cycle of violence in Israel-Palestine? KEVIN SIMPSON writes.
This article is a shortened version of a statement by the Committee for a Workers International, 19 March, ‘Sharon’s dead-end policy: carnage brings Middle East to the brink of war’, the full text of which is available from the CWI website, www.worldsocialist-cwi.org
WITH MISSLE-FIRING helicopters and F16 fighters circling overhead, Israeli Defence Force (IDF) tanks, armoured cars and heavily-armed soldiers stormed into refugee camps on the West Bank and Gaza Strip on March 8. To the sound of exploding stun grenades, and with green beams from laser-sighted-weapons bouncing off buildings, they unleashed a deadly wall of fire. In 24 hours, 44 Palestinians, including a ten-year-old boy, were slaughtered and an IDF soldier was shot dead. Among the casualties were Red Crescent doctors targeted by IDF forces as they tried to reach the wounded. This was the highest number of fatalities in any one day of the 17-month long intifada. Later IDF operations were the biggest military manoeuvres since its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Rather than being a military operation as part of the Israeli regime’s ‘war on terrorism’, it is a campaign of state terror against Palestinians outgunned and with their backs to the wall.
Within a day suicide operations by Hamas and the Al-Aqsa brigades killed 12 Israeli civilians in the coastal town of Netanya and a crowded café in Jerusalem. Over 84 Israelis were wounded in these horrific attacks.
Incredibly, Gideon Meir, a Foreign Office spokesperson for the reactionary Sharon coalition government, said in the aftermath of these suicide attacks: "What Arafat is looking for tonight is a regional war and Israel will not let him do it". (The Observer, 10 March) Sharon, in a similar vein, outlined what passed for the ‘strategy’ of his beleaguered government: "We are in a war with a cruel and bloodthirsty enemy. We must cause the Palestinians losses, casualties, so they understand they will gain nothing by terrorism. We must hit them and hit them again and again, until they understand". (The Observer, 10 March) But Palestinians did understand – they felt that the Israeli government was intent on crushing them, re-occupying the West Bank and Gaza, and perhaps even re-enacting 1948 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes. However, they drew different conclusions than Sharon anticipated. With their backs to the wall and their existence threatened, their resistance held.
Attack followed attack with increasing rapidity and intensity. The Israeli regime was unable to stem the tide of Palestinian retaliatory attacks and despite its overwhelming strength in weaponry was seen to be unable to control the situation. Arafat stood on the sidelines (together with his security force leaders and the rest of the Palestinian Authority leadership) timidly pleading with Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, ‘to stop the Israeli escalation’, while ordinary Palestinians, the autonomous Tanzeem and Al-Aqsa brigades (linked to Fatah, Arafat’s political organisation), and Hamas, used different tactics to oppose the IDF incursions.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is undergoing a process of ‘Lebanonisation’: the IDF is intervening in unfamiliar and hostile terrain which they are not used to fighting in – the refugee camps have high building and population densities, with narrow streets. They face an extremely antagonistic population, which is not prepared to be subdued or flee their homes. Traditional methods of attack, such as the use of tanks, are not widely applicable. The Palestinian militias, although possessing less sophisticated weaponry, are highly mobile and can melt away quickly after any clashes, aided in their escape by the local population. Unlike south Lebanon, the Israeli army does not have a proxy army on which they could rest in the Occupied Territories.
As an Israeli journalist, in an article entitled ‘Sir, it’s the wrong war!’, commented: "The commander and all his colleagues… would be well advised to read a good book about guerrilla warfare, such as Mao Tse-Tung’s treatise, which tells the guerrilla fighter: never confront the regular army. When the army attacks you disappear. When the army is not ready, you attack.
"For example: the army surrounds Arafat in Ramallah; destroy a Merkava tank in Gush Katif. A whole brigade invades Balata; get out and send a single fighter to kill the team of a check-point near Ofrah. A brigade attacks Jenin. Get out of their sight and infiltrate the Atzmona settlement.
"Since Chief-of-Staff Mofaz and his senior officers don’t even understand the nature of this struggle, they are failing… One after another, they use all the methods that have already failed in Algeria, Kenya, South Africa, Vietnam and a dozen other countries". (Ha’aretz, 9 March)
The spiralling violence caused terror amongst the dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, fearful of the threat of widespread and possibly uncontrollable protests by the Arab masses. Ever since the US invasion of Afghanistan they have warned of the rising tide of anger amongst the Arab masses towards the US and the role of its client state in the region – Israel. These warnings have grown louder since Bush made it clear that he intends to take military action to unseat Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
This is what lay behind the recent peace proposal by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Even the US administration was forced to modify its previous support for Israel’s attempt to crush the Palestinian uprising, and issued a mild rebuke via one of the supposed ‘doves’, Colin Powell. For the first time in history, the US backed a resolution in the UN Security Council which spoke about ‘the vision of a Palestinian state existing beside Israel’. The ‘change’ in tone is only token, however, cynically designed to try to win support amongst reactionary Arab regimes for military action against Iraq. As Al-Rayah in Qatar commented: "It seems that the USA… is again seeking to repeat its historic game with the Arabs. It is attempting to calm them down with regards to the central Palestinian issue and obtain their silence over an attack on a sisterly Arab country". (13 March)
Changes in Palestinian consciousness
THE INCREASED BRUTALITY of the IDF actions has had the opposite effect to that intended. The decision to invade the refugee camps, ostensibly in the search for ‘terrorists’, was designed to terrorise the Palestinian masses into submission. Instead it has galvanised the Palestinian masses who feel their existence is threatened. The apathy and demoralisation which previously gripped large sections of the Palestinian population has been replaced by a grim determination to fight for their existence.
As a result, when the IDF announced that all Palestinian civilians should abandon the refugee camps which were to be invaded, none did. Instead the Palestinian militias withdrew, to preserve their fighting capability and strike at Israeli military targets elsewhere. This represents an important development in consciousness. It shows there is a close identification between the Palestinian masses and the militias, but also it indicates that historical lessons have been burned into the consciousness of the ordinary Palestinians. In 1948 Israeli paramilitary forces terrorised and drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. The result was the refugee camps which litter many Arab countries of the Middle East.
These changes in consciousness and a certain increase in morale also arise out of the development of more sophisticated tactics of armed struggle by the Palestinian militias. During the previous 16 months of the Intifada, one Israeli soldier died for every twenty-five Palestinians killed. Now the ratio is one Israeli soldier for every three Palestinians. In the last month, 33 Israeli soldiers have been killed – this is a higher figure than at any time during the Lebanon war.
On 14 February Al-Aqsa brigade fighters ambushed and destroyed a Merkava tank which had been sent into Palestinian territory to retaliate for previous attacks on Israeli positions. On two occasions the Qassam missiles made by Hamas have been fired from inside the PA into Israel. Events like these are seen as damaging blows to the prestige of the Israeli military. Clearly demonstrating the priorities of the Israeli military and political elite, the response is far more brutal than when suicide bombers kill scores of civilians inside Israel.
A number of attacks have now taken place on military checkpoints – over 100 of which are permanent now. These checkpoints have more than anything become the most hated symbol of post-Oslo rule. Their existence means daily humiliation, beatings and killings for thousands of Palestinians, driving home the point that the Palestinian Authority is not made up of contiguous territory but a number of divided and enclosed Bantustans – the West Bank is divided into 63 parcels of land and Gaza into six different zones – where the guards are both Israelis and Palestinian. They are the means by which economic blockades are put into action and collective punishment implemented. They crystallise the memory of all the suffering which the Palestinians have had to endure since the Oslo ‘peace accords’ were signed in 1994.
It is not just the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority which has crumbled as a result of military attack – so has society. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been periodically barred from working in Israel since September 2000. The embargoes on the export of Palestinian goods have severely damaged the agricultural sector – one of the mainstays of the Palestinian economy. Over 65% of the population in Gaza live below the poverty line: 400,000 Palestinians out of a working population of 845,000 people have been unemployed for over a year. Even middle class Palestinian living standards have been devastated with savings standing at zero. One of the only cohesive factors in society – and a powerful one at that – is the struggle for national liberation and against a new re-occupation.
Arafat’s failure to provide any leadership during this latest onslaught has further undermined his authority and conversely increased that of the Al-Aqsa brigades, Hamas and the Tanzeem. This shows what a monumental miscalculation the latest step up in military activity has been for the Israeli ruling class. Many leaders of the Al-Aqsa brigades and the Tanzeem are also members of Fatah – Arafat’s political organisation. It is an indication of his diminishing authority and the increasing pressure from ordinary Palestinians that they are becoming more heavily involved in suicide bombings and attacks against the IDF. This does not mean, however, that they are under his direction. They act autonomously but remain in Fatah, not coming into open conflict with Arafat at this stage until this becomes a liability in maintaining their support amongst the population. If Arafat’s authority crumbles completely and sections of his security apparatus split away from him, then Tanzeem leaders such as Marwan Barghoutti in the West Bank will break their links with Arafat.
The role of armed struggle
BARGHOUTTI IS ONE of the leaders who have reflected in a distorted way some of the pressure amongst the masses and also the debates on tactics that have taken place amongst activists. There are differences in the approach of the Palestinian militias. Hamas and Al-Aqsa activists, on one side, have continued to carry out suicide bombings. It is an indication of Palestinian desperation that parents of suicide bombers say after their deaths that they wish all their children would be honoured by being martyred in this way. Mass resistance to armed IDF intervention is one thing, however, suicide bombings are another.
Suicide bombings have the opposite effect to that intended. Rather than undermining support for the Israeli regime’s military campaign against the Palestinians, they serve to drive large sections of the population into the arms of the most reactionary right–wing elements. They undermine support for the Palestinian struggle for national liberation amongst workers and youth internationally. And they result in the death of activists who, with correct tactics and strategy, could have played a vital role in leading the struggle over a number of years.
A somewhat different approach is shown by Barghoutti. Previously he called for a resurrection of the mass struggle of the Palestinians, which characterised the initial stages of the Intifada. More recently he has argued for armed self-defence and that the checkpoints should become targets as part of the struggle. Under the conditions that exist today the Palestinian masses have no option but to defend themselves – arms in hand. However, what role should military tactics play and how should they be directed?
It is true that the present IDF operation shows that the Israeli ruling class cannot achieve a military solution against the Palestinian masses. However, neither can the Palestinians achieve genuine national liberation through a purely military struggle. The Israeli regime’s ability to intervene militarily is in the last analysis based on its social foundations in Israeli society, ie to what degree it has support for its actions amongst the Israeli Jewish working and middle class. Undermining this support is a vital step along the road to genuine social and national liberation. This does not mean that the Palestinian masses should postpone their struggle until the majority of Israeli Jews have accepted the need for the existence of a genuine Palestinian state. Part of the aims of that struggle should be to speed up an understanding amongst Israeli Jewish workers and youth that Israeli capitalism means continuing war in the region and social and economic devastation for those expected to fight on behalf of the Israeli ruling class. The biggest weapon in the hands of the Palestinian masses is the development of political ideas and strategy which can organise mass opposition to the occupation as well as undermining support for Israeli capitalism amongst Israeli Jews. Issues of military strategy, and the right of the Palestinians to defend themselves, flow from this.
A successful struggle would require a mass movement of the Palestinians under the democratic control of elected popular committees. Demonstrations of tens of thousands in the areas surrounding the checkpoints would display the mass, united opposition to continuing occupation by the IDF. An element of this struggle would require the formation of self-defence committees but again their activities should be under the democratic control of the masses. Through the use of loudspeakers, leaflets and wall murals the activists should explain to the conscripts sent into the territories that Israeli Jewish workers and youth face two options: either a continuing cycle of war and bloodshed (in which the Palestinians would fight to the end) or a struggle to overthrow capitalism in Israel and Palestine followed by genuine and open negotiations with elected representatives from both sides of the national divide who would base their deliberations on the recognition of the national, religious and ethnic rights of all participants, and would discuss how to use the resources of the region to guarantee the security and living standards of all who live there.
However, even leaders like Barghoutti will never go down this road. While they articulate the anger of the Palestinian masses, they see themselves as future leaders of a Palestinian state with the wealth, power and prestige that such positions bring. The Tanzeem leaders know that to expose the role of capitalism in Israeli society, its lack of genuine democracy and the class divisions it causes, would immediately pose the same questions in the minds of ordinary Palestinians about the conditions they live under. They also instinctively understand that the adoption of anything like a working class programme of struggle would also pose a threat to the other Arab regimes in the region, some of which they look to for support.
Sharon’s support eroded
THE PARADOX OF the situation is that despite the reactionary nature of the Sharon government and the extremely high levels of violence, the conditions for such an approach have never been more advantageous. The neo-liberal policies that have been adopted by successive governments have shattered the state social support previously offered in the early years Israel’s existence. Over 70% of the Israeli population feel that Sharon is not delivering on social and economic issues. There is an intense feeling of betrayal amongst the majority of the Israeli population that while the majority have had to sacrifice their lives in five wars, the corrupt minority have lined their pockets with enormous wealth. As Ha’aretz commented on the first anniversary of Sharon’s government: "Sharon is winding up his first year with the country in a state of regression in the spheres of defence, economy, politics and social welfare". (5 March) An indication of the bitterness is the fact that, for the first time in a near war situation, Israeli workers have continued to go on strike and demonstrate against the social and economic policies of the government. As a community leader from Sderot, an Israeli ‘development’ town (a euphemism for poverty-stricken towns earmarked to settle new immigrant arrivals) recently commented: "Poverty affects us far more than Qassam rockets". (The Observer, 10 March)
There has recently been a marked change in the media’s coverage which is a reflection of a changed situation. Previously the press was filled with articles outlining the weakness of Arafat’s position. Now it is Sharon who is in the firing line. This is because of the collapse in his support on security issues which, in the first weeks of March, meant that 49% of the population felt he had no answers on security issues. Avishai Margalit, an Israeli commentator, summed up the mood succinctly: "I don’t believe there is a rational plan here that leads anywhere. For most people there is no alternative. I don’t remember ever, including as a kid during the independence war or during the worst days in Jerusalem, when the future hung in the air and people were as depressed as they are now". (Washington Post Service, 7 February) For the first time in Israeli history, Jewish parents are encouraging their children to move abroad because they see no future for the next generation. This is an extremely significant development for a country that has in the past been characterised by fierce national pride and whose existence has been based on the drive for immigration from the rest of the world.
Nowhere is this questioning more sharply posed than amongst the 322 reservists who signed a letter refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. The speed with which this movement developed, and the language it uses, is also a significant indication of the mood amongst large layers in society. "We, who know that the Territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end. We hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements. We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people". Even representatives of the elite brigades have huge doubts about the most recent incursions into the refugee camps. In an article in the mass circulation Yediot, a Golani brigade soldier commented: "To die in order to catch wanted men? When the first tank starts its engine, the wanted men will be gone. Why die for demolishing houses? For every house that falls, Israel will get hit three times by terrorists. Why die for alerts? Get serious. One day, when we go, they’ll be waiting for us with the surprise of the century". (4 March)
Sharon, even from the point of view of the ruling class, is on the road to disaster. An interview with Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet (Israeli security services), commented, "Yasser Arafat neither prepared nor triggered the Intifada. The explosion was spontaneous, against Israel… and against the Palestinian Authority, its corruption, its impotence… The peace process is what allowed Arafat to be seen as the head of a national liberation movement rather than a collaborator of Israel. Without it he can fight neither against the Islamists nor against his own base. The Palestinians would end up hanging him in the public square". (Le Monde, 22 December 2001)
While Sharon may not be looking to overthrow Arafat or assassinate him, the Palestinian Authority may crumble and Arafat may fall as a cumulative result of the attacks. Some extreme reactionaries have previously encouraged Arafat’s demise and hoped for a Hamas-led regime to replace him so that the IDF could crush it without being concerned about international reaction. It is likely that the Israeli regime has already had discussions with senior PA members like Saeb Erekat or security chiefs Dahlan or Rajoub in the hope it will be ‘moderates’ like these who follow Arafat. But this is an extremely risky option for Sharon to follow. If Arafat is pushed out as a result of Israeli actions, the reaction amongst the masses could bring the Tanzeem leaders to the fore. And even this is unlikely to be a simple replacement of Arafat with another leader. Arafat has survived by manipulating and exacerbating tensions and differences between his opponents and juniors. These will explode to the surface if he is removed and could result in tensions within the PA, possibly leading to clashes and elements of a civil war.
A region on the brink
SHARON, UNDER PRESSURE from US imperialism, has dropped his demand for seven days of quiet before being prepared to start negotiations. He ordered a pull-out of Israeli forces from the refugee camps just as Zinni, the US envoy, arrived in Israel. Yet the position of support for hard-line action against the Palestinians by the Bush administration has not fundamentally changed. They are prisoners of their September 11 propaganda of the ‘war against terrorism’, as far as Israel is concerned. More importantly, their pressure on Israel is also coldly calculated to ease the way to support by Arab leaders of proposed action against Iraq. This is why they have expressed support (even if ‘qualified’) to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace plan. However, only the granting of genuine national liberation and full IDF withdrawal from the Occupied Territories is likely to satisfy the Arab masses. This is certainly not going to happen in the short time that is left before a US-led attack against Iraq and is impossible while capitalism and imperialism dominate the region.
The Saudi plan proposes normalisation of relations between all Arab countries and Israel, in return for Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders, and the granting of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. This is basically what was on offer in the Camp David talks in December 2000 when Bill Clinton organised a last ditch attempt to get agreement between Arafat and Ehud Barak, the then Israeli prime minister. In fact the Saudis have in private briefings conceded more in advance of any negotiations on the question of Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees, and land, than Arafat did. At the time Arafat refused to sign the deal because of huge pressure from below. It is unlikely now, in his weakened position and against the background of the vicious nature of the last 17 months of intifada, that Arafat could sell such a peace deal to the Palestinian masses. But it is also almost impossible for the Sharon government to agree to these demands. The most that can be expected over the short term is the start of some kind of negotiations; a ceasefire, or a lessening in the level of violence.
Two extreme right-wing ministers of the National Union have left the coalition government. It is possible that Netanyahu, former Likud premier, may align himself with these forces to launch a campaign for the next elections either inside or outside Likud. It would be disastrous for the Israeli ruling class if Netanyahu was re-elected under present conditions. It is for this reason that a candidate such as Ami Ayalon, former Shin Bet chief, an individual not dirtied with involvement in Israeli politics, could be persuaded to put his hat into the ring.
Ayalon favours what he calls unconditional withdrawal of the IDF into Israel proper, with a full recognition of a Palestinian state. However, it is easy to propose from the sidelines what seems like a sensible ‘solution’ to the problem – even from a liberal capitalist point of view. However, implementing such a policy when in power would be a completely different question because of the opposition of the right-wing reactionary forces in Israeli society. A demand for unconditional IDF withdrawal could gain momentum in Israeli society under conditions of continuing bloodshed. But the implications of this course of action would bring to the fore all the intractable issues that have caused the failure of all other attempts at agreement on a capitalist basis. These are the settlements, Jerusalem and the holy places, the occupation of the Golan, and the refugees. Any move to forcibly evacuate the hundreds of settlements, even if initially successful, would lead to revenge attacks on Palestinians living in Israel and pave the way to elements of civil war and the ethnic cleansing of Israeli society.
The same prospect could result from Sharon’s proposal for buffer zones to ‘keep out’ suicide bombers, which could be the first step to a unilateral separation in which the Israeli government would declare where the borders of a Palestinian state should be. This could only be achieved, however, by a prior annexation of the Palestinian territory on which some of the Israeli Jewish settlements stand and the evacuation of others. The result could be a Balkan-type situation in Israel with the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Israeli Palestinians and a vicious and bloody civil war.
The basis of any genuine solution to the cycle of violence in the Middle East lies in the poor peasants, workers and youth on both sides of the national divide, not the corrupt capitalist politicians who make war in the name of peace agreements. The overthrow of capitalism in the region, and its replacement with a socialist Palestinian state and a socialist Israel as part of a socialist confederation of the region, remains the only answer to the gloomy prospects which faces future generations in the region otherwise. This is why the building of strong working class movements on both sides of the national divide in Israel and Palestine, committed to these ideas, is such an urgent task for socialists in the region.
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