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Issue 52

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Issue 52, October 2000

Middle East in flames

    'Oslo peace' was never an answer
    Life in a 'Palestinian Bantustan'
    Israel's forgotten minority - the Palestinians
    Impoverished and alienated - Israel's Jewish working class
    A new Palestinian uprising
    A religious conflict?
    Danger of an 'Israeli Bosnia'
    Heading for war?
    Fighting for an alternative

Despite the apparent calm of a few weeks ago, the Middle East has descended into bloody conflict. Israel is drifting into a Bosnian-type communal internecine showdown between Israeli Jews and Palestinians living in Israel. The whole region could be moving towards another Arab-Israeli war and a conflict between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli regime. These latest developments demonstrate in the clearest possible manner that lasting peace and genuine social and economic stability is impossible under capitalism. KEVIN SIMPSON writes.

THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY controlled lands of the West Bank and Gaza have seen a ferocious, heroic and seemingly unstoppable, mass uprising against the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), the seething rage at decades of national oppression and socio-economic deprivation finally boiling over. Thousands of Palestinian youth armed with little more than stones have taken to the streets to face the fourth-strongest army in the world. In a profound change from previous conflicts, Israeli Palestinians, using the same methods of mass struggle as their compatriots in the Palestinian Authority (PA), have poured onto the streets of Palestinian towns and villages within Israel, infuriated at years of treatment as second-class Israeli citizens and enraged by the IDF massacres.

At the same time, there have been widespread anti-Palestinian riots by sections of Israeli Jewish workers and youth. These riots, involving the most poverty-stricken and alienated sections of Israeli Jews, have been encouraged by the Israeli regime's crude war-mongering propaganda, playing on their security fears. These movements within Israel, on both sides of the national divide, have terrified the Israeli ruling class. Ehud Barak, Israel's prime minister, said, "this process [is] more dangerous to us than any enemy or any external war". (9 October, 2000)


These developments are a major blow to US imperialism. In a final humiliation for the expiring Clinton presidency, the much vaunted Oslo 'peace process', a major project of the US administration, has fallen apart at the seams. In contrast to previous conflicts, a move to war has begun as a result of a spontaneous movement from below rather than through the machinations of the big imperialist powers or Middle Eastern leaders. US imperialism, the Israeli ruling class, Yasser Arafat's regime and the Arab cliques in the region, have lost control of events. Enormously powerful forces have been unleashed which they are now finding very difficult to hold back.

The conflict has had an immediate impact in Europe and the USA and on the world economy. Oil prices are at a ten-year high. There have been clashes between Palestinians and Jews and attacks on synagogues and mosques in Europe and the US. In Yemen, 17 US sailors were killed when their ship was targeted by suicide bombers.

Can the drift towards conflict be halted? How can Palestinian national aspirations be fulfilled and their terrible social and economic conditions transformed? How can the security fears of the Israeli Jewish population be answered? What policies could reverse the precipitous fall in their living standards after four years of recession?

top     'Oslo peace' was never an answer

THE ONLY WAY that genuine peace can be achieved is by fulfilling the national aspirations of the Palestinian masses through the granting of a fully independent state. Peace also necessitates guaranteeing the rights and answering the security fears of the Israeli Jewish working class. It means protecting the language, cultural, religious and democratic rights of all minorities in the region. It also means ending the poverty and social deprivation which exists amongst the Arab masses, Palestinians, and the Israeli Jewish working class. This requires the building of a mass movement to overthrow oppressive Israeli capitalism and the reactionary Arab elites which dominate the region. This can only be done through the struggle for a socialist society.


The Oslo 'peace process' was never aimed at solving any of these problems. It was instigated primarily by US imperialism to forestall a mass Palestinian movement by granting extremely limited concessions. Oslo was also designed to put in place a regime - under Arafat's control - which would hold back the masses from further struggle. Its conditions meant that the Palestinian masses faced two oppressors: the IDF, and Arafat's security agencies. For the capitalist classes and ruling elites in the region, it was designed to open up new economic opportunities for increasing their profits and personal wealth.

In 1993, amidst the understandable optimism and euphoria at the prospect of peace which existed during the initial negotiations, the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) commented: "Looking at all the factors and processes involved, this agreement, although it has provided minimum concessions to the Palestinians, will break down over the longer period. Capitalism is still incapable of answering the aspirations of the Palestinians... The agreement will be broken by the inability of its co-signees to solve the contradictions of the region. The agreement may provide a period of quiet - although this is not certain. But any limited stability will be based on the false promise, propagated by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), that the deal will provide something which cannot be given - statehood.

"This is being done on the basis of the PLO's betrayal of the masses... These complications which are maturing beneath the wave of euphoria will explode to the surface later on with horrific consequences... We fully support the withdrawal of the IDF to barracks... (but) we must point out that under certain circumstances the processes which led to the IDF being withdrawn could turn into their opposite and lead to their deployment once again". (CWI statement, November 1993) Unfortunately, this has been chillingly fulfilled.


The spark that lit the present conflagration was Ariel Sharon's visit, on 28 September, to a disputed religious site in Jerusalem - the Temple Mount (Judaism's most sacred place), or Al Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary, Islam's third-holiest place and site of the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques). Sharon is the leader of the right-wing Likud party and was defence minister during the bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Widely regarded as being responsible for allowing the reactionary Christian Phalange paramilitary forces to butcher thousands of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut during this war, he is hated by the Palestinian masses.

The immediate reason for the explosion of Palestinian anger, and the anti-Palestinian riots by some Israeli Jews, lies in the failure of the 'peace process'. But the more fundamental explanation lies in the political, social and economic developments amongst different sections of society. The present, extremely dangerous turn towards communal strife and sectarian tension is also rooted in the absence of mass socialist and revolutionary organisations of the working class and oppressed masses, on both sides of the national divide, which could chart a way forward to genuine peace.

top     Life in a 'Palestinian Bantustan'

THE NATIONAL OPPRESSION of the Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority lands and Israel has enormously intensified. National and ethnic divisions within the Israeli Jewish population have also multiplied dramatically. Social and economic conditions on both sides of the national divide have plummeted since Oslo. This has come about while Israeli, Palestinian and US negotiators frequent opulent conference venues issuing fantastical statements which promise peaceful co-existence and economic development. The contradiction between the diplomatic fiction and reality has fuelled a subterranean build-up of tension which has burst onto the surface.


Since the signing of the Oslo agreement, 50,000 new Jewish settlers have moved into areas of the former Occupied Territories not under Palestinian Authority (PA) control. Barak's government has allowed the building of new settlements at a greater rate than under the former Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, completing the encirclement of Palestinian East Jerusalem. To 'aid' this process, the Israeli authorities revoked the identity papers of thousands of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem so that they could be driven out of the city.

Four hundred kilometres of paved roads under IDF control have been built on land confiscated from Palestinians in the former Occupied Territories. The West Bank and Gaza have suffered months-long periods of closure, preventing tens of thousands of Palestinian day labourers from travelling to work inside Israel. Israeli companies have been encouraged to hire immigrant workers from Africa and Asia to reduce the Palestinian workforce, further increasing economic deprivation in PA areas. Palestinians face daily harassment by the IDF and Border Police.

Even when agreements have been signed they are not implemented. The Wye River Accord agreed by Netanyahu and Arafat in October 1998, for example, put in place a transport corridor between the West Bank and Gaza. The IDF was given ultimate control of this corridor, however, and only a trickle of Palestinians have been able to use it. A recent conference of peace activists argued: "The establishment of a Palestinian state truncated by a massive system of bypass roads, encircled by Israeli settlement blocs, subject to closures and restrictions on freedom of movement and commerce, with no control of its borders or natural resources, will only create a reality of apartheid, a Palestinian state as a Bantustan". (International Herald Tribune, 6 October 2000)


Under Arafat's rule, unemployment in PA areas has tripled and gross domestic product has plummeted by 17%. The PA is a corrupt, dictatorial, gangster-regime, with 40,000 Palestinians employed in 14 security services under Arafat's ultimate control. Journalists, human-rights activists and trade unionists are routinely beaten up and harrassed.

An independent audit commission in 1998 reported that out of a PA budget of $800m in 1996, $326 million was 'unaccounted for'. PA ministers live in gleaming villas while the majority of Palestinians scratch a living alongside them without electricity or sanitation. It is no wonder, then, that Palestinians have come to hate Oslo and all it stands for. They feel humiliated by the PLO leadership's betrayal, the Israeli regime's continuing oppression, and the role of US imperialism. Humiliation has turned to anger and rage.

The latest (failed) Camp David peace talks were supposed to deal with the most contentious issues leading to a 'final settlement'. US imperialism and the Israeli negotiators attempted to force Arafat to accept limited autonomy over parts of the outlying areas of Palestinian East Jerusalem (with Palestinian control over undisputed Muslim religious sites). The possibility was raised of the return of 10,000 Palestinian refugees (out of approximately four million living in the Arab diaspora) over a five-year period. There was no agreement on water rights. During these negotiations, Clinton lectured Arafat on the need to convince his 'constituency' to support this 'settlement'. Arafat retorted: 'Do you want to attend my funeral?'


A new generation has grown up in an increasingly polarised and brutalised situation. They follow the tradition of the intifada youth (the mass uprising of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories which began in 1987) but, unlike the previous generation, they are not exhausted by years of grinding confrontation with the IDF. The withdrawal of the IDF from southern Lebanon in July boosted their confidence. These young people, mostly from working-class Palestinian families, formed the spearhead of the uprising. They were no longer prepared to live under the old conditions, although they did not have a clear idea of the tactics and strategy necessary to achieve their aims. The fact that they had lost any remaining fear of the IDF, however, even if struggle meant death, marks an extremely important development in their consciousness. It opened the floodgates to the mass uprising.

top     Israel's forgotten minority - the Palestinians

THERE ARE ONE million Palestinians living in Israel, nearly 20% of the population. Over 95% voted for Barak at the last general election, hoping that the promised 'completion of the Oslo process' could bring an end to their treatment as Israel's second-class citizens. These illusions have been cruelly dashed.

Israeli Palestinians have borne the brunt of the four-year-long economic recession. Out of twelve Israeli unemployment black spots, eleven are Palestinian towns and villages. Many Israeli Palestinian local councils are bankrupt (as are their Israeli Jewish counterparts), leading to unpaid wages and, in some cases, mass sackings.


Israeli Palestinians have always faced an apartheid-like, institutionalised racism in all aspects of their lives - education, health, social welfare, jobs and council services. Israeli Palestinians are routinely stopped for questioning in predominantly Jewish cities like Tel Aviv. Even the Israeli regime's terminology - designating them as 'Israeli Arabs' rather than Palestinians - downgrades their national identity. The use of Arabic, really the second language in Israel, is relegated to third or fourth place in the media and even on street signs.

The Israeli ruling class has traditionally relied on wealthy Palestinians - so-called community leaders - as a tool of social control of the wider Palestinian community. These are generally the heads of rich families and clans. The Israeli ruling class benefits because it does not have to rule directly, and the Palestinian 'leaders' benefit through business contracts, bribes, or by becoming part of the Israeli authority structures (as local councillors, etc).

Using this barrier to the development of mass opposition amongst poorer sections of Palestinians, the Israeli ruling class has always regarded Palestinians living in Israel as more submissive. Only at the height of the intifada struggles were there any Palestinian demonstrations inside Israel.

Social and economic developments in Israel, however, alongside the arrogance of the Israeli ruling class, have tended to undermine these tools of control. The Follow-up Committee on Arab Affairs, for example, made up of Israeli Palestinian notables 'to look at conditions in the Palestinian sector', has been ignored by Barak since he came to power 18 months ago. This inevitably added to the smoldering anger and further undermined the ability of the Palestinian community leaders to hold back protest.


Large sections of the population rely on employment in the public sector and each employee sustains large numbers of relatives in extended families. The crisis facing local government, therefore, has a multiplied effect within Israeli Palestinian society. The present deep recession, coming on top of decades of under-funding in the Israeli Palestinian sector, has further torn apart the social fabric.

The existence of mass youth unemployment, including amongst those lucky enough to have university education, has led to a huge rise in discontent. Unlike their parents and grandparents, the younger generation has not grown up under direct military occupation. Israeli Palestinians are a young population - 92% were born after the creation of Israel and 40% are under 18 years of age. A Palestinian MK (Member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament) commented: "There is an entire generation here which doesn't know what defeat is. It looks the Jewish majority in the eyes and demands its rights". (Ha'aretz, 3 October 2000) There is a certain similarity between today's generation of young Palestinians and the black people who grew up in South Africa in the 1970s. They were the ones who had the confidence to lead the first mass struggles against apartheid.

top     Impoverished and alienated - Israel's Jewish working class

SOME OF THE most important changes in consciousness have occurred amongst the Israeli Jewish working class. These developments have been ignored by the Israeli ruling class and the international media, as well as by left-wing organisations inside Israel and around the world. It is no wonder that the recent riots amongst Israeli working class Jews have left many reeling with surprise.


The survival of Israeli capitalism obviously required the maintenance of the Israeli state as a geographical entity. US imperialism provided military and economic aid, as well as favourable trading agreements, to enable Israeli capitalism to develop into a regional military and economic power. However, to survive against the threat of invasion by antagonistic Arab ruling elites, the Israeli ruling class also required a large degree of social cohesion among the whole of its Jewish population. This has been the only way it could maintain a 600,000-strong conscript army and guarantee the necessary sacrifice from its soldiers during the five wars that have taken place since Israel's foundation.

This cohesion was achieved through a high level of state intervention into all aspects of Israeli Jewish life, as well as a highly protected economy. Histadruth, a state funded organisation, owned most major industries, supposedly acted as a trade union, and established health and welfare provision. A relatively good state education system was provided. Generally, the idea was propagated by the Israeli ruling class that if Israeli Jewish workers were prepared to sacrifice - through military service and social contributions - then the state would provide security for the population. That resulted in a low level of class-consciousness amongst Israeli Jewish workers.

Another factor encouraging this social cohesion was the security fears of ordinary Israeli Jews. This was emphasised in ruling-class propaganda but was, nevertheless, an objective reality. Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews arrived in Palestine mainly following the Holocaust in which up to six million died. The establishment of Israel in 1948 led immediately to an Arab-Israeli war. Middle Eastern (Sephardic) Jews, arrived in the 1950s, following their forced expulsion from Arab states.


This did not mean that there were no divisions in Israeli society, but these were pushed far beneath the surface in the early days of the state. The biggest division has always been between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, with the Ashkenazi elite treating the Sephardic Jewish arrivals as a social underclass. Dumped in poverty-stricken and under-funded 'development towns', where they have remained to this day, the Ashkenazi ruling class viewed Sephardic Jews with suspicion because of the latter's 'Arab background and culture'. Sephardic culture has been repressed for decades. Many Israeli Jewish workers have therefore seen their class oppression as ethnic oppression.

The 1990s brought huge change to Israel. The Israeli ruling class, under the pressure of the world economy and determined to maintain its profits, implemented fierce neo-liberal economic policies. All Histadruth's industrial holdings were privatised. Histadruth is now reduced to its trade union functions only. The health service has been privatised. Education, particularly in working-class areas, is chronically underfunded. The deep recession has exacerbated these conditions. One-third of the Israeli Jewish population live on, or under, the official poverty line. Unemployment is around 10%. Working conditions have been savaged. Over 40% of the workforce are now employed by employment agencies, with no security of tenure or union rights. Violent crime and drug abuse, relatively low in previous decades, have now become rife. Jewish homelessness, previously unimaginable, is now climbing. According to official studies, wealth polarisation in Israel is greater than any advanced industrialised economy apart from the USA.


Another side-effect of financial and economic deregulation has been the wave of corruption that has swept through the political elite. Ezer Weizmann was forced to resign as president for receiving bribes from a Swiss millionaire. Barak has been accused of setting up illegal front organisations to win the last election.

These developments have had far-reaching effects. The Israeli Jewish working class feels bitterly betrayed. Their security fears have been overlaid with deep anxiety about social and economic stability. They feel their decades of sacrifice are now being repaid with poverty and social disintegration. There has been an unprecedented collapse in the authority of bourgeois rule.

One political effect of this has been an increase in support for the ultra-orthodox Shas party which has become a focus for disillusioned Israeli Jewish working-class voters. Shas has provided funding for new schools and clinics as well as drop-in centres for the unemployed. It has articulated the growing protest against the suppression of Sephardic culture and identity.

Over the past four years there have been many strikes and protests by Israeli workers. This radicalisation has also affected other layers of society, for example university students, who launched a mass movement against student loans and tuition fees. This popularised the word 'revolution' for the first time in Israel, leading to some Israeli companies using it in TV adverts. Many Israeli Jewish workers have talked about the ground 'burning under the feet of ordinary people' and the need for a 'Jewish intifada'.


Barak has reneged on his election promises to create 300,000 jobs and provide free education from kindergarten to university, instead launching attacks on the poorest sections of society. The feeling of betrayal has deepened.

top     A new Palestinian uprising

SEPTEMBER 28, THE day of Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, ended in widespread rioting by young Palestinians in Jerusalem. Next day, the Israeli ruling class responded - a brutal crackdown with five fatalities. The uprising spread throughout PA areas, the initial points of friction being the Israeli-Palestinian checkpoints. The conflict soon spread to the Palestinian-controlled areas as IDF units pursued protestors into PA territory. The numbers involved in the protests grew rapidly as every funeral became a focus for the anger of the masses and a rallying point for further confrontations.

The IDF have adopted a shoot-to-kill policy towards the Palestinian youth. All the bullet wounds are in the upper part of the body, concentrated around the head, chest and arms. This brutality was not an 'overreaction' but a conscious policy. The repeated attacks on Red Crescent ambulances attempting to collect the injured was aimed at terrifying the local population.

It is clear that the Israeli ruling class felt that it could crush the movement with brute force. For the first time, helicopter gunships have been used in PA areas and tanks and heavy armour deployed within striking distance of the main Palestinian urban centres. The use of snipers and undercover squads at a much higher intensity than during previous clashes was part of a conscious policy to eliminate local leaders of the uprising. The Israeli ruling class aimed to crush the uprising as quickly as possible while denying the tactics it was using to the world's media.


Despite all these measures, the uprising has not been suppressed - it has grown. The only explanation for this is that the most advanced sections of the Palestinians have drawn the conclusion that Oslo was a complete failure and that the PLO leaders have betrayed their cause. Thus, the only possibility was a mass struggle to drive out the IDF as a first stage to winning an independent state.

Initially, Palestinians were armed only with stones. As the wave of anger spread, however, firearms were made available to the youth and many Palestinian police joined the protests. Members of the Tanzeem, the armed youth militia of Fatah (Arafat's political organisation), were partially involved in leading different actions.

From the outset, the Israeli ruling class claimed that the entire movement was instigated by Arafat and was being effectively directed by him. This extremely crude propaganda, while it had an effect on Israeli Jewish society, completely misunderstood the processes erupting amongst the Palestinian masses. Arafat did not oppose the initial demonstrations after Friday prayers - members of his security services were present. But he did not want a full-scale uprising. Once the uprising started, however, there was no way Arafat could control it, as sections of the PA administration and security apparatus crumbled into the mass movement.

The rapid escalation of the uprising appeared to surprise the Israeli security services, which have been criticised for not foreseeing the strength of the response to Sharon's visit. But the biggest shock for the Israeli ruling class was the beginning of the Palestinian uprising inside Israel. Mass demonstrations, attacks on police stations, banks and post offices, shook the Israeli establishment to its core. The police killed at least ten Israeli Palestinians, a higher level of fatalities even than the Land Day killings of 1976, which are commemorated every year by Palestinian demonstrations inside Israel.


This uprising has been a defining moment for Israel's Palestinians, just as the intifada of the 1980s was for the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories. Things will never be the same again.

With violent clashes continuing in PA areas, Barak issued a warning to Arafat that he had 24 hours to stop the protests or the Israeli government would declare the 'peace process' dead. In the Israeli media there were threats to use heavy armour and tanks against PA targets, to cut off electricity and water supplies, and to seal off PA territory from Israel.

This was accompanied by the whipping up of fears amongst the Israeli Jewish population that the country faced a mortal threat, a propaganda wave which had all the more effect as it occurred in the run-up to Yom Kippur. This is a solemn religious day of reflection for all Jews, a traditional day of atonement for the previous year's sins. At the same time, it is linked in popular consciousness with the nation facing dangers from outside forces, as it also commemorates the Yom Kippur war of 1973, when Arab countries launched an unexpected attack.

The use of such crude propaganda set the backdrop for what proved to be another huge shock for the Israeli ruling class - the extensive anti-Palestinian rioting which occurred in the poorest Jewish working-class areas across Israel. The lack of a mass socialist, working-class alternative on both sides of the national divide, the huge anger of the Palestinian masses and the security fears of the alienated and dispossessed sections of the Jewish working class, mean that the mass movement and the reaction to it have taken on an increasingly dangerous colouration. Unless an alternative route can be found, or the tensions reduced, Israel faces a catastrophic ethnic and communal civil war akin to the carnage of Bosnia in the mid-1990s.


top     A religious conflict?

THE INFLUENCE OF Islamic groups has become much more important in the 1990s. The collapse of the Stalinist Soviet Union in 1989/90 hastened the demise of the Communist Parties (CPs) in the neo-colonial world. Whilst they effectively held back revolutionary struggles, on behalf of the Soviet Union's ruling bureaucracy, the CPs nevertheless had a mass membership in many countries and a wider support in society. This was because they represented a different social and economic model to that provided by the imperialist Western powers which pillaged the neo-colonial world.

Following Stalinism's collapse and the worldwide capitalist propaganda offensive against the ideas of socialism, the CPs in the neo-colonial world either fell apart or moved even more sharply to the right. They became apologists for the neo-liberal policies imposed by Western imperialism. This was even more the case for the radical, middle-class political parties and those fighting for national liberation who, in the past, had used quite clearly-defined anti-imperialist rhetoric.

In the Middle East, this ideological collapse has been reflected in the positions the parties took towards the Oslo agreement. The majority, rather than explaining the limitations in the deal, came out in support of Oslo, reinforcing illusions amongst those workers and youth looking to these parties for an explanation of the agreement.


In the former Occupied Territories, organisations like the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) - previously linked to the Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet Union and China - opposed the deal but did not provide any alternative. In fact, since 1994 they have gradually adopted a purely formal opposition to Oslo. This approach and the general disorientation of their leadership after 1989 have meant that the active membership and support for these organisations amongst the wider Palestinian population have dropped dramatically.

In Israel, the CP, with a mainly Palestinian membership, gave full support to the Oslo 'peace process'. At the last general and prime ministerial elections, the CP campaigned for a vote for Barak. While the vast majority of Israeli Palestinians who voted did cast their votes for Barak, subsequent events have meant that support for the CP has continued to fall.

In PA areas, the corruption and betrayal of the PLO leadership, together with the demise of the DFLP and PFLP, has meant that the most radical young people have looked elsewhere for a political alternative. Support has grown for Hamas, the most extreme Islamic group in the area. Whilst the policies of Hamas are at base reactionary, it has been the most consistent opponent of the Oslo deal in the territories. On top of this, Hamas has provided free schooling, health facilities, and some job opportunities in PA areas. With a collapsing economy this has led to a growth in Hamas's support.


The growing influence of groups like Hamas parallels a growth throughout the Muslim world. Above all, this is because there are no genuine socialist parties in these countries which can put forward a programme to unify the masses and provide strategy and tactics to end imperialist domination. The extreme Islamic organisations, because of their radical rhetoric and their social programmes, are increasingly seen as the most consistent anti-imperialist political forces. Their rise, however, does not automatically mean that the masses support their more reactionary, undemocratic policies.

In the Israeli Palestinian areas, as a result of the discrediting of former left organisations like the CP, there has been a growth in support for the Muslim Brothers. But as one Israeli Palestinian explained during the recent protests, "the Islamic Movement supplies an alternative to what the government is supposed to do. It can raise money, help the poor, set up a school system. There is a parallel between the Islamic Movement and Shas: but does everyone who votes Shas believe in every religious principle? The same is true for us". As this comment indicates, amongst the poorest sections of the Israeli Jewish working class Shas, the ultra-orthodox party, plays a similar role to Hamas and the Muslim Brothers.

For historical reasons, religion has always played an important role in society and politics in the Middle East. In both Israel and Palestine, religion has become identified with culture and, more recently, with national identity. In a period of greatly increased fears (amongst Israeli Jews) and huge anger (amongst Palestinians), the religious colouration of the clashes between Palestinians and Israeli Jews threatens to dominate the situation. It enormously complicates the struggle for the working class and poor peasant masses to overthrow Israeli capitalism and the rotten Arab elites. It also threatens to increase the danger of communal civil war and a new Israeli Bosnia.


top     Danger of an 'Israeli Bosnia'

SOME OF THE actions of the Palestinian youth, while their anger is entirely understandable given the slaughter they have faced over the past weeks, have had the effect of driving Israeli Jewish workers towards a much more reactionary position. Once the IDF withdrew from Joseph's tomb, for example, Palestinian youth overran the shrine and set fire to part of it. Such actions intensify deep-rooted fears amongst the Israeli Jews that their religion, culture and their national identity are under threat of annihilation.

Similarly, beating up ordinary Israeli Jews at roadblocks, or stoning coaches containing Israeli Jewish workers, whatever the provocation, again effectively drive Israeli Jewish workers into the arms of the most reactionary elements in society. Attacks on Israeli civilians exacerbate the fears of ordinary Israeli Jews and strengthen the position of the Israeli ruling class, rather than opening up divisions between the Israeli regime and the Israeli Jewish working class.

Widespread anti-Palestinian riots developed in the days after the attack on Joseph's tomb and the kidnapping of three soldiers by Hezbollah in Lebanon. There was also a reaction to the shock-wave caused by the Israeli-Palestinian uprising, which had a qualitatively different effect on Israeli Jews than the protests in PA areas.

The intifada accustomed Israeli Jews to the idea of struggle amongst the Palestinians in the former Occupied Territories. The setting up of the PA increased the feeling that events there, although impinging on developments in Israel, are not an integral part of Israel's political life. A mass protest movement amongst Israeli Palestinians, however, is something completely different. All Israeli Jews from the day they are born are faced with the actual and perceived threat of being surrounded by regimes hostile to Israel's existence. These fears were increased a thousand-fold when Israeli Jews realised the extent of the anger amongst Israeli Palestinians.


The most serious rioting was centred in the poorest working-class areas of towns and cities, such as Bat Yam (which borders Palestinian-populated Jaffa) and Hatikva in Tel Aviv. In one example, a mob of Israeli Jews attacked a restaurant in Tel Aviv which employed Israeli Palestinians, setting fire to the building.

The riots were undoubtedly organised by reactionary elements within the local population. However, they received support from some of the poorest and most alienated sections of the Israeli working class. Whilst it is true that these protests were mainly directed against Palestinians, in places like Bat Yam those involved also expressed as much hatred for the Barak government and the Ashkenazi elite in Israeli society.

Under conditions of extreme instability and fear on both sides of the national divide, rumour fed on rumour and attack on counter-attack. Clashes between Jews and Palestinians in Israel have not reached such a level since 1948.

The fear of violent attack raises the question of self-defence. All communities who face attack have the right to self-defence, organised through self-defence committees under the democratic control and accountability of the communities they represent. When flashpoints develop, attempts should be made to set up negotiations between representatives who have the respect and trust of both communities to defuse the situation. This approach, however, will not work on the basis of the moralistic approach of those present community leaders who talk in the same fantastical language as the international negotiators of peaceful coexistence. Such self-defence committees, if they are to work and build genuine trust on both sides of the national divide, will have to begin to attack the roots of the social and economic problems which fuel the fires of the national question. They would have to take a clear position of defending the rights of the Palestinians to a state and guaranteeing the security of ordinary Israeli Jews.


top     Heading for war?

THE POSSIBILITY OF an Arab-Israeli war and a civil war in Israel is now inherent in the situation. Clearly, the sections of society which will suffer most will be the working class and poor. On the Palestinian side it is not the decision-makers, such as millionaire businessman, Nabil Sha'ath, who have been throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and getting killed and maimed. On the Israeli side, it is not the sons of the politicians and millionaire businessmen who have been killed or kidnapped but soldiers from the most down-trodden sections of the working class - from ethnic minorities such as the Druze, Bedouin, or Ethiopian Jews, and those from the development towns.

A new war will be much bloodier than previous ones. The IDF will not be fighting an army but a people who have risen up and have nothing more to lose. An attempt to re-occupy cities like Ramallah and Gaza will not be a repeat of the 1967 wars when the IDF took over what became known as the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem. It will be a vicious urban war where each metre of land, each house and street will be fought over. Carpet bombing of PA areas is not a viable option. It would make the most recent Israeli Palestinian protests look calm by comparison and lead to utter chaos inside Israel itself.

US imperialism learnt an extremely painful lesson in Vietnam: there are no politically acceptable military methods that can defeat a mass movement that is prepared to go to the end. The Israeli ruling class will learn the same costly lesson.


As we go to press, Barak has started negotiations for a national unity government. Heading a minority government, which has relied on the votes of Palestinian MKs outside the government to remain in power, Barak wants to consolidate his own position. The move to an emergency national unity government also represents an attempt by the ruling class to seal divisions amongst the political elite to prepare for war.

Arafat's position is also dramatically weakened. He has been forced to release Hamas prisoners and grant the organisation its own programme on Palestinian TV. Just before he left for the Egyptian summit there were mass demonstrations in Ramallah and Gaza calling on him not to betray the struggle, the majority carrying Hamas flags. This reflects a shift in the Palestinian population towards Hamas as the only alternative on offer which articulates the rage of the masses. Tanzeem produced a leaflet declaring that it had split from Fatah, its parent organisation, announcing that it would adopt the methods of Hezbollah in the struggle against Israel.

Demonstrations have swept the Arab and Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco, seemingly more widespread than the protests which took place during the Gulf war in 1991. In Morocco over half-a-million people demonstrated not only against the atrocities committed by the IDF but also against the Moroccan regime's links with Israel. There have been demonstrations of similar numbers in Iran. In Jordan, riot police fired tear gas and live ammunition against thousands of demonstrators attempting to storm the Israeli embassy. Even the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia have seen significant demonstrations.


Despite their protestations of rage, the cynical Arab ruling classes fear the effects of the Palestinian uprising on their own populations. There are four million Palestinians living outside Israel and Palestine, often forming the most poverty-stricken sections of the population in the Arab countries. The Arab ruling elites realise that discontent amongst Palestinian refugees could quickly spread to wider sections of the working class and peasant masses. They remember the mass movement of Palestinians in Jordan in the early 1970s which nearly toppled the reactionary King Hussein. The regimes fear that the lesson drawn by their own populations from the Palestinian uprising is that mass struggle is the only way to change conditions.

These elites are also terrified of the threat of war. Countries like Syria no longer have the political, economic and, most importantly, military support of the Soviet Union, which backed them in previous Arab-Israeli wars. They would probably emerge from such a conflict considerably weaker and faced with sanctions imposed by US imperialism.

While the Arab regimes may not want to go to war this does not mean that another Israeli-Arab war will not occur (even in the relatively short term). New atrocities by the IDF, an attempt by the Israeli generals to reoccupy PA territory, or even the attempt by the Israeli ruling class to impose a unilateral settlement on the Palestinians, would further destabilise the situation. Such scenarios could force the Arab regimes into conflict with Israel from fear that if they did not take such action they themselves could be overthrown by opposition forces pushed on by mass pressure.


The major imperialist powers are involved in a desperate race against time to stop war in the Middle East. They are terrified of the political and economic effects of such an open conflict. Barak and Arafat, however, are being pushed into more entrenched positions by forces they cannot control. The US-organised 'peace summit' in Egypt was a desperate but failed attempt to re-assert control over the situation. Clinton, president of the world's only superpower, is reduced to appealing to the Israeli ruling class and the Palestinian leaders to 'stop the violence', rather than finishing his term with a prestigious 'final agreement' in place.

top     Fighting for an alternative

THERE IS A desperate need to build a genuine socialist alternative to the present threat of war and civil war. This requires building support for a programme aimed at the social, economic and national problems which blight the region, all of which are interlinked. A socialist movement can only be built on the basis of putting forward a programme which answers the national aspirations of the Palestinian masses and the economic and social needs and security fears of the Israeli Jewish working class.

A socialist alternative within the Palestinian population would start from the fact that Arafat and the other Arab leaders have consistently betrayed the Palestinian masses. The uprising must, therefore, be run under the control of the masses, with a democratically elected and accountable leadership and an end to all secret negotiations with the Israeli ruling class and US imperialism. Socialists would also explain that one condition for the successful struggle for genuine national liberation is the splitting away of the Israeli working class from its capitalist ruling class. This means convincing Israeli Jewish workers and youth that Israeli capitalism has meant five wars, mass unemployment and social hardship; that the Palestinian masses will not abandon their struggle for their homeland; and that the only real choice is between the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and feudalism in the region or continued bloodshed.


At the moment, the most clearly expressed and vocalised feeling will be that of a continuation of the conflict in its present form, with the danger of a further degeneration in the situation. Nonetheless, there will be some who are looking beyond the day-to-day clashes and are seeking an alternative to sectarian conflict and war. If there is such a development, moreover, there will eventually be a wider reaction amongst workers and young people against the bloodshed.

There are examples of how the situation can change in conditions of war. The Lebanese civil war in the 1980s was followed by a general strike in all the divided communities for better social and economic conditions. The majority of Israeli Jews supported the initial invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Yet, just a few years later, one million Israeli Jews demonstrated in Tel Aviv against Israel's continued involvement in the conflict.

The imperialist West, the Israeli ruling class and the Arab regimes, will attempt new peace negotiations now that Oslo has broken down. The only way to permanently end the causes of war, however, is for the end of capitalism and feudalism in the region.

Ma'avak Sozialisti, a CWI-affiliated organisation, has begun this work in Israel. Amongst Israeli Jews, members of Ma'avak Sozialisti have outlined the attacks that Barak has carried out on the working class and explained that this is not just the responsibility of one prime minister but is part of the capitalist system. They have explained that the working classes on both sides of the national divide have been forced to pay for years of conflict. They outline the fact that hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews sacrifice three years of their lives to serve in the army and when they leave they are faced with a crumbling education system, no jobs and no accommodation.


Ma'avak Sozialisti has been involved in all the major struggles of workers and youth over the past three years. They have also argued the case for a socialist confederation of the Middle East - a free and voluntary association of independent socialist states - to lay the basis for the easing of tensions over the national question. They have opposed the racism faced by Palestinians in Israel and defended the democratic rights of all minorities.

A socialist Middle East would release the resources needed to wipe out social deprivation and poverty. It would also create the basis for fulfilling the national aspirations of the Palestinian masses, to protect the rights of all minorities, and answer the fears ordinary Israeli Jews have for their future. In this way, the tensions and conflict which have poisoned the region could be eradicated within a generation.

The CWI has produced a statement on the Middle East. The full text can be found at

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