SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Inflaming the Middle East conflict

AFTER MUCH delay, US president George W Bush outlined his ‘vision’ for Israel/Palestine in a speech at the White House on Monday 24 June. Bush claimed he wanted to see ‘two states, living side by side, in peace and security’. He then fully endorsed the Israeli state’s brutal oppression and military aggression against the Palestinian people.

In a provocation to every Palestinian, all Arab people, and everyone fighting imperialist intervention and interference, Bush called for the removal of Palestinian leaders and, by clear implication, Yasser Arafat. In fact, he made this a precondition for future negotiations: "Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror… And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbours, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state… And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure".

Bush, who rigged his own election victory, then instructed the Palestinians on the nature of the state they had to build: "True reform will require entirely new political and economic institutions based on democracy, market economics and action against terrorism".

The US president blamed the Palestinians for their plight: "The current situation offers no prospect that life will improve. Israeli citizens will continue to be victimised by terrorists, and so Israel will continue to defend herself, and the situation of the Palestinian people will grow more and more miserable".

This speech was a blatant attack on Palestinian rights and national aspirations. It has also opened up a rift between Western powers, with even the British government distancing itself from the demand to oust Arafat. European Union leaders and Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, rejected Bush’s policy. The leaders of the Arab states have been shaken, fearing outpourings of support for the Palestinians which could undermine their own positions.

Most commentators recognised it as a recipe for further conflict. Joseph Alpher, an Israeli analyst, commented: "So we are stuck where we are, which means more of the same, which means the situation will get worse: creeping Israeli occupation, expanding settlements and continued terrorism". Incredibly, Arafat’s initial response was to welcome Bush’s speech as ‘a serious effort to push the peace process forward’. Ahmed Abdel Rahman, Palestinian cabinet secretary, commented: "It is the first time an American administration has recognised that the only solution is to end the occupation and to have a state to live in peace beside Israel – this is a historic change in the American stand". The assessment of colonel Munir Makdah, an official of Arafat’s Fatah faction, was blunter: "Bush was speaking on behalf of Sharon". (The Guardian, 25 June)

Contrary to Arafat and Rahman’s delusory comments, any demands on the Israeli state were couched in conditions which make them meaningless. For example, Bush said that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) should withdraw from the West Bank "as we make progress toward security", which allows for indefinite occupation. Jewish settlement activity must end, but this should be "consistent with the recommendations of the Mitchell report", which allows for indefinite stalling on the part of the Israeli state.

The Palestinian masses have long ago abandoned hope that US-brokered negotiations could bring about a solution. Bush reinforced this view: "As new Palestinian institutions and new leaders emerge, demonstrating real performance on security and reform, I expect Israel to respond and work toward a final-status agreement". Therefore, the Israeli ruling class sits in judgement on whether or not there will be a Palestinian state.

This is a green light to Sharon and the right-wing forces in Israel for the intensified military assaults against the Palestinian people. Already, before the speech, the IDF had reoccupied areas of the West Bank they had only withdrawn from in April after Operation Defensive Shield, its tanks driving over the rubble they left behind only weeks before. Up to a million Palestinians are confined to their homes under IDF curfew in the West Bank’s biggest cities – Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem, Tulkarim, Qalqiliya, Ramallah and Hebron. In Jenin two children and a teacher were killed by machine gun fire as they were buying bread. Much of the Palestinian Authority’s infrastructure, including electricity and water supplies, has been destroyed.

An official statement issued by Sharon’s office read: "Israel will respond to every act of terror by seizing Palestinian Authority territory, which will be held by Israel as long as the terror continues. Additional acts of terror will lead to the seizure of additional territory". (Ha’, 21 June) Sharon told the Knesset (Israeli parliament) that the IDF would carry out "a massive incursion into the cities, remaining there indefinitely".

The new operation, codenamed ‘Determined Path’, was retribution for the killing of 36 Israelis in the previous week – the highest Jewish death toll since the start of the second Palestinian intifada 21 months ago. A 22-year-old Palestinian student detonated an explosive belt packed with ball bearings on a bus in Jerusalem, killing 19 people and injuring many more. A young unemployed Palestinian killed seven Israelis at a crowded bus stop in Jerusalem. There were attacks on Jewish settlements.

Eighty IDF tanks swept into Ramallah, encircling Arafat’s headquarters already wrecked during the previous occupation of the city. This was after Arafat had called for an end to the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Sheik Ahmed Yassin and other leaders of Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) were put under house arrest by the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip.

The IDF used helicopter gunships in an assassination attack targeting four members of Hamas. Two other Palestinians died. Immediately following Bush’s speech, the Palestinian Authority’s security headquarters in Hebron was raided. Four policemen, including a senior intelligence officer, were killed.

The conflict is escalating rapidly and is in danger of spiralling out of control. Peter Beaumont, reporting from Ramallah, commented that the "latest Israeli attacks, coming so soon after Mr Arafat risked moving against Hamas, seemed an almost wilful provocation to the militant Palestinian factions – in particular Hamas – to ignore Mr Arafat’s orders and reply with renewed attacks. Against widespread popular support for suicide bombings – some two thirds of Palestinians back them – and opposition to arresting members of the militant factions running at over 80% - many felt Mr Arafat was taking a substantial personal risk in ordering the move against Hamas". (The Guardian, 25 June)

Sharon’s offensive has been given a boost by Bush’s remarks. But his hard-line policies have failed completely. They have, in fact, added to the insecurity felt by Israeli Jews. They have radicalised the Palestinian people. As of 25 June, there have been 119 suicide attacks during the second intifada. Over that time, more than 1,400 Palestinians have been killed by the IDF. Assassinations, blockades, curfews, mass arrests and torture, the demolition of homes, and the destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure have failed to stop the attacks.

Some commentators believe that the Israeli state is deliberately provoking the attacks to justify a full-scale attack on the Palestinian Authority and the driving out of Israeli Palestinians from Israel. Salch Abdel Jawad, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University, said: "Since the beginning of the present intifada, Israeli society has systematically aimed to provoke suicide bomb attacks… The failure of Palestinians, both in the leadership and among the population at large, to grasp the danger of suicide bomb attacks results from their failure to understand Ariel Sharon’s aims following the end of the Oslo process and the destruction of the Palestinian Authority. He wants to destroy Palestinian civil society and thus move closer to a second expulsion of Palestinians". (Guardian Weekly, 20-26 June)

Alex Fishman, an Israeli commentator writing in the mass-circulation daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, concurs that this is Sharon’s strategic aim: "The prime minister’s political thinking – doing away with Oslo and doing away with the Palestinian Authority – is in the final stages of realisation". (International Herald Tribune, 24 June)

The Israeli state has embarked on the construction of a fence running roughly along the Green Line marking the pre-1967 border, before Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan in the Six-Day war. The fence will be up to 20-foot high in places and around 160 miles long, complete with razor wire, ditches, searchlights, electronic sensors and roads for army patrols. It will take around a year to complete, at an estimated cost of £1 million a mile. The stated aim is to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from launching attacks against Israeli targets. The authorities in Jerusalem are planning their own fence around the city.

Mainstream Jewish opinion seems supportive of the scheme in the desperate hope that it might offer some protection. Opinion is divided, however. Sharon and his Likud party (which opposes the creation of a Palestinian state) are lukewarm on the issue. They are supported by Israeli hardliners who claim the right to occupy the biblical land of Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan. They fear the fence could become a de facto border and that it will isolate the 200,000 Jewish settlers who find themselves on the ‘wrong side’.

Few people believe the Israeli government’s claim that it will be a temporary installation. Critics cite the Berlin Wall, which was a ‘temporary’ barbed wire barricade to stop defectors to the West in 1961. Within a matter of months these were reinforced with concrete slab walls, which remained in place until the collapse of the Stalinist regime 28 years later.

The Peace Now movement has hailed the project as a move towards a full Israeli pullout from the occupied territories. But it will lead to the ‘transfer’ – a euphemism for physically driving out – of tens of thousands of Palestinians who eke out a living where the fence is constructed. It will become a target for Palestinian resistance. Indeed, workers on the fence have already been attacked by gunmen at Salem.

It will add to the severe economic problems faced by Palestinians. Although they are not permitted to cross the Green Line into Israel, many do. "I leave the house at 4am each day and walk for two hours to find work in Israel", Husni Dupas, a 32-year-old labourer from Beit Ur, told the Sunday Telegraph. "What will happen to me and my family if they build that fence? How will I earn money? The Palestinian Authority does nothing for me". (23 June)

Some Palestinians argue, as the settlers do, that the erection of the fence marks a tacit recognition of the 1967 borders. "Husam Khader, a leader in Arafat’s Fatah movement, said that the fence could change the pattern of the intifada by concentrating Palestinian attacks on settlers and soldiers on the West Bank rather than suicide missions within Israel. He believed that this would erode Israeli public support for the Right and eventually result in the creation of a Palestinian state". (Sunday Telegraph, 23 June)

The continuing human tragedy in Israel/Palestine is an indictment of the Israeli capitalist ruling class. And it exposes the lack of any viable alternative put forward by the Palestinian leadership.

Even on the day after the Israeli cabinet agreed to launch Operation Determined Path, Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, and Benjamin Bel-Eliezer, the defence minister, claimed that they did not lend their support to the reoccupation of West Bank cities and pushed for a rewording of the statement. But these differences are not principled. They reflect the short-term interests of politicians who put their own self-interest above the people they claim to represent. At every stage it is the working class and poor – both Palestinian and Israeli Jew – who suffer. Uzi Benziman, a commentator in the Ha’aretz newspaper, wrote: "[Sharon] sought to demonstrate leadership and project an air of resolve and forcefulness… Two days ago, there was talk in political circles that Sharon acted as he did because he already has his eye on the next elections and wishes to be seen as outflanking rival Benjamin Netanyahu on the right.

"Ben-Eliezer is not above suspicion either: His conduct this week is being interpreted in political corridors as largely guided by his ongoing contest with Haim Ramon for the Labour Party leadership. This would help explain his newly passionate support for the construction of the security fence as well as his public disavowal of the prime minister’s statement concerning the new response policy". (Ha’, 21 June)

The people of Israel/Palestine are facing a further escalation of violence, deep economic recession and social upheaval, egged on by George W Bush and the US ruling class. Time and time again, these ‘leaders’ have shown that they are the problem, not the solution. The tragedy is set to continue unless and until the workers and poor of the region take independent mass action. This difficult task requires a socialist programme which can unite them around the struggle for decent living standards and conditions for all. Only a socialist approach to the question of national self-determination can resolve the national, religious and ethnic differences in the region.

Manny Thain

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page