"In the small refugee camp near Jenin, a group of Palestinian fighters from all the organisations gathered for a battle of defence that will be enshrined forever in the hearts of all Arabs. This is the Palestinian Massada, as an Israeli officer called it, alluding to the legendary stand of the remnants of the great Jewish rebellion against Rome in 71 AD.
"When the international media cannot be kept out any more and the pictures of horror are published, two possible versions may emerge: Jenin as a story of massacre, a second Sabra and Shatila; and Jenin, the Palestinian Stalingrad, a story of immortal heroism. The second will surely prevail". (Uri Avnery, Guardian, 16 April)
In fact, the history of the siege of Jenin refugee camp will be a combination of both versions since this reflects what actually happened. More than any other event, the brutal massacre that took place in a camp covering three-quarters of a square mile and housing 15,000 refugees will come to symbolise the terrible suffering of the Palestinian people and the horrendous brutality they have had to face by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). If anything was designed to implant an unshakeable determination amongst the Palestinian people to struggle to the end for a genuinely independent state, the brutal IDF massacre in Jenin over the last ten days was it.
Increasingly, the press conferences of the Bush administration and the pathetic – and completely unbelievable – attempts by spokespersons of Ariel Sharon’s reactionary government to justify their actions come from a galaxy light years away from the real situation on the ground in most cities of the Palestinian Authority.
Even the controlled diplomacy of United Nations’ representatives has slipped, as they have been unable to hide their personal disgust at the havoc wreaked by the IDF. One envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, said that the devastation caused by Israeli shelling was "horrifying beyond belief". He added: "Just seeing this area, it looks like there’s been an earthquake here and the stench of death is over many places where we are standing".
Palestinian accounts describe the shooting in cold blood of young Palestinian men after they had surrendered; houses crushed by army bulldozers; the use of Palestinians as human shields for IDF soldiers (a claim verified by Israeli soldiers); the bulldozing of twenty-five foot wide roadways through houses; the burial of 32 bodies in a trench; and the creation of mass graves under piles of rubble thirty feet high, as well as the removal of dead Palestinians so that the scale of the butchery could be hidden.
Undoubtedly, the killing of thirteen IDF soldiers by a Palestinian suicide bomber and militia fighters halfway through the occupation led to a brutal punishment response being ordered by IDF generals. Pleas such as those from US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, during his visit to the Middle East, that the Israeli army should show ‘extreme restraint’ and ‘care for civilian life’ are farcical. Just as there are no genuinely ‘smart’ bombs which only destroy their targets, in modern warfare there can be no ‘civilian-friendly’ military ground operations.
Hundreds of Palestinians were killed in Jenin. During this latest invasion over 5,000 have been arrested with no information being given about where prisoners are being held. Thousands have been injured, joining the 40,000 Palestinians who have been hospitalised during this second intifada.
Even if the thirteen IDF soldiers had not been killed, the IDF would have used the same methods. The aim of Israel’s right-wing government was to destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, force the present Palestinian leadership into exile, and bombard and crush the remaining population into submission so unilateral surrender terms could be imposed. The fact that the Israeli government has not been able to achieve these aims flows from the fierce resistance of the Palestinian masses and their refusal to be cowed by military might, the mass demonstrations in the Arab world and the worldwide opposition to the Israeli invasion of the Palestinian areas. It had nothing to do with the numerous diplomatic initiatives set in train by the Bush administration, the Arab leaders and various European Union governments over the last few weeks. In fact these initiatives were a response to the growing anger on the ground.
The visit by Powell, the second most powerful figure in the world’s only superpower, was a humiliating failure for US imperialism. It undermined US propaganda, particularly strong after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, that the Bush administration could dictate how world events unfold and achieve relatively easy military victories. All that Powell could achieve was one statement from Yasser Arafat condemning suicide bombings following two such attacks in Israel, and a ‘timeline’ for Israeli withdrawal - although exact details were never made public. This could possibly be explained by the fact that on the day of Powell’s departure from Israel, the IDF entered two more villages on the West Bank! But these could be hardly described as progress in a region which is teetering on the edge of a full-scale war. Powell could not even persuade the Israeli government to give aid workers’ unhindered access to the Jenin refugee camp. The Syrian president refused to discuss putting pressure on the Hezbollah guerrillas to stop bombarding northern Israel during Powell’s visit there. Instead he demanded an immediate withdrawal of IDF troops. Powell’s response was to immediately leave Syria without calling a press conference.
Powell obviously intended to pressurise Arafat and his co-leaders to issue a strong condemnation of suicide attacks and ‘terrorism’ in general, together with a plan of how the Palestinian Authority would deal with such attacks and announce a ceasefire. Powell hoped that he would then be able to convince Sharon to withdraw IDF troops and open the way to a regional peace conference. At the end of his trip all Powell could say on the question of a ceasefire was: "We could have a ceasefire declared today but what would it mean? Ceasefire is not a relevant term at the moment".
In return for such concessions from the Palestinian leadership, US officials had offered the Palestinian Authority $120 million in aid. However, even if this money was provided, it would be a tiny drop in the ocean compared to the cost of the damage caused by the IDF invasion in the last few weeks. According to James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, the last eighteen months of conflict have wiped out over 50% of the Palestinian Authority’s GDP and caused as much as $600 million of physical damage. The devastation means that international donors would have to donate over $1.7 billion over the next year.
While Powell repeated ritually his request for the Israeli government to withdraw its troops several times on his trip the balance of his comments was directed towards pushing the Palestinian leadership to fight ‘terrorism’. As Powell commented towards the end of his trip: "He [Arafat] and the Palestinian Authority can no longer equivocate. They must decide, as the rest of the world has decided, that terror must end". Bush went further in a speech at the Virginia military institute where he, unsurprisingly, put the responsibility of further progress to peace at the door of the Arab regimes: "The Egyptians and Jordanians and Saudis have helped in the wider war on terrorism and they must help confront terrorism in the Middle East".
The attitude of US imperialism towards the present conflict in the Middle East has undoubtedly enraged many Arab leaders mainly because they face an increasingly uncertain future as their pro-US positions threaten to unleash a tidal wave of anger in their countries. Such movements, they fear, will topple them. This opposition is partially for public consumption but also represents a genuine feeling arising from exasperation that US imperialism constantly fails to understand the levels of anger towards its policies amongst the Arab masses in the region. But Powell’s visit to the region and Bush’s subsequent comments have worsened the situation. The fact that it took Powell over a week to meander his way around Europe, North Africa, and all the countries in the Middle East – apart from Israel and Palestine – was seen by Arabs in the region for what it was: an attempt to give Sharon and the IDF generals enough time to complete their military operations before arriving there. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt refused to meet Powell during his last visit to Egypt saying he was ‘too busy’. This was meant and taken as a direct snub for US imperialism.
Arafat also threw diplomatic niceties out the window. Shaking with rage at his continued incarceration by IDF troops, and following a meeting with Powell, he said: "I have to ask the whole international world, I have to ask excellency president Bush, I have to ask the United Nations: Is it acceptable that I cannot go outside this door?" But this anger is nothing compared to the mood amongst the Palestinian people following the occupation. As an editorial in the daily Ha’aretz in Israel commented: "The new idea circulated this week – a regional conference, apparently in June – is insufficient even to lower the flames much less extinguish them". (18 April) Only the immediate and full withdrawal of IDF troops from all of the West Bank and Gaza and the granting of genuine statehood for the Palestinians would be enough to stop the drift towards war. Since the latest invasion the situation in Israel and Palestine has changed completely. As far as Palestinian illusions in imperialist-sponsored ‘peace agreements’, the Rubicon has been crossed and promises will no longer suffice.
The position of the Israeli regime has also hardened. Not only has the Israeli regime destroyed the PA infrastructure, an attempt has been made to drive out the Palestinian leadership. But the Israeli army has also attempted to eliminate or arrest the second and third layers of leadership in the PA. One example of this is Marwan Barghoutti, Fatah leader on the West Bank. It is reported that he will be tried for mass murder. The main intention of this arrest was to further demoralise Palestinians who live on the West Bank. It is possible, however, as some commentators have suggested, that the Israeli regime sees this arrest as a means of opening up communications with Palestinian leaders, such as Barghoutti, whom it believes have more influence over the population than Arafat has. But the conditions for any agreement between the Israeli ruling class and figures like Barghoutti would be those of abject surrender – something which would not be accepted by the Palestinian masses.
The Israeli ruling class believes that by pummelling the Palestinians into the ground they will be forced to accept whatever is given to them and a new Vichy-type leadership will come to the fore. However, the Israeli regime has been searching for a mythical Palestinian leadership like this ever since it invaded the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. It is no surprise it has not been able to achieve this goal – it is precisely the conditions of the occupation that preclude any development like this. Even if a puppet leadership could be found, it would not stay in power for more than a few hours, such would be the level of hatred against it.
Part of the reason for the hardening of the position of the Israeli government has been the increase in support for the Sharon government up from 45 to 70%. This change in the situation is mainly an immediate reaction to the fall in number of suicide attacks. At the same time, similar numbers of Israeli Jews in other opinion polls believe that a Palestinian state is inevitable and there will have to be some sort of negotiations.
Another reason for the hardening of attitudes is that for the first timethere has been a conscious attempt to develop a ‘war mood’ in Israeli society by the ruling class. Around Independence Day this reached its height with most of the media launching a jingoistic campagin and most of the commercial companies coming out with patriotic statements and banners outside workplaces. This has a partial resonance with moods in the rest of Israeli society because most Israeli Jewish families have had relatives who are reservists called up for duty on the West Bank. It is for this reason that the government feels confident to implement a new bill through parliament which contains $2.7 billion worth of cuts for all departments apart from the military. Part of this bill is the implementation of a compulsory war tax of 5% on all those in work in Israel.
Activists on the ground report that there is no genuine feeling that military force will succeed in defeating suicide bombers. And there are signs of growing opposition to the military incursions amongst a minority within Israel. At a demonstration of 10–15,000 two weeks ago in Tel Aviv, with both Israeli Jews and Palestinians present, one of the main slogans was, "Our government ministers are war criminals". Leaflets were given out by Israeli Jewish youth for a "Rave against the occupation". Also, on the military front signs of opposition are rising. One right-wing paper in Israel reported that a helicopter pilot twice refused to fire on a house in the West Bank village of Dura because he feared civilian casualties.
Although not reported in the Israeli or international media, the most recent invasion by the IDF has lit the fires of Israeli Palestinian protest once again. Reports have been circulating that in most Israeli Palestinian villages there were demonstrations and protests which at one stage led to the closure of one of the main roads to the north in the country.
Despite Powell’s forced optimism about the prospects for peace, the situation in the Middle East is grim indeed. A flurry of political activity leading up to a June regional conference might lead to a reduction in violence. However, more suicide attacks within Israel are likely. Although the IDF has withdrawn from cities like Jenin, they have imposed an almost hermetically sealed curfew around the camp. This will be repeated in every West Bank city they withdraw from over the next few weeks.
The Israeli regime is reported to be planning security measures that will go much further than ever before. There may be moves under way to construct a buffer zone between the West Bank and Israel, clearing any Palestinian towns and villages that happen to be in the way. This would create a de facto security border, designed to lock Palestinians out of Israel while allowing the IDF and Jewish settlers free access to the West Bank. At the same time, the regime is likely to build a network of fences, ditches and fortifications around the settlements and their connecting roads. With barbed wire and concrete, the 120 or more settlements scattered across the West Bank will effectively be claimed as a permanent extension of Israel’s territory.
If such plans are carried through, the Palestinian West Bank will become more fragmented than ever before. The Palestinians would be left with tiny patches of land, a far worse position than even the ‘Swiss cheese’ map offered by the Israeli leadership during the peace negotiations. Even if the Israeli regime is unable to go so far in building a military infrastructure on the West Bank, so long as the settlements remain, it will insist on a permanent military presence to protect them, inevitably undermining the viability of any statelet it is prepared to concede to the Palestinians. Either way, Palestinian reports say this would result in the expulsion of up to 400,000 Palestinians from land they occupy now. Such a move could probably see a stepping up of Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s northern border and spread to a regional war involving Syria and Lebanon. It would also see mass protests by Israeli Palestinians and their possible expulsion from Israel.
This CWI update was written for publication in the May edition of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI section in England and Wales)
This article is an update on the situation in the Middle East - for a fuller explanation see Sharon launches new war on the Palestinians (5 April 2002) and The socialist alternative to war and oppression’ (8 April 2002) on this website