Tens of thousands of people demonstrated all around the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as inside Israel and in neighboring countries along its borders, to mark the day of remembrance of the Nakba (Arabic for "the Catastrophe”).
15 May is the Gregorian calendar anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. During this war over 750,000 Palestinians fled or were brutally forced from their homes by Zionist military forces and later by the new Israeli state itself. Ever since, the Israeli regime, in an attempt to enforce a Jewish majority, has emphatically denied the right of Palestinian refugees to return – even in regards to the "internally displaced" among the remaining Palestinian minority in Israel. In complete contrast, anyone who can claim a Jewish background can automatically become a citizen upon arriving in Israel. The continued processes of expropriation and dispossession of the Palestinians by the Israeli regime after 1948, including the 1967 occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and its horrific repercussions, are considered by many Palestinians as the "ongoing Nakba".
The Nakba Day is traditionally commemorated by mourning and protest. In 2000 it was the Palestinians’ strong protest of rage during Nakba Day which indicated that the Palestinian masses were about to arise against the fraud of the "peace process" at that time.
This year, against the background of the North African and Middle Eastern revolutions, the protests of Nakba Day reached an unprecedented scale. In support of the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and against the Israeli occupation and attacks on the Palestinians, parallel protests and "marches of return" were organized in Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem, inside Israel, and by Palestinian refugee communities and supporters in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Some of the protests began already on Friday 13 May. In many of the demos, the protesters held symbolic keys that represented the homes left behind.
Many of the stormy protests this year met with tear gas and live ammunition, mostly from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). In total, more than 20 Palestinian demonstrators were killed, and many more wounded. The West Bank was put under military closure, and sharp clashes developed there and in East Jerusalem between protesters and Israeli military and police forces.
Jerusalem, 13 May
In the Silwan village (formally a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem) – where the residents have been struggling for years against attacks from the colonial settlements – a 17-year-old protestor was shot dead by the security guards or by the far-right settlers. His funeral march was also attacked.
Thousands participated in the main rally in Ramallah. Not far away, the 15 March youth movement and some of the ’popular committees’ organised a very militant demo of over 1,000 people at the Qalandiya refugee camp in front of the checkpoint that separates Ramallah from Jerusalem and southern West Bank. The demonstrators called for an end to the occupation, as well as for elections to the Palestinian National Council (of the Palestine Liberation Organization), with a right to vote for "any Palestinian everywhere". Fierce clashes with the Israeli military developed, with protesters trying to drive away the military with Molotov cocktails, stones and burning tiers barriers. The Israeli military used massive amounts of tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets, and performed sudden arrests of adults and minors, using undercover agents. One protestor was killed on that demo.
In Egyptian Rafah, Palestinians protested at the border with Gaza. In Cairo thousands marched on the Israeli embassy. The Egyptian riot police intervened and wounded, using live ammunition, 50 demonstrators. 150 were arrested.
Before Nakba day, the Egyptian authorities stopped potential demonstrators from Tahrir Square from entering Sinai and marching in solidarity to the border with the Gaza strip. This repression was ironically supported by the leader of the Hamas, Khaled Mash`al, who said, following Hamas’ reconciliation with Fatah, that no such protest is necessary at the moment. In parallel, the Jordanian security forces blocked a Palestinian protest on the border with Israel, where some attempted to cross the border with vehicles.
On the Israeli-Syrian border, a dramatic scene unfolded, when out of a demonstration of 1,000 Palestinians and supporters, 70 were able to pass the border from Syria and demonstrate in the village Majdal Shams, in the Golan Heights, occupied and annexed by Israel since 1967.
On the Israeli-Lebanese border several thousands of people protested and were stopped by the IDF. Ten were shot dead. In response, a day of mourning and a general strike was declared on 16 May in the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
New movement in the light of the Arab spring
The revolutionary wave in the Arab countries and Northern Africa inspired the new level of Palestinian resistance. The mass movement of millions has been the decisive force in challenging brutal regimes and reshaping relations in the region.
This led to mass protests by a new generation of Palestinians on 15 March in cities in the West Bank and Gaza. Young people came together to demand the national unity of Palestine. They acted against the rival leaderships of both Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
Given the background of the Arab revolution, this start of a rebellion from below was powerful enough to enforce a deal between Hamas and Fatah. Elections were promised in the next twelve month.
The Egyptian regime brokered these negotiations. They tried to use this opportunity to present themselves – the old military leadership just without the face of Mubarak – as a new force. But their attempts to stop the mass protests on 15 May shows the same approach as before Mubarak’s overthrow.
The Syrian regime – unlike previous years – was not in a position to stop demonstrators on Nakba day. Partially as an attempt to divert the attention away from the brutal oppression of the movement in Syria, Assad’s regime allowed the reporting of protests by TV stations like Al Jazeera for the first time– but only from the Golan Heights. On the other hand, the regime can no longer just enforce a silence against the will of ordinary people, including the hundreds of thousands Palestinian refugees in Syria.
The 15 May protests saw an increase, compared to the 15 March, in the involvement of Palestinians and others around the occupied territories, especially by refugees in the neighbouring countries. Their active involvement in a mass movement is changing the situation again.
The hopes of many Palestinians are now directed towards a decision by the United Nations (UN). Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in office despite his election term ending a long time ago, is asking the UN general assembly to recognise the Palestinian state in the borders of 1967. The vote will be taken in September.
Again and again in the last 20 years the hopes in the peace process and in negotiations have risen – and with the same regularity they have brutally failed. Real steps forward were achieved after rebellions by the Palestinians themselves, especially the first Intifada. This Intifada started in 1987, with a revolutionary movement of mass resistance consisting of general strikes and protest marches against the occupation. This led to the partial withdrawal of the IDF from Palestinian cities, refugee camps and villages and to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, allegedly as an interim step towards a future Palestinian state.
The disappointment over the PA and the lack of any further achievements in the peace process led to the second Intifada, starting in September 2000. Unfortunately, the character of it was more marked by the desperate and counterproductive individual bomb attacks on Israeli civilians than an active involvement of the masses.
If the decisions in September will not lead to a change in the situation on the ground, there is now the potential of a new mass or at least semi-mass uprising, a Third Intifada. Given the history of failed negotiations, the euphoria for any negotiations will be limited and the patience to wait for any talks to deliver changes is low.
The events now are already interpreted in Israeli and Palestine media as a potential dress rehearsal for the coming year.
Golan Heights, 15 May
The ruling class in Israel is frightened by the developments.
Over decades the Israeli regime used the brutal dictatorships in states around Israel, through de facto cooperation, to keep the Arab masses under control. At the same time, Israel’s ruling elite presented itself as being under siege of reactionary, hostile regimes.
US imperialism backed the Israeli state as one of their main tools to defend their interests in the region. On 20 May Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, met Obama in the White House to elaborate on the new developments and find a way to deal with the new situation.
However, the events of 15 May again show the brutality of the Israeli regime in response to the movement of Palestinians.
The mass movements have forced Netanyahu to manoeuvre. $60 million (US) for the Palestinian authorities were blocked by the Netanyahu government after the deal of cooperation between Fatah and Hamas. This money has now been released. As international support for Palestinians is growing, pressure is increasing to achieve at least something in the coming UN debates. Imperialist forces fear that a failure to give some concessions to the Palestinians’ national demands now could end up in a dire geostrategic entanglement. There is a growing anti-imperialist mood throughout the region and a strong rejection of the imperialist plan of "two states", meaning of a "controllable" Palestinian puppet-state. The Israeli ruling class mainstream particularly fears that the Palestinian masses - soon to be a majority between the Jordan river and the sea – might then arise and fight for full rights within one state.
So, in comparison with the UN’s former support of the Palestinian declaration of independence in 1988, this time more concrete formal measures can be expected. However, this is not enough. The Israeli ruling elite will do everything they can to prevent any fundamental concessions required for a truly independent Palestinian state. They will sooner or later be forced to accept an empty token phrase of a so called "state" of the Palestinian authorities. However, recognising a Palestinian state alongside its border would be, to the Israeli regime, a threat in "its own backyard". A Palestinian state would be a pole of support for the demands of national rights of the Palestinian minority inside Israel.
The Israeli ruling class will not accept a Palestinian political entity that is independent of its dictates. The right wing of the Israeli government would try to “transfer” Palestinians currently living within the 1967 Israel borders to any new Palestinian state. This would increase the Israeli-Jewish majority in Israel, and could be used to enshrine division. However, given the social problems in the region, the desperate struggle on water and housing, and the effects of the international capitalist crisis, the Israeli capitalist class strives to accept nothing but neo-colonial domination of a future Palestinian economy, subduing such a puppet-state to its own interests.
Netanyahu has ‘offered’ to give the ‘majority’ of the occupied West Bank to a demilitarised Palestinian state, keeping up to 40% of the territory occupied in 1967 for Israel, claiming all of Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs in the West Bank as well as a military presence in the Jordan Valley.
The Palestinian leaders of the PLO and especially Fatah, were desperately prepared to offer almost everything, just to get this token of a state. This was revealed by Al Jazeera, publishing the ‘Palestine papers’ in January this year, presenting leaked diplomatic correspondence relating to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But this is not what the Palestinian masses can accept and will accept, especially given an increased self-confidence from the rebellions all around Arab countries.
How can the Israeli occupation be defeated?
Given the huge, overwhelming military advantage of the Israeli state, backed by US imperialism, it is not a primarily military question of how to end the occupation. It is a question of the social support and strength of the Israeli army. A strategy is needed to defend the Palestinians against the occupation forces, including military struggle, but also to challenge the social base of the IDF.
Against a background of a series of wars, individual bomb attacks and rockets against the civilian population in Israel only made it easier for the Israeli regime to create a feeling of national Jewish unity and pushes the Jewish workers and youth into the arms of the Israeli state and ruling class.
In contrast, mass movements of Palestinians appealing to Israeli workers on class lines, could build a powerful struggle for social demands and an end to oppression by the Israeli ruling class. This is what the Israeli ruling class fears the most.
Netanyahu, speaking in the Knesset, portrayed the demonstrators trying to enter Israel on 15 May as not arguing for a Palestinian state but for the destruction of Israel.
The Israeli ruling class tried to increase the feeling of fear amongst Israeli workers during the whole period of the Arab and North African revolutions. The fall of Mubarak was presented as the fall of a barrier against attacks on Israel and against Islamist forces taking control.
The Israeli regime attempts to use this fear to counter any sympathy developing inside Israel for the struggle of workers and youth in Egypt and elsewhere. They do everything to hide the role of mass movements and the potential of the working class - threatening Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt with general strikes - behind a curtain of dangers and fear.
So far there is a very mixed mood in Israel.
Food and other prices not only rocketed in the Arab world, but also in Israel. In February, the Histadrut trade union leadership had to use the threat of a general strike against the effects of inflation. There was a popular feeling of ‘what they can do in Egypt is something we can do here’.
Last week train workers took action against privatisation. Strike leaders were arrested. One of these leaders referred to the struggle of the Arab masses for democracy: This inspires her and the workers to strongly demand their rights and stand up to the attacks and demonising propaganda, she said afterwards.
The class struggle in Israel has also seen growing opposition inside the General Histadrut, the main trade union. More than 10,000 social workers shocked the leadership of this union, traditionally very close to the Israeli state, by refusing to accept a brokered deal in March. Despite the end of the strike afterwards, enforced by courts, debates about the role of the leadership in the trade union and attempts to form organised opposition are developing at the moment.
Other workers went further and left Histadrut. This happened for example with the Haifa Chemical workers, who are on strike at the moment and are members of a new, fighting trade union called Power to the Workers (see article).
On the other side, the feeling of siege and being in danger in an isolated position in the Middle East is widely spread and mobilised not only by the far-right government but all the capitalist media in Israel. Mubarak’s overthrow and the weakness of the Jordanian regime are seen as opening the war to Israel being completely surrounded by more or less hostile regimes. Despite its rhetoric the Syrian regime was not prepared for renewed direct clashes with Israel, but what could happen if it collapsed is a different question. The Assad’s regime allowed the Nakba day protests on the Golan Heights as a warning of how unstable the situation could be if the regime was toppled.
Given the mass border protests on 15 May, the capitalist media started to discuss how to answer this challenge of marches in support of the right of Palestinians to return. The far right will try to use it as an argument for brutal repression and war. A more far-sighted wing of capitalism is searching for other ways to deal with this question. The reliable reactionary Middle East regimes of the past helped them to avoid such circumstances. Now things have changed.
The propaganda in Israel has some effect on Jewish workers and youth, and this might even increase in the near future. Given the absence of a mass workers’ party and the rotten role of the main trade unions’ leadership, the dominating trend can be for a limited period towards Zionist nationalism. But this will not be homogeneous and long lasting.
Need of strategy for the Palestinians’ struggle
On 15 May, an Israeli-Palestinian truck driver ran over walkers in southern Tel-Aviv, killing one. While it is not yet certain that this was motivated on nationalist basis, it was nevertheless used by Israeli media as another example of the potential of future escalation, putting the lives of ordinary Jewish workers and youth into danger.
Protesters coming from Syria, 15 May
While the struggle for an end of the occupation of Palestinians has all rights of resistance, including the right of self-defence and armed struggle, this underlines the need for a clear strategy of the movement of Palestinians to achieve freedom and social change.
It is necessary to strengthen the mobilisation and involvement of the masses, organised by democratic elected committees from below. This is necessary to overcome corruption and mismanagement, as well as the undemocratic governments of both Fatah and Hamas, which are an obstacle in the road to achieving genuine liberation. Fearful of the developments of a mass struggle from below, they tried to keep the mass mobilisation in check, both in Gaza and the West Bank.
Mass resistance has to be organised and linked to the struggle to overcome the social misery for the oppressed masses. A glimpse of the power of the working class was seen in the developments in Tunisia and Egypt. Independent trade unions and workers committees are necessary to develop this as an essential part of the struggle.
A new mass party with a socialist programme is needed to offer a way out of exploitation, oppression and imperialist domination.
A class appeal to the Jewish working class in Israel is necessary to end the ability of the Israeli state to rest on the Jewish part of the population. This can also seriously weaken and paralyse the IDF itself as it could trigger a wider refusal of Jewish youth to serve in the occupied territories or in an occupying army.
Such an appeal is only possible on the basis of overcoming the fears of Jewish workers. As long as they feel threatened as Jews, the bridge between Israeli and other workers in the region will not be built. Without this bridge being built, the Palestinian masses could win many gains against the occupation and settlements, and for national rights, but would not fully achieve their goal of national liberation, including a future in which the right of return for the refugees could be respected.
The Jewish and Palestinian socialists of the CWI in Israel - the Socialist Struggle Movement - is energetically supporting the mass movements of Palestinians against the occupation and for absolutely equal national and democratic rights. Socialist Struggle Movement is working to unite workers and youth of all nationalities in the struggle against oppression, exploitation and war. A lasting solution will only be possible, if the social needs are met and the questions of housing, water and refugees are solved. Therefore the struggle against the occupation is inseparably linked to the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.
Striving for a socialist confederation of the Middle East, with a genuinely independent socialist Palestine alongside a socialist and truly democratic Israel, can help to develop a united struggle, offering guarantees of security for people of all nationalities, under the conditions of full rights for all minorities in all areas.