Israel/Palestine: Middle East in flames

The situation in the Middle East, apparently relatively calm on the surface a few weeks ago has degenerated into a cauldron of bloody conflict. The Israeli regime has responded to the new Palestinian uprising in a brutal manner, deploying helicopter gunships on bombing raids against the Palestinian Authority area, undercover snipers to eliminate leaders of the uprising on the ground, and a vicious wall of bullets against unarmed Palestinian youth – some as young as ten years old. The Israeli regime has cut off communications between all major towns and population centres, making travel impossible. Patients with serious injuries cannot be transported outside the Palestinian Authority for medical treatment. A full blockade is operating closing Gaza from the rest of the world, leading to shortages and the closure of industry.

These actions have enraged workers and youth around the world. US imperialism has the blood of all those Palestinians who have died on its hands because of its consistent military, political and economic support for the Israeli capitalist regime over the decades.

Israel is drifting into a Balkans-type bloody sectarian and communal internecine conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians inside Israel. The region could be moving towards another Arab-Israeli war and a war-like conflict between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli regime.

The Committee for a Workers International (CWI) believes that these latest developments demonstrate in the clearest possible way that lasting social, political and economic stability in the Middle East is impossible under capitalism.

The Palestinian Authority has seen a ferocious, heroic and seemingly unstoppable, mass uprising by its population against the Israeli Defence Force, with the seething rage of decades of national oppression and socio-economic deprivation finally boiling over. Thousands of Palestinian youth have taken to the streets to face the fourth strongest army in the world – the Israeli Defence Force – armed with little more than stones as missiles.

In an earth-shattering change from previous conflicts, Israeli Palestinians, using the same methods of mass struggle as their compatriots in the Palestinian Authority, have poured out onto the streets of Israeli Palestinian towns and villages. They have hurled themselves unarmed against Israeli police and paramilitary Border Police using live ammunition. They are infuriated at years of treatment as second-class Israeli citizens and they were enraged by the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli Defence Force in the Palestinian Authority.

There have been widespread anti-Palestinian riots by sections of Israeli Jewish workers and youth. These riots, encouraged by the crude propaganda of the Israeli regime, and based on the security fears of Israeli Jews, have involved the most poverty stricken and alienated sections of Israeli Jews. These movements on both sides of the national divide in Israel have terrified the Israeli ruling class. Ehud Barak, Israeli Prime Minister, reflected this fear on 9 October 2000, when he said: "This process is more dangerous to us than any enemy or any external war"

These developments are a major blow to US imperialism. In a final humiliation to the closing days of the Clinton Presidency, the much-vaunted Oslo Peace process, a major project of the administration, has fallen apart at the seams. In contrast to previous conflicts, a move to war has been started as a result of a spontaneous movement from below rather than the machinations of big imperialist powers in search of profits or spheres of influence. US imperialism, the Israeli ruling class, the Arafat regime and the Arab cliques in the region have lost control of events. Enormously powerful forces have been unleashed which the regimes in the region are now finding very difficult to hold back.

The conflict has already had an immediate impact in Europe and the United States 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. Seventeen US sailors in Yemen were killed when their ship was the target of suicide bombers.

The Israeli Defence Force (including undercover military and snatch squads), paramilitary Border Police, as well as groups of reactionary Jewish settlers, have slaughtered over 100 Palestinians, one quarter of them under the age of 15. Over 1000 Palestinians have been injured, including a two-month-old baby. At least six Israeli Defence Force soldiers and Israeli Jews have also being killed so far in this near-war conflict.

The dying moments of 12 year old Muhammad Al Durrah – his face contorted with terror while cowering in a street with his father under a of hail Israeli Defence Force bullets – has been seared indelibly onto the minds of millions of workers and youth internationally. The move towards war and ethnic civil war is viewed with horror by those same millions.

The present situation in the Middle East poses questions in the sharpest possible terms for workers, the oppressed masses and youth across the globe. 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 Israeli Jews be answered? What policies will turn around the plummeting of their living standards over the last five years of recession which further increases their insecurity?


The only way out of this present crisis is by fulfilling the national aspirations of the Palestinian masses through the granting of an independent state; genuine stability and prosperity 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; just as importantly, it means ending the poverty and social deprivation that exists amongst the working class and poor peasant masses (i.e. amongst the Arab masses, the 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 that dominate the region. This can only be done through the struggle for a socialist society.

The so-called Oslo peace process was never aimed at solving any of these problems. It was instigated primarily by US imperialism to provide extremely limited concessions to the Palestinian masses to forestall a mass movement on their part. Oslo was also designed to put in place a regime – under the control of Yasser Arafat – which would hold back the masses from further struggle. Oslo's conditions meant that the Palestinian masses faced two oppressors: the Israeli Defence Force and the Arafat clique with its fourteen security agencies. It was expected to open up new economic opportunities for the Israeli capitalist class and Arab elites in the region thus increasing their profits and personal wealth.

In 1993 the CWI produced a statement during the initial negotiations which led to the Oslo deal. Despite the understandable optimism and euphoria that existed at the time at the prospect of peace in the region, we explained:

"Looking at all the factors and processes involved, therefore, 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 PLO, that the deal will provide something, which cannot be given – statehood (emphasis in the original).

"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…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."

Unfortunately for the working class and the masses of the region, the CWI's perspectives have been chillingly fulfilled.

Independent class approach

Despite the vastly increased sectarian division across the national divide, the only lasting alternative to regional wars and a internecine, communalist civil war inside Israel is by the working class and oppressed masses struggling for a solution based on their common interests – an independent class approach. This will require the building of a mass revolutionary movement on both sides of the national divide.

The Spark

The spark that lit the present conflagration was the visit of Ariel Sharon on Thursday, 30 September, guarded by 1000 Border Police to a disputed Jewish and Muslim religious site in Jerusalem – the Temple Mount (Judaism's most sacred place) or Al Haram al Sharif (Noble Sanctuary – Islam's third holiest place and site of the Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock mosques). Sharon is leader of the right-wing Likud party, well-known and hated amongst Palestinians for his previous record. He was Defence Minister of the Israeli government that launched the bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He is widely regarded as being primarily responsible for allowing the reactionary Christian Phalange paramilitary forces to butcher thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut during this war.

The immediate reason for the mass explosion of Palestinian anger and the anti-Palestinian riots by some Israeli working class Jews lies in the failure of the capitalist peace process. But the more fundamental explanation lies in the political, social and economic developments amongst the different sections of society involved in these events. It is also linked to the national divide that has periodically torn Israel and Palestine apart over the decades. The present, extremely dangerous turn of events 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 can chart a way forward to genuine stability and prosperity.

Failed Peace Process

The carnage of the last two weeks has clearly shown that Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority, Israeli Palestinians, and sections of the Israeli Jewish working class regard the capitalist Oslo agreement as a complete failure.

The oppression of the Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority and Israel has enormously intensified. The national and ethnic divisions within the Israeli Jewish population have multiplied dramatically. Social and economic conditions on both sides of the national divide have plummeted under Oslo. And all this has come about while Israeli, Palestinian and US negotiators frequent opulent resorts and conference venues issuing statements dreamt up in a fantasy world, promising peaceful co-existence and economic development. The contradiction between this approach and reality fuelled a subterranean build-up of huge pressures and tensions that have burst onto the scene of politics with the strength of a force ten hurricane.

Palestinian Bantustan

Since the signing of the Oslo agreement, 78 000 new Jewish settlers have moved into areas of the former Occupied Territories not under Palestinian Authority control in Gaza and the West Bank. Barak's government has allowed the building of new Jewish settlements at a greater rate than under the former Likud Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The encirclement of Palestinian East Jerusalem by new Jewish settlements has been completed. 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 Israeli Defence Force control have been built on land in the former Occupied Territories confiscated from Palestinians. The Israeli authorities have demolished 800 Palestinian homes. West Bank and the Gaza have suffered months long periods of closure, preventing tens of thousands of Palestinians who work as day labourers from travelling to work inside Israel. The Israeli regime has also encouraged Israeli companies to hire immigrant workers from North Africa, the Balkans and the Far East to lower the number of Palestinians employed in the Israeli economy. This has further increased the economic deprivation faced by the Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority and Israeli authorities have arrested thirteen thousand Palestinians. Palestinians have faced daily humiliation, harassment and beatings at the hands of the Israeli Defence Force and Border Police.

Even when agreements have been signed they are not implemented. For example, the Wye River Accord (agreed by former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat in the US in October 1998) put in place a transport corridor between Gaza and the West Bank to allow Palestinians freedom of travel between the two. The Israeli Defence Force had ultimate control over who could use this corridor. As a result of their restrictions, only a trickle of Palestinians have used it.

A recent conference of peace activists issued a statement saying: "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).

Rampant corruption

Under Arafat's rule, unemployment in the Palestinian Authority has tripled and gross national product has plummeted by 17%. The Palestinian Authority is a corrupt, dictatorial, gangster-regime, with 40 000 Palestinians employed in fourteen different security services under the ultimate control of Yasser Arafat. Journalists, human rights activists and trade unionists are routinely arrested and beaten up in the security services' torture cells.

An independent audit commission in 1998 reported that out of a Palestinian Authority budget of $800m in 1996, $326 million was unaccounted for through corruption and maladministration. Palestinian Authority ministers live in gleaming villas while the majority of Palestinians scratch a living alongside them in hovels without electricity or sanitation.

The most recent – and failed – Camp David peace talks were supposed to deal with the most contentious issues leading up to a supposed "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 non-disputed Muslim religious sites). They also raised the possibility of the return of some 10 000 Palestinian refugees to Israel (out of approximately 4 million living in the Arab Diaspora) over a five year period. There was no agreement on water rights.

During these latest negotiations, Clinton lectured Arafat on the need to convince his "constituency" of the need to support these demands. Arafat pointedly replied by asking the US President, "Do you want to attend my funeral?"

The failed Camp David talks brought into sharp focus the impossibility of reaching a capitalist solution to the most contentious issues, such as the future of Jerusalem.

The CWI stands for:

  • A struggle of working class and oppressed masses to overthrow the capitalist regime in Israel and the Arafat clique in Palestine and for a socialist Israel alongside a socialist Palestine as part of a voluntary and free socialist confederation of the Middle East.
  • Jerusalem to be an open city under the control of the working class with freedom of access to religious sites guaranteed to all sections of the population, and a guarantee of the democratic, language, cultural, and religious rights of all minorities.
  • The convening of a conference with democratically elected representatives from both sides of the national divide and from other minority groups to begin the task of putting forward a workers' alternative on the future of the city. Such a conference to discuss a strategy to struggle for an end to cuts in council spending, against privatisation of city services, and a huge increase in spending for the poorest neighbourhoods in the city on education, health, and housing.

With these conditions it is no wonder that Palestinians have come to hate Oslo and all it stands for. They feel humiliated by their betrayal by the PLO leadership, the continuing oppression by the Israeli regime and the compliance and encouragement of this situation by US imperialism. Humiliation has turned to anger and then rage, which exploded two weeks ago.

US imperialism's cynical support for Palestinian rights in words and their full backing for the Israeli capitalist state in deeds was shown by a report in the British Independent (10 October 2000). This quoted an Israeli government official, who arrogantly commented: "The Palestinians always complain that we know the details of every proposal from the Americans before they do. There's a good reason for that – we write them".

New generation

A new generation of youth has grown up in a much more polarised and brutalised situation. They follow the tradition of the Intifada youth but, unlike the previous generation, are not exhausted by the years long, grinding confrontation with the Israeli Defence Force. The withdrawal of the Israeli Defence Force from southern Lebanon in July of this year, boosted the confidence of these youth. In their eyes it convinced them of the necessity of confronting the Israeli Defence Force with tenacity and determination.

These layers of youth, 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 distinct idea of the tactics and strategy necessary to achieve their aims. The fact that they had lost any remaining fear of the Israeli Defence Force – even if struggle meant death – was an extremely important development in their consciousness. It opened the floodgates to the mass uprising.

The CWI stands for:

  • The immediate withdrawal of the Israeli army from all areas of the Occupied Territories.
  • The ceasing of military operations by the Israeli Defence Force in all areas of the Palestinian Authority.
  • An end to the blockade of Palestinian towns and villages.
  • The democratic control by the Palestinian masses of their struggle, through the establishment of popular, grass-roots committees, that will provide the basis for a genuine workers leadership. The right of these committees to be armed for the purposes of defence organised under the democratic control of the masses.
  • A struggle of Palestinian workers and youth (in Gaza and the West Bank) against their double political and economic oppression by Israeli and Palestinian capitalism, and for raising their standards of living.
  • A struggle for a socialist independent Palestine as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East

Israel's forgotten minority – the Palestinians

There are 1 million Palestinians living in Israel, nearly 20% of the population and as such form a significant minority. They have borne the brunt of the recent four-year-long economic recession. Out of twelve Israeli unemployment black spots, eleven are Palestinian towns and villages. Many poor Israeli Palestinian local councils are bankrupt (as are their Israeli Jewish counterparts) and have not paid their workers for months and in some cases sacked them en masse.

Over 95% of Israeli Palestinians voted for Barak at the last general election in the hope that his promises for jobs and increased spending on education and health would lead to a change in their conditions. Israeli Palestinians had the illusion that the Oslo agreement would lead to their treatment as Israel's second-class citizens being alleviated. These illusions have been cruelly dashed.

Israeli Palestinians have always faced an apartheid-like, institutionalised racism in all aspects of their lives – as far as education, health provision, social welfare, jobs and local council services. Israeli Palestinians pay the same taxes as Israeli Jews (and sometimes even more as a proportion of income) but receive an incomparably worse service. A number of smaller Israeli Palestinian towns do not have proper street lighting, sewage provision or paved roads. In the far north and south of Israel Bedouin villages are not even officially recognised as being in existence. They receive no services of any kind. Israeli Palestinians are routinely stopped for questioning in the predominantly Jewish cities like Tel Aviv. Even the Israeli regime's terminology – reflected in the press- is designed to downgrade the national identity of this section of the population. They are designated "Israeli Arabs" – rather than Palestinians. Their urban centres, which are towns or small cities, are termed "villages". In schools and universities, Palestinians generally learn Jewish – not Arab or Israeli – history. Use of Arabic, which is really the second language in Israel, is relegated to third or fourth place in the media, newspapers, and even on street signs.

The Israeli authorities have also used some of the methods applied in the former Occupied Territories to the predominantly Palestinian city of Jaffa. They have routinely denied planning permission to extend Palestinian houses and have declared already built extensions illegal. This is to allow the evictions of their occupants so that Israeli authorities can alter the demographic balance of the population in the greater Tel Aviv area.

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

Feudal structure

Like the major imperialist powers when they colonised the underdeveloped world, the Israeli ruling class, after the creation of the state in 1948, attempted to leave intact aspects of the conservative feudal structure of Palestinian society. This mainly applied to the retention of the clan composition of society and the maintenance of the feudal family structures. Such a strategy acted as a further barrier to the development of mass opposition amongst poorer sections of Palestinians. As a result, the Israeli ruling class has always regarded Palestinians living in Israel as more submissive. During the Intifada (the mass uprising of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories which began in 1987), it was only at the height of the struggles that there were any Palestinian demonstrations inside Israel.

Social and economic developments in Israel, as well as the shortsightedness and arrogance of the Israeli ruling class have tended to undermine these tools of control. The Israeli authorities formed the Follow-up committee on Arab Affairs made up of Israeli Palestinian notables, supposedly to look at conditions in the Palestinian sector. Since Barak came to power 15 months ago he has refused to meet with this body. This was bound to add to the smouldering anger that existed – and further undermine 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 the extended family. Therefore the crisis facing local government has had an exaggerated effect within Israeli Palestinian society. The recent deep recession in the Israeli economy, coming on top of decades of under-funding to the Israeli Palestinian sector, has tended through mass unemployment and discriminatory government budgets to tear apart the social fabric and therefore undermine the feudal extended family.

The existence of mass unemployment amongst wide sections of young people, including amongst those lucky enough to have university education, has led to a huge rise in discontent. Unlike their parents and grandparents, the present generation of young people has not grown up under direct military occupation. Israeli Palestinians are a young population. Ninety-two per cent were born after the creation of the of Israel, and 40% are under 18 years of age. A Palestinian MP commented on this: "There is an entire generation here who 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 blacks 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 at that time.

The CWI says:

  • No to all military and police repression of the right to demonstrate, and against shooting of demonstrators. For the dismissal of racist police chiefs and generals, and the dismantling of the Border Police.
  • For community policing in the Arab and Jewish cities, towns and villages, under democratic control of local communities.
  • For a struggle by Israeli Palestinians against institutionalised racism and their treatment as second-class citizens.
  • For an end to mass unemployment and poverty. For a massive increase in public spending in Israeli Palestinian towns and villages in infrastructure, job creation, health, housing and education and for the writing off of all local council debts.
  • For a struggle of the Israeli working class – both Jewish and Palestinian – to overthrow capitalism. For a socialist Israel with the democratic rights of all minorities guaranteed as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East

Impoverished and Alienated – Israel's Jewish Working class

Some of the biggest and most important changes in consciousness have occurred amongst the Israeli Jewish working class. These are developments that have been largely ignored by the international media, and up to recently left-wing organisations inside Israel and around the world. While more farsighted sections of the ruling class and their analysts have understood these processes, they have been unable to address them.

In contrast, the CWI, internationally and inside Israel, has outlined the importance of these changes. It is no wonder, then, that the recent riots amongst Israeli working class Jews has left many reeling with surprise.

The survival of Israeli capitalism obviously has required the maintenance of the Israeli state as a geographical entity. US imperialism has provided a mountain of military and economic aid – $4 billion a year – as well as favourable trading agreements. This has been vital for the maintenance of the Israeli capitalism and its development into a regional, military and economic imperialist power. However, in order to survive against the threat of invasion by antagonistic Arab elites, the Israeli ruling class has always required a large degree of social cohesion among its Jewish population, including both the middle class and working class. 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 the foundation of Israel.

Since the formation of the country, the Israeli ruling class has always encouraged the migration (or aliyah) of Jews from the Diaspora to Israel. Portraying the country as a safe haven, Israel's capitalist class has historically used this process to alter the demographic balance within Israel as a means of attempting to stabilise the existence of the country for its own class interests. This strategy was presented publicly as allowing a safe haven for the Jews of the Diaspora where they could find peace, security and economic well-being.

Social cohesion

This cohesion was achieved historically by having a high level of state intervention into all aspects of Israeli Jewish life as well as a highly protected economy. The Histadruth, until recently (1994), a state funded organisation, owned most major industries, supposedly acted as a trade union, and also established the health service and welfare provision. A relatively good state education system was also provided. Generally, the Israeli ruling class propagated the idea that if Israeli Jewish workers were prepared to sacrifice – both in terms of military service and through acceptance of their social contributions – then the state would provide security for the population.

As a result there was a low level of class-consciousness amongst Israeli Jewish working class. The state was generally seen as benevolent and the Israeli Defence Force was a symbol of pride. The feeling was engendered that after army service everyone would be offered some kind of job or university education.

Another factor that encouraged this social cohesion is the security fears of ordinary Israeli Jews. This has been partially emphasised by ruling class propaganda, but it is nevertheless an objective reality. Central Eastern European, or Ashkenazi, Jews arrived in Palestine mainly following the Holocaust in which up to 6 million of their number died. The establishment of Israel in 1948 led immediately to Arab-Israeli war. Middle Eastern, or Sephardic Jews, arrived in the 1950's following their forced emigration from the Arab countries of their origin. The Israeli ruling class encouraged this mass migration.

This does not mean that there were no divisions in Israeli society. The divisions, however, were pushed far beneath the surface in the early days of the state. The biggest division until now has always been between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. The former have always formed the majority of the ruling and middle classes; the latter mainly make up the working class, although there is a significant layer of Ashkenazi Jewish workers. The Ashkenazi elite used the Sephardic Jewish arrivals of the 1950s as a cheap replacement for Palestinian labour on the Kibbutzim and Moshavim (cooperative agricultural organisations). Most of them were dumped in the poverty-stricken and under-funded "Development towns" and slums where they have remained to this day. The Ashkenazi ruling class viewed Sephardic Jews with suspicion because of the latter's non- European background and culture. In fact, Sephardic culture has been repressed for decades. Many Israeli Jewish workers have therefore seen their class oppression as ethnic oppression.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Israeli ruling class encouraged the migration of over one million Jews born in what became the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) after 1989. Many of these highly trained and university educated arrivals have suffered the same treatment as the Sephardic Jews of the 1950s.

Neo-liberal policies

The 1990s brought huge change to Israel. The Israeli ruling class, under the pressure of the world economy and determined to maintain their profits, implemented fierce neo-liberal economic policies. All the industrial holdings of the Histadruth were privatised. The Histadruth is now a trade union federation only. The health service is in the process of being sold off to private industry. Education, particularly in working class areas, is chronically under funded. The recent deep economic recession has exacerbated these conditions. 40% of the Israeli Jewish population live on, or under, the official poverty line. Unemployment is officially around 9%. Working conditions have been savaged. Over 10% of the workforce are now employed by Manpower agencies. These are employment agencies that hire their workers out to different industries. Manpower workers have no security of tenure and are forbidden to join unions. They do not receive the same conditions as organised workers in the same factories. According to official studies, wealth polarisation in Israel is greater than any other advanced industrialised economy, apart from the US.

One of the side effects of financial and economic deregulation has been a wave of corruption that has swept through the political elite. The President of Israel, Ezer Weizmann, was forced to resign for receiving bribes from a Swiss millionaire. Barak has been accused of setting up numerous phantom non-profit organisations to channel millions of dollars of illegal donations to fund his last election campaign.

Violent crime and drug abuse, which was relatively low in previous decades, has now become rife because of the degeneration in social conditions. Jewish homelessness, which was regarded as unimaginable previously, is now climbing. There have been examples of conscript soldiers coming "home" after their army service during the day to live on the streets at night and wash their uniforms at standpipes.

The army generals are badly tarnished. This is because of what was seen as an unnecessary continuation of the occupation of southern Lebanon. IDF army officers have been put on trial for physically and emotionally abusing new conscript soldiers, including beatings and forcing soldiers to crawl, bare-chested through thorn-filled fields, and denying them medical attention afterwards. The former general and Minister of Defence Izik Mordechai was recently indicted for sexual assault. This case revealed that sexual harassment of female soldiers by their commanders was widespread and considered a perk of the job.

In the conditions that are found in Israel, these developments have had far greater effects than in Europe and the US. The Israeli working class feels not just anger but bitter betrayal. They feel their sacrifice over decades to protect the state is now being repaid with poverty and social disintegration. There has been an unprecedented collapse in the authority of bourgeois rule. As the last few weeks has shown, this is extremely dangerous for the ruling class and imperialism in a country where the national question is an explosive problem and the threat of war is always near.

The fears they have for their security have been overlaid with deep anxiety about social and economic instability.

The political effect of this, in the absence of any alternative, has been an increase in support for the ultra-orthodox Shas party, which has become a focus for disillusioned, mainly Sephardic, Israeli Jewish working-class voters. This party has provided funding for new schools and clinics as well as emergency feeding kitchens. It has also 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 the most disadvantaged and wider sections of organised workers in Israel. 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, so much so that some Israeli companies used 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" or a revolution, although without a clear idea of what this would mean.

Many Israeli workers saw the formation of a party by Amir Peretz, head of the Histadruth, as the first step to building a mass party for the Israeli working class. This party mainly made up initially of activists from the organised Israeli Jewish working class put forward radical social and economic propaganda and demands. It received votes from Israeli Palestinian and Israeli Jewish workers at the last election. However, the party leadership failed to build on the success of getting two Members of the Knesset elected at the last general election. Rather than organising mass campaigns and building a mass membership base in the working class communities, the leadership confined itself to its work in the Knesset. As a result some sections of Israeli Jewish workers have become disillusioned in it. The party never had a clear position in support of the rights of the Palestinians and avoided discussing the issue.

There is a desperate need to build a revolutionary socialist alternative in all countries in the Middle East. Ma'avak Sozialisti, a CWI affiliated organisation, has begun this work in Israel. Amongst Israeli Jews, members of Ma'avak Sozialisti have opposed the attacks that Barak has carried out on the working class but also 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 flats to go to. Ma'avak Sozialisti has been involved in all the major struggles of workers and youth. 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

Barak has reneged on his election promises of 300 000 jobs and free education from kindergarten to university for all Israelis. In fact the government has launched a whole number of attacks on the poorest sections of society. The feeling of betrayal has deepened. There is deep distrust of the peace process. Thousands of Israeli Jewish workers have lost their jobs as a result of firms using openings provided by Oslo to relocate their production to Arab countries and exploit the cheaper labour costs found there.

The CWI stands for:

  • An end to the use of Israeli soldiers as cannon fodder by the Israeli ruling class and army generals. For conscript soldiers to be paid the state minimum wage and to have trade union rights.
  • A struggle of Israeli workers and youth to achieve massive investment in infrastructure, job creation, health, housing and education in Israeli towns and villages (particularly in the blighted "development towns"), and for the writing off of all local council debts.
  • A struggle of the Israeli working class to overthrow capitalism. For a socialist Israel as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East

Even a brief examination of the conditions facing Palestinians, Israeli Palestinians, and the Israeli Jewish working class shows the existence of a colossal mass of combustible material which has fed the fires of the present conflagration.

Unfolding Slaughter

The day of Sharon's visit ended in widespread rioting by Palestinian youth in Jerusalem. Next day the Israeli ruling class gave its response – a brutal and widespread crackdown. The use of live and rubber coated steel ammunition caused tens of fatalities. The uprising spread throughout the Palestinian Authority, the initial points of friction being the Israeli-Palestinian checkpoints. The struggle spread like wildfire throughout the Palestinian Authority. There was a rapid deployment of Israeli Defence Force snipers armed with high velocity rifles.

The numbers involved in the protests spread as wider sections of the masses became enraged at the young age of those killed. Every funeral was a focus for the anger of the masses and became a rallying point for further confrontations with the Israeli Defence Force. This movement has given heart-rending examples of the sacrifice the most downtrodden sections of society are prepared to make in order to further their cause. One journalist described an incident where a group of Palestinian youth repeatedly stormed through a gap in a wall to attack an Israeli Defence Force post with stones. An Israeli Defence Force sniper using a laser-sighted rifle picked off one of their number each time they moved forward. Yet they continued in their attempts.

The Israeli Defence Force has 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. The brutality used in attempting to put down this uprising was not an overreaction – it was a conscious policy. The repeated attacks on Red Crescent ambulances and the killing of their staff while attempting to collect the injured was an attempt to terrify the local population. It did not work – it enraged the masses even more.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the acting Foreign Minister of the Barak government, demonstrated the approach of the Israeli ruling class. When asked on British television about the overreaction of the Israeli Defence Force he explained: "This is not just an attack on Israeli Defence Force soldiers – it is an attack on the integrity of the Israeli state".

It is clear that the Israeli ruling class felt that it could crush the movement by using brute force. The use of snipers and undercover squads at a much higher intensity than during previous clashes was part of a conscious policy to identify and eliminate local leaders of the uprising. The Israeli ruling class, in fact, was applying the policy it uses during peacetime – creating facts on the ground – to a war-zone situation. It wanted to crush the uprising as quickly as possible, while denying the tactics it was using to the world's press.

Initially, Palestinians only used stones against the murderous wall of fire from the Israeli Defence Force. However, as the wave of anger spread through the Palestinian Authority, it is obvious that arms were made available to the youth and that many members of the Palestinian police joined the protests. Members of the Tanzeem, the armed youth militia of Fatah (Arafat's political organisation), were partially involved in leading and mobilising different actions.

Since the outset of the uprising, the Israeli ruling class has claimed that the entire movement was instigated by Arafat and is being effectively directed by Arafat. This was extremely crude propaganda but it did have an effect on Israeli Jewish society. However, the propaganda exhibited a fundamental misunderstanding of the processes erupting amongst the Palestinian masses. It also showed the arrogance of the Israeli ruling class, who regard the Palestinian masses as either a tap that can be turned on and off at will or as mere bystanders unable to shape their own destiny.

Arafat could not oppose the demonstrations after Friday prayers on September 31. Members of his security services were present at the initial demonstration. But Arafat did not want a full-scale uprising. But once the uprising started there was no way Arafat could control it. It appears that sections of the Palestinian Authority ruling apparatus have crumbled into the mass movement. Even senior members of Arafat's security apparatus may have joined the leadership of the movement. This could be because they are protecting their positions for a post-Arafat regime or because they have been genuinely angered by the brutal attacks of the Israeli Defence Force against the Palestinian masses.

There has been a defensive response from the Israeli security services who have been criticised for not foreseeing the strength of the response to Sharon's visit. They claim they were unable to read the mood of ordinary Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority because they do not have forces on the ground there. This is very hard to believe. But even if true, it shows that the Israeli ruling class have a technical approach to these matters and do not understand the change in consciousness that has taken place amongst Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority.

Following the Intifada in the 1980s, several studies were made of the uprising. The more intelligent bourgeois analysts outlined the factors that led to the Intifada and proposed strategies to prevent a repeat. Many also drew the conclusion that brutal military force was not capable of crushing a mass movement or of solving what where essentially political problems. It seems from their response to this new uprising that the Israeli ruling, while it has forgotten nothing, has learnt nothing either.

In fact, this time the Israeli ruling class has gone further in the use of force than during the Intifada. This is the first time helicopter gunships have been used against the Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority and tanks and heavy armour deployed within striking distance of the main Palestinian urban centres.

Despite all these measures the Israeli Defence Force has not managed to suppress the uprising – instead 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 completely betrayed their cause. Thus, the only possibility was a mass struggle to drive out the Israeli Defence Force- whatever the casualties – as a first stage to winning an independent state.

The extent of the struggle has already forced tactical retreats from the Israeli Defence Force. For example, they withdrew the group of 12 soldiers guarding Joseph's tomb, supposedly a Jewish religious site revered particularly by the religious settlers. It became untenable to hold this position in the face of Palestinian protests. Israeli Defence Force reservists said that soldiers there were cannon fodder. The commander of the reserve battalion was quoted as saying: "We've dedicated so much time to planning (the entrance drill to the compound), but it is really for show. The division does not take it seriously".

Israel's Palestinians rise up

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 just a few days after the outbreak of violence in the Palestinian Authority. This was a defining moment for Israel's Palestinians, just as the Intifada of the 1980s was a crossing of the Rubicon for the Palestinians of the Occupied territories. Things will never be the same again.

The mass movement was first centred in Israeli Palestinian towns with a record for struggle, like Umm EL Fahm. However, the response of the Israeli security forces to this turn of events guaranteed that the movement quickly spread. In a massive overreaction linked to their racist approach to Palestinians, police used rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and even live ammunition. Haifa Police Chief, Dov Shechter, was quoted in the Israeli press as advising his officers to use live ammunition once they had run out of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

The smallest Palestinian villages were involved in mass protests. Even places like Tamre, which has never seen any protests, saw a demonstration by the village's inhabitants. So enraged were people that they destroyed Tamre's only traffic light – the only symbol in the village that represented the Israeli rule. The movement soon spread to cities like Haifa which has a tradition of generally peaceful co-existence within its mixed Jewish-Palestinian population. Akko, a generally sleepy tourist port, was also gripped by protests. Jaffa, next door to Tel Aviv, was sealed off on numerous occasions as Palestinian youth took to the streets.

The police killed at least twelve Israeli Palestinians. This was a higher level of fatalities than ever before in Israeli history. It was higher than the Land Day massacre of 1976 which resulted in six deaths and is commemorated every year in Palestinian demonstrations inside Israel.

The police and Border Police soon lost control of events. Barak ordered a pullback of all police from Palestinian towns and cities. He claimed this was to defuse the situation. A much more likely explanation was that the Israeli ruling class was fighting on several different fronts both in the Palestinian Authority and within Israel. They could not hold back the protests in the Israeli Palestinian towns and cities and simultaneously deal with the uprising in the Palestinian Authority. Barak also ordered police not to use live ammunition even if their lives were in danger.

The Israeli Palestinian youth did not restrict their protests to their towns and villages. They organised barricades on major roads and for a time cut off the north of Israel from the middle and south.

Again, the Israeli ruling class blundered as far as propaganda was concerned. First, Barak blamed Arafat for instigating the protests amongst Palestinians in Israel. Then members of the ruling coalition launched attacks against the Palestinian Members of the Knesset (Parliament) for allegedly organising premeditated acts of violence.

The daily Israeli Ha'aretz interviewed unemployed Palestinians in Umm El Fahm who said: "The real reason for what is happening here is the economic, social and political state of the Arab sector." A newspaper editor went on to say: "The Temple Mount is just an excuse. Sharon's visit was merely the match that set off a barrel of explosives that was close to bursting. And when such a barrel can't hold any more, it explodes, without checking to see whether this is a good time to explode."

When reporters asked a Palestinian mayor about the role of Members of the Knesset in instigating the protests, he ironically replied: "Are our MKs really capable of moving the Arab street to this extent? They would be overjoyed to know they have so much power".

What has been shown by these protests is that the majority of the establishment leaders of the Palestinian communities have no authority amongst the youth, particularly when they are not prepared to give a radical lead. In Jaffa, during protests there, Palestinian youth ignored pleas from community leaders to cease their protests.

The Israeli government panicked in response to this crisis by meeting the Palestinian community leaders for the first time. The government emphasised a new spending plan for the "Arab" sector (as they call it) of 2 billion shekels. The Israeli security services produced a report, intentionally leaked to the press which called for a completely different approach within Israel towards the Palestinians and increased funds for this sector of the Israeli population. This demonstrated the huge pressures on the Israeli ruling class and the splits that were developing in the state apparatus as to how to respond to the situation.

Barak's ultimatum

With the continuation of violent clashes in the Palestinian Authority, and the kidnap of 3 soldiers near the Lebanese border by Hezbollah, Barak issued a warning to Arafat that he had 48 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 Palestinian Authority targets, to cut off electricity and water supplies, and to seal off the Palestinian Authority from Israel.

This was accompanied by the whipping up of fears amongst the Israeli Jewish populations. Israeli TV channels held interviews with retired and serving generals and right-wing politicians who criticised the supposed restraint of the Israeli Defence Force. They said that the army had been held back by the cowardice of the politicians. This propaganda wave had all the more effect as it occurred in the run-up to Yom Kippur which 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 where Arab countries launched an unexpected attack on Israel in 1973.

The reason for this change in tactics was that the Israeli leadership felt the need to overcome the divisions between the ruling class and the working class, in order to protect capitalist interests. This was a change in approach which would backfire badly. Descent into sectarianism

Previous events and the use of such crude propaganda set the backdrop for what proved 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, linked to the huge anger of the Palestinian masses and the security fears of the alienated and dispossessed sections of the Jewish working class, has meant that the mass movement and the reaction to it has on both sides 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. This will equal, if not surmount, the carnage of Bosnia in the mid-1990s.

Role of religion

The influence of Islam and extreme Islamic groups has become much more important in the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union hastened the demise of the Communist Parties in the neo-colonial world. Whilst the Communist Party leadership effectively played (on behalf of the Soviet Union's ruling bureaucracy) a counter-revolutionary role in holding back revolutionary struggles of the masses in the post-Second World War period, they nevertheless had mass membership (who played a heroic role in numerous struggles) in many countries and a wider support in society. This was because the Soviet Union represented a different social and economic model to that provided by the imperialist Western powers that pillaged the neo-colonial world.

In the confusion that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the worldwide capitalist propaganda offensive against the ideas of socialism, the Communist Parties in the neo-colonial world either collapsed or moved even more sharply to the right. During the 1990s they abandoned any defence of the ideas of socialism. In some countries like South Africa, the Communist Party leadership became apologists for the neo-liberal policies imposed by Western imperialism on the neo-colonial world. This was even more the case for the radical, middle-class political parties and those fighting for national liberation which in the past had used quite clearly defined anti-imperialist rhetoric.

In the Middle East, this ideological collapse of the former left parties has been reflected in the positions they have taken concerning the Oslo agreement. The majority of them came out in support of Oslo and have provided a left cover for the PLO leadership and the Israeli ruling class. Rather than explaining the limitations in the deal, they reinforced illusions in them 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 former Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and China, opposed the deal but did not provide any alternative. This approach and the disorientation of their leaderships following 1989, has meant these organisations active membership and support amongst the wider Palestinian population has dropped dramatically.

In Israel, the Communist Party has always tried to portray itself as a party loyal to the existence of the state of Israel – and therefore its ruling class – although it has a mainly Palestinian membership. In recent decades it has only campaigned on the question of democratic rights for Israeli Palestinians. Whilst these are vital demands for any socialist organisation, the Communist Party downgraded the importance of the social and economic struggles of the Israeli Jewish working class. They were therefore alienated from majority of Israeli Jewish workers.

The Communist Party gave full support to the Oslo peace process. At the last general election it campaigned for a vote for Ehud Barak in the prime ministerial elections. This involved instructing its members to put up posters next to its own in the Israeli Palestinian localities with a photograph of Barak, a former army general! While the vast majority of Israeli Palestinians who voted did cast their votes for Barak, subsequent events have meant that support for the Communist Party, on a downward trend anyway, has fallen because of the growing hatred of the Barak regime.

In the Palestinian Authority, the corruption and betrayal of the PLO leadership, together with the demise of the DFLP and PFLP, has meant that the most radical sections of youth 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 anti-democratic and socially reactionary, it has put forward consistent anti-imperialist rhetoric and has been the most consistent opponent of the Oslo deal in the territories. On top of this, Hamas has provided free schooling, heath facilities, and some job opportunities in the Palestinian Authority. With a collapsing economy in the Palestinian Authority, this has led to a growth in Hamas's support.

The growing influence of extreme Islamic groups, like Hamas, in the Palestinian Authority 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 progamme to unify the masses and provide strategy and tactics to end imperialist domination of the neo-colonial world. It is generally the case, that the extreme Islamic organisations, because of their radical imperialist rhetoric and their social programmes, are increasingly seen as the most consistent anti-imperialist political forces in these countries. The rise in prominence of these organisations does not automatically mean that the masses support their more reactionary, undemocratic policies. In some countries, with conditions of social collapse, some sections of the working class and the poor peasant masses have turned to Islam to provide some hope of escape from their living hell-on-earth. In cities like Jaffa in Israel which used to have a mainly secular Palestinian population, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Palestinians turning to Islam and following its customs.

In the Israeli Palestinian areas, as a result of the discrediting of former left organisations like the Communist Party, there has been a growth in support for the Muslim Brothers. 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: 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 the Palestinians), however, 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 feudal Arab elites. It also threatens to increase the danger of communal civil war and a new Israeli Bosnia.

Taking the struggle forward?

The situation in Palestinian Authority requires a stepping up of the organised struggle to end the military, social and economic oppression of the Palestinian masses. Such a struggle – which would be armed for the purposes of self-defence – should be under the control of committees elected by and accountable to the local Palestinian communities. Some of the actions carried out by the Palestinian youth have understandably been motivated by their fury at years of national oppression and the more recent outrages carried out by the Israeli Defence Force. However, these actions have driven Israeli Jewish workers towards a much more reactionary position. For example, once the Israeli Defence Force withdrew from Joseph's tomb, Palestinian youth overran the shrine, with little opposition from the Palestinian police guarding it. They entered the building and set fire to part of it. The anger of these youth is understandable, given the slaughter they had faced over the previous days. But this action unfortunately intensified deep-rooted fears amongst the Israeli Jews that their religion, culture and their national identity are under threat of annihilation.

Some political forces in the Middle East take religious nationalism to savage extremes and have what can only be described as a completely reactionary, communalist, or sectarian position. One example of this is a press release produced by the Free Arab Radio that included a phrase describing all Jews in Palestine as "Halal meat".

The reactionary and racist depiction in Israel of Palestinians as uncivilised barbarians is the mirror image of this approach. It is a characterisation that is reflected in subtler, more insidious forms in much Western media coverage of events in the Middle East.

We just as strongly oppose the attacks on mosques in Palestinian areas by some Israeli Jews which Muslims find a huge affront to their culture and religion as well as to their Palestinian nationality. We completely oppose the anti-Arab racist propaganda that has swept Israel in the last two weeks. This included the daubing of the highly provocative slogan on walls of mosques "Kahana was right", referring to Meir Kahana, deceased leader of the now illegal Kach movement which calls for the removal of all Arabs from "greater Israel".

The CWI also believes that removing ordinary Israeli Jews from their cars at roadblocks and then beating them up, as well a stoning coaches containing Israeli Jewish workers, are counter-productive tactics, whatever the provocation. The same applies to the arrest and killing of the two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah in Palestinian Authority territory. These actions drive Israeli Jewish workers into the arms of the most reactionary elements in society. Such acts actually strengthen the position of the Israeli ruling class, rather than opening up divisions between the Israeli regime and the Israeli Jewish working class. Attacks on Israeli civilians have exacerbated the fears of ordinary Israeli Jews and temporarily covered over the huge gulf that ha

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October 2000
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