Israel/Palestine: A war by any other name

The first ever invasion of the Palestinian Authority (PA) territory by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on Monday 15 April has taken the present conflict in the region to a new level. It may be the case that in future years this event could be looked upon as the first decisive step to a wider conflict. Even though the Israeli tanks, which thundered into three areas of the Gaza strip, returned to Israel within twenty-four hours, this action represents a qualitative stepping up of tension in the region. An action like this carried out in any other part of the world would be regarded as a declaration of war. As Gerald Butt of the Middle East Economic Survey commented: "…the list of casualties will grow as the Israelis and Palestinians continue a conflict that is a war by any other name" (BBC News Online, 11 April 2001). Of course the casualties in this ‘war’ are low in comparison to those that would be incurred by a wider, full-scale conflict.

The IDF, its elite undercover units and reactionary, racist Jewish settlers have unleashed a campaign of terror and brutality to crush a largely unarmed Palestinian population. The bulldozing of houses and olive groves, the bombardment of civilian areas, the use of undercover assassination squads, as well as the daily humiliation of Palestinian people at numerous Israeli military checkpoints goes largely unreported in the world’s press. They are reminiscent of the methods used at the height of the hated apartheid regime in South Africa. A doctor in Bethlehem recently said: "Even people like me who are not involved politically are going to be involved soon. You are checked every 100 metres, humiliated at every checkpoint. It is an insult to an ordinary human being" (Guardian [London], 13 March 2001).

Yet the attempt to intimidate the Palestinian masses with naked force has failed and has led to an increase in the determination to end the hated occupation. Hundreds of heroic Palestinian youth have sacrificed their lives to defend the ideal of national and social liberation armed with only stones against the firewall that has rained down on them.

The complete failure of the Oslo accords to answer in even a minimal way the national aspirations of the Palestinian masses paved the way to this second Intifada. In fact since the signing of the Oslo accords social and economic conditions have collapsed and the level of repression has increased.

The invasion of Gaza by the IDF was only one of an accumulation of events that have made a wider conflict more possible since the latest Israeli Government of National Unity was formed in early March. The election of Sharon, a former army commander who previously led many brutal attacks against defenceless Palestinians according to his motto "always escalate", represented a huge provocation to the Palestinians. So was the inclusion of the reactionary Moledet party in the new coalition government. Its leadership want the expulsion of the 3 million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza and also the Israeli Palestinians. Avigdor Lieberman, the new infrastructure minister and leader of another reactionary party, has called for Israel to bomb Egypt’s Aswan dam. Referring to the Palestinians, even the spiritual leader of Shas – a party which many Israeli working-class Jews vote for, recently stated: "It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them".

Spiralling tension

The failure of IDF actions to quench the fires of the Intifada has led to a change in tactics by the dominant sections of the Israeli ruling class and army generals. There has been a subsequent response by more extreme Palestinian groups like Hamas, with a stepping up of suicide bombings inside Israel and the use of mortars on Israeli settlements and towns. This has led to a hardening of attitudes on both sides of the national divide and opens the way to a continued spiralling of violence and tension.

Talk by representatives of the European Union countries, the Jordanian and Egyptian regimes – and even US Imperialism – of restarting negotiations between the PA and the Sharon government clashes violently with the reality of the experience of the Palestinian masses on the ground. In addition, there is the growing feeling amongst the Arab masses that US imperialism, despite its rebukes of the Sharon government, in fact supports the Israeli ruling class’s murderous campaign to smash the new Intifada. This feeling has increased, as a result of the perception that the new Bush administration has a more aggressive anti-Arab approach to events in the Middle East. There is a huge subterranean reservoir of hatred towards US imperialism in the region that could explode at any moment.

Sharon campaigned for election as Prime Minister on the basis of "peace through security". His public relations advisers attempted to portray him as a benevolent grandfather of the nation – a strongman who had the courage to make peace. However, it was clear that because of the failure of the Oslo Peace accords and the development of the Intifada as well as his increased reliance on extreme, right-wing and reactionary parties in government, he was likely to prosecute a much more repressive approach to the Palestinian uprising.

The gloves came off within days of the formation of the Government of National Unity. This was signalled by Sharon’s insistence that a precondition for any talks was that the PA leadership had to cease all violence and take action against "terrorism" and "violence". Ordinary Palestinians saw this as an instruction to halt the Intifada. Sharon also stated that negotiations would not be bound by previous agreements on the Israeli side. This was simply not acceptable by the majority of Palestinians who wanted far more than the hollow proposals implemented as a result of the Oslo Accords.

The tactics of the Israeli ruling class are to attempt through economic and military measures to brutally crush the Palestinian uprising. They want to force a defeated PA – with perhaps a different and more pliant, intimidated leadership – to the negotiating table, where as vanquished foe they would be forced to accept terms of surrender thinly disguised as a new "peace agreement". This would involve the creation of a cantonised and emasculated Palestinian "state" surrounded by IDF bases and sub-divided by Israeli controlled roads which, as recent events have shown, could be used for reoccupation at a moment’s notice. A "Palestine" of this sort would be completely dependent on Israel for economic trade and water supply. In fact such a formation would in no sense qualify as an independent Palestinian state but merely constitute a series of impoverished, drought-ridden prison camps in which to dump the Palestinian masses, guarded by the IDF on the outside and controlled by a corrupt PA on the inside.

The plans of the Sharon government represents a modern day equivalent of the "Iron Wall" strategy of more right wing sections of the Israeli ruling class (the so-called revisionist Zionists grouped around Jabotinsky – the historical precursors of the Likud party) since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948.

This strategy arose from the estimation that because the formation of Israel involved the dispossession of the Palestinians, the latter would not willingly accept this situation. As a result, Israel had to use brutal military repression (the Iron Wall) to crush the will of the Palestinian masses. Once this was done, more ‘moderate’ leaders would come to the fore to accept whatever crumbs were offered from the table of the Israeli ruling class. Historically, the ideologists of the Labour Party – the traditional party of the Israeli ruling class – always publicly rejected this approach because it endangered support from the imperialist powers who historically have attempted to maintain stability in the region because of its strategic importance. In reality, whenever the rule of Israeli ruling class was threatened, particularly in war situations, they have always in practise adopted fundamentally the same approach. Even if Ehud Barak had been re-elected as Prime Minister in the last elections he would have adopted, perhaps after a longer period of time, much the same policy as Sharon has implemented since coming to power.

Concretely this policy has been implemented through two main approaches: the physical cutting off of all main Palestinian towns and villages and the use of much more brutal military measures to crush any signs of opposition from the Palestinians.


The physical siege of Palestinian towns and villages further subdivides what little territory has been ceded to the PA and has brought all movement and economic activity to a halt. For example over the last few weeks the IDF have constructed a trench completely surrounding the Palestinian city of Ramallah, reinforced in places with huge ramparts made of earth. This has imprisoned 60 000 Palestinians in the city and prevented the movement of a further 160 000 from surrounding areas. In fact, the actions undertaken by the IDF mean the further subdivision of the PA into 60 smaller cantons. The vast majority of Palestinians are barred from travelling between these cantons. Poverty levels have rocketed – this siege, as well as the previous results of the conflict, have caused over $2 billion in losses to the Palestinian economy and seen unemployment levels soaring to 48%.

Militarily the Israeli ruling class have adopted a course not just of reacting to direct attacks but taking ‘preventative’ action. This has involved bombing a Syrian radar station in the Lebanon after Hizbollah bombed targets in Northern Israel. They have stepped up the use of assassination and snatch squads to arrest or eliminate Palestinians within the PA area. They have used heavy bombardment by tanks and artillery from the air, sea, and land to obliterate areas of towns which they suspect of harbouring those who have attacked Israeli targets using mortar rockets. Their policy culminated in the land invasion of sections of the Gaza strip under PA control.

However, the abrupt retreat of IDF tanks from their positions as a result of huge US pressure has opened up serious divisions inside the Israeli ruling class. The Israeli commander who stated that the IDF could remain there for "days, weeks or months" has been criticised by spokesmen for the Sharon government as misunderstanding his orders. Israeli generals have reacted angrily to what they see as another humiliating retreat by the army from its stated position of dealing with any attacks on Israel in the "sharpest possible manner", this time purely to please Israel’s backers – the US. The results of this fiasco are that Sharon’s position is weakened as far as the reactionary Israeli Jews are concerned. They have argued that he is not prepared to deal with the Palestinian threat because of US pressure. This arises from the leverage the US administration has because it provides up to $4 billion a year in military and economic aid. The Palestinian masses will view the forced withdrawal from Gaza by the IDF as confirmation of the fact that if the US was genuinely interested in Palestinian national liberation, it could force the Israeli state to concede much more. This means US imperialism, in the eyes of the Palestinian masses, is also complicit in all the acts of repression that are carried out by the Israeli regime.

There has been a growing debate amongst Palestinian activists as to how to take the Intifada forward. The initial mass movement has been replaced in recent months by increased activity of suicide bomb attacks by individual Palestinians as well as mortar attacks by small groups of Palestinians. This has led to growing discontent amongst wider sections of the Palestinian masses since the IDF take vicious retributive action without the Intifada making significant steps forward. The Palestinian leadership has had to take this into account. Recently Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Arafat’s Fatah movement on the West Bank and closely associated with the semi-autonomous Tanzeem military units, announced a change in the name of the leadership of the Intifada from the ‘National Islamic’ leadership to the ‘Popular Committee of the Intifada’ and called for more non-violent mass protests.

This development demonstrates a partial recognition on an empirical basis by some leaders of the Tanzeem leadership that the strength of the Intifada was its mass character. History has repeatedly shown that military force – no matter how overwhelming – cannot in the end crush a mass movement of a nationality struggling for liberation. However, the Intifada, despite the heroism of its participants, cannot defeat the IDF or force fundamental concessions from US imperialism and capitalism in the region with its present tactics. For a successful struggle one of the strategic goals must be to split decisive sections of the Israeli Jewish working class from its present support for the Israeli regime’s continued repression of the Palestinian masses.

Quite clearly there is a need for the Intifada to be armed for the purposes of self-defence. But a vital issue is the type of struggle that will aid the weakening of the social foundations of support that the Israeli regime has. This would mean the organisation of a mass movement with the correct and clear political strategy and tactics. One of its aims would be to expose the class nature of Israeli (and Palestinian) society.

Palestinian activists should produce propaganda directed towards Israeli Jewish workers and youth explaining that the only way to end the cycle of bloodshed in the region would be by answering the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. Without this being done the mass opposition of the Palestinian people would continue. Such material should explain that the US-sponsored, capitalist Oslo accords did not bring genuine peace because of the class interests of those who negotiated the deal on both the Israeli and Palestinian side. As a result, the security fears of the Israeli Jewish working class remained unanswered. It should also outline that during the period of the peace accords conditions for the Israeli working class worsened as a result of the social and economic attacks on them by the political representatives of Israeli big business. The record of the Sharon government is clear: since the beginning of the year 50 000 Israelis lost their jobs and the government is discussing where to make NIS8 billion worth of cuts in public spending. For Palestinians the corruption of the PA leadership meant that their conditions became far worse. The failure of Oslo to answer the national aspirations of the Palestinian people meant that Israeli conscripts were being killed on the frontlines while the same big businessmen were making super-profits. These ideas could be linked to the necessity of defeating capitalism in the region and of creating a socialist alternative which would release the resources in the region to eradicate poverty once and for all and guarantee their national rights. On this basis, working class representatives from both sides of the national divide could negotiate a genuine agreement in the interests of the masses of the entire region.

This is a road that will never be taken by even the most radical sounding leaders like Marwan Barghouttti, since their position would be threatened by the democratic control of the struggle by the masses.

In the brutal conditions of the IDF occupation and as result of the complete absence of strategy for genuine liberation by the PA leadership, many Palestinian youth have looked towards the more extreme groups like Hamas to provide a way out. This is a result of the desperation for change these youth have. These factors lie behind the increase in suicide bomb and mortar attacks on Israeli Jewish civilians. These tactics are not aimed against the Israeli ruling class who are the instigators of the Occupation and Palestinian oppression but against the Israeli working class and youth who should be won over to the idea of ending the conflict through a working-class alternative. Whilst the burning desire to end the Occupation is understandable, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets should not be part of the armoury of workers and youth fighting for national and social liberation. The use of such tactics indicates sections of activists – no matter how self-sacrificing these individuals are -face a certain cul-de-sac as far as tactics and strategy is concerned. Such tactics always act to strengthen the oppressors rather than undermining their position. Such tactics solidify the Israeli population behind the Israeli ruling class and its generals.

Israeli tactics

The change in tactics by the dominant sections of Israeli ruling class will not succeed. Hopes that the increased oppression will force the Palestinian masses to overthrow the PA leadership and put in place a more moderate leadership are the deluded fantasy of an Israeli ruling class which has lost touch with reality. What is more, the continued use of armed force and the increasing fatalities on the Israeli side with no solution in sight will in time begin to open up sharp divisions in Israeli Jewish society which will undermine the appearance of national unity that exists at the moment. Already, groups of Israeli reserve soldiers have been demanding more benefits for serving in the army. The appearance of such divisions could lead to the struggles of the Israeli Jewish working-class moving in an independent manner against their ruling class. However, such movements can also be cut across if individual attacks develop to a high level with the associated, perception of an ‘external danger’.

The debacle caused by the brief sortie into the PA area by the IDF and the splits amongst the ruling class that resulted are a foretaste of bigger divisions throughout Israeli society at a later stage.

Under the present circumstances the dominant sections of the Israeli ruling class do not have an alternative. Their power and prestige are under threat because of the change in the balance of forces brought about by the second Intifada. It signifies that the Palestinian masses are no longer prepared to accept the mirage of independence that the Oslo Accords resulted in. The intensity of the Intifada against overwhelming military firepower indicates the masses are prepared to struggle to the death against Oslo and in support of genuine national and social liberation. At the moment, the Palestinian masses are prepared to put up with the Arafat leadership insofar as it does not oppose the struggle to defeat the IDF occupation. Military force simply drives the Palestinian masses to cling even more tenaciously to the idea of a continued struggle for genuine liberation and independence. This is something that the Israeli ruling class will not concede and US imperialism will not countenance because of the strategic importance of the region and the huge oil reserves that exist there. Such a scenario would mean an end to their economic and military domination of the region and could open the way to mass anti-imperialist movements to overthrow the Arab regimes in the Middle East. The contradiction between what the Palestinian masses want and what US imperialism and the Israeli ruling class is prepared to concede is one of the contradictions that lies behind the drift to a wider war between the Israeli state and the Arab regimes.

Despite this US imperialism will attempt to pressurise the Arab regimes and the Israeli ruling class not to go to war. This is because the effects of war could also lead to a much more unstable situation in the region and possibly the rest of the neo-colonial world. Many Arab regimes rely on the US for funding and political support. But faced with mass protest from their own populations that could threaten their continued rule they may have no alternative but to be dragged into conflict. One indication of this has been the holding of two Arab summits in the last six months. As the Middle East International commented: "Like previous Arab summits, this one was handicapped by the contradiction between each government’s perception of its own interests and that of their populations. It is doubtful whether either…gathering…would have taken place were it not for the popular outrage at events in Palestine and Iraq" (6 April 2001)

The election of the new Bush administration actually adds to the instability because it has a more open and blatant unilateralist approach of emphasising narrow US interests above all else. This could vastly increase tension in areas like the Middle East.

The Bush administration Middle Eastern policy sees the major cause of instability in the region as the continued existence of Saddam Hussein’s regime rather than the running sore of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are attempting to put together another version of the Alliance of Arab countries on which the US based its invasion of Kuwait and Iraq in the Gulf War. But the world situation and the Middle East have changed enormously since then. There has been a huge shift towards anti-imperialist sentiments within the region. As one Saudi newspaper, al-Watan, put it recently "Reviving the Gulf War coalition is like trying to sell goods whose sell-by label expired long ago." Launching new attacks – verbal or otherwise – against Iraq will enormously boost Saddam Hussein’s standing and be seen as an indirect attack on the Palestinian masses. A Jordanian politician said that Saddam Hussein "does impress the ordinary man and makes other leaders look submissive and cowardly".

At the latest Arab summits there were attempts by some Arab regimes to forge closer ties. There were appeals from the Iranian and Syrian regimes for closer ties between themselves and Saudi Arabia. This is in part because of pressure to forge a common front in the case of a wider conflict.


There are a number of flashpoints that could spark a new wider conflict. A columnist in Cairo’s al-Ahram newspaper wrote: "The collapse of the peace process has brought the whole region perilously close to the brink of war, not as a function of conscious decision but as a result of the situation spiralling out of control, even by mistake." Further attacks by Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border could lead to more determined retaliation by the IDF against Syrian targets in Lebanon, forcing the new Syrian leader Bashar to take action. Military manoeuvres by the Iraqi regime close to the Jordanian border could force bombing missions on Iraq by the Israeli air force in retaliation. Even the continuation of the brutal repression of the Intifada and further IDF reoccupations of PA territory could lead to uncontrollable demonstrations in different Arab countries that would be the precursor for a wider conflict. There are numerous possible explosions ready to happen in the current conflict. The most reactionary settlers in places like Hebron could go on the rampage and massacre local Palestinians because of the failure of the Sharon government to deal with people they see as "terrorists". Sustained events like these could lead the Israeli government to conduct a strategy of unilateral separation – despite US pressure not to take such a course of action (see CWI statement: The Middle East in Flames, October 2001 at This would mean the Israeli ruling class would declare the borders between Israel and a "Palestinian" state. This could result in a civil war situation within Israel between Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

US imperialism may succeed in the near future in forcing a new round of negotiations which even might lead to a new interim paper agreement. The world’s imperialist powers are terrified of the instability a new wider Israeli-Arab conflict would cause and so will attempt to force the two sides to come to such an agreement. Even the continuation of the conflict at present levels threatens regional instability over time and is linked to the possibility of a wider conflict, thus necessitating some de-escalation of tension in the opinion of US strategists. Even if peace negotiations are restarted then they will break down over time and lead to further conflict. This is because capitalism and imperialism have no solutions to the thorny problems that affect the region such as: the future of Jerusalem, water rights, and the future of the millions of Palestinian refugees.

War poses the greatest test to socialists and revolutionaries. On both sides of the national divide, but particularly amongst Israeli Jews, there is huge social pressure for the nation to unify in the face of an outside threat. This social pressure has the effect of undermining genuine activists’ class approach to the situation. But it is precisely in war conditions that a socialist approach is necessary, because it is the only means of ending the slaughter and providing a means by which the national aspirations of the Palestinian masses can be fulfilled and the security fears of the Israeli Jews answered. Such an approach requires a struggle against Israeli capitalism and the PA, as well as the corrupt undemocratic Arab regimes and the formation of a socialist confederation of the Middle East – involving a socialist Israel and the creation of a genuine, independent, socialist Palestinian state.

This may appear to clash with the point of view of the majority at the moment but it is vital to struggle for these ideas now in order to attract the most conscious elements who are groping towards a solution which does not involve the machinations of the representatives of capitalism and imperialism in the region. If this is not done, then such activists can be swept away in the tide of reactionary, religious ideas that are gaining an increasing grip on both sides of the divide in the absence of a mass working class, socialist alternative. These layers, which are only present in small numbers at the moment, represent the precursors of mass protest that will develop as the number of deaths climbs and the self-centred interests of the Israeli ruling class and the PA leadership are exposed. Winning the most conscious layers to a genuine socialist alternative now will speed up this process and lay the basis for a mass movement that will lead to the end of the decades-long repeated cycle of poverty, repression and war that has blighted the Middle East.

  • Withdraw IDF forces from all of the Occupied Territories.
  • For a mass revolutionary struggle by the Palestinians – armed for the purposes of self-defence – to end the IDF occupation of the territories. Elect popular committees for the running of all aspects of daily life in the PA. For the incorporation of all armed groups into self-defence committees.
  • Such committees to be under the democratic control of the masses to chart a commonly agreed strategy for the Intifada.
  • For the right to freedom of expression and the right to organise in the PA.
  • Support the right of all Israeli Jews to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. Build a mass, socialist working-class movement to end the drift towards war and the continued attacks on Israeli working-class living standards by the Israeli National Unity government. For a mass, democratic Israeli workers’ party with a socialist programme
  • No imperialist intervention in the Middle East.
  • For an end to all discrimination and oppression based on national, religious and ethnic background.
  • For an end to Israeli and Arab capitalism and the creation of a socialist Israel alongside an independent socialist Palestine. For a socialist confederation of the Middle East.

This CWI statement is produced as a result of the recent invasion by the IDF of sections of the PA territory. A fuller explanation of the analysis of the CWI of the present conflict can be found in the CWI statement "Middle East in Flames", produced in October 2001

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April 2001