Afghanistan: Aftershocks in Israel/Palestine

As George W Bush strives to create a new Gulf war-style ‘coalition against terror’ – complete with ‘Islamic support’ from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan – the Israeli regime has come under pressure to call a cease-fire and reopen negotiations with Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, argues KEVIN SIMPSON, a more bloody dénouement, spiralling out of the control of US imperialism, is inherent in the volatile situation that has developed in Israel and Palestine.

War in Afghanistan

Middle East aftershocks

"We are moveing into a situation of world war. The Middle East is at its epicentre and Israel is the bulls eye" (Yediot Aahronot, 13 September 2001). This warmongering statement from an Israeli Jewish daily is just one indication of the massive repercussions of the horrendous attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The Middle East is entering an extremely dangerous and unstable time.

Even before the World Trade Center was destroyed, the situation in Israel and Palestine in August and September had become much more tense. The series of tit-for-tat clashes – incursions into Palestinian territory and assassination campaigns by the Israeli military, and suicide bombings against Israeli Jewish civilian and military targets by Palestinian groups – had increased in tempo and severity.

This reached a highpoint in the weekend before the attacks in the US, when three attacks by Palestinians killed five Israelis and wounded 112 people in Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) area. Within hours, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), retaliated with helicopter gunship attacks against three West Bank towns.

One of these attacks had a particular significance. The suicide bomber at a railway station in Nahariya, killing three Israeli Jews along with himself, was the first to come from the one million strong Israeli Palestinian population. This is an indication of the boiling anger that exists amongst the previously quiescent Israeli Palestinian population towards the brutal repression of their brothers and sisters in PA territory. Following this incident, six more Israeli Palestinians were arrested, accused of preparing more suicide attacks. Three days after the events in New York and Washington DC, the Muslim Brothers organised a rally in Umm El Fahm, an Israeli Palestinian city, in defence of the Al Aqsa mosque. In reality, this was a rally in solidarity with the second intifada. Between 20-30,000 Israeli Palestinians participated – the biggest event of its kind ever organised by the Muslim Brothers.

These events show a growing sympathy with Islamic fundamentalist groups. This is not surprising: the leaders of the Israeli Palestinian communities are being ever more exposed by their corruption and abject failure to lead struggles in opposition to the ingrained racism Israeli Palestinians face from the Israeli state, or to change the horrific social and economic conditions they suffer.

In recent months, the IDF has been far more prepared to invade Palestinian towns, to demolish buildings from which Palestinian fighters are said to operate, and to weaken the already tottering PA infrastructure. These incursions were lasting longer and were taking place across a broader front. A previous escalation was the use of US supplied F16 fighter jets to destroy targets in PA territory. Following the US bombings, they used Israeli navy ships to bombard buildings in Gaza. The Israeli regime has also stepped up its policy of assassinations. Over the past couple of months they have eliminated 40 middle-ranking Palestinians officials of the Fatah and Hamas organisations. This included the assassination in August of the secretary general of the Progressive Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abu Ali Mustafa, who was allegedly the ‘mastermind’ of suicide bomb attacks in Israel.

These tactics come on top of the continuing blockade of the Palestinian Authority and the encirclement of towns and villages by the IDF. These sieges are now no longer reported in the international media. They have become the ‘normality’ of life for the majority of Palestinians. This does not hide the fact that blockades have brought economic activity to a standstill and society to the edge of starvation and collapse.

What now for Intifada II?

THE MASS CHARACTER of the second intifada has receded, with armed actions by Palestinian Tanzeem paramilitary fighters and suicide attacks now becoming the norm. The fundamental reason for this is a lack of a political strategy to take the intifada forward. This would be provided if a mass socialist force existed amongst the Palestinian masses. In order for the struggle for genuine national liberation for the Palestinian masses to succeed, the majority of the Israeli Jewish working class has to be won over to the demand for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories.

This can only be done if the intifada is transformed into a struggle against the corrupt PA leadership and for a democratic socialist Palestine. Linked with an appeal to the Israeli Jewish working class and the conscript soldiers of the IDF not to oppose this struggle but fight for a socialist Israel alongside a democratic socialist Palestine, this would have a huge effect inside Israel.

The reason for this is the huge polarisation in social and economic conditions – and its political effects – inside Israel, which is not taken into account by Palestinian activists and by many left groups internationally.

There is huge anger amongst Israeli Jewish workers and youth towards the corrupt ruling class in Israel. The idea of a state which would look after the interests of all its Jewish citizens from the cradle to the grave has been shattered forever as a result of the dismantling of most of the welfare state through widespread privatisations, a vast increase in the exploitation of the workforce, and a steep rise in the cost of living. These attacks on working-class living standards have intensified during this intifada as a result of the developing world recession. Yet it is clear that even in a near-war situation the drive for profits by Israeli capitalism has not diminished. It is the Israeli working class who pays the price for the economic and political effects of Israeli capitalist policies.

Instead, the tactics of suicide bombings adopted by sections of Palestinian fighters have acted to drive Israeli Jewish workers into the reactionary arms of the ruling class. The most horrific in a recent wave of attacks was the bombing of the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem on 9 August in which the bomber and 15 Israeli Jews (including six children) were killed and 130 were injured.

The mass killings of civilians is completely opposed and abhorred by socialists and does nothing to advance the cause of Palestinian national liberation. Such tactics will never succeed in bringing a Palestinian state a single centimetre closer. In fact, it makes a communalist civil war within Israel a distinct possibility. Just as the military brutality practised by the Israeli regime will never subdue the Palestinian masses, the suicide bombers will never convince the mass of Israeli Jewish workers to support the cause of Palestinian national liberation.

The growth in support for Islamic fundamentalist groups has taken place as a result of the desperate conditions created by the Israeli regime’s brutal repression of the Palestinian people and the lack of a socialist alternative. The Islamic fundamentalist groups have put forward the most consistent rhetoric in opposition to the Israeli regime and US imperialism. However, their radical rhetoric does not hide the fact that their policies and methods are thoroughly reactionary. Experience in countries like Afghanistan has shown that if these groups seize power, they create a reactionary theocratic state in which social and economic conditions are of a semi-feudal character and democratic rights non-existent.

Preparing for war

THE APPROACH OF the Israeli ruling class and military elite has been to crush Palestinian opposition using military force. They have no other alternative at the moment. Even the initial stages of the Mitchell plan – for a cease-fire, an end to settlement expansion, and the possibility of the deployment of UN monitors on the ground in order to pave the way to new negotiations – never got off the ground. A return to the negotiating table would be a blow to their prestige. Given the failure of the Oslo agreement, nor would it get support from the Israeli Jewish population at this time. And the Bantustan-type Palestinian state on offer in previous negotiations will not be accepted by the Palestinian masses. But military force will not succeed either. It is these contradictions which explain the inexorable drift towards war.

In previous military conflicts the approach of the Israeli military elite has been to fight short wars in which the IDF has exploited its superior weaponry. A long drawn-out conflict would lead to growing discontent within the conscript army and the wider Israeli Jewish population. An indication of this has been a heightened debate in Israel on creating professional army battalions to be used as the cutting edge of the IDF. Publicly, the reason given for this is the economic cost of having sections of the workforce continually in army service. The more farsighted representatives of the ruling class, however, realise the potential for demoralisation and questioning in the ranks of a conscript army.

The Israeli regime has been widening the front across which it attacks and is increasing the level of military reprisals. It is testing out the Palestinian capabilities and training its own forces in combat conditions for the possibility of a later full-scale reoccupation of PA lands. An attack like this could be linked to pre-emptive air strikes against countries like Iraq and Syria, which the Israeli regime regards as a military threat and focus for opposition in the Middle East.

The Israeli military elite has the illusion that an invasion would involve the complete destruction of the infrastructure of the PA, arms caches, the decapitation of the present Palestinian leadership and its replacement with more pliant leaders, with a cowed Palestinian population who would accept what was on offer. This would be a unilateral separation in which the Israeli regime would dictate the borders of a dismembered Palestinian state. The Israeli regime would probably give up certain settlements which they regarded as militarily indefensible. An indication of the preparation for this was a recent meeting, reported in the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz, between Shin Bet (Israeli security services) and rabbis from the settlements to discuss precisely this issue.

This is the road to a potential bloodbath in the Middle East. Ground forces would have to be committed to find and destroy the leadership of Hamas cells and the Tanzeem, as well as the arms caches. The main urban centres would have to be under the control of ground forces to control the Palestinian population while separation was being implemented. IDF forces would be quickly pinned down in the narrow streets of PA towns and refugee camps, facing Tanzeem, Palestinian security services and Hamas fighters, as well as an enraged and hostile population.

A full-scale invasion would light a fire amongst the Israeli Palestinians who would stream onto the streets in protest. This already happened at the beginning of the second intifada. Under the conditions that would exist arch-reactionary settler groups could begin attacks on Israeli Palestinian communities. In a shadow of future horrific developments, at the beginning of August, 13 Israeli Jewish vigilante settlers set up a barricade on a road used by Palestinian taxis, stopped one and shot dead the three Palestinians inside. Apparently, following the attack, the leader of this group said ‘we are doing what Sharon promised but failed to do – if he won’t get rid of the Muslim filth, then we will’. Such attacks would be responded to by Israeli Palestinians and would start a cycle of violence which could result in the expulsion of the majority of the one million Israeli Palestinians that presently reside in the state.

The Israeli ruling class has been held back by US imperialism’s pressure not to take such precipitate action for fear of the consequences of massive instability in the Middle East. Now, as Bush strives to create a new Gulf war-style ‘coalition against terror’, with support from Arab regimes, the Israeli government has come under pressure to re-open negotiations with Arafat. (In the immediate aftermath of the US events, Sharon referred to Arafat as ‘our own bin Laden’.) Nevertheless, the situation could still easily spiral out of the control of US imperialism. A further series of suicide bomb atrocities could see the Israeli regime step up its military incursions and possibly, launch an invasion.

The only alternative

THE ISRAELI JEWISH population in the days following Bush’s announcement of an all-out war against ‘terrorist groups’ and ‘rogue states’ felt more secure and less isolated than in previous months. A similar mood developed in the initial days of Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf war. But this evaporated into thin air after Scud missiles began to land on Israel’s main towns and cities. Immediately following suicide bomb attacks, many Israeli Jews demand that severe military action be taken against the Palestinians. However, this is a knee-jerk response to atrocities. Behind this there is an understanding that military solutions will not work. If the Israeli Jewish working class feels that its existence is threatened then the class divisions will be sealed temporarily and more reactionary elements in the population could come to the fore. In a longer conflict resulting from a full-scale invasion, however, discontent and a questioning of the sacrifice of conscript soldiers for no discernible gain would begin to resurface.

The Western press concentrated on some small demonstrations of Palestinians who celebrated the bombings in New York. This was before the scale of destruction became known. The prevailing mood amongst Palestinians was one of opposition to the loss of innocent life. In the words of the sister of a Palestinian woman killed by a missile fired at a Fatah leader from a US-supplied IDF helicopter: ‘I cried. I thought, what crime have these people committed? They are men, women and children… They aren’t guilty of anything’. While opposing the loss of innocent life, the majority of Palestinians would also point to the policies of US imperialism in supporting their proxy ally, Israel, the cause of the deaths of thousands of Palestinians over the last five decades.

The pronouncements of the Bush administration following the US events have filled the majority of Palestinians with deep fear and foreboding for the future, and understandably so. The prospects are grim for the Middle East. They flow from the results of the policies of capitalism and imperialism in the region. Nonetheless, there are important layers of workers and youth looking for an alternative to brutal military repression, on the one side, and reactionary religious sectarianism, on the other, precisely because of the seriousness of the situation. The task of socialists in the region is to find their way to these people in preparation for more favourable conditions where the anger against corruption, inequality and bloodshed can be channelled in a socialist direction.

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September 2001