Israel/Palestine: After assassination, Middle East on the brink

The assassination of Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the brutal response by the Israeli army brought the Middle East to the brink of war.

A western source commented: "The situation has never been worse" (The Independent, London, 24 October). The situation threatened to spiral out of control for a few days. This would have had disastrous consequences for US imperialism’s attempt to contain the conflict and move to new negotiations between the Israeli government and Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA). It would have plunged the area into a bloody conflict in which the main casualties would have been the working class and poor of Palestine, Israel and even the other Arab countries in the Middle East.

Arafat – Israel’s own ’bin Laden’

Following the September 11 atrocities in the US, Israeli prime minister Sharon portrayed Israel as being in the same situation as the US with Arafat as the country’s own ‘bin Laden’. He believed that the Israeli ruling class’s position had been strengthened in its struggle to crush the second Palestinian intifada.

However, bin Laden issued a searing condemnation of US imperialism, the Israeli regime and the Arab elites and their complicity in the brutal oppression of the Palestinian masses in his video circulated at the start of the war in Afghanistan. This crystallised the mood amongst the population in the Arab and Muslim world of hatred towards imperialist domination of their countries – epitomised by the plight of the Palestinians. Not only here but across the world sympathy for the Palestinians’ struggle for genuine statehood became widespread and entered popular consciousness. US imperialism was forced to take these moods into account. In order to maintain Arab and Muslim regimes’ support for the ‘coalition’ and war against bin Laden and the Taleban, Bush came out more clearly in support of a Palestinian state and attempted to force the resumption of negotiations. Sharon was forced to reconsider and the Israeli regime’s position was weakened.

Sharon used Ze’evi’s assassination to revive his previous position of portraying the PA as a ‘terrorist entity’ and demanding that Arafat hand over all those responsible for Ze’evi’s assassination. However, the Israeli regime’s policy of assassinations of Palestinian leaders and its brutal reaction to Ze’evi’s killing represents a policy of state ‘terrorism’. Six out of the eight main Palestinian cities were surrounded and sealed off to the outside world. In many cases the Israeli Defence Forces invaded towns setting up new military outposts. In the first days of what IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz correctly called "the most widescale ground operation undertaken to date against the Palestinian Authority" (Ha’aretz, Israel, 22 October), twenty-five Palestinians were killed, including four women and a child of ten. A curfew was announced leading to food shortages as Palestinians found it impossible to go about their ‘normal’ lives. Water supplies and electricity were cut as IDF tanks knocked over electricity poles and cracked water pipes. Tanks, armoured personnel carriers and mortars were used on a widespread basis. Covert Israeli security forces carried out missions to abduct and assassinate (through sniper fire and car bombs) Palestinians it suspects of ‘terrorism’.

Responding to huge US pressure, Arafat condemned the assassination and arrested 20 PFLP members. In stark contrast, most ordinary Palestinians felt that Ze’evi had met an end he justly deserved. He was one of the most reactionary politicians in the Israeli cabinet, referring to Palestinians as ‘cancer’ and ‘lice’ and demanding their transfer to other Arab countries. Nevertheless, the CWI believes that the tactic of assassinations of even reactionary Israeli politicians does not advance the struggle for Palestinian national liberation. A similarly reactionary politician will fill Ze’evi’s position. The CWI believes that such actions are no replacement for a mass struggle of the Palestinian masses to overthrow capitalism in the region (See ‘The False Methods of Terrorism’ by Peter Taaffe [29 September 2001] and ‘Why Marxism Opposes Terrorism’ by Peter Hadden [15 September 2001] on the CWI website) .

Following the incursion, IDF spokespersons said they had no intention of maintaining their reoccupation indefinitely but gave no time limit for the operation. Israeli commentators have pointed out that the same commitment was given in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, ostensibly to deal with the threat of cross-border raids on the state’s northern frontier. It took nineteen years for Israel to withdraw. Such analogies must have sent a collective shudder down the spines of Bush’s Middle East advisers. However, a decades-long occupation is not on the agenda since the world situation is entirely different. But this does not mean that peace is about to be declared. In fact war at a certain stage is rooted in the situation. In response to further attacks, the Israeli regime could make repeated incursions into Palestinian territory in much the same way as the US is conducting its war in Afghanistan.

Brutal response

Ze’evi was the first member of the Israeli cabinet to be assassinated by a Palestinian group acting inside the borders of the state in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This explains the brutal military response. The Sharon government and wide sections of the military establishment regard it as the most open and direct challenge to their power and prestige yet in the region. The response even reflects the fears many corrupt Israeli politicians have for their personal security – ‘If it can happen to Ze’evi, it could happen to us’ must have been the first thought that flashed through their minds. These politicians live in conditions far removed from the violence and bloodshed found at the second intifada’s flashpoints. They also enjoy economic wealth and power which is a world removed from the poverty faced by the majority of Israeli workers and youth. That is the way they want it to continue. Their anger – and fear – at the killing of Ze’evi is undoubtedly far greater than when tens of ordinary Israeli Jews have died as a result of suicide bombings at the Jerusalem Sbarro pizza restaurant and the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium disco earlier this year.

In contrast, the response of some ordinary Israeli Jews to Ze’evi’s killing was more muted. In the cold light of day, they understood that the IDF assassination of the PFLP leader, Abu Mustafa, (alongside many other prominent Palestinians) would lead to reprisals. This mood was partially offset by a government-inspired mass media campaign to mourn Ze’evi’s death and further exacerbate security fears of ordinary Israeli Jews. Ha’aretz reported: "…the Interior Ministry, which oversees issuance of gun licenses to Israeli civilians, was to markedly ease its licensing criteria, making it much easier for Israelis to legally buy and carry firearms" (22 October). Reactionary parties and organisations have also attempted to whip up the mood following Ze’evi’s assassination and held a demonstration of thousands in Jerusalem under the slogan "Remove Arafat. Fight terror". The increased confidence of reactionary settlers to act with impunity was shown two days later when six Palestinians were injured in a drive-by shooting carried out by an Israeli Jewish vigilante group on the West Bank.

Echoing George Bush’s statements following the September 11 atrocities, Sharon remarked of Ze’evi’s assassination: "Nothing will ever be the same again". But using the same rhetoric does not indicate a similar strategy for the Middle East. Bush’s senior advisers demanded IDF withdrawal from areas of the PA they had occupied. Israeli government officials tersely replied: "We are sticking to our positions. We will only leave when we have accomplished the goals of the operation…we respect the United States, but we are acting as any normal county would act. We are not apologising and not bowing our heads" (Ha’aretz, Israel, 23 October). The Sharon government has lost no time in pointing out the hypocrisy of the US which supports the destruction of the Taleban and the al-Qa’ida network and yet opposes the Israeli regime taking action against its own ‘terrorists’. Sharon demanded that all ‘terrorist’ organisations are outlawed and those responsible for the assassination are handed over to Israeli security officials. In a similar vein, the Israeli security cabinet set a deadline of one week for these demands to be fulfilled or else in the words of one of its spokespersons, Arafat "would be treated in the way in which the US treats the Taleban" (The Times, London, 19 October).

And yet not two days before, Sharon agreed in principle to the idea of a Palestinian state and the restart of negotiations, although under strict conditions! Increasingly, over the last few months, Sharon’s policy has zigzagged between outright brutal repression and – as a result of huge US pressure – occasional comments about a Palestinian state and new negotiations.


One of the main reasons for this are the conflicting pressures which are impacting on Sharon’s cabinet. On the one side there is massive US pressure to at least contain the conflict with the outward appearance of a move to new negotiations for a final settlement for Palestine. This is a position which sections of the Labour Party led by Peres publicly aspires to and once again demonstrates the role this party has played as the historical representative of US imperialism and the Israeli ruling class’s interests in Israel. On the other, Sharon faces mounting pressure from the reactionary parties inside Israel. They have increasingly exposed the prime minister’s contradictory position of promising to be hard line on security issues but repeatedly acceding to US pressure. With increasing tension in the region, these pressures may force Israel to go to war against the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, the ‘national unity’ government which Sharon leads is anything but united in terms of the approach outlined by its different representatives.

Following Ze’evi’s assassination Sharon claimed that an all-out war against the PA was possible and ‘the Arafat era is over’. But when foreign minister Peres was interviewed at the same time during a visit to the US, he commented: "We are not conducting a personal war against Arafat…We don’t want the downfall of the Palestinian Authority, we would like to see them being successful, enjoying freedom and prosperity (sic)" (Ha’aretz, Israel, 22 October). On the same day, a Ha’aretz editorial summarised the conflicting pressures acting on Sharon government: "The government is torn between those who want to evict Arafat and topple the PA and those who see Arafat as the preferred partner for negotiation, despite everything".

Even the ‘hawks’ in the Israeli cabinet have different approaches. There are those, probably supported by sections of the IDF generals, who believe that only brutal military pressure linked to a threat to overthrow the PA, will force Arafat back to the negotiating table, cowed and prepared to make even more concessions. Sharon is preparing for this eventuality. During the recent occupation he put forward a plan for a ‘state’ for the Palestinians which makes a complete mockery of their national rights. His plan involves a long-term interim agreement with no timetable and a postponement of any agreement on Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee question. A Palestinian state would be declared before any agreement on disputed issues and such an entity would be demilitarised, with Israeli control its airspace and its borders with Jordan and Egypt.

Such a plan would be a completely rejected by the Palestinian masses and represents a massive retreat on the little that was on offer during the Oslo ‘peace process’. If an agreement was made on this basis it could see Arafat removed or completely isolated. Some more reactionary elements in the military and political elite welcome this and even the coming to power of a Palestinian regime dominated by Hamas, which according to them would be a better scenario since, "(they) would not be greeted with red carpets in foreign capitals, as Arafat is" (International Herald Tribune, 23 October). Given Hamas’s stated position of the destruction of the state of Israel, this would be a recipe for a war between Israel and the Palestinians and would be used as such by the more reactionary sections of the Israeli ruling class and military elite.

Wars and warlike situations have their own momentum, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fact that conflict is on the agenda demonstrates that imperialism, the Israeli capitalist class and the Arafat regime have partially lost control of the situation by their inability to answer the fundamental problems of the Palestinian masses through the conduct of politics by ‘normal means’. Once again events have sharply demonstrated that capitalism is incapable of solving the national question in the Middle East. Under these circumstances the stakes for the Israeli ruling class and PA are extremely high. Their power and prestige are under threat and because of the intense mood of the Palestinians, for an end to occupation and repression and for genuine national liberation. Rather than subduing frictions and tensions, conflict brings them to the surface with great force. The CWI has raised the possibility of a wider conflict and war for over a year now. Whether it will develop sooner or later is open to question. The situation that exists does not preclude a return to negotiations and even the possibility of some paper agreement being worked out. But the conflict will return at a more intense level over a much shorter period of time than for example occurred following the signing of the Oslo accords in 1994. What is clear is that there has been a general ratchetting up of tension in the region with any flare-up of violence threatening to spill over into a wider conflagration, as the response to the Ze’evi assassination showed. It is for this reason that the underlying frictions have to be understood and not just their outward appearance.

For example there was little Palestinian opposition initially to the Israeli invasion inside the PA. This partly demonstrates a certain tiredness amongst layers of the Palestinian masses who have concluded that a year of their sacrifice has led to no visible progress towards an independent Palestinian state and has seen a catastrophic worsening of social and economic conditions and dramatic increases in IDF and PA repression. It also flows from the demobilisation of mass action (which characterised the beginning of the uprising) by local Palestinian leaders. Suicide bombings and armed actions by small groups (which are part of Hamas and the PFLP) against the IDF and Israeli targets have replaced mass protest. Initially at least, the PA leadership used the recent favourable coverage by the international media of Arafat’s visit to Europe and the hope of diplomatic pressure to force an Israeli withdrawal, to hold back local Palestinian retaliation to this latest IDF invasion.

Peace demo

However, even all these factors will not be enough to halt a mass or semi-mass opposition developing to the IDF incursions, particularly if they last for more than a few days. The fear and anger produced by the prospect of the return of the hated occupation will drive the masses forward into action once again. If this is blocked from above by the PA leadership or local Tanzeem and Hamas groups, protest could develop in the form of clashes within the PA area and splits amongst those parties and groups which have led the armed resistance to the IDF at local level. A hint of the development of mass opposition to the reoccupation was shown by a demonstration of at least six thousand Palestinians in Bethlehem held five days after the original incursions, which forced aside IDF soldiers and tanks as it approached a newly set up Israeli army outpost. Although this demonstration was organised by local churches as a peace protest it provided an arena for the mass of Palestinians to express their opposition to the reoccupation and to return to the scene of struggle once again.

If US imperialism forces an IDF withdrawal with just the promise of action against ‘terrorists’ by Arafat or the temporary closure of offices of organisations like the PFLP, Hamas or Islamic Jihad then this will be seen as a setback for Sharon and the military elite’s prestige. This is why an IDF pull-out has been delayed for a short time and accompanied by more brutal military action just outside Ramallah, one of the occupied towns. Sharon and the military chiefs have therefore ‘saved face’ as they see it. The retreat by the IDF will increase the sometimes public divisions between Sharon on the one side and sections of the IDF generals and the reactionary parties in the coalition on the other who will see these concessions as an unacceptable compromise. This friction will impact on Sharon’s day-to-day decision making. It is therefore likely that further attacks on Israel will lead to repeated and longer lasting incursions into the PA. This will escalate tension further.

If Arafat does implement a general crackdown under Israeli government pressure then opposition to his continued rule will appear rapidly and in a sharp form involving street protests and clashes between ordinary Palestinians and his security forces.

The conflicting pressures are already beginning to tear apart the ‘national unity’ government. Ze’evi’s party – Yisrael Beteinu – had already decided to pull out of the coalition before the assassination of its leader. The Labour Party is now discussing whether to withdraw. This is not on the basis of a principled opposition to the occupation but because the majority of the Labour Party elite is attempting to enhance its position within the coalition and within the political elite as a whole. Shimon Peres has opposed this but purely for personal reasons. He is only a caretaker leader of the party and if general elections were held he would in all likelihood lose his cabinet position. If the Labour Party has to fulfil its threat and leave the coalition then Sharon will attempt to form a narrow right-wing coalition government which will further polarise the situation.

A wider conflict in Israel and Palestine would probably bring all the simmering discontent amongst the Arab masses to the surface. This would put huge pressure on a number of the ruling corrupt Arab elites and could, as a serious possibility, lead to the overthrow of King Fahd in Saudi Arabia, Abdullah in Jordan and even President Mubarak in Egypt if they continue to ally themselves with US imperialism. It is clear that senior advisers to Bush have begun to consider a war and the overthrow of corrupt Arab leaders as serious possibilities. Such a prospect fills them with horror and therefore US imperialism will do its utmost to attempt to prevent such an eventuality. However, because of the powerful forces that have been unleashed in the region it could prove impossible to do so.

Saudi Arabia saw national income levels in 1994 at a third of the levels they were eleven years earlier. They have undoubtedly fallen further. The ruling House of Saud, widely known for its corruption and flagrant display of huge wealth, is identified with the west and US imperialism. Islamic fundamentalist groups have grown rapidly as a result of this and the disastrous economic conditions. The Kingdom will face a contest for who will replace the present ageing monarch. Under these conditions, sections of dissidents within the royal family could unite with hostile elements in the army and security forces with the backing of Islamic fundamentalists to bring to power a new regime implacably opposed to US imperialism.

Newly installed King Abdullah of Jordan, reliant for his survival on US economic aid to the country, rules over a population which is over 60% Palestinian. Continued support for the US intervention in Afghanistan and his refusal to take any real action to oppose the Israeli regime’s continued brutal oppression of the Palestinian masses, combined with further economic collapse, can quickly lead to mass protests against Abdullah and his regime.

Mubarak presides over a situation where Egypt has debts of $30 billion to the west and the population is increasing by over 1 million each year. There is no popular support for his regime and Mubarak relies on the army to maintain power. However, infiltration of Islamic fundamentalist groups into all levels of the army is at an all time high. As in other Arab countries, the continued US war in Afghanistan could spark widespread public protests which could impel sections of the military to act to remove Mubarak.

Sombre prospects

Despite the sombre prospects for the region, there is a desperate search for an alternative by workers and youth on both sides of the national divide as they are repeatedly driven to the brink of open conflict. In Israel, although an opinion poll published during the reoccupation showed 38% in favour of declaring war on the Palestinian Authority, the same percentage were in favour of accelerating the peace process. In the Palestinian Authority, an opinion poll published a couple of weeks ago showed 20% support for Hamas (a figure which is probably larger by now) and 27% for Fatah – the pro-Arafat organisation within the PLO. This means the majority of those interviewed supported none of the political alternatives in the PA and shows the huge vacuum that exists. Even the demonstration in Bethlehem in the teeth of occupation of the IDF shows a basis does exist for developing the mass movement of Palestinians against national oppression in the region.

It is to these layers that socialists must orientate in order to speed up the development of an independent working class solution to regional conflict. The only way to fulfil the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a genuine independent state and achieve peace and stability in the region is through the struggle to overthrow Israeli capitalism and the corrupt Arab regimes. This requires the building of an independent movement of the working class and poor peasantry committed to struggling for a socialist Middle Eas

The CWI fights for:

  • The immediate withdrawal of the Israeli army from all areas of the Occupied Territories.
  • An end to the blockade of Palestinian towns and villages.
  • For a mass struggle of the Palestinians under their democratic control to fight for genuine national and social liberation.
  • For 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. A struggle of the Israeli working class to overthrow capitalism.
  • For a socialist Palestine alongside a socialist Israel as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East with guaranteed democratic rights for all national minorities.

CWI statement

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October 2001