Israel/Palestine: The roots of the present escalation

Despite US imperialism’s efforts to at least partly defuse the combustible situation in the region, including token declarations by Bush about support for a Palestinian state, Powell’s speech at the UN security council and special envoy General Zinni’s urgent mission to the Middle East, the preconditions for any kind of lasting settlement on the ground were simply not there. The hardened nationalist attitudes on both sides of the national divide, the deteriorating social conditions (with an economic catastrophe in the PA) and disillusionment with negotiations and paper agreements provided little room for new peace plans and political arrangements.

As we have argued before, The continuous decline in the living standards of the Palestinian masses and the continued presence of Israeli checkpoints, closures and growing settlements in the Oslo period caused the accumulation of anger and frustration which eventually erupted in the form of the second Intifada. Clearly, after more than a year of intensified Israeli repression and the bankruptcy of the Oslo accords, the starved, encircled and oppressed Palestinian masses could not find any promise of positive change coming out of negotiations between Arafat’s clique and Sharon’s government.

With every new wave of Israeli invasions and assassinations, Arafat’s lobbying tours around the world seem more pathetic to most Palestinians, completely detached from the horrendous conditions and despair facing ordinary people in the west bank and Gaza. The utter submission of official PA forces during the deepest invasion so far, following Israeli minister Ze’evi’s Assassination in October, and the refusal of the PA "leadership" to lead any resistance to the occupation, have shown enraged Palestinians that Islamic militants, the PFLP and local Tanzeem militias are the only ones "doing something". The result is majority, passive support for this armed struggle, including suicide bombings aimed at civilians.

The Peres variety of "diplomacy at all costs" is also completely bankrupt in Israel. There is very little hope in a revival of Oslo, despite the fears of a wider war and the non-existent security in the streets.

The assassination of Hamas militant Abu-Hanoud, just as US General Zinni’s was starting his visit, can be seen as a provocation by Sharon’s government: they knew what kind of response they could expect. And yet on November 29, two days before the Jerusalem suicide bombings, Sharon actually declared "I have found the solution to the problem of terrorism".

Embarrassing failure for US diplomacy

When the US administration sent it’s special envoy to try and achieve a ceasefire first and then renewed negotiations, it knew it wasn’t going to be simple. But Bush and Powell didn’t expect this kind of massive wave of terrorist attacks while Zinni was in the region and Sharon in Washington. US Imperialism regards these mass killings as an open challenge to its policies and involvement in the conflict. They served as an unwelcome reminder that despite the defeat inflicted on the Taliban, the "war against terrorism" has certainly not been won on a global scale. This, together with the declining importance of the "coalition against terror" and the ascendancy of the hawks in the American administration after the successes in Afghanistan, accounts for the green light given to a harsh Israeli response.

This doesn’t mean they are providing the Israeli government with a blank check to topple the PA and remove Arafat, or that they would approve of high numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties, but everything else seems to be "fair game".

Pentagon representative Richard Pearle went as far as asking European leaders to stop all economic aid, as well as political support, to the Palestinian Authority (London "Sunday Telegraph", 9 December).

From the Bush-Sharon meeting, with Rice and Powell present, it was reported that Sharon was asked to guarantee that Arafat would not be physically harmed. This red line was not drawn out of concern for the chairman’s well being, but because of the conflagrations that could result among the Arab masses, which might lead to Arab regimes losing control. Sharon was also instructed to prevent a war involving other Arab nations which would greatly complicate the US "war against terror" and its bombing campaign in Afghanistan.

Israelis’ mixed consciousness and the socialist alternative

With every new wave of deadly suicide bombings, the response seems to shift from one of shock to frustrated anger and despair. But the response also differs between layers in Israeli society. University Students are joylessly waiting for the brown letters calling them to reserve duty to arrive. Youth are afraid to go out to cafes in the center of Jerusalem, and the area has been virtually deserted over the last few days, aside from extreme rightwing demonstrators and the more numerous policemen.

There is a widespread perception that a wider war is on the agenda. People who have the means are thinking of leaving the country, and many others say that lack of money is the only thing keeping them here.

To give just a few indications as to the severity of the recession, tourism has declined by 60-70%, construction by 50% and around 155,000 jobs have been lost since the year began. Prices have begun to drop because of falling demand, and yet a public sector strike wave over pay, conditions and against privatisation has only recently ended with some positive achievements, despite the union bureaucracy’s negative role in ending disputes prematurely and signing rotten deals behind workers’ backs.

The finance ministry has found the day after the Haifa bus bombing a perfect timing (akin to Blair’s spin doctor after September 11) to declare its’ previous projected growth rate of 4% for 2002 unattainable, setting the new estimate at 1-2% (probably still optimistic). The resulting budget cut, put at 3-5 billion Shekels at the time, has since then been revised upwards to 6.15 billion (almost 1 billion Pounds Sterling or 2.5% of GDP). A 3% cut is suggested in the education, health and welfare ministries, and other proposed cuts will be in benefits for unemployed, disabled people and the elderly.

A week later the National Insurance Institute released its annual Poverty Report for 2000 (a year that saw 6% growth as a result of the short-lived High Tech boom). The report shows 1,160,000 Israelis live in poverty – a 30,000 increase on the previous report. The figure for child poverty stands at 540,000 (one in four children), a 15,000 increase. This calls the bluff of growth reducing gaps and trickling down to the whole population. Sources in the NII said the figure for people in poverty today probably stands around 1,500,000 – a 30% increase over a year. The deepening recession adds economic insecurity to physical insecurity, and the combination breeds resignation and kills any hopes for a better future.

As most people do not believe a diplomatic solution is possible, and as the politicians and media bolster their security fears, claiming that the Palestinians would not settle for anything less than driving Israelis to the sea, some are pushed to believe more military force needs to be exercised. But this is also driven by emotions and an instinctive wish for revenge – very few believe military solutions, as well as the seemingly inevitable war, will resolve any of the root problems and bring lasting security. The annual Rabin memorial rally held in early November attracted 80-100,000 people (a higher turnout than last year’s and much more than expected) looking for some way out of the developing catastrophe. Most people present still held illusions in diplomacy and a renewed Oslo process, but our leaflets and arguments were well received, especially among younger people.

A small minority, disillusioned with both diplomatic and military solutions but not ready to sit back and watch the region go up in flames, is open to socialist ideas, analysis and program. Through this difficult week Maavak Sotzialisti has had new people coming to meetings and others calling or writing e-mails asking to join or expressing interest.

Our program, of no trust in the ruling class and their politicians, and the need to fight back against workers and youth being forced to pay for recession and war, eventually striving to replace rotten Israeli capitalism with a socialist society, offers no illusions. But it shows the only possible way out of the poverty, wars and terror rampant under the current system. We also make no concessions to Israeli nationalism, calling for an immediate withdrawal of the IDF from all occupied territories, and a parallel struggle of the Palestinian masses, led by workers and youth, against their double oppression by Israeli capitalism and the corrupt Arafat clique. Palestinians should form democratic, grassroots committees to control their fight for national and social liberation, paving the way for an independent, socialist Palestine.

The two struggles on both sides of the national divide should then link up for the creation of a democratic, voluntary socialist federation of the Middle East, including other neighboring countries where rotten, semi-feudal Arab regimes should be overthrown by the Arab masses. A socialist federation could transform living standards and eradicate poverty within a relatively short period, and resolve the most difficult issues of the conflict, such as the settlements and refugees – which prove to be intractable under capitalism and imperialism – on the basis of the common interests of workers and ordinary people across the region.

What next?

The main change in the strategy and tactics of the Israeli ruling class is the willingness to write off Arafat and the current PA leadership as the exclusive partner/rival. This did not happen overnight after the last terrorist wave, but has developed over the last weeks and months, and given a more outspoken and concrete expression in recent government resolutions, declarations by Sharon and military attacks on symbols of the PA and Arafat’s personal prestige.

The more ’liberal’ wing of the ruling class, including Peres and some other Labour Party ministers, still see Arafat as the only partner and warn of Hamas taking power if Arafat is removed. But they are outnumbered by other voices and isolated because of their failure to provide any viable alternative. Despite Labour Party ministers’ pathetic walkout at the government meeting which voted on these anti-PA resolutions, Peres and the other leaders are fearful of the political desert awaiting their crumbling, conflict ridden party in opposition. Labour has no differences with the government’s hated economic policies, and this is another reason why polls show their own voters are deserting. However, if Sharon leads a policy of direct confrontation with the PA and Arafat, and especially if the IDF reoccupies the centers of Palestinian towns, suffering significant casualties from mass resistance and inflicting massive civilian casualties, the Labour party will probably leave the government.

The extreme rightwing feels strengthened by its success in moving the resolution declaring the PA "a terror sponsoring entity". Other bodies (Force 17, Arafat’s personal guard; Fatah, the major component in the PLO; and the Palestinian police) were declared "terrorist organizations". The extreme rightwing National Union party, which initiated these resolutions, will now step up its campaign for the immediate removal of Arafat and the toppling of the PA, supported by Netanyahu and several extra-parliamentary (mostly settlers’) organisations. Bright banners saying "Drive out Arafat, bring back hope" have been spread in central locations such as the entrance to Jerusalem. If these policies are not adopted, the party will threaten to leave the coalition and then possibly carry out the threat. The Judea, Samaria and Gaza Council, the settlers umbrella political organisation, now demands the reoccupation of all Palestinian areas.

Between the two camps are those who wish to put massive military pressure on the PA. If Arafat falls, they reason, we can deal with Hamas and other armed groups using purely military methods, not bothering with diplomacy. If he doesn’t, at least we’ll get the most out of him regarding the repression of the Islamic opposition and other militants. This seems to be Sharon’s own approach.

In a recent statement Sharon claimed "If Arafat is driven out, he would not be replaced by Hamas. There are more pragmatic leaders that can take his place and we could negotiate with them". Nevertheless, he added, "even if Hamas does take power, an open Hamas regime will be better than a masked one".

Turkish Prime Minister Echevit insisted, despite formal Israeli denials, that on a phone call with Sharon made last Tuesday (4 December), his Israeli colleague had freely stated that "Israel wants to get rid of Chairman Arafat" (Reuters, 7 December).

Feeling they have scored a victory on the world public opinion front (taking into account European and even some Arab leaders joining the Americans and putting pressure to bear on Arafat), Sharon and his government are set to step up military pressure in the coming period. They see the arrests made by the Palestinian authority as completely inadequate, and their stand is supported by the attitude of US Imperialism.

The resolution by the Israeli cabinet, after the attack on a bus near the ultra-orthodox settlement of Emmanuel killed ten Israelis, declaring that "Arafat is irrelevant", should also be seen in this light – not as a complete severing of contact with Arafat and the PA but as an increase of pressure. This resolution also prompted comments by both US and European Imperialism saying they still see Arafat as the very relevant and legitimate leader of the Palestinians, and showed Sharon that the green light he has received for harsh policies has certain limits. In practice, "security cooperation" between Israeli and PA officials continues, and contact is also kept on the political level.

However, Sharon clearly has no strategy for a political resolution of the conflict, and his governments’ diplomacy is limited to "scoring points" in world (read western) public opinion, which provides room for more military repression directed to crush the Intifada and force the Palestinians to accept an even more humiliating deal.. If, hypothetically speaking, the Palestinians "stopped all terrorist activities" (meaning, according to Sharon, every kind of resistance to the occupation), they could expect very little in return.

Some commanders of security agencies subordinate to Arafat confided to their Israeli counterparts that they would be willing to carry the fight against Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the end if only Arafat gave explicit orders to do so. But at the same time, each of these commanders is doing his best to unload the burden of the arrests being carried out to another security agency or regional commander, trying to avoid paying the political price of measures which are very unpopular in the Palestinian street.

If Arafat does lead a sweeping offensive against the opposition groups, in the circumstances of 20-30% Palestinian support for his Fatah organisation and a practical majority for the mass Islamic and smaller "left" groups, as well as 70-80% support for continued armed actions (including those aimed at Israeli civilians), a civil war will probably result. In such a struggle, while some of Arafat’s subordinates stand to gain, the Chairman might well lose his office, if not his life.

An indication of these possibilities can be found in the response to the arrests already made (or attempted). In Gaza thousands mobilised by Hamas demonstrated against their leader, sheikh Yasin, being placed under house arrest by the PA, and one person was killed by the Palestinian police fire. Eventually a compromise was achieved between Hamas leaders and the PA on this issue. In Bethlehem Fatah activists drove away, threatening to use their weapons, officers of the Palestinian security apparatuses coming to arrest an El Manar (Hizbollah’s TV channel) reporter. When a local Fatah militant was arrested, other militants threatened to fire on Gilo, the neighboring settlement, within two hours if he is not released, and actually carried their threat. In another area of the West Bank, the local governor (appointed by the PA) ordered the release of Hamas prisoners arrested that same day, since "he could not guarantee their safety in the face of Israeli attacks".

Arafat, well aware of his sensitive position between internal and external pressures, will probably try to weather this storm without a full confrontation with the opposition. His latest TV address to the Palestinian people on December 16, calling for the halting of the armed struggle against Israeli civilians and a unilateral Palestinian ceasefire, was delivered after IDF units invaded several Palestinian areas, killed 16 Palestinians and apprehended tens of suspects over the weekend. Understandably, most Palestinians did not receive it very well. Polls show the majority of Palestinians reject the ceasefire, and all the main opposition groups – Hamas, Jihad, PFLP and DFLP – have openly refused to enforce it.

If this means the Israeli government, dissatisfied with the results he delivers, will further limit his freedom of movement and put his personal security, either directly or indirectly, under threat, Arafat might go back to exile. He has already checked options for political asylum in Egypt and Tunisia (Egypt refused, Tunisia agreed).

Considering the way diplomatic initiatives and overtures have been used up since the beginning of the second Intifada, each initiative or ceasefire lasting a shorter time than the previous one and then evaporating, there is very limited room for a new diplomatic settlement or even a short ceasefire. General Zinni has left the troubled Middle East on the 13 th, his mission proving to be a resounding failure. The underlying trend, given the lack of a mass class alternative to the current nightmare and the deteriorating living conditions for the masses of the region, is for continued escalation and a widening of the conflict, with terrible consequences. The only hope for breaking the vicious circle of war, poverty and oppression perpetuated by capitalism and imperialism lies in the Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab workers and masses adopting the ideas, methods and program of revolutionary socialism. Class unity in the face of the oppressors and exploiters. A class struggle to overthrow the rotten capitalist regimes in Israel, Palestine and the whole Middle East and to replace them with socialist states joining together to form a democratic, socialist federation. This is what the small forces of the CWI in Israel stand for, and we will continue the urgent task of spreading these ideas and methods to wider layers of workers and youth.

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December 2001