Israel/Palestine: The bloody spiral

"There will be funerals. Caskets will come out of here even the commanders say that. What can I tell you, it’s not that Golani (a battle hardened infantry division) are afraid to die, surely we’re not afraid to take fire. But dying for nothing, even Golani don’t like that", sergeant Shay told Yediot reporter Ron Leshem just before the IDF raids on the Balata and Jenin refugee camps, mazes of overcrowded alleys and symbols of Palestinian resistance, began on Wednesday, February 27th.

"Dying for 20 Kalashnikovs we might, with difficulty, manage to collect is dying for nothing. Dying in order to apprehend senior wanted figures? When the first tank switches the starter, they’ll all be gone. Dying demolishing houses? For every house that falls here, Israel will get three suicide bombings. Dying for deterrence? Get serious. One day when we break in, the surprise of the century will await us here. Soldiers will be sent flying by charges, tanks hit by missiles, a whole company will go like that. It will happen soon. If not this time, next time. The Arabs are not suckers. We arrogantly break in with unprotected jeeps; some of us weren’t given ceramic vests. They told us there are no allocations. Taking a chance until the first fuckup".

This unusual quote, coming from an active combat soldier and published in Israel’s widest selling daily, speaks for itself. Parts of the grim prophecy didn’t take long to come true. The politicians and generals may have tried to spin the raids as a success, sending a message to Palestinian fighters that there is no safe haven for them (at the cost of two IDF soldiers killed, one of them a fellow sergeant belonging to Shay’s force, and around 30 Palestinians, including children), but the reaction was swift and painful. A suicide bomber killed 10 Israeli citizens, including children and babies, coming out of a Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem on Saturday night.

Early on Sunday morning, a single Palestinian sniper hiding in a hill above an IDF checkpoint near Ramallah fired 26 single, accurate shots, one every 45 seconds, hitting 16 people and killing ten – six reserve soldiers one regular officer (all from the same platoon) and three settlers – before escaping unharmed. Also left wounded behind was the IDF prestige, repeatedly bruised and beaten by a growing number of successful, deadly guerrilla attacks by poorly armed, highly motivated Palestinians familiar with the terrain and the Israeli enemy’s Achilles’ heels.

Sharon’s government is clearly at a loss as to the way out of this mess.

Sharon himself and most of his cabinet do not believe in any political arrangements or negotiations before the Palestinian will to fight is crushed militarily, and this outcome will be achieved by steadily increasing the pressure on Palestinian fighting forces. In his own words: "The Palestinians must be dealt a heavy blow and we need to inflict heavy casualties on them, to make it clear that they will achieve nothing with terrorism. If they do not see clearly that they have been defeated, we will not be able to return to the necessary negotiations".

Some far right ministers have been even more outspoken in proposals for more bombing raids on the centres of Palestinian cities. Foreign minister Peres, however, Labour’s senior minister, has said in close sessions that the government’s current policy "leads to nowhere", warning that "the country is going towards its doom". But that does not mean that Labour will necessarily pull out of the government soon. A party discussion on the issue is due on Thursday March 7th, but though most of the party’s MK’s support the move, the ministers, afraid of the lonely, no-perks opposition, still cling to power. One or more parties may leave the coalition, but the lack of a viable alternative means Sharon is not likely to be unseated in the near future.

The dynamics of Palestinian struggle

The increasing military pressure by the IDF, though far from achieving its authors’ aims, is causing some serious changes in the balance of forces within Palestinian society. Arafat, grounded in his Ramallah bureau guarded by Israeli tanks, retains an almost purely symbolic leadership status. The arrest of those responsible for the assassination of the racist Minister Ze’evi, demanded by Sharon as condition for the lifting of the siege and carried out according to the prisoner/Chairman’s direct orders, only got him his Israeli masters permission to move freely within Ramallah. He is reduced to making festive declarations and appealing to "the international community" to intervene. Setting the tone are the different armed organizations independent of Arafat’s direct control, competing with each other for influence in the various regions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The ongoing raids on the buildings of the Palestinian Authority and its disappearing financial resources prevent it from performing the most basic services it used to provide, and in some cases from paying its own personnel. Inside and outside Arafat’s own Fatah movement, the Tanzeem militia, previously Fatah’s youth wing, is gaining prominence by giving a lead to the resistance that Arafat’s clique has been unable (or unwilling) to provide. Tanzeem’s rise is also an expression of the ascendancy of "the insiders", the home-grown fighters, prevailing over "the outsiders", or the Tunis Gang (meaning Arafat’s cronies brought into Palestine as a result of the Oslo accords), despised by most Palestinians as traitorous and corrupt profiteers out of touch with the people’s hardships.

Despite the public show of unity between all Palestinian groups fighting against the common oppressors, important debates are raging on between and within the organisations as to the strategy and tactics for the Intifada. One wing of Fatah, The Brigades of Al-Aqsa Martyrs, is adopting the Islamic movements’ methods of suicide missions inside Israel proper, while Tanzeem’s West Bank leader, Marwan Barghouti, calls for the struggle to be limited to fighting against the IDF and settlers, linked with a demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the ’67 border. None of these organisations are democratically accountable to the masses, but they all depend on popular (mostly passive) support, and the debates at the top are a distorted reflection of the contradictory trends in the mass movement.

Cracks in the Israeli consensus

The developments of the last few months, underscoring capitalism’s inability to resolve any of the problems facing Israeli workers and youth – a further decline of the sinking economy, the deteriorating state of personal security for ordinary Israelis, plummeting motivation among conscripts and reserve soldiers alike – have recently eroded the government’s seemingly impregnable popularity. Its approval rating, standing firm at around 70% for a long period, has gone down to 50%.

This still high figure should be seen in the context of a lack of any viable mass alternative. Support draining away from the government has gone both ways, with some layers outflanking it from the right, demanding more brutal repression and harsher military solutions, such as the reoccupation of the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip and/or "Transfer", the forceful expulsion of Palestinians to other Arab countries.

The other side of the coin is the reappearance of the liberal left, around the Peace Now extra-parliamentary movement and the liberal-reformist Meretz party on the streets, with significant rallies of 10,000 or so in Tel Aviv. The last of these was a march through the center of Jerusalem (a traditionally rightwing city), ending in a rally of 1,000-2,000 outside Prime Minister Sharon’s residence, calling for an immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories and the dismantling of settlements, on Saturday night, which went ahead depute being scheduled to begin less than 30 minutes after the atrocious Bar Mitzvah bombing occurred only a mile away.

Added to this is the important movement of the "refuseniks", reserve combat officers and soldiers signing the "Combatant Letter" stating their refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories.

50 signatories first published this letter about two months ago, and at this time has 314, growing daily. This is a real explosion compared with the trickle of refuseniks over the last two years. One line of the letter, posted on their website (, reads: "We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people".

This movement has the potential of becoming a strong catalyst in the opposition to the continued and intensified occupation, but its current leadership suffers from serious political and organisational deficiencies similar to those of the liberal peace movement. The middle class composition of letter’s authors is reflected in their current level of consciousness: their grounds for refusing are overwhelmingly moral and conscientious, and they make no criticism of government policies other than the occupation and the "war of the settlements". They are trying to remain "apolitical" and within the Zionist consensus, and do not appeal to conscripts, without whom no successful campaign to end the occupation is possible. Their future influence will depend on the degree to which they will be able to deepen their political program and the issues they tackle in a way that can receive the support of working class elements in the army and outside it, as well as the youth.

No way out under capitalism

After this last round of brutal IDF raids and deadly Palestinian reaction, we stand another step closer to a full-fledged regional conflagration. Sharon, as it seems, is trying to remove all obstacles standing in the way of IDF operations, casually shrugging off political initiatives such as the Saudi plan suggested by crown prince Abdalla (but probably engineered by the US administration) or Egyptian president Mubarak’s offer for a Sharon-Arafat summit in Sharem A-Sheikh. Assassinations (or "targeted preventions", as they are euphemistically called by Israeli spokesmen) of Palestinian militants, which killed more than 20 unrelated civilians to date, are set to increase, and more raids on refugee camps and other heavily populated Palestinian areas, with occupying forces staying for days or weeks in some cases.

An order given to soldiers recently, allowing them to shoot at every arm-bearing Palestinian anywhere, stands the chance of forcing into armed resistance 40,000 Palestinian uniformed policemen from the official security apparatuses who have so far avoided an open confrontation with the Israeli army. An emergency mobilisation of Israeli reserves is becoming a likely possibility, which will not go unnoticed by the Syrian and Egyptian army, and the US prepares to light the tinderbox with a massive attack on Iraq expected in the late spring.

Though a temporary ceasefire at some point cannot be ruled out, the unresolved contradictions which have erupted in the second Intifada have only multiplied in the past 18 months, making even a fragile Oslo-type truce highly unlikely. Only the Palestinian masses and the Israeli working class, the main victims of war, suicide attacks, occupation and economic collapse, can offer a genuine way out by toppling the capitalist regimes on both sides, creating mutual links in the process and resolving all the contentious issues, insoluble under capitalism, in their common interests.

The socialist alternative

Maavak Sozialisti (Socialist Struggle), the CWI’s Israeli section, has several tasks at this difficult period. One is intervention in the anti-occupation movement, advocating a class perspective and program and shattering the illusions in diplomatic capitalist solutions and "the international community". Another, more important task is to continue the education of our own membership in the light of marxist analysis and methods, recruiting to the organisation, developing the next generation of experienced political activists and directing them to intervene in the daily struggles of workers and youth. The guns may be roaring, but the class struggle in Israel is alive and kicking, as the ongoing strikes and the occupation of the Bagir textile factory by its 1,080 workers show. We take part in every major struggle, but also through our intervention demonstrate to underline the capitalist system and its corrupt politicians’ double failure, in providing personal security as well as economic security. From this apparent failure flows the need for independent working class positions and program, as well as the struggle for socialism – a socialist Israel and an independent, socialist Palestine leading to a democratic, socialist federation of the Middle East on a free and equal basis, which will transform the living standards of the masses of the region while safeguarding the rights off all minorities.

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