Israel/Palestine: Sharon launches new war on Palestinians

"AS THE United States tries to mediate a truce in the Middle East, Israeli military planners are preparing for a major assault on Palestinian cities, towns, and refugee camps that would be broader and deeper than the offensive undertaken earlier this month, according to Israeli officials" (International Herald Tribune, 26 March 2002).

Sharon launches new war on Palestinians

This "major assault" was implemented even before the ill-fated Saudi "peace plan" and US envoy Zinni’s attempt to enforce a ceasefire in the region got off the ground. All the major cities in the West Bank (Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah) are the latest venues for brutal military force, assassinations, and the attempted crushing of an entire people by the Israeli regime. The Israeli army (Israeli Defence Force – IDF) has used anti-aircraft weaponry to pummel buildings. Electricity and water supply infrastructure has been destroyed. House-to-house searches have led to the assassination in cold blood of young Palestinian policemen, and random killings of other Palestinian civilians. Thousands have been rounded up. "Who can live like this? Who can die like this?" asks Dr Atari from Ramallah Hospital.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) calls for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all IDF forces from the West Bank and Gaza.

The situation in the West Bank has horrified millions of people around the world. There have been demonstrations across Europe on the issue. These protests have been dwarfed by the massive mobilisations that have engulfed the Arab countries of the Middle East. This huge anger threatens to undermine the pro-Western regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Oil prices are rising as a result of Sharon’s war and the growing instability threatens the world economy. Iran and Iraq have threatened to force OPEC to interrupt oil supplies to the US and the West. As a result of these pressures, the US administration has been forced to intervene with the latest speech by Bush.

Imperialism responsible

Responsibility for this spiral into war lies in the blood-soaked hands of US imperialism and its junior partners in Europe (who have just woken up to the fact that the region is teetering on the edge of a bloodbath), Israeli capitalism, the Arab regimes, and the Palestinian leadership. Over the decades, their methods have ranged from employing brutal military repression to poisoned-chalice "peace agreements" which results in the outright betrayal and enslavement of Palestinians. The reasons for this are clear. Granting genuine Palestinian statehood would threaten vital strategic and economic interests in the region for imperialism. It would threaten the power, prestige and profits of the capitalist elite in the Middle East.

Each IDF bullet which finds its target on the West Bank – and for that matter every suicide bomber who detonates themselves inside Israel – highlights in blood the fact that capitalism and imperialism have no solution to the national question in the Middle East. The vexed issues of land, water rights, the status of Jerusalem, and the right of return of refugees, as well as guarantees for the economic and physical security of Israeli Jews, can only begin to be addressed once the cynical capitalist elite and US imperialism have been driven from their position of power and influence in the region. That will require mass movements of the Arab working class and poor peasants, the oppressed Palestinians and the Israeli Jewish working class. Those who question or even ridicule these ideas should turn on their televisions or look at the newspapers: the daily round of bloodletting is what capitalism has to offer!

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and its sister organisation in Israel – Ma’avak Sozialisti – have analysed in detail the latest flare-up in violence (see CWI statement, 19 March ). However, the explosion of violence over the last week requires further comment, particularly if as is possible the situation could develop into a wider war in the Middle East.

The Sharon government used the deadly wave of suicide attacks, which started as the latest fractious meeting of the Arab Summit ended, as a pretext to launch the latest occupation. Undoubtedly there was widespread horror amongst Israeli Jews in reaction to the recent suicide bombings, particularly the attack last Wednesday in a hotel in Netanya in which 25 people died (the highest level of fatalities in one attack since the start of the second Intifada) during the Passover celebration. Out of the 415 Israeli Jews killed during this second intifada, 127 were killed in March. As a result, Sharon undoubtedly felt more confident to give the order to attack. Military officials spoke of a "window of opportunity" in terms of world public sympathy allowing them to reinvade the West Bank.

Desperate conditions

Despite the desperate conditions faced by the majority of Palestinians, and the daily slaughter of brothers, sisters and parents by the Israeli regime, and whilst recognising the reasons why Palestinian youth people resort to these tactics, the CWI believes suicide bombings are an incorrect and mistaken policy. It is true that many Palestinians see the tactic of suicide bombings as a successful one which has shaken Israeli society but rather than increasing opposition to the occupation amongst Israeli Jews, drives them into the hands of the most reactionary elements of the Israeli right-wing. Moreover, it is a tactic that will not succeed against the overwhelming military force of the Israeli army. In the long run Palestinians will suffer the most from this tactic.

Sharon has declared Arafat an "enemy" and the Palestinian Authority "a coalition of terror" while Israel is "at war". In preparation for this latest military offensive, the Sharon government ordered the mobilisation of 31,000 army reservists. This is larger than the numbers mobilised just before the Gulf War in 1991. Even announcing the size of the mobilisation is designed to act as a warning to the Palestinians and the rest of the world. Israeli Defence Minister Ben-Eliezer told Israeli radio, "We are defending our homes…We are going to defend our homes with all our strength", just after the invasion. Whatever the public pronouncements of the Israeli regime, their latest military offensive is designed to crush the remnants of the Palestinian Authority; to capture, kill or drive out the local leaders of the Hamas, Al-Aqsa and Tanzeem cells and force a complete and humiliating surrender by Palestinians. The occupation of all the major cities by the IDF – as well as causing hundreds of casualties and involving horrific brutality – is also intended as a symbolic message to the Palestinian people that "Oslo is dead" and the Palestinian Authority non-existent. However, this is not a "solution", and rather than reducing Palestinian anger it will vastly fuel it in the long run.

Sharon’s order to invade Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and to confine him to a basement room without electricity, food, or water indicates his clear aim to destroy the Palestinian Authority. He offered Arafat a one-way ticket out of Ramallah, with a clear statement that the Palestinian Authority chairman could never return. Palestinians will interpret this as the first step to drive out all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. It is extremely unlikely that Arafat will accept this "offer". To do so would be seen as a complete defeat and the end of his playing the role of Palestinian leader. Realising this, and probably wishing personally to be remembered as a martyr, Arafat has stated up to now that the only way he will leave his compound is as a casualty.

Sharon went further in targeting Jibril Rajoub (Head of the Palestinian Preventative Security Service) and other leading figures in the Palestinian Authority for arrest. Hundreds of Palestinian police and Arafat’s security men have been killed. Most police stations have been destroyed. The demand by the Israeli regime that "Arafat must rein in the terrorists" is therefore a farce. Even if Arafat had the authority to do this, it is clear that surrounded by Israeli troops and with the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority destroyed, this is an impossible demand to achieve. The targeting of other leaders in the Palestinian Authority also makes a mockery of Sharon’s claim that the Israeli regime will negotiate with moderates in Palestine once the PA has been dealt with. This is a very short-sighted approach even from the point of view of those sections of the Israeli ruling class (and US imperialism) who did have hopes that a new layer of more pliable Palestinian leaders could be found.

One of the publicly stated aims of the reoccupation is to destroy the "terrorist" cells. Behind this lies the utterly false idea that somehow the Palestinian population can be crushed into submission. During the last IDF occupation of the refugee camps in early March a fundamental change of mood crystallised amongst Palestinians. There was a widespread feeling that their destruction was threatened and they therefore had nothing to lose in their struggle against the reoccupation. As Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist recently commented in the International Herald Tribune, "When a whole people is seething with rage, it becomes a dangerous enemy, because the rage does not obey orders. When it exists in the hearts of millions of people, it cannot be cut off by pushing a button" (28 March, 2002). This mood is reflected in the huge growth in support for the mistaken idea of suicide bombings amongst Palestinians. Previously the preserve of Hamas and an expression of religious martyrdom, it is now the case that even amongst secular Palestinians suicide bombings are incorrectly seen as one of the only way the Israeli occupation can be defeated.

While the huge weight of Israeli military action has resulted in a temporary lull in suicide attacks, it has far from destroyed the so-called armed militias in the Palestinian Authority or their infrastructure. The Washington Post explained, "As Israeli terrorism experts have pointed out, the infrastructure of suicide bombing requires little more than bomb-making know-how and some very basic equipment. If an explosives belt can be assembled in a work-shed or a chicken coop or a garage, then destroying the ‘infrastructure of terrorism’ begins to sound virtually impossible, more a slogan than a battle plan", (2 April 2002).

The IDF have carried out ruthless and indiscriminate house-to-house searches in the West Bank. By the time the soldiers arrive at Palestinian homes the Palestinian militia members have usually disappeared. In essence, when the Israeli regime talks of targeting the "infrastructure of terror", they are talking of the entire Palestinian population. "The strategy is extreme because the target population is massive. Israeli officials must consider every Palestinian male between the ages of 18 and 60 a potential threat. Approximately three million Palestinians live the Gaza strip and the West Bank. Of these, approximately 800 000 are males between the ages of 15 and 64, according the CIA figures," commented the on-line news agency Stratfor in an article entitled ‘Israel’s desperate offensive’ (2 April 2002). In effect, this figure must be at least doubled as young women are now joining the ranks of the suicide bombers and the militias. All the Israeli regime can offer therefore is a temporary lull in the suicide attacks, at the extremely high cost of reoccupation. Moreover, as the Israeli Defence Minister admitted recently to the Israeli Parliament Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, "Terrorism cannot be stopped with military manoeuvres. The operations are intended merely to disrupt the terrorism and stop as many attacks as possible".

Mass opposition

In the initial stages of this reoccupation, the level of mass opposition amongst Palestinians was lower than during the previous occupation in March. This was partially a result of the magnitude of the present military operation, which has dwarfed previous occupations. But there is also a tendency amongst the militia leaders to say that the struggle should be left to them. In the absence of a strategy to develop mass participation in the Intifada over the last eighteen months through the building of democratically controlled committees, Palestinians will have drawn the conclusion that the present approach of allowing the struggle to be carried out by small groups of armed men and women is the only way forward. This indicates the weakness of the tactics of the Palestinian leadership, who have historically relied on the tactics of individual armed attacks and diplomatic pressure on western Imperialist countries to achieve their aims. It means relegating the majority of Palestinians to the role of mere observers in the struggle against the reoccupation.

The strongest potential weapon that the Palestinians have is that of mass struggle and to appeal for solidarity action from workers and youth around the world. Despite the casualties after the IDF operation in March, Palestinian morale at that time had never been higher, precisely because there were important elements of mass opposition to the IDF operation. If the reoccupation continues then there will be growing pressure from below for mass protests against the IDF. The danger is that these protests, when they develop, could be uncoordinated, spontaneous and disorganised, therefore facing the possibility of counter-attack and isolation.

The mistaken tactics of the Palestinian leadership have also held back mass protest amongst Palestinians inside Israel (up to now) for the same reasons. The possibilities for a united struggle between Israeli Jews and Palestinians against the occupation were shown during the demonstration organised at the A-ram military checkpoint outside Ramallah on Wednesday 3 April. Four thousand Israeli Jews and Palestinians took part in this courageous and radical demonstration, including members of Maavak Sotzialisti (‘Socialist Struggle’), the CWI in Israel. Protesters included many young people who had never participated in political protest before. Whilst public opinion hardened immediately after the Netanya bombing, within a couple of days widespread questioning of the Sharon government’s aims in the present military operation had surfaced amongst Israeli Jews. This is because it is quite plain that there is no clear military or political strategy for "solving" the crisis. Open splits appeared in the Israeli ruling class, with Shimon Perez calling for an end to Arafat’s effective imprisonment and isolation from international diplomats. A new platform signed by leading intellectuals called for an immediate withdrawal from the Occupied Territories without preconditions. As well as the lack of any clear strategy from the government, the worsening economic situation will increase opposition to the Sharon government. The recent round of budget cuts amounts to $1.5 billion (although of course military spending has not been touched). The Shekel (NIS) – Israel’s currency – is at its lowest ever level to the dollar. The government is promising more punishment for Israeli workers and youth – the implementation of a new tax to pay for the war.

Arab world ablaze

The rest of the Arab world has been set ablaze by this latest occupation. CNN reported that on Monday 1 April, over one million Egyptians demonstrated against the Israeli action in the West Bank in different cities. This is in a country where demonstrations of this kind are banned and viciously repressed. There have been demonstrations in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. In Yemen, the pro-American president has retreated to his farm on the Red Sea and asked to be left alone. Walid Kazziha, a professor at the American University in Cairo, echoed the universal view of all Arab commentators when he said that there has never been a greater level of anger against US imperialism, Israel and the Arab leaders, "On Arabic TV stations, the first thing the man in the street says is: ‘What are these Arab governments, what are these Arab leaders doing?’" (Financial Times, London, 4 April 2002).

The mass pressure on the Arab leaders is beginning to express itself in wider divisions amongst them. The latest Arab summit in Beirut was a complete failure from their point of view. One third of Arab leaders did not attend. Particularly noticeable was the absence of King Abdullah of Jordan and President Mubarak of Egypt. Their regimes have the closest links to Israel and US imperialism in the region and therefore the potential for mass uprisings against them is the greatest. In Jordan the majority of the population is Palestinian. The Egyptian and Jordanian regimes are desperate to appear to be supporting the Palestinian cause. For their own reasons the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders decided not to go to the Beirut summit, but they attempted to cover this up with a pretence of showing "solidarity" with the Palestinians after Arafat was denied the right to go to the summit by Sharon. Over the last couple of days, Mubarak has broken all non-diplomatic links between Egypt and Israel. Syria has moved 20 000 troops into the Beka’a valley and Hezbollah fighters have started firing rockets into Israel’s northern settlements for the first time since the IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000.

The Arab summit raised once again the plight of the millions of Palestinian refugees who were displaced from their homes in 1948 by Israeli militias in what was then Palestine. This issue has come to the fore during the latest flare-up in violence. This is because the Saudi peace plan deals with the issue but more importantly because Palestinians fear that a new wave of refugees numbering hundreds of thousands are about to be created.

The refugee issue is one of the most complicated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the barbarism of the Holocaust during the Second World War Jews fled to what they regarded as their homeland. However, the new Israeli entity was achieved on the basis of the forcible dispersal of the Palestinian population – a crime initiated by the Israeli elite for which ordinary Israeli Jews have had to pay in blood for ever since.

The CWI supports the right to return for Palestinian refugees. But this will never be achieved on a capitalist basis. Only a socialist Middle East could provide the full economic and social resources to absorb the millions of Palestinians who would be given the right to return and guarantee increased living standards for the entire population. Only a socialist confederation of the region, with a socialist Israel alongside a socialist Palestine, would provide the political conditions for genuine negotiations between representatives of Palestinians and Israeli Jews, which would respect the national, religious and ethnic rights of all groups involved.

Right of return

cwi Despite their radical phraseology, the Arab regimes have no interest in the rights of the refugees. The Palestinian refugee camps have been maintained for over fifty years in countries like Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to act as a safety valve for Arab discontent. The existence of the camps meant that Arab regimes could point to a foreign enemy – Israel – to divert the attention of the Arab working class and poor peasants from the problems they faced at home.

The Arab regimes have been astounded and enraged by the approach of US imperialism to the latest brutal reoccupation. Despite voting for a resolution calling for a withdrawal of IDF forces from the West Bank at the UN Security Council, it is clear that the Bush administration gave the green light to the Israeli invasion. In the first days of the occupation Washington showed open support for Sharon’s actions when the Bush administration explained that Israel had "the right to defend itself". US imperialism is just as culpable for the deaths in the West Bank over the last week as the Israeli regime was for the thousands of Palestinians massacred by the reactionary Christian Phalange militia in Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps during the Lebanese conflict in the 1980s. Although Bush and his spokespersons made brief comments about the necessity for moderation and "keeping the path to peace open" this was pure window dressing and political spin. The problem for Bush is that in a war situation such flimsy political propaganda is torn away almost immediately in the eyes of Palestinians, Arabs, increasing sections of Jewish workers, and indeed workers all over the world. The real position of US imperialism is revealed ever more starkly.

There are divisions within the Bush administration over its approach towards the Middle East conflict. The State Department understands more clearly the dangers inherent in the present situation and the necessity of some sort of initiative by US imperialism. However, the Whitehouse and the Pentagon holds sway on this issue. There is no doubt that more reactionary individuals within the Bush administration, such as Wolfowitz and Cheyney, fully support Sharon’s actions as well as the move to crush the PA. Even Colin Powell, a supposed "dove", lectured Arafat about the necessity to deal with terrorism. Even from the point of view of their class own interests this approach is to say the least extremely foolish. It enrages the Arab masses and makes it impossible for Arab regimes to support or stand idly by while the US prosecutes its plans to attack Iraq later in the year.

However, within hours of the IDF reoccupation the pressure began to mount on US imperialism. Undoubtedly Mubarak in Egypt and Abdullah in Jordan explained to US officials in no uncertain terms that the failure of US imperialism to intervene in the conflict would result in mass protests which could lead possibly lead to the overthrow of their administrations and the installation of Islamic fundamentalist regimes in their place. The US administration has fears that this may happen in Saudi Arabia as well. The huge pressure from so-called "moderate" Arab regimes was the reason for Bush’s rapid verbal somersault on the conflict. Belatedly, he called for the withdrawal of IDF troops, a negotiated settlement taking into account previous UN resolutions on the issue, and he dispatched Colin Powell to the Middle East. In a softening-up campaign before his trip, Powell has made further comments about the importance of granting the Palestinians their own state. Most Palestinians will see Powell for the cynical representative of US imperialism that he is. After all, Powell and all the other representatives of imperialism welcomed the rotten and corrupt PA statelet that was "granted" to the Palestinians as a result of the Oslo accords.

EU leaders also uncharacteristically launched a joint, public campaign for Bush to condemn the invasion and call for IDF withdrawal. They are clearly aware that the majority of their electorate sympathise with the Palestinians’ plight. Hundreds of thousands have demonstrated across Europe over the last few weeks. Anti-capitalist protesters like Bové, a leading French anti-capitalist protester, and a number of other protesters from Europe marched through Israeli lines into Arafat’s compound in Ramallah.

In part, the stability of some European countries is threatened since many have large Arab, Palestinian and Muslim populations. In Marseilles, Paris, Brussels and Antwerp there have been arson attacks on synagogues and threats of attacks on settled Jewish populations. It was these factors that helped move EU politicians to encourage the US administration to step in to try to halt the conflict, rather than any genuine compassion for the Palestinian people.

Bush’s speech does not represent a fundamental change in position. He mentioned "terror" and "terrorism" no less than 50 times. He blamed Arafat for the position he finds himself in. He warned regimes like Syria and Iran to stay out of the conflict. In essence Bush said that a "peace agreement" would be put on the table and as on previous occasions "you are either with us or against us". This is not unlike the ultimatums put by Sharon to Arafat and the Palestinian people.

Temporary pause

It is possible that the visit of Colin Powell to the Middle East may lead to a temporary pause in the violence and the likelihood of IDF withdrawal from Palestinian towns and cities. There may even be some temporary negotiations. However, the US intervention is too little too late. Each "new" imperialist initiative founders because capitalism is incapable of addressing the central issues and because of the memory of the most recent round of bloodshed. The level of anger towards US imperialism and the Israeli regime is so great in the Middle East that the Arab regimes may not be able to hold back the tide of protest. If Arafat makes the sort of concessions he refused to agree to at Camp David in his negotiations with Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, he will face political obscurity.

Sharon’s "solution" to the Palestinian occupation is probably to maintain reoccupation for an extended period, and to impose a unilateral "agreement" from above with the appointed stooge Palestinian leaders (if any can be found!). In this context, Palestinians would be instructed, "accept this or leave!" This was indicated in recent cabinet discussions over the question of Arafat’s effective incarceration in his Ramallah compound. In these discussions, the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz, expressed the opinion that the goal of the current campaign was to force Arafat to accept a ceasefire under terms dictated by US envoy Zinni and eventually to start negotiations. Sharon is reported to have retorted, " What are you talking about? There aren’t going to be any diplomatic negotiations here" (Washington Post, 2 April, 2002).

In the long run indefinite occupation is not an option. The political and military costs for the Israeli ruling class would be too high. It would probably lead to a unilateral separation of Israel from Palestine, with the declaration of new borders under far worse terms than have been outlined before.

As the CWI has explained previously, this would not be a workable solution since it would lead to renewed Palestinian protest (both inside Israel and outside) as well as huge upheavals in the Arab world, thus opening the way to ‘ethnic-cleansing’ of Palestinians inside Israel and a new Arab-Israeli war.

The explosive situation in the Middle East, exacerbated by the stupidity of the approach of US imperialism and the Israeli ruling class, inevitably will lead to wars and revolutions. Socialists and worker-activists in the region face the struggle to build a movement committed to a socialist federation in the Middle East as the only way out of continuing crisis, conflicts and national hatreds.


The CWI fights for:

  • The immediate withdrawal of all Israeli forces from all Occupied Territories – the Gaza and West Bank! Stop the aggression against the Palestinians!
  • A mass struggle throughout the region against imperialism and capitalism– the root cause of the conflict!
  • The right of Palestinians to resist the Israeli occupying forces! For a mass struggle to fight for genuine national and social liberation! For the establishment of popular, democratically controlled grass-roots committees to provide leadership to the struggle. The right of these committees to provide democratically controlled armed defence.
  • The mobilisation of workers and youth internationally to aid the Palestinians’ struggle for democratic, national and social rights and for a socialist solution in the Middle East!
  • The right of Palestinians to self-determination, including an independent state! For a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel, as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East, with full rights for all minorities.
  • An end to Sharon’s war of re-occupation, and his reactionary, capitalist government! An end to the use of Israeli soldiers as cannon fodder by the Israeli ruling class and army generals. For the right of all conscript soldiers and reservists to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.
  • A united struggle by Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinian workers, youth, and community activists against Sharon’s aggression and the occupation! End institutionalised racism and discrimination towards Israeli Palestinians. For a struggle of the Israeli working class – both Jewish and Palestinian – to overthrow capitalism.
  • For an end to mass unemployment and poverty! End the political and economic oppression of Israeli and Palestinian capitalism. For a massive increase in public spending. For a democratically planned socialist economy to transform the living standards of Palestinians and Israelis.
  • A struggle by the masses of the Arab states against the corrupt, reactionary, capitalist ruling Arab elites! – For a socialist Middle East!

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April 2002