Israel/Palestine: Sharon’s brutal war

Devastation. Whole areas of Palestinian cities, from Bethlehem to Nablus, and especially Jenin, have been laid to waste. The siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters continue as we go to press. How many hundreds have been killed? How many injured, or forced to flee for their lives? Sharon claims it was an exercise against terrorists. In reality, it was a siege imposed on hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, a punitive occupation culminating in a frenzy of destruction in Jenin. Helicopter gunships rocketed refugee camps. Armoured bulldozers demolished houses. Tanks crushed ambulances. Young Palestinian men were rounded up, handcuffed, and transported to prison with numbers on their arms.

The aim, according to Sharon, is to smash the ‘infrastructure of terrorism’. The suicide bombings in Israel, which indiscriminately claimed the lives of civilians, have created public support in Israel for Sharon’s offensive. But Israel’s state terror will provoke further Palestinian retaliation, rebounding on ordinary Israelis. It is not infrastructure, but rage and frustration, which feed terrorist tactics.

Incredibly, after Powell’s return from his abortive visit to the Middle East, Bush praised Sharon as ‘a man of peace’. Even Israel’s supreme court condemned Sharon for his criminal role in the 1982 massacres in the Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He now faces indictment as a war criminal in the Belgian courts. Clearly, Sharon, who represents the most ruthless wing of the Israeli ruling class and military, planned his offensive into the West Bank and Gaza as a strategic policy even before the suicide bombings. Sharon’s deliberately provocative actions triggered the second intifada and the new spate of suicide bombings. His aim was to wipe out the last remnants of the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo accords. Before his election victory over Ehud Barak, Sharon visited the al-Aqsa mosque (28 September 2000), an unmistakeable threat to the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem.

In November 2001 Sharon ordered the murder of the West Bank Hamas leader, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, a step that was bound to lead to retaliation by Hamas. Suicide bombing raids against civilians, renewed in Haifa and Jerusalem early last December, inevitably provoked fear and outrage among Israelis, arousing public support for Sharon’s offensive. As socialists we oppose such tactics. Nevertheless, we have to recognise the conditions that have given rise to suicide bombing tactics: The continual trampling down of Palestinian aspirations. The IDF’s response to the new intifada, with heavily armed soldiers shooting stone-throwing boys. Five children killed by an Israeli booby-trap in Gaza. Helicopter gunships rocketing lone snipers. Tanks occupying Palestinian towns, army bulldozers demolishing more and more houses. Is it any wonder that some groups turn to suicide bombing, and have the sympathy of many Palestinians?

Bombings, however, cannot defeat the Israeli state: they rebound on the Palestinians in the form of brutal military retaliation. Action by individuals ready to martyr themselves for the Palestinian cause cannot substitute for organised mass political action. Palestinians have the right to armed self-defence against Israeli aggression, but this must be linked to democratic mass organisations. Suicide bombings reflect the political bankruptcy of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have reactionary political aims. They also arise from the lamentable failure of the PLO leadership, which attempted to run the corrupt and repressive Palestinian Authority on terms dictated by the Israeli regime.

Sharon never wanted peace and does not want a settlement with the Palestinians. His internal security minister, Uzi Landaus, bluntly proclaimed: "We’ll see about peace plans later… What’s sure is we will never accept the existence of a Palestinian state. It would be a catastrophe". (Le Monde, 14 December 2001) Sharon’s aim, borne out by his actions, was to punish and defeat the Palestinians. The Israeli army has not limited itself to military objectives, but has smashed the PA’s civilian infrastructure. Records, offices, utilities have all been destroyed. Beyond that, the clear aim of the Sharon leadership was to break the backbone of Palestinian resistance, in an attempt to destroy any hope of a future Palestinian state. This barbaric exercise, however, will fail – just as Sharon’s occupation of Lebanon in 1982 ended in ignominious withdrawal 18 years later, leaving Israel no nearer to peace and security.

No doubt Sharon hopes to drive out as many Palestinians as possible, forcing them to flee to Jordan or beyond. His message to those who remain is clear: if you stay, you will live on sufferance in a handful of Israeli-policed enclaves. For a time, Israel’s military action may weaken the Palestinian resistance. But nowhere in the world has military action succeeded in eradicating national aspirations. Israel’s recent actions are undoubtedly fuelling a profound rage, which will erupt in volcanic lava flows throughout the region, shaking Israel, the neighbouring Arab states, and the imperialist powers.

Focus of conflict

Israel ahs been the focus of conflict ever since its creation in 1948. Revelations of the unimaginable horror of the holocaust after world war two won the support of the Western powers and sections of public opinion for a Jewish state. Israel would, it was claimed, provide a safe haven for persecuted and dispossessed Jewish people – and allow for the right of return of the Jews to their claimed biblical homeland.

The problem was that Israel was founded on the land of Palestinians, the majority of whom were driven out. Persecution of Jewish people and the Nazis’ barbarous extermination camps were used to justify a new outrage – the dispossession of Palestinians from the land occupied militarily by Israel.

But it is not possible for one people to fulfil its national aspirations while trampling on another people’s right to self-determination. Socialists of our Marxist tradition opposed the formation of the state of Israel, warning of its baneful consequences. Far from providing a peaceful, secure and prosperous home, the Israeli state would face perpetual war and internal conflict. Ultimately dependent on support from the Western powers, above all the United States, the Israeli regime would inevitably be a regional bridgehead for imperialist intervention in the region. This meant unavoidable conflict with the Arab regimes.

All the problems were compounded when, as a result of the 1967 war, Israel occupied the Palestinian areas of the West Bank (then part of Jordan), Gaza (then part of Egypt), and the Golan Heights (which belong to Syria).

Up to a million Palestinians were driven out in 1948. The 1967 war resulted in another million being expelled. Today’s population of UN-recognised Palestinian refugees has grown to 4 million, a third living in refugee camps. There are another million ‘displaced’ Palestinians, mostly living in camps.

Israel offered the right of return and democratic rights to Jews, but conceding at best second-class status to Palestinians remaining within its borders. Its policy was dominated by Zionism, the ideology of Jewish nationalism. Although many of the early Jewish pioneers were social democrats and formed cooperative kibbutzim (on Palestinians’ land), the state was capitalist, organically linked to imperialism. Given the conflict with the Palestinians and surrounding Arab states, Israel was from the start a militaristic state where security takes precedence over social welfare and democratic rights.

In spite of the way it was established, now that Israel has a Jewish population of over five million, it would be a mistake to deny Israeli Jews their right to a national homeland, let alone to attempt to drive them out. Their experiences of fifty years, including fives wars, has developed a strong national consciousness. The majority would undoubtedly be prepared to fight to the end to defend their homeland against extinction, a real factor that cannot be ignored. At the same time, genuine self-determination for Israeli Jews, meaning lasting security based on social equality and democracy, will only be achievable if the Jewish working class also supports national self-determination for the Palestinians.

For their part, the Arab regimes, while intransigently opposed to Israel and paying lip service to Palestinian self-determination, have offered no solution. Despite their heavy arms expenditure, they have proved incapable of defeating Israel militarily. To Zionist Israel, they counterpoise Arab nationalism, making no distinction between the Israeli ruling class and the working class majority, which includes many poor Sephardic Jews forced out of Arab countries. Their aim, whether blatant or thinly veiled, appeared to be to drive the Jews into the sea. The recognition of Israel by Egypt and Jordan, and the promises from other Arab regimes to recognise the state in return for a Palestinian homeland, is not enough to assuage Israeli Jewish fears.

Arab rulers have always used Israel as a diversion from problems at home. Despite the immense oil wealth of a number of Arab states, the majority of Arab workers and peasants live in dire poverty. They mostly live under dictatorships or semi-dictatorships with few, if any, democratic rights. In the name of fighting Israel, the Arab regimes have kept Palestinian refugees in camps, refusing either to assimilate them into society or provide them with decent conditions in the camps. Socialists can support neither the state of Israel in its present form nor the Arab states.

No viable capitalist solution

What is the policy of imperialism now? Despite its victory in Afghanistan and its over-arching global power, the US has not even been capable of imposing a cease-fire. Powell’s visit was a humiliating failure. Having released the dog of war, the US was unable to rein Sharon in. Instead, he bit Bush’s ankles. Bush is now speaking of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but evidently has no concrete proposals and no idea of how a new ‘settlement’ might be achieved.

Leaders of the European states, however, are now arguing more forcefully for a so-called ‘two-state solution’. The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, claims "There is now a near-universal acceptance that the destination has to be the existence of two states, a state of Israel and a viable Palestinian state". (Tribune, 19 April) "This ‘two-state solution’ means what it says: two viable, secure, territorially sovereign and democratic states of Israel and Palestine, mutually recognised, committed to peaceful coexistence within agreed borders".

"The ‘international community’, he urges will have ‘a role… in providing financial support to restore the wrecked infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority and, if necessary, to provide monitors and observers’." He concedes, "such a settlement seems a long way off at present". The way forward is through negotiation and compromise: "Only compromise can deliver a secure state of Israel, alongside a viable state of Palestine, whose citizens enjoy the same freedom of movement, of life, and of safety as those of other states".

But what does Straw mean by ‘viable’? This is currently a buzzword among Western diplomats. But they are extremely reluctant to spell out what they mean. At the very least, however, it is clear that any ‘viable’ Palestinian state must have control of its own territory, that is the West Bank and Gaza, without encroachment of Jewish settlements and their military guards. This is spelled out by Michael Ignatieff of Harvard University, writing in The Guardian (19 April): "It is time to say that all but those settlements right on the 1967 Green Line [which divides the pre-1967 state of Israel from the occupied West Bank] must go…" But how would Israel be persuaded to abandon the settlements? Even if a future government agreed to such a policy, powerful political forces within Israel would not accept it, and a section might well be prepared to fight against it.

Unlike Straw and other EU leaders, Ignatieff grasps the nettle: "The US must… commit its own troops and those of willing allies, not to police a ceasefire, but to enforce a solution that provides security for both populations". His headline is ‘Why Bush must send in his troops’. "The only way to seize the opportunity [of implementing the Saudi regime’s latest ‘land for peace’ proposal] is to impose a two-state solution now, before the extremists succeed in removing it from the realm of possibility forever". In other words, the only ‘viable’ way of establishing a ‘viable’ Palestinian state is the military intervention of US imperialism.

Initially, there could be support for US involvement in the creation of a state with a greater semblance of statehood than the Palestinian Authority. But the US will not support a ‘viable’ Palestine that threatens the Israeli regime. On the other hand, US intervention to set up another Palestinian Bantustan could lead to violent conflict between US forces and the Palestinians and some Arab regimes.

Ignatieff spells out another condition. Israel’s security, he writes, requires the "recreation of a viable Palestinian state, with a monopoly on the means of violence". In other words, the state must be capable, unlike Arafat’s PA, of effectively policing the Palestinians, confining them within the boundaries of a state sponsored by US imperialism and accepted by the Israeli regime. But like the PA, it would face massive opposition from below.

To survive, Ignatieff says, a Palestinian state must have "the capacity to genuinely provide jobs and services for its people". Could that be possible on the basis of capitalism? "The UN, with funding from Europe [not the US?] will [should?] establish a transitional administration to help the Palestinian state back on its feet". The dismal record of the UN, EU and the US on aid for other poor, fledgling states (Bosnia, East Timor, Afghanistan) does not offer much encouragement. Under capitalism, the majority of workers and peasants of even the oil-rich Arab states live in abysmal poverty.

On one of the most sensitive issues of all, Ignatieff proposes that the US should make it clear "the right of return is incompatible with peace and security in the region and the right must be extinguished with a cash settlement". ‘Extinguishing’ the right of return of over four million exiles in exchange for a token state and compensation would provoke outrage among Palestinians and wider Arab masses. In reality, within the rotten framework of capitalism and imperialism, a two-state policy is totally ‘unviable’.

How can national aspirations be realised?

How could the Palestinian demand for national self-determination be fulfilled in the form of a Palestinian state? It would be futile to rely on the Western powers to implement any solution. Imperialism bears primary responsibility for the perpetual Middle East crisis, through divide-and-rule policies, manipulating client regimes, and economic exploitation.

The present capitalist state of Israel, with its Zionist-capitalist foundations, is incompatible with a viable Palestinian state. For their part, the Arab states also fear an independent Palestine, which would have a radicalising effect on the Arab masses and pose a threat to their rotten regimes. We stand for the overthrow of both the existing Israeli state and of the Arab capitalist regimes. This perspective cannot be separated from the struggle for a Palestinian state.

Some on the left argue for a ‘democratic secular Palestinian state’, sometimes adding ‘socialist’ to the formula, with democratic rights for Jews in such a state. Effectively, this would mean the abolition of a Jewish state in favour of a Palestinian state. This approach, in our view, cannot provide a way forward.

Given Jewish-Israeli national consciousness, the majority of Israeli Jews, including the majority of the working class, will not accept the displacement of their national homeland. Arab regimes, moreover, have a long history of reactionary, nationalistic opposition to Israel, frequently with a strong anti-Semitic element (reinforced, no doubt, by right-wing Zionist hostility to the Arab peoples). Jewish fears will not be assuaged by the promise of a ‘democratic’ or ‘secular’ or even ‘socialist’ Palestinian state. After all, nationalist leaders like Nasser, who carried out some progressive measures against landlords and imperialism in Egypt, advocated ‘Arab socialism’ while adopting a thoroughly nationalistic approach.

We have to squarely recognise the actual consciousness of the overwhelming majority of the Jewish working class and poor strata. This means calling for a Socialist Israel, an entirely new form of state which would provide a secure national home for Israeli Jews on the basis of workers’ democracy and democratic economic planning that would ensure prosperity for the population. A socialist Israel, moreover, would fully recognise the democratic rights of Palestinians living within its boundaries.

It is absolutely vital to drive a political wedge between the Jewish working class and the Israeli capitalist class, which has entirely different interests from the workers, but is able to mobilise support on the basis of whipping up fear of the extinction of a Jewish state, or even of the annihilation of the Jewish population. This has to be answered with the call for a Jewish state on a socialist basis.

Without breaking its social base among the Jewish working class, it will not be possible to defeat the heavily armed Israeli ruling class. In the recent period, there have been many expressions of class polarisation within Israel on economic and social issues. This divide could be opened up and extended to the national question if the leadership of the Palestinian and Arab working class adopted an internationalist approach, appealing to Jewish workers on a socialist programme that would satisfy the demand of both peoples for self-determination, democracy, economic security and peace.

Only a socialist Palestine would be a viable Palestinian state. This will only be achieved through a mass revolutionary movement of the Palestinian working class and small farmers. The creation of some new Palestinian entity in the next period cannot be ruled out, as US imperialism desperately seeks to avert a regional explosion. However, no Palestinian leadership dependent on the sponsorship of imperialism or the support of Arab regimes could establish a democratic regime or deliver secure homes and prosperity to all Palestinians. It would simply be a new version of the Palestinian Authority. A socialist Palestine will require a movement from below, to establish a workers’ state and a socialist economy, with an internationalist orientation towards the workers of neighbouring states and the rest of the world.

The call for the socialist transformation of Palestine and Israel has to be linked to the idea of a socialist confederation of the Middle East, which would consist of a voluntary association of socialist states in the region. Given the deep economic crisis, this would be vital to economic progress. It would also provide a democratic framework for the resolution of the region’s extremely complicated national question.

One of the knottiest problems is undoubtedly the right of return of the Palestinians. Two or three generations of refugees have now endured the camps, longing for a return to their towns and villages occupied or destroyed by Israel after 1948 and 1967, or more recently. However, not only the Israeli ruling class but a majority of Israeli Jews fear that implementation of such a right would tip the demographic balance decisively against them. Effectively, it would spell the end of a Jewish state and they will not accept it. Some Arab leaders, including some PLO leaders, have flirted with the idea of trading the right of return for compensation for refugees returning to a Palestinian state (not surprisingly, contrasting Israel’s refusal to compensate the Palestinian diaspora with the massive reparations paid by West Germany to Israel and Jewish victims of fascism). Arab leaders dare not openly spell out such a proposition, however, as it would provoke fury amongst Palestinians, who would see it as a betrayal of their deepest national aspirations. But how can this legitimate demand be satisfied under capitalism? Only socialist states collaborating in a socialist federation, would have the political authority and material resources to resolve the problem.

There is no way out of the Middle East conflict under capitalism. Hasn’t that been amply demonstrated by the region’s tortured history? The struggle of the Palestinians has to be linked to a socialist programme.

This article was written for publication as an editorial in the May edition of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI section in England and Wales)

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April 2002