Israel/Palestine: After the PA elections

What lies behind attempts to reach a ceasefire?

Muhammad Abbas, the newly elected leader of Palestine Authority (PA), faced his first challenge straight after the polls closed: a guerilla attack on the Karmi checkpoint, in the Gaza strip. This clearly showed that Abbas will have to try to cope with severe pressure from different directions, from the Israeli government and from Palestinian armed groups. After the Karmi attack, Sharon declared that Abbas is just as "irrelevant" as Arafat was. Although this statement was later taken back, it does show the pre-conditions that the Israeli ruling class is demanding for its support to Abbas. They demand that Abbas ‘controls’ the Palestinian armed groups on the ground.

The Israeli government wants Abbas to carry out the dirtiest aspects of "the war against terror". That means open confrontation with armed militias, and policing the Occupied Territories, in the West bank and the Gaza Strip.

After four years of trying to repress the Intifada, the Israeli ruling class reached the conclusion that the daily job of maintaining the occupation has become too expensive for them, both economically and politically. They now want to try and rebuild the PA, as a new stabilizing power that can do it for them.

The question that both the Israeli ruling class, and, indeed, Abbas himself, asks, is can he do this without provoking mass opposition to his rule?

The elections in Palestine were the first step taken by the Israeli ruling class, and the major imperialist powers, to stamp Abbas’s authority on the Palestinian masses. But the turn out for the election was lower than expected. Also, the overwhelming victory of Hamas in the second round of the municipal elections, held in Gaza a week and a half later, shows that Abbas and Fatah, in general, are certainly not the main political power in the Occupied Territories, any longer.

Sharon’s government has understood for some time that to give Abbas a larger social base in Palestine some Israeli compromises must be made. One of the main issues in this regard is the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. The Israeli government has said that they are ready to release about 700 out of the roughly 7,000 that are imprisoned in Israel. But the popular demand in the Palestinian street is to free all the prisoners. That is why Hamas uses this demand as pre-condition for a ceasefire with Israel.

Talks about a ceasefire are taking place, including several meetings between Palestinian and Israeli officials. A meeting between Abbas and Sharon is scheduled for mid-February, in Egypt. The Israeli media describe these developments with great optimism. This echoes the illusions that the ruling class in Israel has towards the idea of enforcing new neo-colonial rule in the Occupied Territories. This can be understood in the context of the moderate economic growth in Israel. Historically, economic growth has always opened up hopes of new "options" for the Israeli bosses, in particular, the notion of a "the market peace" i.e. a more economically stable society and better conditions for exploiting the workers on both sides of the border.

But the current growth in the Israeli economy is fragile, as it is mainly based on the consumption bubble in the US. Also the economic conditions in Palestine are a completely different story compared to the 1990’s. In the past four years, the Israeli army literally destroyed the infrastructure of the Palestine economy, leaving mass poverty and starvation behind.

Workers in Israel and Palestine look at the media hype about a ceasefire with a great deal of skepticism. For the majority of Palestinian workers and poor peasants, a ceasefire would not necessarily mean a more secure and normal life. In fact, direct military oppression would not disappear and the hand-over of the rule of the cities to the Palestinian Authority will not have any significant effect on declining living standards, horrific rates of unemployment, and poverty. Therefore, the majority of the Palestinians do not have any illusions about the role of Abbas, who is described by US diplomats as "our main man".

The main political force that benefits from this mood of mistrust towards Abbas and Fatah is Hamas. The historical gains that were achieved by Hamas in the recent municipal elections in the Gaza Strip indicate the overall balance of forces between Hamas and Fatah in the Occupied Territories. The results of the election, in which Hamas received about 80% of the vote, were described by Hamas leaders as proof that "the militant approach" is the best way forward. They say the "militant approach" means victories not only in the battle field but also in politics (Hamas leaders also refer to a strong stand against Israeli occupation, and criticize the corruption of Fatah).

Challenges for Hamas

But the next period will be not just be a challenge for Fatah but also for Hamas. The imperialist powers have come to realize that any deal will have to include Hamas. But the ability of Hamas to balance between the strong pressures from Palestinians, and from the Israeli ruling class, backed by the US, is limited. Hamas urgently needs huge sums of money to maintain the welfare infrastructure they set up in Palestinian areas (mainly Gaza). More funds could help Hamas to take overall power in Gaza. This, the Hamas leaders think, would allow Hamas not to have to play the role of militant opposition and could give them space to negotiate further with Israel. But this kind of thinking only goes to show that eventually Hamas, and political Islam, in general, will be revealed as being incapable of leading the oppressed masses in Palestine to victory.

The incapability of pro-imperialist leaders like Abbas to improve the lives of the Palestinian masses, and the failed tactics of political Islam, will mean that Palestinian workers and poor will come to the conclusion that they have to arm themselves with an independent programme. A mass socialist force can develop the correct strategy for the Palestinian struggle for national and social liberation.

This means a struggle against both the oppressor Israeli ruling class and the corrupt, pro-imperialist Palestinian Authority elite. It means a mass struggle against imperialist meddling and to link up with the Arab masses to drive imperialist forces out of the Middle East. An independent, socialist Palestine, and a socialist Israel, as part of a genuinely voluntary and equal socialist federation of the Middle East, will be the aspiration of future mass struggles to end national, social, and economic oppression.

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February 2005