Palestine: Palestinian Authority on the brink of civil war?

Palestinians recently interviewed in the press described their life in Gaza and the West Bank as like "living on the set of a horror film".

Below we publish two articles on the situation in the Occupied Territories: the first one, printed in this week’s The Socialist deals with the drift towards civil war in the Palestinian Authority while the second, a translation of an article in The Struggle, newspaper of the CWI in Israel, deals with the more long term processes in the area.

Palestinian Authority on the brink of civil war?

Except this isn’t entertainment even of a distasteful kind – it’s real life and it’s horrific. And none so real or horrendous as for the residents of Beit Lahia in Gaza last Friday, seven of whom were torn apart by Israeli shells as they had a picnic on the beach near their homes.

Three Palestinian children aged ten, seven and one year old died in what the Israeli authorities called "this unfortunate incident". How much more suffering can Palestinian working class families endure?

This is just one incident in a gathering storm of instability, violence, and the disintegration of society which gathers pace. This social, political and economic tornado threatens to engulf not only the Palestinian Authority (PA) but also Israel and the wider Middle East.

Armed clashes

In May, events in the PA gave a chilling warning – if one were needed – of the future devastation that may befall the Palestinians if the working class and poor peasantry remain sidelined observers of the situation. Serious armed clashes developed between armed militias of Hamas and Fatah, against a background of economic collapse and bankruptcy as a war of words was traded between the Hamas government and the Fatah leader and Palestinian President, Abbas.

These clashes are a direct consequence of imperialist and Israeli capitalist policies in the PA since the January Palestinian general elections, which dealt a crushing defeat to Fatah, the dominant political force amongst Palestinians for the last 40 years. On the other hand, Hamas, despite its anti-imperialist rhetoric, has no viable strategy to lead the Palestinian masses to genuine national and social liberation.

It is an organisation whose leaders put forward divisive, theocratic and anti-working class policies. When they recently assumed control of local councils in the PA, they made cuts in jobs and services and sold off council property.

The Hamas victory was a stunning blow to US imperialism’s plan to "democratise the Middle East", replacing existing regimes with ones more compliant to western interests.

How wrong Bush was! His public response to the election result was to say "We support democracy but it doesn’t mean we have to support governments elected as a result of democracy". In the aftermath of these comments US imperialism and its allies moved to attempt to immediately drive out the new Hamas administration by cutting off all economic aid to the territory and attempting in reality to destroy what little there remains of infrastructure for the PA.

The PA budget is approximately $1.9 billion a year, of which $1.3 billion comes from the US, EU and taxes collected on behalf of the PA by the Israeli authorities.

Alongside this, Israeli capitalism used the Israeli Defence Force to exert massive military pressure on the PA and terrible collective punishment on its population. In the last two months the IDF has rained 6,000 shells into Gaza bombarding areas which are up to only 100 metres from civilian accommodation.

The economic sanctions and military campaign has had a terrible effect on the lives of millions. Hospitals have run out of supplies and so people are dying of kidney failure. Palestinian women are selling family jewellery for a pittance so that their families can live a step away from starvation.

Dor Alon, an Israeli company which holds the monopoly of fuel supply for Gaza and West Bank cut supplies of fuel in early May causing massive shortages over night using the excuse of non-payment of bills. This is despite the fact that the Israeli authority has withheld the $50 million a month it collects in taxes on behalf of the PA and which is normally used to pay for fuel supplies.

The two Israeli banks which provide currency to the PA also announced around the same time that they were halting the flow of money to the PA because they were concerned about being prosecuted by US courts for aiding "terrorist organisations".

This campaign has nothing to do with the supposed "terrorist" character of Hamas. Israeli, US and EU authorities have all negotiated with Hamas representatives over the years.


Imperialism wants to force Hamas to accept the right of the Israeli state to exist, implement previous peace agreements and announce an indefinite ceasefire.

This is an attempt to entrap and emasculate the Hamas administration and to use it control and hold back the Palestinian masses who are increasingly enraged by their suffering. It is quite clear that this would be a first step to forcing Hamas out of government and bringing back Fatah as a senior partner in a so-called government of national unity as part of a US engineered "creeping coup".

Hamas leaders whose government faced imminent bankruptcy moved onto the offensive. Over 165,000 government employees have not been paid for over three months.

These workers and members of the mainly Fatah dominated security agencies support it is estimated, 1.5 million other Palestinians in the PA. The collapse into poverty has been sudden and catastrophic and has fuelled enormous discontent amongst Fatah fighters, ostensibly employed by the government as part of the security forces. The World Bank recently produced a report where it said that its previous calculations that Palestinians would see a 30% drop in their personal incomes was an underestimation.

One Hamas leader, Mashaal claimed that Fatah were cooperating with US imperialism and the Israeli government to undermine the democratically elected Hamas government. This was followed by the administration announcing the setting up of a new militia made up of battalions of Hamas fighters. As a result Fatah mobilised its militias demanding payment of wages and protesting against Mashaal’s comments. A series of tit-for-tat killings soon swept across Gaza and the West Bank.

It was Abbas’s presentation of a new plan put forward by Fatah and Hamas prisoners over the last two weeks that has stepped up the tempo of political developments and caused difficulties for Hamas government.

The prisoners plan put forward the idea of setting up a Palestinian state in the territory encompassed by the pre-1967 borders (when Israeli capitalism first occupied Gaza and the West Bank) with East Jerusalem as its capital.

This effectively means the implicit recognition of the Israeli state something which Hamas nationally has not been prepared to formally do.

While there is a call for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and towns across Palestine and Israel, it is clear that there could be movement on this question with a repeat of the 2002 position of Arab leaders that there would be no automatic right of return but compensation.

The reason for this initiative is that Abbas wants to undermine Hamas and re-win control of the PA. He is backed fully by western imperialism in this aim. But the Palestinian elite are also desperate to try and regain the initiative in the light of Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s threat to impose a unilateral solution to the borders between Israel and the PA.

Abbas increased pressure by threatening to call a referendum if the Hamas administration did not sign up to the prisoners’ document. The referendum has now been set for the end of July.

This is a high risk strategy for Abbas – at the moment there is a majority in favour of voting for the referendum but over the last couple of days both Islamic Jihad and Hamas prisoners have withdrawn their support for the document.

The issue of the referendum could become another flashpoint in armed clashes between Hamas and Fatah militias and may not necessarily go ahead.

While the quartet group (United Nations, US, European Union and Russia) came up with a deal to funnel $50m a month in emergency payments through Abbas’s office for payments to the most needy, this will only fuel tensions and friction between Hamas and Fatah.

What is clearly needed is for the interests of the working class and poor peasantry to be reasserted in this situation.

Even if only with the support of tiny handfuls initially, the necessity of building a united working class movement based on socialist policies becomes more urgent every day as the situation becomes increasingly dangerous.

Only Maavak Sozialisti, the CWI in Israel, consistently raises these ideas amongst Israelis and Palestinians despite the complicated political situation.

The mine that no one intended to disarm

Nearly six months have passed since Hamas was elected to head the Palestinian government.

Yasha Marmerstien, Maavak Sozialisti, Israel

Translated by Dolev Rahat

The outcome of the elections, which created a storm in Israel, have significantly changed Palestinian politics, and have demonstrated sharply the social trends that have developed in Palestinian society amidst the scale of poverty, Israeli military occupation and widespread desperation. While Olmert and his coalition partners continue to implement a policy which compounds the social crisis in the occupied territories, and creates the conditions in which support for suicide attacks grows, the real questions which arises is whether the convergence plan [Olmert’s plan for a final imposed settlement] and the separation wall are real solutions to the problem of suicide bombings.

Olmert’s government sees no long term solution to the conflict, but seeks a way to preserve Israel’s position in the global market as stable and “attractive for investments”. The cuts in welfare budgets, and the privatisation of most of what remained of the public sector are an integral part of this process. The interests that guide the politicians on “security” questions are similar to the interests that guide them on economic questions – in both cases their concern does not lie with the majority of the population between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean [the Israeli and Palestinian population], but mainly with the economic elite.

The convergence plan, like other initiatives attempted by various Israeli governments, is an additional attempt to reduce the economic cost of the occupation and the political pressure the government faces, both from the Israeli public, which is tired of the ongoing war, and from the Bush administration and the EU governments, who want the oil from the Middle East to flow to the West without any obstructions.

In contrast to the disengagement from the Gaza strip, the convergence plan does not even include a substantial redeployment of the Israeli army’s forces from the West Bank area, but merely the evacuation of isolated outposts [outposts in this context are extremely small settlements, created by Israeli hard-line ideological settlers, mainly with the purpose of blocking the development of Palestinian cities and villages], that their maintenance is not beneficial for the government and the army. The convergence plan is meant to determine the permanent borders of the West Bank. This will not be done by evacuating some outpost or another or by the construction of a massive wall all along the West Bank.

The separation wall was presented to Israelli Jews as the magic solution to suicide bombings, but its efficiency in stopping them turned out to be limited. The last bombings in the cities of Netanya and Hadera come from the area of Tulkarm, where the construction of the wall was completed two years ago. Also, the wall is incapable of stopping missiles. The manner in which the wall was built showed that in many places its route was determined by political considerations and not by security considerations. The real purpose behind the separation fence is the annexation of land and the strengthening of Israeli control over the West Bank. In the meantime the wall/fence causes great suffering to the workers and farmers in the occupied territories and separates them and their workplaces and lands. This causes a “silent” transfer – the migration of people who can no longer survive separated from means of income. This creates tens of thousands of additional refugees who have nothing to lose, and strengthens the social infrastructure of terrorism.

The Israeli government is not in a hurry to implement the convergence plan, because instability in the occupied territories raises a question mark over the possibility of implementing it. The plan is presented as unilateral, but has to rely on a more or less stable regime on the Palestinian side, which will maintain relative peace during its implementation.

As a consequence of the results of the elections to the Palestinian Parliament, the Israeli government, supported by the Bush administration and the heads of the EU, decided to punish the Palestinians for choosing the wrong government. The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) bank accounts in Israel were frozen, and in the absence of an independent Palestinian bank the transfer of money to the PA was rendered impossible. The Palestinian budget is approximately $1.9 billion, of which $1.3 billion is made up of aid money coming from the US, the EU and taxes collected by Israel. The stoppage of these sums means a collapse of the economic situation in the occupied territories and a real humanitarian catastrophe. Already the PA’s 130,000 workers, who according to the World Bank estimates, support 1.5 million Palestinians, have not been paid for two months. Palestinian hospitals are on the verge of collapse, and 70% of the schools are going to be closed down due to the lack of finance because of day-to-day maintenance.

The causes behind the economic boycott are not a principled boycott of the Hamas government. Both Olmert and the American administration have declared on several occasions in the past that they do not completely rule out negotiations with Hamas. The economic boycott is used by the Israeli elite to exert pressure on Hamas leadership to accept the agenda of the Israeli government, and with it the role of Fatah from the 1990’s: supplying Israeli bosses with a cheap labor force from the occupied territories and maintaining the day-to-day aspects of the occupation such as policing, transportation, education etc.. Some of the heads of Hamas are willing to accept this role, but many in the organisation’s leadership realise that close cooperation with the Israeli regime will eventually lead to the loss of the widespread support that Hamas enjoys today, as happened to Fatah in the past.

Hamas’ refusal to submit to the Israeli pressure is perceived today in the Palestinian public as an expression of courage. The social circumstances that lead to the Hamas victory have not disappeared. In reality, they are sharpened by the economic boycott and the severe lack of welfare budgets. As far as the masses in the occupied territories are concerned, Hamas is still a lesser evil when compared to Fatah. The corruption of the Fatah regime, its helplessness in the face of the Israeli occupation, and the anarchy it created in Palestinian society, has made it unacceptable for most residents of the occupied territories. The continuing unemployment and the collapse of the PA’s welfare system made the welfare services provided by Hamas essential for a wide layer of Palestinians. And Hamas knew how to turn this into political support and genuine commitment to the organization amongst a minority.

Even today, after six months of Hamas rule in the territories, it still enjoys support amongst the majority of Palestinians. The way most Palestinians justifiably see it, the blame for their economic suffocation lies directly with the Israeli and US governments. However, the massive support for Hamas cannot be interpreted as an automatic support for suicide bombings or the unrealistic solution that Hamas proposes: an Islamic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. Support for Hamas grows from the vacuum created in Palestinian politics and the lack of a political force based on the workers and the poor in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which could propose a real strategy to end the military occupation and a real struggle against the economic distress and corruption in the PA.

The very fact that the economic boycott did not damage support for Hamas up to now amongst the Palestinian public causes Fatah to demand a bigger share of control over the PA. Fatah attempts to achieve by force what it didn’t get electorally. Thus, the confrontations between the two central organisations in the territories deteriorate into an armed struggle. Fatah activists have found themselves in an entirely new situation: they have lost not only the position of the ruling party and the political prestige, but also their jobs.

While the struggle between Hamas’ and Fatah’s armed militias is a political one, its basis is the severe lack of basic resources in the territories, which makes the question of who controls their distribution critical. After several weeks of violent confrontations between the various factions of Fatah and Hamas, the two organisations’ political leaderships have decided to negotiate on the question of the division of power in the PA.

The dynamics of the armed struggle in the streets might bring the Gaza strip to the present condition of Iraq, where every city and every neighborhood are under the control of a different armed militia. An overall struggle between the organisations will effect the whole Middle East and will lead to a state of instability and bloodshed. One of the possible outcomes of such deterioration is the total collapse of the PA.

The establishment of the PA by Israel in the early 1990’s was an important step for Israel’s economic and political elite. The new authority took from the Israeli government and army the responsibility of running welfare systems and municipal authorities, on combating crime, on providing post and communication services etc. A collapse of the PA will return Israel 15 years back in time to a direct management of Palestinian cities, which will not be possible without their military reoccupation.

For the Israeli elite and the US administration this is a nightmare scenario: a re-entering of the Israeli army to Gaza and the cities of the West Bank will throw the whole area into flames, will further weaken the US hold on Iraq, and will destabilise pro-US regimes in the Middle East.

It is likely that resistance to a new Israeli invasion will follow the path of suicide bombings and attacks by small groups from the armed militias. This path will increase the polarisation between Israeli and Palestinian workers, and will strengthen the fear and despair on both sides.

As part of the political struggle between Hams and Fatah, the PA president Abu Mazen has introduced an agreement initiated by Marwan Barghouti and signed by all Palestinian factions in the Israeli Hadarim prison. Abu Mazen demanded the Hamas government back the agreement, threatening otherwise to carry out a referendum on the proposals. For Abu Mazen, this agreement is another way to exert pressure on Hamas, to strengthen his control over the masses, and to use the referendum as a second election. The proposal itself calls upon all factions to join the PLO and recognise Israel, in return for Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 lines and recognition of the rights of the Palestinian refugees. [Abu Mazen has announced that the referendum will take place on July 26, in response the prisoners belonging to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have withdrawn their endorsement of the agreement].

This agreement strongly resembles the idea behind the Oslo accords, and therefore contains all the problems that caused the failure of these accords. The central problem is these agreements ignoring the conditions that exist on the ground. In the existing economic constellation in the Middle East, the establishment of a genuinely independent Palestinian state is not possible under capitalism . At best, it would be a client state totally dependent politically and economically on the Israeli elite, which will do everything to preserve its own narrow interests. These interests are irreconcilable with the aspiration of the masses in the territories for a decent living standard and the regeneration of Palestinian society. During the Oslo period living conditions in the territories worsened dramatically. The disappointment this led to the beginning of suicide bombings as early as the mid-1990s and later the second Intifada.

Israeli and Palestinian workers have a common interest in ending this bloody conflict. Without ensuring proper living conditions for the masses of workers and unemployed in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, the personal security of workers In Israel cannot be guaranteed either. But a system controlled by a handful of capitalists, who are guided by no other interests other than their profits, is incapable of securing decent living conditions either for the Palestinian or Israeli workers.

Therefore, we cannot rely on the politicians, who are subservient to the capitalists, to provide a real solution to the conflict, in much the same way as we have no confidence that they will end poverty. The most practical step that could be made today is to stop believing in magic solutions, and to create a real class alternative in the form of a broad workers party, that will develop a strategy different from that of the clique of generals and politicians. This party will fight for working people on both sides of the 67’ line, against the privatisation and budget cuts in Israel, and against the lack of infrastructure and the closures of the occupied territories. This party must demand equal working conditions and wages for Palestinian and Israeli workers, and must call for the building of democratic workers organisations and for substantial improvement in the social conditions of both groups. This party must voice its opposition to suicide bombings that harm Israeli workers, demand the withdrawal of the army from the territories and an end to direct and indirect military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, while granting the masses in the territories the right for self-determination on the basis of an independent state. This self-determination can only be obtained by a structural change of the economic system and the social order in the Middle East, from the rule of the 18 capitalist families in Israel, to all the corrupt in the whole region, laying the basis for a socialist Middle East.

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June 2006