Tension rises over demand for release of Palestinian prisoners
The Gaza strip is again suffering a brutal Israeli army onslaught, with massive shell bombardment. Vital bridges have been blown up and Gaza’s only power station hit by nine missiles, which cut electricity supply to 65% of Gaza and prevented water supply pumps from working. As well as these attacks from the sea and air, Gaza was completely sealed off by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and despite its declared withdrawal from Gaza one year ago, it has now moved ground troops back to parts of the strip. The Israeli forces have also imprisoned 64 Hamas activists and ministers, including the finance minister, shelled the office of the Hamas prime minister and stripped four Hamas officials of their Jerusalem residency permits.
All this was the Israeli government’s initial response to Palestinian militias taking prisoner an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, which in turn was a reaction to the IDF killing of the leader of the Palestinian Resistance Committees (PRC), Jamal Abu Samadhana, and the killing of many other Palestinians in recent weeks.
Thousands of high-tech IDF missiles have bombarded the Gaza strip during the last few months. All the leading Palestinian militia leaders and many from their political wings are on the IDF target list, including when the timing is decided, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and the Hamas leader living in Syria, Mashaal. Many civilians are dying as well, unable to escape shells raining down on such a densely populated strip of land.
The death toll in June went over 25, ten of them being children. This toll included a particularly horrific incident on 9 June, when a twelve year old girl, Huda Ghalia, saw seven members of her family slaughtered by a missile on the Gaza beach where they were picnicking. Since the start of the second intifada in the year 2000, more than 3,920 Palestinians have died and 1,113 Israelis.
Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner in a carefully planned assault by three Palestinian militias – the PRC, Islamic Army and the armed wing of Hamas – on an IDF post in Kerem Shalom near the Gaza strip. They had dug a tunnel under the Gaza border fence, and in the assault had killed two Israeli soldiers and destroyed two IDF vehicles as well as taking Shalit hostage.
In addition to the IDF weaponry, Palestinians in the occupied territories have been enduring an economic blockade by Israel and the world capitalist powers, since they elected Hamas to government in a landslide victory in January 2006. As well as the withdrawal of hundreds of millions of dollars of direct support from the US and EU, Israel has withheld the return of $60 million per month of tax revenues that it collects from the territories. Israeli banks and a monopoly fuel supplier have also withdrawn services. The result of these measures is massively increased poverty, malnutrition and unemployment. A quarter of the Palestinian population relies directly on the wages of 165,000 Palestinian Authority (PA) employees who have not been fully paid since the sanctions began, and most Palestinians have already spent all their savings. The World Bank predicts that 67% will be in poverty – defined as living on less than $2 per day – in the territories by the end of 2006, though the situation could be even worse than that by then. Illustrating the humanitarian crisis, the World Food Programme recently said that many Palestinians are now living on only one meal a day.
Alarmed at the rapid deterioration, the international ‘quartet’ that pronounces on Israel-Palestine affairs, which consists of the EU, US, Russia and the UN, agreed some limited emergency assistance in May to stave off complete collapse of the PA – with delivery of it via Fatah PA president Mahmood Abbas’s office. But the US-led quartet and the Israeli regime have no solution to the growing poverty and conflict, which their past actions have created and their future actions will only make worse.
Hamas – the Islamic Resistance Movement – was elected in a landslide victory in January 2006, due to widespread anger with Fatah, the dominant political group throughout the previous 39 years of Israeli occupation of the territories (Gaza and the West Bank). It was a vote against corruption, declining living standards and lack of advancement in the struggle against the occupation.
The Hamas government was immediately vilified as a terrorist government by the Israeli regime and capitalist powers internationally. But the real reason for giving the Palestinians collective punishment in the form of sanctions, is Hamas’s history of adopting an uncompromising anti-Israeli stance, which brings it into conflict with the imperialist powers. Those same powers have long supported the Israeli capitalist state despite its use of brutal repression and terror against the Palestinians, and its rejection of UN resolutions against the occupation.
Hamas has pledged to enter into a long-term ceasefire if the occupation ends, and unilaterally stuck to a ceasefire for 18 months, despite constant IDF provocations. However, the horrific slaughter of the Ghalia family on 9 June led them to resume firing home-made rockets into Israeli areas.
Following the election of Hamas, armed conflicts broke out between Fatah gunmen and those of Hamas, with the former being incensed at Fatah’s loss of political power and privileges. As many Fatah members are employed by the PA, the infighting has also stemmed from backlash over the non-payment of wages by the Hamas government. However, during May, Fatah leaders started to fear the extent of the violence and the seeming entry onto the scene of new, more uncompromising groups, possibly including some who take al-Qaeda as their role model. A number of Palestinians had been killed or injured in the clashes and the life of Abbas himself was threatened.
As a result of these pressures, and in an attempt to undermine Hamas and regain some initiative, Abbas quickly supported an 18-point proposal drawn up in May jointly by Fatah and Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails. He then told the Hamas government that if it didn’t sign up to the document too, it would be put to all Palestinians in the territories in a referendum on 26 July.
The 18-point plan calls for a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem its capital; the subordination of Hamas to the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO); the right of return of refugees; the release of prisoners; the right to resistance against the occupation; and the formation of a national unity government involving both Hamas and Fatah.
Confronted with this list, Hamas has not yet given a full verdict, but has acquiesced to acceptance of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders, giving implicit recognition to Israel while not stating it explicitly. This is a significant change in Hamas’s position.
Palestinians would most likely vote for the proposals in a referendum if it goes ahead, though if the turnout is low it would undermine claims of success by Abbas. Nevertheless, Hamas is under pressure to agree the proposals and avoid a referendum because of the chance of a yes vote.
If a Fatah-Hamas deal is achieved, it could lead to an attempt at power-sharing in government, as a move by Fatah to regain some of its former prestige and by Hamas to try to alleviate economic sanctions and to avoid full responsibility for failing to advance the Palestinian struggle.
However, Hamas is internally divided, with a hard-line wing that is critical of the more moderate wing, so any compromise with Fatah could lead to a split. Abbas has tried to benefit from Hamas’s problems, by supporting the prisoners’ demands and blaming Hamas for the international sanctions. The Palestinian people blame US imperialism for the sanctions rather than Hamas, but nevertheless Abbas can play on the desperation caused by the effects of those sanctions.
Whether Hamas survives in government long enough to be party to a new power-sharing PA is not certain, as US sanctions are aimed at the removal of the Hamas regime, and it is also possible that the Israeli regime could decide to step up further its present campaign to remove the Hamas government. The removal of Hamas from government through the actions of US or Israeli capitalism however, as well as multiplying the anger of the Palestinians and their support for Hamas, would increase outrage worldwide, particularly among the Arab masses.
The escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict following the capture of Gilad Shalit may recede if a deal is struck, or could escalate considerably without one. In exchange for Shalit’s release, his captors are demanding an Israeli commitment to release around 1,000 Palestinian women, children and ‘humanitarian cases’ from Israeli jails, out of 8,000 imprisoned Palestinians.
Whatever the outcome, the situation shows strongly the extreme instability of the region. With none of the Palestinians’ problems solved, and with their plight worsening, the danger constantly exists of a spiralling into an all-out war involving the surrounding Arab countries. There is already rising outrage among workers in surrounding countries at the Israeli siege of the 1.4 million Gazans.
Observing this, some capitalist commentators are expressing unease about what lies ahead. For example, the British Financial Times warns in an editorial on the Israeli siege of Gaza: “this dark new episode is in danger of spiralling out of control. A decade of intensified Israeli action and political stalemate has radicalised Palestinians. This offensive will continue that – just as politics was staging a comeback. The response of the US and its allies, calling for ‘restraint’ is mutely inadequate”.
However, neither the ‘comeback’ politics of Hamas nor the pro-Western imperialism Fatah can show a way forward. The aim of a capitalist Palestinian state, whether Islamic or secular, would not solve the Palestinians’ economic problems. Many Hamas leaders are self-sacrificing, have rejected the corruption of Fatah and condemn US imperialism. But once in power, whether in councils or government, they have turned to passing the burden of economic crisis onto the shoulders of workers through job cuts and privatisations, as has Fatah.
Neither does either party have a strategy or programme that can deliver a Palestinian state against the massively armed opposition of the Israeli ruling class. Fatah’s method of appealing to the world capitalist powers and corrupt Arab elites to exert pressure on Israel has proved to be futile, as the self-interest of these ruling classes will always come before Palestinian rights. Likewise Hamas’s previous resort to suicide bombings on Israeli civilians and armed attacks by small secretive militias has not taken the struggle for national liberation forward.
Only the building of a democratic, anti-capitalist, mass movement of Palestinian workers will be able to organise successful work for both defence and the furthering of the Palestinian struggle.
Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s government has been shaken by the abduction of Gilad Shalit, the continued firing of Palestinian rockets from the Gaza strip into Israeli communities (despite there being few injuries from them) and support for Hamas from ordinary people across the Arab world. But Olmert has no other strategy than one which will exacerbate the situation further, this being a unilateral imposition of borders and separation of the Palestinian territories from Israel.
Following Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal last summer of the Gaza Jewish settlements and four in the West Bank, Olmert wants to remove most of the remaining isolated West Bank settlements that are to the East of the separation wall being built, containing around 70,000 settlers. Israel would then encompass 80% of the existing settlers – around 375,000 – in the three main West Bank settlement blocks and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians would be left with 11% of pre-1948 Palestine, in atomised parcels of land which would be little better than prison camps.
US president George Bush pays lip service against unilateralist separation by urging Olmert to negotiate it with PA president, Abbas. But Olmert, like Sharon before him, has in effect made it clear that he has no intention of entering into negotiations as it would lead to concessions he is unwilling to make.
Separation is the chosen pathway of the Israeli ruling class, mainly driven by demographic forecasts which show that Palestinians will be the majority of the population in the land encompassed by Israel and the occupied areas within two decades. Israel was created as a Jewish state, and depends on having a Jewish majority to maintain this character.
However, Olmert’s party – Kadima – is a highly unstable political vehicle, as it has virtually no unifying ideology, set up in haste as it was by Sharon, as an escape route from the restrictions of the right-wing Likud party. Also unstable is the four-party coalition that Kadima governs through. This coalition could break up before Olmert can execute his plans.
And if the separation is eventually completed, it will not bring security to the Israeli people. The attack on the Israeli post at Kerem Shalom shows that fences can be overcome. And there are one million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, who have no fences separating them from Jewish homes.
Just as the Israeli capitalist parties cannot offer security, neither can they bring decent living standards to Israeli workers. On the contrary, there have been waves of attacks on the welfare state and secure jobs by successive governments in pursuit of a neo-liberal agenda. So alongside a Palestinian struggle against capitalism, the Israeli working class also needs to build a new movement and party that can represent its own interests and challenge the capitalist system. There is no prospect of resolving the national question in the region on a capitalist basis; the only way forward lies in Israeli workers and Palestinian workers taking matters into their own hands and building a working-class based alternative.
A determined struggle against capitalism will raise consciousness of the need for that alternative to be socialism, in both Israel and in a Palestinian state alongside it, in a socialist confederation of the Middle East. This will be the only basis on which the conflict and bloodshed can be ended once and for all and decent living standards provided for everyone.