Conflict in Jerusalem widens across Israeli cities and to war on Gaza

photo Paul Mattsson

Weeks of repressive, brutal Israeli policing of Palestinian gatherings and protests in East Jerusalem have led to a new round of bloody conflict. Rather than just being confined to Jerusalem, this time the Israeli authorities are facing a Palestinian revolt on a much wider scale, on multiple fronts.

Outrage at the Jerusalem events led to Palestinian eruptions of protest across the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, and solidarity demonstrations in the wider Middle East and globally. In a number of towns and cities inside Israel, the security forces have been taken aback by the wave of anger from Palestinians that has broken out on the streets. Interventions by far-right Jewish activists at flashpoints in mixed Jewish-Palestinian cities, like Lod and Ramle, have brought serious dangers of sectarian conflict, with lynchings, barricades and clashes showing elements of a developing civil war.

At the time of writing, Israeli missiles have slaughtered over 60 Gazans, including 16 children, some of them inside or near residential tower blocks that have been destroyed. The CWI strongly condemns this horrific, massive Israeli bombardment, which is causing enormous terror and devastation in the densely populated Gaza strip. The Israeli military is considering sending ground troops into Gaza too.

Over 1,000 rockets and shells have been fired by Palestinian militias from Gaza towards Israel, with many hitting Israeli towns and cities, killing seven people, two of them Palestinian residents.

This growing bloodbath did not come out of nowhere but developed out of a series of events before it. Last month, Israeli ‘security forces’ erected barriers to prevent Palestinians from congregating next to the Damascus gate into the old city – gatherings that are usual during Ramadan.  That led to an outbreak of Palestinian protest, which was met with heavy repression. The protesters were able to celebrate a victory when the barriers were subsequently removed.

At the same time, there have been protests against threatened ‘ethnic cleansing’ home evictions of Palestinian families in nearby Sheikh Jarrah. There were clashes between right-wing Israelis and Sheikh Jarrah residents. The Israeli police and security used appalling brutality, including stun grenades, against the protests of unarmed, young Palestinians. The homes have been lived in by Palestinians for many decades, yet they have faced eviction orders based on historic Jewish ownership claims that have since been ‘bought’ by Jewish settlers. According to Israeli law, Jewish people can be granted ownership of land or homes in East Jerusalem that they claim a pre-1948 right to, but Palestinians cannot reclaim the land they owned anywhere in Israel before 1948.

Then, on 10 May, amid right-wing Israeli nationalist provocations – including attempts to hold Jerusalem Day events that annually ‘celebrate’ the 1967 seizing of East Jerusalem – police fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas into hundreds of Palestinians in the al-Aqsa mosque compound, causing serious injuries.

That outrageous escalation – at the third holiest site in Islam and in the last week of Ramadan – inflamed anger even further locally and worldwide, especially among Arab and Muslim people. Right-wing Hamas forces and other Palestinian militias fired a new round of rockets and incendiary balloons into Israel, following other episodes of this in previous weeks. It was the ‘excuse’ Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker Israeli government seized on to launch high-tech missile strikes on Gaza, starting a new war.

Racist incitement

A key factor behind these events is the inability of Netanyahu to form a new coalition government after failing to achieve a majority in each of four successive Israeli general elections. His Likud party and allied parties on the right and far-right do not stop short of destabilising national relations to suit their agenda of posing as the strongest defenders of ‘law and order’. For instance, on Monday, the head of the Religious Zionist party, Bezalel Smotrich, provocatively visited Sheikh Jarrah and called for even tougher measures there against the Palestinian protesters. He pointedly said: “We must form a stable government that will clarify who’s in charge of the State of Israel.”

New far-right Knesset (Israeli parliament) member, Itamar Ben-Gvir, also involved himself in racist incitement there. Ben-Gvir has been associated with the largely banned terrorist far-right Kahanist movement, and his far-right ideology had barred him from serving in Israel’s army. Yet before March’s general election, Netanyahu, in an unscrupulous and ruthless drive for a government majority, helped bring three far-right organisations together in one election list so that they could pass the minimum voting threshold and take part in his governing bloc. In that way, Ben-Gvir was elected.

UK Financial Times journalist, David Gardner, wrote: “Ben-Gvir’s behaviour recalls that of Ariel Sharon, the late prime minister and settlers’ champion, chaperoned past the Haram ash-Sharif towards Temple Mount in September 2000 by hundreds of Israeli riot police. That lit the powder trail to a second Palestinian uprising, known as the al-Aqsa intifada”.

Gardner’s warning is one of many from capitalist commentators alarmed at the consequences for Israel of increased repression against the Palestinians, along with racist provocations and the ongoing settlement project. Gardner added that all this “forecloses on the possibility of a Palestinian state and forces Palestinians to struggle for equal rights inside a Greater Israel, undermining Israel’s legitimacy in world opinion. It also puts at risk Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbours, as well as Muslims worldwide” (FT 11.5.21).

This new round of conflict was inevitably going to come at some stage, as anger among the Palestinian youth has been consistently high for a long period. As well as the brutal military occupation, they suffer high levels of unemployment, poverty and lack of services – including at present insufficient coronavirus vaccines and other health facilities. None of the pro-capitalist Palestinian-based parties can improve their lives in any of these respects, never mind end them, including Fatah and Hamas.  The so-called ‘international community’ of capitalist powers have also shown their bankruptcy regarding a way forward, time and time again.

Palestinian struggle

Rockets and indiscriminate individual attacks on Israeli civilians show desperation but are not a way forward to achieve liberation from oppression.  The missiles from Gaza are not high-tech enough to be accurately aimed and are striking very few Israeli military targets, but have landed in a number of run-down working-class towns in Israel – such as Ashkelon, Holon and Rishon – killing and injuring indiscriminately. These attacks draw ordinary Israelis closer to right-wing government ministers who respond with increased brutality against the Palestinians, and with a vastly greater level of weaponry than the Palestinian militias have.

Rather than being alienated from the Palestinian struggle in this way, the Israeli Jewish working class needs to be split from the Israeli ruling class. The crucial question for the Palestinians is how the Israeli regime is going to be defeated. This will not just be through military means, but through a struggle that can divide Israeli society along class lines – winning as many workers as possible towards supporting a socialist solution for national rights, and decent living standards on both sides of the divide.

Also, the rocket firings wrongly give a message that they should be the main method of struggle, replacing the mass demonstrations, which suits organisations like right-wing Hamas that want to appear as the champions of resistance against Israeli aggression.

Instead, a successful struggle needs to be based on democratically organised, mass mobilisations of the Palestinian people – a new mass intifada. The new generation of Palestinian youth – within Israel and in the territories – who are coming to the fore in the protest movements, will no doubt question and debate these contrasting methods, and can move in the direction of building the mass actions and workers’ organisations that are urgently needed. As part of this mass struggle, the Palestinians have the right to resist Israeli armed forces’ attacks against them, by organising armed self-defence that is controlled democratically by the communities.

The flare-up in East Jerusalem came after weeks of demonstrations across Palestinian communities in Israel over a lack of measures to tackle poverty-related crime and gang violence in their communities. Protests took place every week in the northern city of Umm al-Fahm, and in March around 2,000 people rallied in Tel Aviv.  Anger has been directed not just at the government but also at the Palestinian political representatives. This was shown in the general election turnout in those areas, with only 50% voting, down from 65% in March 2020.

They initially had hope in the ‘Joint List’ of four Arab-based parties that were set up to fight the 2015 general election. But those parties have not delivered on their promises and in the last election the list partially broke up, with the departure of the Islamist party, Ra’am (United Arab List), from its right flank. Ra’am has now resorted to trying to extract what scraps of funding it can get for Palestinian communities from the next Israeli government, in return using its five Knesset votes to allow any political stripes of a coalition government to exist. Meanwhile, the Israeli Communist Party remains tied up in the Joint List, when all along a socialist force should have been spearheading an independent, anti-capitalist electoral challenge.

In the Palestinian Authority (PA) areas, the first general election for 15 years had been planned for 22 May, and then a presidential election in July, but both have been cancelled by the Mahmood Abbas-led PA. Abbas blamed the cancellation on the Israeli government’s refusal to allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote, but in reality, it has all the hallmarks of Abbas and those around him fearing losing the vote. There is increased fragmentation of the political parties. Fatah has split into rival lists and faced losing votes to Hamas – who opposed the election cancellation – and the many other lists that had been declared.

The cancellation will fuel even greater discontent towards Fatah, from its already high level. Over 93% of the PA population had registered to vote and a large majority wanted the elections to go ahead – though not with great expectation of them leading to change.

Israeli politics and society

Netanyahu will inevitably try to take advantage of the rocket fire from Gaza to draw support towards himself, posing as a leader who will stand up to the threat. However, at the same time, the deaths, injuries and fear of the rockets, and the developing elements of civil war are massively worsening feelings of insecurity in Israel. This situation follows less than two weeks after shock swept through Israeli society at the deadliest civilian disaster in the country’s history. A stampede at an event in Mount Meron caused 45 deaths, a tragedy linked to health and safety negligence.

Netanyahu is presently on trial for corruption, and it has long been a problem for the Israeli ruling class to have a prime minister whose focus is on using his position to try to keep out of prison.  His destabilising reliance on far-right parties has also been a major problem for them. These are factors that have contributed towards the current escalation in the national conflict, which is not just a crisis for the ruling Israeli elite domestically, but internationally too, with capitalist powers around the globe – including Joe Biden’s US administration and the UN – feeling compelled to issue warnings and cautions. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, two of the countries which signed a peace deal with Israel, last year, responded to outrage in their populations by condemning Israel.

So, having whipped up the flames of national conflict, Netanyahu is now coming under great pressure from within Israel and internationally to de-escalate the situation to avoid a full-scale war, which this time could engulf Israeli cities to a much greater degree than in previous wars.

In the coming period, the divisions will deepen among leaders and former leaders of Israel’s state institutions on what to do about the occupation, the settlements and discrimination. Add into this scenario the fact that Israeli parliamentary ‘democracy’ is a system in a great crisis, as shown by the four inconclusive elections in just two years, and their difficulties multiply. Those election outcomes, in turn, result from the fragmentation of the main pro-capitalist political parties, which stems from increasing disillusionment in them – a process seen globally.

A large layer of the population has wanted Netanyahu out of office due to many factors, including the corruption cases, rising inequality, lack of services, and discrimination within Jewish society, as well as against the Palestinians.

But he has also retained a minority support base – his Likud party still topped the poll in the March general election, recently helped by having presided over the highest coronavirus vaccination rate in the world. It is also the case that the economy has had a smaller hit than in many countries, contracting by 2.3% during 2020.

As Netanyahu has failed, so far, to put together a new coalition, a fifth general election within three years is possible. Seven different ‘anti-Netanyahu’ parties are discussing whether they can avoid this by forming their own governing coalition. But those negotiations have been postponed by Ra’am – whose MKs (MPs) they would need the support of – due to the escalating national conflict. This shows one of the ways in which the conflict was at least initially playing into Netanyahu’s hands, as in the meantime he remains the caretaker leader.

If these ‘opposition’ talks do result in a government, probably headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, it would be very weak and unstable due to its minority status and diverse make-up. The word ‘opposition’ is in inverted commas here because the likes of Bennett and Lapid do not present a fundamental alternative to Likud, whether on improving living standards for working-class Israelis or on the national question. Some of the coalition’s leaders would be even to the right of Netanyahu. In addition, the decades-long failures of parties nominally on the left, like Labour and Meretz, underlies why Netanyahu has been in power for 12 years – and the expected right-wing character of the next government whether it includes him or not.

There is nothing inevitable about this though – it is due to the lack of a mass workers’ party that can present a socialist alternative. In the election, a spark of interest was shown in the direction of the Labour party, which increased its small number of Knesset seats because its new leader, Merav Michaeli, had made some limited moves in a left direction.

While Palestinian workers suffer the worst pay and working conditions, a large layer of Israeli Jewish workers also suffers from poverty, financial insecurity and frequent attacks on their pay, conditions and welfare at the hands of their bosses and the government. Workers’ strikes and struggles often break out – the latest one being a 24-hour strike of doctors on 10 May – furious that funding provided for 600 extra doctors during the coronavirus pandemic might be withdrawn. Also, there have been regular anti-Netanyahu protests against corruption, as well as demonstrations on other issues.

There is an urgent need at present for trade unionists and other workers to organise together on a local basis – whether at workplaces or work sectors – against the violence between the far-right and Palestinians in areas where this is arising. The workers’ movement can only rely on its own forces against this danger, not on the state forces or pro-capitalist politicians who have laid the basis for the clashes in the first place.

Longer-term is the necessary task of developing official trade union committees and national structures into fighting bodies controlled by the memberships. Also, of linking up the struggles of Palestinian and Jewish workers in Israel with those in the Palestinian territories.

Security for the Jewish population will not be achieved by military means, nor will it be achieved by looking to any of the many brands of Israeli pro-capitalist politician for another capitalist solution. Israeli Jewish workers, together with the Palestinian residents of Israel who live and work alongside them or close by, will need to build their own party, completely independent of capitalist interests.

For the Palestinians in the occupied territories, an urgent task is the development of democratically-run local committees to organise actions and defence – they cannot look to Fatah or Hamas, neither of which have a way forward. These committees could build further on the recent successes achieved by mass protests – the latest two being postponement of a court hearing that was pursuing the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and last-minute cancellation of the provocative Jerusalem Day march which intended to go through the Arab part of Jerusalem’s old city. Democratic committees, linking up with each other, would be important preliminary steps towards building a mass, independent, working-class led party in the Palestinian areas.

With workers’ parties, Palestinian and Israeli, adopting a programme for a socialist Palestine alongside a socialist Israel – as part of a socialist confederation of the Middle East – it will be possible to lay the basis for bringing the capitalist nightmare of cycles of death and destruction to an end.

  • Stop the Israeli military’s missile strikes on Gaza!
  • No more brutal force against Palestinians defending their homes and religious sites!
  • Stop the home evictions of Palestinian families
  • For democratically-organised action and defence committees in Palestinian communities
  • For the immediate withdrawal of the Israeli army from the occupied territories and ending the siege on Gaza
  • For a mass struggle of the Palestinians, under their own democratic control, to fight for genuine national liberation
  • For independent workers’ organisations in Palestine and Israel
  • For an independent, democratic socialist Palestinian state, alongside a democratic socialist Israel, with two capitals in Jerusalem and guaranteed democratic rights for all minorities, as part of the struggle for a socialist Middle East




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