Israel-Palestine conflict: How can workers end war and secure national and democratic rights for all?

Israeli military bombing of civilian neighbourhoods in the Gaza Strip 2021 (Photo: Osps7/Wikimedia Commons)

The turn to devastating bloodshed by the Israeli regime has followed weeks of brutal Israeli policing in and around Jerusalem’s old city, and a number of planned evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian outrage had been particularly raised by the storming of the al-Aqsa mosque – the third holiest site in Islam – by Israeli security forces on 7 and 10 May. Police fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas into the crowds of Palestinians in the mosque and its compound, causing serious injuries.

Palestinian protests broke out across the occupied territories and in Palestinian areas of Israel itself. Hamas and Islamic Jihad militias in Gaza then intervened by firing rockets into Israel, which was seized on by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start a horrific war, pounding Gaza with hi-tech weaponry.

A headline on a recent article in the Financial Times illustrated how the war is – for now at least – aiding Netanyahu’s own position: “Palestinian conflict resurrects Netanyahu’s political fortunes. Nearly dethroned a week ago, the five-time premier is back on top, riding a right-wing wave of anger”.

It suits him to pose as a leader who will stand up to the rocket fire as he is presently on trial for corruption and had been reduced to a caretaker role in government, having failed to achieve a majority for a new ruling coalition in each of four successive general elections.

In power for over a decade, he has relied on the religious right in his coalitions and, in the most recent election, crossed a new line by inviting the far right into his bloc.

This gave the far right more status – a factor that contributed towards the descent into war. Over the last month there have been numerous far-right provocations in East Jerusalem.

Racist incitement

For instance, on 10 May, the head of the Religious Zionist party, Bezalel Smotrich, visited Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighbourhood where the evictions of Palestinians is threatened, and called for even tougher measures against Palestinian protesters there.

New Knesset (Israeli parliament) member Itamar Ben-Gvir also went to Sheikh Jarrah to incite racism. He has been associated with the largely banned terrorist far-right Kahanist movement.

Yet before March’s general election, Netanyahu, in an unscrupulous 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 this way, Ben-Gvir was elected.

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 the ongoing occupation and settlement project, which Gardner wrote: “Forecloses on the possibility of a Palestinian state”.

The expanding settlements have been reducing the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and dividing them into separated enclaves, destroying hopes for Palestinians of having their own state. Meanwhile, anger and frustration is at boiling point due to the brutal occupation, high levels of unemployment, poverty and lack of services – including, at present, insufficient coronavirus vaccines and treatments.

‘Peace talks’ failures

Time and time again, ‘peace talks’ have failed, fundamentally because it isn’t in the interests of the Israeli ruling class for there to be a viable, independent Palestinian state next to Israel, with a historic claim on its land, and competition for natural resources, trade and inward investment. The only way of realising a genuine Palestinian state, along with peace and security, is not from deals by capitalist elites at the top, but from mass actions at grassroots level.

The failure of capitalist governments across the Middle East, and internationally, to help the Palestinians now includes the new US administration under Joe Biden. He is determined to continue positioning the US as a firm ally of the Israeli regime, regardless of the bombardment of Gaza, and the occupation.

Biden’s officials blocked a United Nations (UN) call for a ceasefire, and the US state department condemned only the Hamas rockets as “unacceptable escalation”, while absolving Netanyahu’s government by saying Israel has “a legitimate right to defend itself”. After a week of destruction, Biden meekly said he’d “support a ceasefire” – not actually calling for Israel to stop its bombardment!

This position is not, however, without opposition from a number of left Congress members in his Democratic Party, who are reflecting a decline in sympathy among young people in the US for the Israeli regime.

The repression and protests in East Jerusalem came after months 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 was directed not just at the Israeli government, but also at the Palestinian Knesset members. This was shown in the last general election turnout in those areas, with only 50% voting, down from 65% in March 2020.

It is following that movement that there has now been an even bigger wave of anger across Palestinian communities in Israel, triggered by the East Jerusalem events. Rage erupted onto the streets and was met by heavy police repression, together with rampages by far-right Jewish activists – mainly coming from outside the mixed Jewish-Arab cities to whip up racism and violent clashes (see eyewitness accounts on page 10).

These elements of civil war are of greater concern to the Israeli ruling class than revolts in the occupied territories, as they bring instability into the heart of Israel. Israeli president Reuven Rivlin called the threat of civil war “a danger to our existence”.

From an opposite class standpoint, it is also a danger to the working class. There is an urgent need for trade unionists and other workers to organise together on a local basis against the violence between the far right and Palestinians in towns and cities 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.

The 18,000-strong Israeli trade union organisation ‘Power to the Workers’ issued a statement against the violence and expressed pride in the way its Jewish and Palestinian members stand together and protect each other from any threats. A third of its membership is Palestinian, and it organises around a third of the bus drivers in Israel – who have been involved in numerous strikes in recent years.

The social workers’ trade union also issued a statement reaffirming that it represents both Jews and Arabs, and calling for unity and an end to the violence.

Israeli government crisis

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 reliance on destabilising right-wing political parties is also a problem for them.

But he has retained a minority support base in the population – 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 Israeli economy has had a smaller hit than in many countries, contracting by 2.3% during 2020.

Neither Netanyahu’s Likud-led alliance of parties, nor the anti-Netanyahu bloc of parties, have managed to put together a new government coalition so far. It is possible that the present war situation will lead to one of the parties switching blocs to give Netanyahu a coalition majority in the Knesset.

Alternatively, a workable coalition of the anti-Netanyahu bloc could still be negotiated into existence, though this prospect has plummeted because the national conflict has added to the disarray of the parties involved, exposing different approaches which they had tried to paper over – not least with the Arab-based parties in the bloc.

Therefore, a fifth general election in three years may be the post-war scenario after an eventual ceasefire. It has been reported that Netanyahu might try to change the election structure so that the new premier will be directly voted on by the electorate – in that way trying to ensure his continuing hegemony.

Through that method, or just as a result of his whipping up nationalism during the conflict, it can’t be ruled out that Netanyahu could return to power. The bloc opposing him presents little meaningful opposition on policy and programme. Labour and Meretz, parties nominally on the left, have been part of that pro-capitalist ‘anti-Netanyahu’ bloc alongside right-wing parties.

This situation underlies why Netanyahu has already been in power for 12 years – and the expected right-wing character of the next government whether it includes him or not.

However, a large layer of the population wants to see Netanyahu removed from office due to many factors, including the corruption cases, rising inequality, poor services, and discrimination within Jewish society, as well as that against the Palestinians.

His boost from riding a nationalist wave might turn out to be short-lived, as fear of the rockets and the elements of civil war that have arisen are worsening feelings of insecurity in Israel. This war followed 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.

It is also the case that two of the Arab countries that signed a peace deal with Israel last year, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, have responded to the outrage in their populations at the events in Jerusalem and Gaza by condemning Israel.

In the coming period, divisions will deepen among leaders and former leaders of Israel’s state institutions over what to do about the occupation, the settlements and discrimination. Add into this scenario the fact that Israeli parliamentary ‘democracy’ is a system in great crisis, as shown by the four inconclusive elections, 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.

Israel’s working class

Just as the Palestinian working class needs its own party, so does the Israeli working class, to be able to put forward a programme in its own interests.

While Palestinian workers suffer the worst pay and working conditions, a large layer of Israeli Jewish workers also suffer 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 – a recent one being a 24-hour strike of doctors on 10 May – furious that funding provided for 600 extra doctors during the coronavirus pandemic was threatened with withdrawal. In addition, there have been regular anti-Netanyahu protests against corruption, as well as demonstrations on other issues.

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.

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.

Palestinian struggle

For the struggles of the Palestinians, an urgent task is the development of democratically run local committees to organise their actions and defence. These committees could build further on the recent successes achieved by mass protests. Last month, Israeli security forces erected barriers to prevent Palestinians from congregating during Ramadan next to the Damascus gate into Jerusalem’s old city. Palestinian protests led to the barriers being removed.

Then, earlier this month, again following Palestinian protests, a court hearing which was likely to ratify the Sheikh Jarrah evictions was postponed.

A third victory was the rerouting and last-minute cancellation of a right-wing Israeli nationalist march which had 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 Palestinian mass, independent, working-class-led party.

Methods for the struggle will inevitably be debated. A method that is counterproductive in the fight for liberation from oppression is the rocket fire by Hamas and other militias.

For those militias, the rockets suit the purpose of appearing as a champion of resistance against Israeli aggression. Thousands have been fired since the start of this war, with most landing on empty ground or being intercepted by the Israeli air defence system. But others have hit Israeli towns and cities, killing ten people so far – two of them Palestinian residents.

The rockets are not hi-tech enough to be accurately aimed and are striking very few Israeli military targets, but instead hit Israeli civilians 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 its ruling class and right-wing bigots. 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.

Successful struggle needs to be based on democratically organised, mass mobilisations of the Palestinian people. As part of this they must have the right to armed self-defence, democratically controlled, to resist Israeli military attacks.

In the Palestinian Authority (PA) areas, the first general election for 15 years had been planned for 22 May, and a presidential election in July, but both were 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 had all the hallmarks of him fearing losing the vote. There is increased fragmentation of the political parties. Abbas’s party, Fatah, has split into rival lists and faced losing votes to Hamas – which opposed the election cancellation – and to the many other lists that had been declared.

The cancellation will fuel even greater discontent towards Fatah, from an 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.

  • >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 workers and communities in Israeli cities to organise against far-right violence and sectarian clashes
  • >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

Eyewitnesses in Israel on police repression and right-wing thuggery

Salma, a Palestinian woman living in the northern Israel port of Haifa, told members of the Committee for a Workers’ International about the sectarian tensions in the city.

“We have had an extremely difficult week because of the incitement between Jews and Arabs in Haifa.

Groups of Jewish youth were bused in by the far right from the West Bank. They were carrying sticks and daggers, shouting “Death to Arabs”, and entered the Arab neighbourhoods.

Arabs demonstrated against them. But the police attacked them with tear gas and percussion grenades. My neighbourhood feels like Beirut. It feels like living in a war zone. Police have been using horses and water cannon and rubber bullets to terrorise the demonstrators.

The police have arrested 700 Arab demonstrators. Many have been denied access to lawyers. Medics administering medical treatment to injured demonstrators were themselves beaten by the police.

I saw dozens of Arab youths running into my building to escape the police and tear gas. I have been choking from tear gas in my flat. I could not go out into the stairwell as the gas was so strong hours after the demonstration.

I saw fires in Allenby Street, all the streets around my house. Groups of Jews rampaged up Yitzhak Sadeh Street smashing windows and vandalising cars, breaking into people’s houses and beating them up.

They beat up the daughter of the man who’s the spokesman of the churches in Haifa. We saw him on television. We heard her and her brothers’ cries from our flat. He tried to call the police but the police didn’t come.

The police know if someone who’s complaining is Arab because of their appearance and accent, and so don’t respond. There’s no justice.

My son who works as a doctor in a clinic was scared to go to work for three days for fear of being lynched. We don’t leave our houses. All the restaurants in Haifa, where I live, are closed.

I’ve always believed in coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Haifa. And I believe that the hatred will end because people want to live in peace. People want to work and be seen as respectable. I hope all this will end soon and that Netanyahu won’t be prime minister and that the right wing will go to hell.”

Haim lives in the town of Bat Yam – where an Arab Israeli was dragged out of his car and viciously beaten – and where Arab-owned businesses were attacked or burned.

“These were not people from the neighbourhood – I know everyone round here. They were all wearing the same black hoodies. They chanted “Death to the Arabs” and tried to attack a Jewish/Arab bakery at the ground floor of my building. I yelled at them from my balcony: “Get out of here you scum”!

The police pushed them away, but they went a few hundred yards further north where they torched an Arab-owned kebab shop.

The shops attacked are popular with local people. And the antics of these thugs got no echo from the residents of this normally right-wing leaning neighbourhood.”

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May 2021