Israel-Palestine: A new stage in the struggle

When a ceasefire took hold after eleven days of the war on Gaza by the Israeli military, Gaza’s traumatised population re-emerged onto the streets to survey scenes of terrible devastation. This was the fourth war since 2008 on Hamas-led Gaza by the Israeli regime. The Israeli military declared it had hit 1,500 targets during the onslaught, which it had named ‘Operation Guardian of the Walls’.

The death toll was reported as 248 in Gaza and 12 in Israel, those 12 being victims of more than 4,000 rockets fired from Gaza by Palestinian militias. Nearly 2,000 Gazans were injured, many severely. The Israeli authorities claimed that a majority of the dead – over 160 – were combatants and not civilians. That defies credibility when taking into account the shocking statistic that 66 Gazan children were killed and the reports of extended families being wiped out.

However, for Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, it was a vital part of his propaganda that Hamas had been weakened. He argued: “We changed the equation not only during the days of the campaign but also in the future”. In reality, though, the aerial bombing couldn’t destroy Hamas and neither would a ground invasion have done so. Hamas and Islamic Jihad had launched the rockets to be seen among Palestinians as the main defenders of the Al-Aqsa mosque and Palestinians under attack in East Jerusalem, and there will be others ready to step into the roles of those killed.

Three days before the ceasefire, the editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Aluf Benn, tore apart the Israeli war strategy. Under the headline “This is Israel’s most failed and pointless Gaza operation ever”, he wrote: “You can feed the public with news broadcasts arrogantly talking about ‘the painful blows we’ve delivered to Hamas’… But all these layers of make-up can’t cover up the truth: the military has no idea how to paralyse Hamas’ forces and throw it off balance”. (18 May 2021) He criticised the intelligence services for failing to have predicted the possibility of the unprecedented intensity of rocket fire from Gaza and touched on the effect in Israel: “Hamas has severely damaged the fabric of life in Tel Aviv and the south”. This included the stopping of flights into Israel’s main airport. Benn also warned: “The current conflict should be seen as a taste of what is to come”, especially bearing in mind that “all of this is tiny compared to what Hezbollah is capable of doing”.

This reflects the intractable predicament for the Israeli capitalist class and their inability to solve the national conflict through military means or otherwise. For years the Netanyahu government had been treating the conflict as in abeyance and Israel as safe from attack by Palestinian militias. It is the case that the rocket fire was not a very high military threat to Israel; the devices were rudimentary and most of them landed on empty ground or were intercepted. But this war, while resolving nothing, has left a deep mark in Israel – partly due to the fear and vulnerability under the rocket fire, but more so due to the communal clashes that developed in Israeli cities.

As well as the rocket fire on Israel being more intense than ever before, people in Gaza described the comparatively hugely more powerful weaponry unleashed on them as being the worst yet from the air. The blowing up of tower blocks – including the tallest in Gaza – was raising the stakes, perhaps aiming for a strong visual impact on Israeli televisions.

No stability in Israel

After the eleven days of bombardment, Israel’s Netanyahu-led caretaker government agreed to a ceasefire having met its immediate war aims – a whipping up of nationalism to try to bolster its position. Netanyahu is presently on trial in the Israeli courts on charges of corruption and has failed to achieve a ruling coalition majority in four successive general elections, so had plenty of reason to encourage a distraction and surge of nationalism.

But he has opened up greater instability in Israel. Already, before this war, he was seen as a liability by much of Israel’s ruling class, due to the corruption allegations and especially because of his longstanding reliance on the most right-wing parties in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. They, in pursuing a strongly pro-settler, anti-Palestinian agenda, have been recognised as making the national conflict potentially more dangerous for Israeli interests.

Netanyahu went a stage further in that direction in the most recent general election, in March, by encouraging three far-right parties to come together in one list to gain representation in the Knesset and in his government. At the same time, he was alarming nationalist right and far-right parties by negotiating for the support of an Arab Islamist party, Raam, and he had offered an Arab member of his own party, Likud, a ministerial position in government.

Among the consequences of his manoeuvrings were the far-right provocations in East Jerusalem that were part of the build-up to May’s war. His government also laid the basis for the elements of civil war that arose in the heart of some of the most mixed Israeli cities.

There had already been months of protests in Palestinian communities in Israel over a lack of action to reduce the level of violent gang and drugs crime they were suffering. Then, in response to the threatened Palestinian home evictions in East Jerusalem and the storming of the Al-Aqsa mosque by Israeli security forces in early May, there was a new outburst of anger across those communities. Clashes erupted due to repressive police interventions, buildings and vehicles were set alight, and far-right Jewish groups went on the rampage, intimidating and physically attacking Arabs. The New York Times reported that over 100 new WhatsApp groups in Israel were rapidly created with names like ‘Death to Arabs’, for the purpose of racist incitement and violence.

For the Israeli ruling class, these events caused the greatest alarm, as they are not behind the fences of Gaza or the West Bank separation wall, but inside Israel, and creating tensions that only the workers’ movement will be able to counter.

Mustafa Barghouti, secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative commented: “Israel thought they will ‘Israelise’ the Palestinians inside and they will domesticate the Palestinians in the West Bank under occupation and that they will separate Gaza forever. They failed in all three facts, and now the Palestinians all over now have one goal – the end of Israeli apartheid – which is unprecedented since 1948”. (Financial Times, 22 May 2021)

Impact in the US

Another concern of the Israeli ruling class will have been Israel’s standing internationally and with its most useful ally and benefactor, the US. New US president Joe Biden was ‘on message’ and strenuously avoided criticising the war on Gaza, arguing that Israel has “a legitimate right to defend itself”. Revealingly, the Financial Times reported that Biden had become “close friends” with Netanyahu in 1982 when Netanyahu was a diplomat in Washington (21 May 2021).

However, in his US election campaign, Biden was portrayed as concerned about human rights and this latest war has quickly exposed the reality, creating unprecedented division in the US Democratic Party on the issue of Israel-Palestine. A number of left Democrats, including Bernie Sanders, felt driven to oppose a $735 million weapons delivery for Israel signed off by Biden just before the war.

In 2008 a Gallup poll reported that 33% of US Democrats thought pressure should be applied on Israel to make concessions rather than the Palestinians, but that figure is now 53%. Also indicative of the trend in the US, a Pew poll last year showed only a third of Jewish people in the US ‘strongly opposing’ the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

It is clear that last year’s Black Lives Matter movement in the US and Europe has impacted on attitudes on Israel-Palestine, with the placards ‘Palestinian Lives Matter’ and ‘Palestine can’t breathe’ being seen on the anti-war demonstrations.

Palestinian struggle

In Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinians need a new intifada against the occupation, a mass popular uprising, democratically organised and fully under their own control and decision making. The pro-capitalist Palestinian organisations and leaders – including Fatah and Hamas – have shown their complete inability over decades to offer a way forward, as have the capitalist powers worldwide that have been involved in the cycles of ‘peace talks’. Ordinary Palestinians can only rely on their own struggle and the building of their own political party for a solution, as well as the support of workers across the Middle East and internationally.

The Palestinian protests that arose in East Jerusalem before the war – against evictions, brutal policing and the storming of the Al-Aqsa mosque – were showing the type of actions that need to be built, and achieved some victories. But when Hamas and other militias in Gaza intervened by firing rockets into Israel, it shifted the struggle onto a different plane, out of the hands of the protest movements. In addition, the rockets helped the Israeli government with its war propaganda among Israeli Jews, as Israeli civilians were the worst hit by them.

Israel is a class-based society, as are all capitalist countries. Rather than alienating Israeli workers through indiscriminate attacks on them, pushing them towards supporting the brutality of their government against the Palestinians, the Palestinian struggle needs a strategy of trying to increase the class divide in Israel. It will be the task of the Israeli working class to remove the Israeli ruling class, so it is important that the Palestinians make it clear that their fight is aimed against the Israeli ruling class and its military repression. Part of doing this means developing mass actions targeted against the occupation rather than resorting to actions against ordinary people.

This is not a ‘pacifist’ position; the Palestinians are faced with brutal force and sophisticated, highly deadly weaponry, and they have every right to be armed themselves against that. An urgent task is the development of elected, accountable committees to organise their struggle and defence. Such committees could link up at local, regional and national level and become a step towards building a mass Palestinian workers’ party.

In the Palestinian Authority (PA) areas, the first legislative election for 15 years had been planned for 22 May, and a presidential election in July, but both were cancelled – before this latest war – by the Mahmood Abbas-led PA. Abbas’s party, Fatah, had split into rival election lists and faced losing votes to Hamas and to numerous other lists that had been formed. In a survey done in March in the territories, 68% said they wanted Abbas to resign as president.

Most of the PA population opposed the elections being cancelled. Hamas, a right-wing Islamist party, will no doubt be hoping that its rocket launches during the war have boosted its support, through appearing to be leading the fight against the occupation. In the absence of a party putting forward a workers’ and socialist alternative, a layer of Palestinians in the territories will give Hamas some credit for that fight. However, that won’t be deep-rooted support, or even necessarily much higher than before the short war. In the above survey, at most 30% of people were intending to vote for Hamas in the legislative election, and only 17% thought that economic conditions would improve if Hamas won.

Israeli government impasse

In Israel, too, the pro-capitalist political parties have become more fragmented, stemming from increasing disillusionment in them.

A large layer of the Israeli population wants to see Netanyahu removed from office, but he still has a minority base of support and his party, Likud, won more seats than any other party in the March general election. This was helped by Israel having at that time the highest Covid-19 vaccination rate in the world (typically excluding the occupied territories) and its economy suffering a smaller contraction than in many countries.

The line-up of the next coalition government is unresolved, so a fifth general election in less than three years is possible. Either way, none of the possible coalition compositions has shown any sign of offering an alternative to some variant of the status quo of repression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. At some stage, there is likely to be a return to ‘peace’ talks to appear to be looking for a solution, brokered by global capitalist powers, but they have all already shown many times their inability to offer a genuine Palestinian state. The capitalist elites internationally have little interest in seriously challenging the refusal of their Israeli capitalist class counterparts to contemplate having an armed state on their doorstep with a claim on Israeli territory.

Among the Israeli capitalists and their military leaders and political representatives, however, divisions will inevitably continue and deepen over what to do about the occupation, the settlements and discrimination against the Palestinians, because they have no solution.

Label of apartheid

The word ‘apartheid’, like in the quote above from Barghouti, is being heard more and more often in relation to Israel in the anti-war movement internationally. Last month, the organisation Human Rights Watch published a study which concluded that the Israeli “authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas… these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution”. The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has also declared Israel to be an apartheid regime.

The word apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘apartness’, which was originally only applied to the racist South African regime which existed for nearly five decades from 1948, in which the oppressed non-white majority were legally segregated from the white minority. There are many differences between that South African abomination and the abhorrent oppression of Palestinians by the Israel regime. However, increasingly ‘apartheid’ has become a generalised word that can encompass “a regime that uses laws, practices and organised violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another” as B’Tselem puts it, and as the Israeli government has been doing.

A key development in this regard was the Israeli Knesset passing in 2018 the ‘Jewish nation-state basic law’, which declared Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people, effectively legalising racism and discrimination against Palestinians, including reducing the legal status of Arabic.

The word apartheid has been adopted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) – a body subscribed to by 123 countries – which has given the term a ‘legal’ definition and has decided to investigate whether the situation in Palestine meets it. Not surprisingly neither the US nor Israel subscribes to the ICC, as they don’t want their actions scrutinised by anyone, including by the ICC’s collection of pro-capitalist judges.

Israeli working class

Not only the Palestinians under occupation, but the Israeli working class also needs its own mass political party, to be able to put forward a programme in its own interests – for secure jobs on decent pay, much improved public services and on many other issues. It is also vital that Israel’s working class develops a socialist programme for ending the national conflict, as the only way of achieving peace and security on both sides of the divide.

Consistently, a higher number of working people in Israel have supported the idea of a Palestinian state existing next to Israel than having opposed it. Only the workers’ movement in Israel has an interest in, and ability to put forward, a programme that can lead to a genuine Palestinian state.

An urgent task at present for Israeli workers is to counter the danger posed by the division between Jews and Palestinians in the mixed cities that arose during the war. Nationally and in those flashpoint areas, trade unionists and other workers need to organise against the actions of the far-right and against sectarian division wherever this is threatened.

The 18,000-strong Israeli trade union organisation ‘Power to the Workers’ issued a statement against the violence and pointed out that its Jewish and Palestinian members stand together and have stepped in to protect each other from threats. 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. These are just two of numerous examples that could be given of unity against division among Israeli Jewish and Palestinian workers. Also, there was a demonstration against the government and the war of thousands of people in Tel Aviv on 22 May, as well as other anti-war protests across the country.

Workers’ strikes and struggles regularly break out in Israel, many involving both Jewish and Palestinian workers. The start of the war coincided with a 24-hour strike of doctors, who were demanding that funding for 600 extra doctors during the coronavirus pandemic should be maintained. In addition, there have been regular protests against corruption, and on many other issues.

Very significantly, general strike action took place on 18 May by Palestinians across Israel and the occupied territories, in support of the eruption of protest against the repression in East Jerusalem and the war on Gaza. In Israel, the withdrawal of labour by Palestinian workers during that strike had a major effect in a range of sectors: medical workers, taxi drivers, cleaners, maintenance workers, transport workers and construction sites, among others. The Israel Builders Association said that only 150 of 65,000 Palestinian construction workers attended work. The strike was supported or called for by most of the Palestinian pro-capitalist parties and bodies as well as by some trade unions, so partly had the character of a general stoppage of the type that in the Indian subcontinent is called a ‘hartal’. Nevertheless, it gave Palestinian workers in Israel a taste of their potential strength for when they move in future to organise through their own organisations and under their own democratic control.

A single state solution?

The ongoing expansion of Jewish settlements and other Jewish-only infrastructure in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has been destroying Palestinian hopes of having their own state. The area that was designated to the Palestinians by the 1993 Oslo deal has been reduced and atomised, and none of the mainstream Palestinian political parties has a strategy to prevent this process.

So it is not surprising that the idea of one secular or bi-national state has become more considered and debated. Of course, no socialist would oppose the idea of peaceful co-existence for Israeli Jews and Palestinians in one state, with equal rights and opportunities for all and no discrimination, as the author and academic Ilan Pappé proposed recently in an interview in the German newspaper Neues Deutschland (22 May 2021).

However, the key question is how that could be arrived at, given the present existence of capitalism, and given the current consciousness and views on both sides of the divide. The Palestinians living under occupation don’t want to live in one state with their present oppressor ruling class. Following the decades of discrimination, repression and bloodshed they have no confidence that they wouldn’t be discriminated against – and they want self-determination in their own state. In the above mentioned March 2021 Palestinian survey, while 55% saw a two-state solution as ‘no longer practical or feasible’, only 33% supported abandoning it in favour of a one state solution.

And many in that 33% do not see how a one-state situation could be arrived at. They are only too aware that Israel has one of the strongest military apparatuses in the world and a ruling class that has its base of support in the Jewish population. In addition, working-class and middle-class Israeli Jews are living in a state that was claimed to have been set up to protect their interests following terrible pogroms against Jews in eastern Europe and then the horrific holocaust.

Before Israel was created in 1948, Marxists had warned – including Leon Trotsky – that an Israeli state in the Middle East would not be a safe-haven for Jews, but would instead be caught up in a bloody conflict. Now, 70 years after the formation of Israel, that prognosis remains tragically true. But most Israelis have been born in that state, have nowhere else to go, and have their own national consciousness.

Add to this a ‘siege mentality’ due to being surrounded by Arab countries and not being far from the present Iranian regime, and it’s clear that the national consciousness and feeling of vulnerability among Israeli Jews is strong. They, like the Palestinians, also fear being discriminated against in a one state scenario. As Peter Taaffe wrote in his article, Socialism and national rights (on page 12 of the June Socialism Today), “if you try and impose one state on them now, it will be rejected”.

Pappé commented in his Neues Deutschland interview: “The two-state solution, even ideally, offers no way out of colonisation or oppression”. That is true on a capitalist basis. Decaying and rotten capitalism can only offer inequality along with poverty for a large layer of the population on both sides of the divide – substantially worse for the Palestinians but poverty is also rife among Israeli Jews.

A capitalist ‘solution’ that would mean trying to share out the poverty and misery at the bottom of society is no solution and holds no attraction for either side. The proposition of two socialist states on the other hand, raises the prospect of people’s needs being met, as well as their present national aspirations.

On a socialist basis, with elected representatives of working-class people in the negotiating positions, who would have no interest in profit-making, territorial influence and wealth-based prestige, agreement could be reached on all the issues that today are intractable under capitalism. These include the sharing of Jerusalem, water resources, guarantees for the rights of minorities, the right of return, and the borders. At any stage, it could be agreed to dispense with a border, and that would inevitably be an eventual outcome under socialism – in a socialist world without borders – but the timing of it must be democratically decided by the people involved on both sides.

The road to this massively transformed scenario will inevitably entail the building of workers’ parties with socialist programmes, setting both Jewish and Palestinian workers on a path towards breaking from pro-capitalist political representatives and moving to challenge and remove capitalism altogether.

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. The only path towards living in peace and security and out of the rounds of bloodshed lies in the working class on both sides of the divide organising themselves, independent of capitalist interests, and playing a leading role in showing a way forward.

Building a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel will become part of a process of workers’ movements across the Middle East being built and turning to the same objective – the removal of capitalism. That will be the only basis for a future that can satisfy the needs and aspirations of all the peoples of the region.

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May 2021