Building a movement to stop the war on Gaza

London demonstration against the war on Gaza (Photo: Niall Mulholland)

The world is looking on in horror at the siege of Gaza. The Israeli state has been carrying out unprecedented levels of airstrikes on the densely populated Gaza Strip ever since the terrible Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians. The bombing campaign is not only the most intense ever inflicted on Gaza, it is worse than any carried out during the invasion of Iraq. Swathes of Gaza are reduced to rubble. Clean water is in extremely short supply and starvation is stalking the Strip. More than 8,000 Gazans have died to date, with the death toll mounting hourly. Slaughter from the air is now being followed up with troops on the ground. Meanwhile, Palestinians have also been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank, and within Israel itself all those opposing the onslaught against Gaza – especially Palestinians – are facing growing repression. No wonder that millions of people in Britain, as in countries across the world, are wondering what they can do to stop the war on Gaza and to aid the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination.

What power stands on the side of the Palestinians?

Inevitably people are looking for an institution with the authority and will to stop the slaughter. Some have hopes in the United Nations (UN) to do so. After all, the UN Secretary General has called for a humanitarian ceasefire and accused Israel of “clear violations of international humanitarian law”. However, the UN is not an independent power. It is composed of the governments of the world, and is dominated by the major powers, the ‘permanent members’ of the security council, above all US imperialism. So while a symbolic motion calling for  a ‘humanitarian truce’ was passed by the General Assembly, even the motion for a ‘humanitarian pause’ put to the decision-making UN security council was vetoed by the US, with Britain abstaining.

Clearly, it is no good looking to Western governments for the Palestinians’ salvation. All have joined in behind the world’s strongest power – the US – in backing the assault on Gaza. The EU summit only agreed for a ‘humanitarian pause’ rather than a ceasefire, never mind actually calling for withdrawal from the occupied territories. US imperialism is in decline but it remains the pre-eminent military power on the planet. It has sent two of its eleven aircraft carriers to the Arabian Gulf, for example, whereas no other country has more than two. For US imperialism, Israel has always been a base of support in the Middle East which it backs to the hilt.

However, nor are the regimes of the Arab world interested in defending the Palestinian people. Rather, they are driven by maintaining their own rule and defending the wealth and power of their elites.

That does not mean there is nothing we can do, however. There is a potential ‘superpower’ that stands against the onslaught on Gaza. The massive demonstrations that have taken place across the Arab world – including Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Tunisia, as well as on the West Bank – have given a glimpse of that superpower. They are a central factor in US imperialism and other Western powers changing their tone at least, and attempting to prevent the Israeli government going ‘too far’. The imperialist powers, and the Arab regimes, are undoubtedly anxious to try and avoid the real danger of a regional war. Above all, however, they are anxious to avoid a new ‘Arab Spring’. Just over a decade ago, mass movements of the working class and poor swept the region overthrowing dictatorships. Ultimately, those movements were defeated because the working class of the different countries lacked their own parties with a programme for the socialist transformation of society. Nonetheless, the working class is potentially the most powerful force in society, capable of overthrowing the existing order. The elites fear they might not be so lucky next time around.

How do we build that potential superpower here in Britain? What lessons can we learn from the movement against the Iraq war?

Here too, hundreds of thousands of people have already taken to the streets of towns and cities across Britain in solidarity with the Palestinians. And those demonstrations are already piling the pressure on Westminster. How do we make the movement more powerful?

Twenty years ago, in the campaign against the Iraq war, the Socialist Party helped to build for the gigantic demonstrations that took place. In London on 15 February 2003, up to two million people took to the streets, with millions more protesting across the country. Those demonstrations shook the New Labour government to its core, with Blair fearing he would have to resign. Nonetheless, his government clung on and continued on its path to war. Many trade unionists participated in the demonstrations, and trade union leaders spoke at them. There were also some cases of collective trade union anti-war action, particularly the Motherwell freight train drivers who refused to transport munitions bound for Iraq.

However, there was no lead given from the top of the trade union movement for that kind of action on a broader scale. On ‘Day X’, when the invasion began, school students and students across the country walked out on strike action, largely initiated by young Socialist Party members, with some groups of workers joining them. Had the trade union leaders called for strike action against the war on a national basis it could have brought the country to a halt, and forced the government to retreat from participating in the invasion. That wouldn’t have stopped US imperialism going ahead, but it would have enormously strengthened the confidence of the anti-war movement in the US. Today as well, collective trade union action, for example blocking the production and transport of military equipment bound for Israel, could have a significant effect. The trade unions in Britain have over six million members and enormous potential power. And over the last 18 months they have begun to feel that power, with the highest level of strikes in thirty years.

Are there also political lessons from that anti-war movement?

Yes. Another weakness of the anti-war movement twenty years ago was that it had no mass political voice. Although it was largely led by socialists, the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, including the Socialist Workers’ Party, mistakenly did not give socialist organisations speakers to raise the need for a socialist alternative at the mass demos, instead handing the stage to the likes of the Liberal Democrats, who posed as the ‘anti-war’ and ‘left’ alternative, before they backed the war once it had begun and later joining a coalition government with the Tories.

Today no one is surprised that the Tory government has wholeheartedly backed the onslaught on Gaza. However, Starmer’s New Labour has been no different. The general secretary of the Labour Party wrote to Labour MPs and councillors saying “they must not, under any circumstances” join Palestinian solidarity protests. It is welcome that some have rebelled against this diktat, but it an indication of the right-wing character of the Parliamentary Labour Party that only a quarter have even called for a ceasefire!

Starmer is on course to be the next prime minister but – on foreign and domestic policy – he is making it clear he is not going to follow a fundamentally different path to the Tories. He will act in the interests of the capitalist elite, rather than the working-class majority. Starmer’s New Labour Mark II is no different to New Labour Mark I which, under Blair, took part in the invasion of Iraq. That’s why a crucial way to strengthen the Palestinian solidarity movement will be the building of a new party that represents the interests of the working-class majority, rather than the capitalist elite, and stands in defence of the Palestinians as part of a socialist and internationalist programme.

What attitude should the movement take to Hamas?

Sunak, Starmer, Biden and the rest of them express condemnation of the Hamas killings of Israeli civilians, while standing over the right of the Israeli state to defend itself by killing thousands of civilians trapped in the open-air prison camp of Gaza. Rightly that hypocrisy has enraged all of those participating in the anti-war movement, who understand that these events follow decades of brutal repression for the Palestinians. That does not mean, however, that we should support Hamas’s ideology, strategy or methods. Even before the horrific killings on 7 October, the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) had warned against the targeting of Israeli civilians in the national conflict and opposed such attacks. We are not pacifists.

The Palestinians are struggling against a brutal occupier. Nonetheless, by targeting Israeli civilians inside Israel, Hamas and the other forces involved in the 7 October attack have made it far easier for the Israeli government to mobilise Israeli society behind its current savage onslaught on Gaza. Contrast how the attacks of 7 October strengthened the support for a ground invasion into Gaza with the way the mass movements across the Middle East have made it more difficult for the Israeli state to escalate. We point to the first Intifada mass uprising in the occupied territories which began in 1987. The way forward for the Palestinians will be through democratically organising mass struggle – a socialist intifada – based on the interests of workers and the poor, independent of the rich elites.

But doesn’t supporting the Palestinian struggle require supporting their existing leaders?

Well Tory home secretary Suella Braverman tries to argue that carrying a Palestinian flag means supporting Hamas, but clearly that is not the case! Unfortunately, there are also some on the left, including the Socialist Workers’ Party, who argue that socialist revolutionaries should give unconditional support to Hamas on the grounds that “revolutionaries should always support the resistance of the oppressed against their oppressors”. We agree that it is essential to support struggles for national liberation, but giving “unconditional” support to the leaders of organisations who have no strategy to win national liberation does nothing whatsoever to help those struggles. Hamas has ruled Gaza since gaining the biggest vote in the last elections held, 17 years ago. Opinion polls from within Gaza are not reliable, but the most recent from before the current war showed big majorities with little or no trust in Hamas and angry at the scale of corruption in the institutions of the Strip. It is a pro-capitalist, right-wing Islamist organisation which opposes independent working-class organisation – which is the key to winning Palestinian liberation.

But surely no matter how the Palestinians organise, and how big a movement is built in their defence worldwide, it will still be impossible to defeat the Israeli state, which is armed to the teeth and backed up by US imperialism?

The military strength of the Israeli state is one side of the question. Since the foundation of Israel in 1948, the Palestinians have suffered a succession of crimes against them. Over a million have been driven from their land and into refugee camps in surrounding countries. In 1993 the Oslo Accords raised the hope of a capitalist ‘two-state’ solution but, as we warned at the time, it has turned out to be a cruel illusion. However, no amount of military strength can ever destroy the desire of the Palestinian masses for self-determination. Nor will the current war, no matter how barbarous, be able to do so. On the contrary, it will be strengthened.

At the same time Israel is not one homogenous block. It too is a class society and is, in reality, deeply divided. In 2017 Israel’s GDP per capita was $35,700 a year, compared to just $1,700 in the Gaza Strip, but of course that doesn’t mean all Israelis are wealthy, anymore than Britain’s GDP per capita of $45,100 does. One third of children within Israel are bought up in poverty. Prior to the current war there was an unprecedented political crisis in Israel, with a nine-month-long mass movement against the government, including a general strike and widespread refusal of reservists to serve in the army. In the current situation that movement has been cut across, but the government remains extremely unpopular, and it points towards the inevitability of future big class conflicts in crisis-ridden Israeli society.

But surely the Israeli ruling elite will never grant a genuine right to self-determination to the Palestinians?

No they won’t. The Israeli capitalist class are driven by defending their own profits and resources. They will always combine brutal repression of the Palestinians with exploitation of the Israeli working class, whilst using nationalism to maintain their rule. They will need to be overthrown. A workers’ government in Israel which broke with capitalism and began to develop a democratic and socialist planned economy would, however, be an entirely different prospect.

Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian revolution, predicted that if an attempt was made to create a Jewish homeland in the Middle East it would be a “bloody trap”. Clearly he has been proved correct. However, Israel has existed for three quarters of a century and there is an Israeli national consciousness which socialists cannot ignore. Today around 70% of Israelis were born there and certainly feel it is their home. Like working-class people everywhere, they too want to be able to live free from poverty, but also from war and insecurity – which will never be achieved via continued repression of the Palestinians.

But a workers’ government in Israel would have a road to achieve that, via negotiations with elected and accountable Palestinian workers’ organisations – which also need to be built – to reach agreement on all relevant issues, including on land borders, on how water and other resources would be distributed, and how Jerusalem could be shared.

So we need socialism?

Yes! Winning a genuine right to self-determination for the Palestinian people is inextricably linked to the overthrow of the capitalist system. For the capitalist classes of the major powers, the right of oppressed nationalities has always been so much loose change. Lip service is paid when it suits their interests, only to be discarded when it does not. Even lip service has rarely been paid to the national rights of the Palestinians. And today, capitalism globally is a system in crisis, increasingly unable to meet the needs of the majority or to overcome environmental crisis. War and conflict is on the rise. But the global mass movement in support of the Palestinians does point towards the potential ‘superpower’ that could end this rotten system and start to build a new socialist society able to meet the aspirations of every nationality in the Middle East and worldwide. Revolutionaries have a vital role to play, not just in supporting and building the mass movements, but in arguing for the socialist programme that is  needed for victory.

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November 2023