The world’s imperialist powers have always intervened in the Middle East for their own political, strategic and economic interests. On the one hand dishing out investment, aid, trade deals and promises of protection, and on the other hand threats, sanctions and military force, they have extracted what they can for themselves, to the detriment of the region’s peoples, including national rights.
The Israel-Arab conflict arose out of imperialist interference following the first world war. In the century since, it has seen 13 wars and much other bloodshed in between.
Arabs and Jews pre-Israel
In the feudal period, the caliphates encompassing the Palestinians and other Arab territories were eventually conquered by the Turkish Ottoman empire. That empire fell apart following military defeats before and during the first world war and the Middle East was carved up between the imperialist victors. The plans to grab control had included the 1916 Sykes-Picot secret deal between Britain and France, for Britain to take control of Palestine and Jordan, and France to take Syria and Lebanon. It broke a British promise previously made to Arab leaders that they would have their own state in those areas.
Through that deal and other imperialist treaties, Britain ruled Palestine after the first world war until it withdrew at the time of the creation of Israel in 1948. The way had been paved for an Israeli state by the 1917 ‘Balfour declaration’, an undertaking by Britain’s foreign minister Arthur Balfour to “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
This was a great gift to the Zionist movement that was campaigning for a Jewish state in Palestine. But it was a massive blow to Palestine’s Arabs, around 90% of the population, then under British colonial rule with no promise of their own state.
Jewish communities existed at that time throughout the Middle East. They were around 10% of the Palestinian population, about half of them having lived on that land for centuries.
Following the Balfour declaration Palestine’s Arabs feared they would be marginalised. Protests and violent clashes broke out; but they didn’t stop Balfour from writing in 1922, reflecting racist imperialist ideology: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”.
Jewish immigration increased, causing growing alarm to the Arabs. They broke out in mass rebellion in 1936-39 and were brutally suppressed by British forces. During that revolt, in 1937, British imperialism proposed that a small Jewish state be created in Palestine.
What was the modern Zionist movement? A contemporary of Marx and Engels, Moses Hess, was one of the first 19th century pioneers of Zionism, advocating Jewish colonisation in Palestine and imperialist patronage for it. In 1896, Theodor Herzl, a journalist in Vienna, wrote a book taking the ideas of Hess and others further, and the following year he organised the first Zionist Congress in Basle which set up the Zionist Organisation and stated: “Zionism strives to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law”. Herzl was instrumental in advancing Zionist political ideology and seeking support for it from the imperialist powers. Palestine became the main focus for a Jewish state on the basis of its ancestral Jewish presence.
Political Zionism was essentially a reaction to endemic antisemitism, which took different forms across the world. During the decay of feudal relations in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Tsarist empires, Jews in Eastern Europe were progressively squeezed out of their livelihoods. At the same time, capitalist relations being imposed by the imperialist powers were already entering into decline. Across Russia and what is today Poland, in the 1880s and onwards the regimes were whipping up prejudice against Jews as a way of diverting attention from the effects of economic crisis on all workers and peasants. In Vienna, Karl Lueger, the mayor for 13 years from 1897, built a career based on antisemitism which he also used against the growing workers’ movement. In some countries terrible pogroms against Jews broke out. In fleeing from the persecution and mass unemployment, around four million Jews migrated in that period to Western Europe, the United States and elsewhere, and tended towards integration in the populations they arrived in.
In the early 20th century most of the politically active Jews were not looking towards Zionism but rather to workers’ organisations and struggles. In Germany and Austria, socialists with a Jewish background played prominent roles in building the first workers’ organisations, a factor right-wing parties played on when combining opposition to socialism with antisemitism. In Russia many Jews became members of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party founded in 1898, a layer of them through the General Jewish Labour Bund, which wanted autonomy for Jews but developed an anti-Zionist position. A number of leaders of the 1917 Russian revolution came from a Jewish background, including Kamenev, Zinoviev and Trotsky – which led the anti-communist forces to widely use antisemitism against both the Bolsheviks and other organisations with Marxist roots.
Overall, the goal of the Zionists, a small minority of Jews worldwide, wasn’t to fight antisemitism and campaign for the rights of Jewish people in Europe, but rather to escape from it, an ideology that became boosted by the results of the failure of workers’ movements across Europe to emulate the Russian revolution and remove capitalism. The Zionists were arguing for a Jewish homeland as a territory where Jews could live free from oppression and express their culture.
Nevertheless, the Russian revolution had a profound impact on the Zionist left. The Marxist-Zionist international organisation Poale Zion split in 1920 and its left wing applied to join the Communist International. The Communist International argued against Left Poale Zion’s support for migration to Palestine and called for Poale Zion’s members to join their local Communist Parties, which some did. In Palestine, parts of Left Poale Zion became the basis for the Communist Party, another part of the Zionist left eventually became Mapam (‘United Workers’ Party, one of the forerunner’s of Israeli party Meretz), while the right wing of Poale Zion, was the basis for pro-capitalist Zionist party Mapai led by David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister.
Following the rise to power of Hitler in 1933 in Germany, support for Zionism increased. This was added to by the obstacles facing Jews attempting to flee Nazism and other reactionary regimes. In Britain, Jewish refugees denied asylum were being deported back to Europe almost right up to the outbreak of the second world war. On the eve of that war a Zionist congress took place representing over a million Jewish people – about 7% of the world’s Jewish population – with delegates from a wide range of Zionist political parties. Unsurprisingly, the horror under Hitler of the holocaust – the slaughter of six million Jews along with many socialists, trade unionists, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and others – and post-war pogroms in some countries, were widely viewed as further grounds for Zionism.
1948 creation of Israel
In the two years following the end of the second world war, British forces reached a crisis in their ‘divide and rule’ strategy in Palestine. They tried to limit Jewish immigration, to which Jewish militias responded with sabotage and terrorist acts. The Zionist revolt against British rule sent shockwaves worldwide in July 1946 when the Irgun militia blew up part of Jerusalem’s King David hotel, being used by British personnel, killing 91 people. In 1947, with Britain’s Atlee government unable to stabilise the “wasp’s nest” of Palestine, as British chancellor Hugh Dalton described it, the United Nations (UN) voted to partition Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. That decision wasn’t only due to a false perspective of trying to stabilise Palestine; US imperialism also saw it as a destination for hundreds of thousands of post-war Jewish refugees who were being rejected by countries across Europe, and by the US too.
Palestine’s Arabs reacted with outrage to that imperialist edict. At the same time the Zionists were eager to grab as much land for their new state as possible. Civil war broke out, in which Jewish forces led by the Haganah militia seized territory, leading to them announcing the State of Israel in May 1948. In a second phase of the war, the new Israeli state fought off an invasion against it by five Arab armies. By 1949 Israel had taken more land than the UN had designated to it, Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt had the Gaza strip. The monstrous injustice had been inflicted of Palestine being wiped off the map, with around 750,000 Palestinians displaced from their homes, becoming refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and surrounding countries. Palestinians call that terrible expulsion their Naqba, ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic.
The mass killing of Jews in the Holocaust cannot be used to justify the Naqba and its creation of the conditions for new genocides in the modern era. Leon Trotsky, in the month before he was murdered by Stalin’s agents in 1940, had warned that a Jewish state in Palestine could be a “bloody trap” for Jews, as the land was already inhabited. That has been tragically borne out, for Palestinians as well as Jews.
Growth of Israel
In 1949 Israel obtained armistice agreements with its four Arab neighbours: Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The demarcation lines have often been referred to since as the ‘green line’. Its population grew rapidly due to immigration. By no means were all the post-war immigrants Zionists; a lot had nowhere else to go, and the subsequent wave of immigrants from Arab and other Muslim countries had come under Zionist pressure to migrate or had suffered persecution or expulsion as a result of Israel’s creation.
Many of the earliest Zionist immigrants to Palestine had created and lived in Kibbutzim agricultural communities. They were based on cooperation and socialistic type ideas, partly in order to survive the difficult conditions but also reflecting influence they had experienced from labour movements in Europe, distorting it into a form of camouflage for the project of colonising Palestinian land.
However, transit camps and then rapidly built apartments in ‘development towns’ were the circumstances for a large layer of the post-1948 immigrants – the theft of properties that Palestinians had been forced from couldn’t house everyone; 1.6 million Jewish immigrants arrived during Israel’s first three decades.
From its birth Israel was based on capitalist relations. After an initial post-war economic crisis its economy grew, spurred on by reparations from Germany, foreign investors and US aid. It benefitted greatly from the high profit and investment rates during the post-war 1950s-60s world economic boom.
The economy was also developed through a high degree of nurturing by the state. The state and the Histadrut (General Organisation of Workers in Israel) between them employed 40% of the country’s workers in the 1950s and the state gave subsidies to other major corporations. But this wasn’t any form of socialism, as finance minister Levi Eshkol stressed in 1957: “What is our regime? It is a regime of preparing the way and paving the road for private capital, provided only it exists and wants to come here”. Eshkol was a leader of the political party Mapai that led all the Israeli governments for the first three decades, all pro-capitalist, firstly as Mapai and from 1968 as the Israeli Labour Party. In parallel with growing the economy was the building of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) armed with hi-tech weaponry, including an unpublicised nuclear capacity.
Following the formation of the Israeli state many Palestinian refugees tried to return to their homes and land. There were clashes around the armistice borders as the IDF countered them with gunfire and carried out punitive raids over the borders. An IDF major, Ariel Sharon, later an Israeli prime minister, led an assault and massacre of 69 Palestinians in the West Bank village Qibya in 1953; and in 1955 the IDF raided an Egyptian military camp in Gaza, killing 38 Egyptian soldiers. Repression was also used heavily against Palestinians who had managed to stay within Israel’s borders during and after 1948. Their towns and villages were placed under Israeli martial law until 1966.
Wars in 1956 and 1967
US imperialism came to have increasing political interest in aiding Israel as part of its strategy in the post-war ‘cold war’ between the US-dominated western capitalist powers and the Stalinist eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union (USSR), a standoff between two antagonistic economic systems. The Middle East was of interest to both superpowers, not least because of its oil reserves and geographical importance for trade. They were jostling for influence in what was a period of tumult and regime change across that region. The USSR originally supported the creation of Israel and helped to arm the new state with weapons sent from the then Czechoslovakia, in the hope that it would be an ally against the western-backed Arab monarchies. But the situation changed when the successful 1952 Free Officers Movement coup in Egypt altered the regional balance of forces. Stalin and his successors sought to gain influence in Arab nationalist regimes that came to power, including making an arms deal with the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in 1955, who was balancing between the capitalist west and the Soviet bloc.
Western imperialism wanted to counter that influence, and in any case saw the left-wing, mainly secular Nasser regime and its great appeal to the Arab masses as a major threat. Nasser ruled autocratically and stayed within the boundaries of capitalism, but in what was a revolutionary process that impacted across the Middle East, he adopted aspects of socialist ideology combined with Arab nationalism. His regime redistributed land from the top landowners to the rural poor, nationalised the Suez canal and other British and French owned companies in Egypt, and delivered an unprecedented level of public services to the Egyptian masses. Therefore, the western capitalist powers saw staunchly pro-western imperialist Israel as an important base of support for their interests against the challenge that Nasserism posed.
The so-called ‘Jewish lobby’ in the US was also a factor in US-Israel relations and still is today, with US capitalists from a Jewish background having links with Israeli big business, and US workers with a Jewish background having an influence in some US states electorally.
Israel’s ruling class, on its part wanted US aid and also protection; it feared the arming by the USSR of hostile Arab regimes. It developed a history of aiding US interests in the Middle East and other areas of the world with intelligence and military coordination.
However, the 1956 Suez war wasn’t welcomed by US imperialism. In October 1956, Israel invaded the Sinai peninsula, quickly backed up by British and French military forces, to try to seize control of the Suez canal and remove Nasser. Fury erupted on the Arab streets and from other workers internationally, including a 30,000 strong rally against the war in London. The US was desperate to prevent disruption to oil supplies and other trade, and a spread of the war – the USSR was threatening to intervene – so piled pressure on the invaders to pull out. The result was a humiliating withdrawal for British and French imperialism, followed by Israel pulling out of Sinai.
In 1967, following the build-up of further tension and clashes between Israel and neighbouring countries, and after Egypt tightened its blockade of Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran, a new war was being prepared on both sides. After receiving a green light from the US, on 5 June Israel launched military attacks on Egypt, Syria and Jordan, in what became known as the ‘six-day war’. The Israeli forces had dramatic and unexpected success, gaining control of the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Gaza, the Golan Heights and Sinai from Jordan, Egypt and Syria. Dreadfully, as well it being the start of Israel’s occupation, the war created around 400,000 Palestinian refugees, some for the second time.
In November 1967 the UN Security Council passed its well-known resolution 242, calling for Israeli withdrawal from the areas taken. But with the exception of Sinai they remain occupied by Israel to this day. Over and over again Israel has been accused by human rights organisations, among others, including many groups on the left, of violating international law, but the entire history of the conflict has shown how inconsequential those appeals are. That law is essentially at the behest of the imperialist powers and attempts to enforce it can only be made by their nation state military forces. In the case of Israel, on balance it hasn’t been in their interests to enforce it and Israel’s rulers know that.
Within months of the six-day war Israel started building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, along with developing a regime of brutal repression against the Palestinians living there. Virtually every aspect of their lives became controlled by Israel, with harsh and deadly punishments for transgressions. Many bloody raids have been carried out by the IDF into West Bank towns and Gaza over the years, and assassinations of Palestinian militia leaders and fighters carried out. Time has been spent in Israeli prisons by 40% of the male population in the territories, with thousands detained at any one time, including many without trial.
A group of Palestinians formed Fatah, a reverse acronym for ‘Palestinian National Liberation Movement’ in the late 1950s, led by Yasser Arafat. By 1969 Fatah was the dominant party in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), an umbrella for numerous Palestinian organisations, mainly secular, that reflected the revolutionary processes taking place across the region. It promoted Palestinian identity and awareness of the Palestinians’ plight, and developed mass support in the Palestinian diaspora, among other Arabs, and from organisations like the ANC in South Africa. It carried out armed attacks against Israel’s military and infrastructure. At the same time, however, group and individual terrorist attacks carried out in the 1970s by various PLO factions repelled many workers internationally from its methods. Those acts included hijacking planes, killing Israeli school children and taking hostage and killing Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich summer Olympics.
The PLO wasn’t trying to build mass mobilisations of the Palestinian working class and poor against oppression but rather it positioned itself as acting on behalf of the masses, and with its terrorism not being a method that was going to be able to defeat the militarily powerful Israeli state. In that way it substituted the actions of small groups for the mass action that was needed to struggle for Palestinian liberation.
In later periods, mass movements such as the Palestinian intifada in 1987-92 or the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2011 demonstrated the potential power of mass mobilisations, which proved to be much more effective than the guerrilla campaigns and group terror acts that had been conducted by the organisations within the PLO and others. In exceptional circumstances a guerrilla force can win victory, such as in Cuba in 1959. However, in those cases, although it was possible to overthrow capitalism, it wasn’t possible through those guerilla struggles to bring about socialist democracy. They were based on the peasantry, rather than on the working class playing the leading role that would have been necessary for transformations to socialism. In Cuba the result was a popular but bureaucratic regime. In South Africa the revolutionary potential of a mass movement of the working class was decisive in defeating the apartheid regime, rather than the guerrilla campaign waged by the ANC.
The PLO called for one secular Palestinian state with equal rights for Jews within it, but didn’t regard them as having collective rights as Jews. Some of its component organisations were influenced by Stalinism and received aid from the Soviet Union and China. In tune with Stalinist ideology they relegated the struggle for socialism to a stage after Palestinian liberation. However, not only were the PLO’s methods of struggle not going to achieve Palestinian liberation, but neither will it be possible to achieve it on a capitalist basis.
For the Israeli capitalist class, denying self-determination to the Palestinians allows it to use the Palestinians’ struggles to the advantage of its Jewish nationalist propaganda inside Israel – through arguing that the ‘threat’ from hostile Arabs means that Israeli Jews have to pull together against a common enemy, transcending Israel’s class division and trying to obscure it. Above all, the Israeli capitalist class has never been willing to allow the existence of a neighbouring independent Palestinian state with control over its own borders and resources because it fears the expectations it would raise among the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab masses – that couldn’t be realised on a capitalist basis – and that it would elect leaders very hostile to its own interests.
Also, no type of capitalist Palestinian entity will be able to provide decent living standards for its population. Where in the world does any capitalist ruling class in today’s conditions of capitalist decline consistently provide rising living standards for any class in society but those at the top? Least of all in an area without an industrial base and with a history of bloodshed.
In any case, the Arab regimes, based on capitalism too, have always exerted strong counter-revolutionary influence on the PLO through financing and hosting it. On the one hand their elites try to portray themselves as being as angry as the masses across the Middle East at the plight of the Palestinians, while on the other hand it is in their interests to obstruct any moves towards building the only forces that can end the occupation: working class-based organisations in the occupied territories and in Israel.
Despite their influence over it, the PLO has often been regarded as a nuisance by the Arab states and sometimes a threat. In ‘Black September’ 1970, King Hussein in Jordan ordered his army to destroy the PLO base in Jordan, killing thousands of Palestinians and forcing the PLO to move its HQ to Lebanon because he saw it as a threat to the monarchy’s rule.
Inside Israel in 1975-76 a Palestinian mass movement developed against a policy by the Israeli state of confiscating areas of Palestinian land. It reached a head when a “Land Day” general strike of Palestinians in Israel took place on 30 March 1976 – supported by Palestinians in the occupied territories and Lebanon. Brutal repression by the IDF on that day against Palestinian villagers, especially in the Galilee, killed six Palestinians, whose deaths have been commemorated ever since in annual Land Day demonstrations.
Yom Kippur war and economic decline
A ‘war of attrition’ took place in 1969-70 mainly between Egypt and Israel and then a major war broke out a few years later, in October 1973. This was the Yom Kippur war, which began on the Jewish religious day of that name. Egypt and Syria launched an unexpected military offensive on Israel to regain their lost territories, with the assistance of a number of other Arab countries. Reflecting the cold war, the Soviet Union was arming the Arab combatants, and after the Yom Kippur war the US started seriously to boost Israel’s arms.
Following the war, Saudi Arabia led an Arab boycott of oil exports to the countries that had supported Israel during it, causing a tripling of the oil price over the following five months. That impacted on a world economy already showing signs of a fall back from the heady years of the post second world war boom. Global recession set in and Israel’s economy was badly affected: its economic growth rate fell, inflation increased in pace and its balance of payments deficit worsened.
By the early 1980s its economy still hadn’t recovered. In 1983, the share price of the largest banks collapsed and the government resorted to nationalising them. In 1984 inflation reached 445%. A short-lived ‘national unity’ government introduced a neoliberal ‘stabilisation plan’ in 1985 that cut government spending, held down workers’ wages and devalued the currency, among other measures. The government and its successors then embarked on a massive bonanza for the rich of privatisation of state-owned corporations, including eventually returning the banks into capitalist hands.
Election of Israeli right
Approaching Israel’s 1977 general election, its Labour government, which since 1974 had been led by Yitzhak Rabin after the resignation of Golda Meir, was still being blamed for being taken unawares by the Yom Kippur war and there was anger over corruption scandals at the top. Rabin himself resigned a month before the election over breaking currency rules. The worsening economy made disenchantment with Labour even greater, especially among Israel’s Mizrahi Jews, whose background is from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, and Sephardic Jews who originate from around the Mediterranean. They had always suffered discrimination at the hands of Israel’s Ashkenazi Jews, mainly originating from central and east Europe, who were dominant in Labour. The Mizrahim and Sephardim suffered higher poverty levels and worse housing, jobs and services, and had seen their culture sidelined in favour of that of Ashkenazis, as it was viewed as being too Middle Eastern. The 1970s had seen unrest and protests among them, including the creation of a radical ‘black panther’ group of young Mizrahim in 1971 which met heavy repression from the Israeli state.
In the 1977 election many Mizrahim and Sephardim voted for right-wing party Likud, helping the right to come to power for the first time, as a Likud-led coalition. So the Likud leadership was benefiting from the Mizrahim and Sephardims’ alienation from the Labour ruling elite, despite the fact that most of Likud’s leaders also had a central or east European heritage.
This had consequences for the occupation. As described by author Avi Shlaim: “It represented the triumph of Revisionist Zionism after half a century of bitter struggle against mainstream Labour Zionism”. Revisionist Zionism was first elaborated by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who had opposed a gradualist approach to achieving an Israeli state. He argued that the Palestinians would never accept partition so an “iron wall” of military strength was necessary between a Jewish state and Arabs.
The Israeli right, stemming from those ideas, have usually rejected any compromise over territory and claim that according to the bible Israel has the right to all of Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the West Bank, and Gaza too. Once in power, they accelerated the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank with the aim of a ‘greater Israel’. Author Ahron Bregman, in his book ‘Cursed Victory’ described it as “a grand plan to make the occupation irreversible”.
Labour-led governments in Israel have also extended the settlements but have mainly justified it on the basis of security needs rather than expansionism. After 1967 Labour claimed it was willing to give up parts of the West Bank, though not to the Palestinians but to the monarchy in Jordan, as Labour refused to accept that the Palestinians have national rights.
Jabotinsky had led the Irgun Jewish militia until his death in 1940. Menachem Begin, who led the Irgun militia in 1943-48, was the Israeli prime minister at the head of Likud in 1977. Begin oversaw the Camp David accords signed in 1978 and 1979 with Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat. The negotiations had initially been pushed by US president Gerald Ford and were concluded under his successor Jimmy Carter. In return for Egypt accepting Israel’s existence and allowing it to use the Suez canal, Begin withdrew Israel from Sinai, which the Israeli right didn’t regard as part of the ‘Land of Israel’. The deal was sweetened with US commitments to give billions of dollars in military and other aid to both countries.
Egypt had also extracted formal agreement for a ‘framework’ for the Palestinian occupied territories to have their own authority as a step towards a state and for UN resolution 242 to be implemented, but the Israeli government knew it could obstruct the implementation of what it sidelined as a wishlist.
Invasions of Lebanon
Israel invaded southern Lebanon in March 1978, aiming to counter actions by the PLO, now based in Lebanon, but withdrew after a week. In 1982 a more far-reaching invasion was carried out by Begin’s second government to try to destroy the PLO, drive the Syrian army out of Lebanon and bring the Lebanese Christian Maronites to power. A terrible siege of west Beirut was inflicted by Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon, which forced the PLO to move its base to Tunis, overseen by the US. The war then developed to include a horrific massacre of Palestinian refugees and Lebanese civilians in the Sabra and Chatila areas of Beirut by the right-wing Christian Phalanges, with Sharon’s troops facilitating the slaughter. An anti-war movement of hundreds of thousands broke out in Israel and the invading troops withdrew from Beirut and retreated to become entrenched in a prolonged quagmire of occupying – until 2000 – a strip of southern Lebanon, in conjunction with the Lebanese Christian ‘South Lebanon Army’.
Overall that war was a huge failure for Israel’s leaders, with the added disaster for them that it created the conditions for the formation of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia organisation based on right-wing political Islam, formed to counter Israeli aggression and funded by Iran. In April 1996, Israel launched an assault against Hezbollah, and again went to war on it for a month in 2006, killing hundreds of people and coming under sustained rocket fire back from Hezbollah.
In 1987 the Palestinians in the occupied territories erupted spontaneously in a massive protest movement that lasted for six years and came to be known as the ‘first intifada’. The entire population took part in mass demonstrations and strikes. The IDF responded to the unarmed crowds with rubber bullets, water cannon, tear gas and gunfire. It also resorted to curfews, detentions, closure of schools, house demolitions, torture and deportations.
But as Avi Shlaim wrote: “The intifada accomplished more in its first few months than decades of PLO military operations. At least some of Israel’s leaders began to concede that military power has its limits, and that there could be no military solution to what is essentially a political problem”. Shlaim quoted some words from academic Shlomo Avineri: “An army can beat an army, but an army cannot beat a people”.
The PLO leaders in Tunis had played no role in the outbreak of the intifada but they intervened to gain leadership of it. Under pressure from the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza for an end to the occupation, the PLO decided in 1988 to recognise the existence of the Israeli state and officially adopted a two-state solution: for the occupied territories to become a Palestinian state, alongside Israel.
That proposition was quickly rejected by Yitzhak Shamir, Likud’s successor after Begin. Shamir also came from the political roots of Jabotinsky, though before 1948 Shamir had joined the ‘Stern gang’ militia led by Avraham Stern, an offshoot of Irgun. Like a number of other Israeli leaders, Shamir had authorised terrorist atrocities, including the killing of a UN mediator in 1948. Yet those Israeli leaders have never hesitated to condemn as ‘terrorist’ the Palestinian militias that have carried out atrocities.
First Gulf war and Oslo deal
The collapse of Stalinism and return of capitalism across the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1989-91 profoundly changed world relations. It opened up a period in which US imperialism was able to play a dominant role globally and the Middle East elites could no longer manoeuvre between two different economic systems. A major show of the rapidly changing relations was the coalition put together by the US against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The coalition encompassed 42 countries, including the Soviet Union, the western powers and many of the Arab states.
To keep the Arab countries on board, the US excluded Israel from the coalition, though Israel gave backup support. Just two months into that first Gulf war the IDF killed 19 Palestinians in Jerusalem, which jeopardised the coalition because it exposed US imperialism’s different approaches to the Iraqi occupation of oil-rich Kuwait and the Israeli occupation that it was brushing aside.
Trying to paper over those obvious double standards was one of the US’s reasons for pushing for Israel-Palestine peace talks after the war. Saddam Hussein – supported by the PLO – had been posing as a defender of the Palestinians by linking withdrawal from Kuwait with Israel withdrawing from the occupied territories, so the US calling for negotiations towards a Palestinian state was part of its propaganda against Hussein. But the overriding reason for turning to Israel-Palestine negotiations was that the first intifada was still raging, with military repression not subduing it, so the US and Israeli leaders were seeking to head it off through talks. They were also hoping to cut across Palestinian militias in the territories based on right-wing political Islam that were gaining support and becoming more combative.
Shamir had already considered trying to use concessions to stop the intifada; in 1989 he raised the idea of limited autonomy for the Palestinians under occupation, but then retreated from it. In October 1991 talks began in Madrid and multiple rounds followed in Washington. Despite the fact that Shamir was conceding virtually nothing, his governing coalition in Israel lost its majority when two ultra-nationalist parties resigned in opposition to the talks. In the subsequent general election in June 1992, Israel’s electorate brought to power a Labour-led government headed by Rabin on the basis of him promising a deal for Palestinian autonomy. That election result reflected the desire of ordinary Israelis for an end to repeated conflict, which has been expressed many times over the decades, for example in a 100,000 strong peace demonstration in Tel Aviv in 1978 on the eve of the Camp David accord, or the 90% support for withdrawing Israeli troops from Lebanon in 1985.
The Washington talks were going nowhere, but a separate channel started secretly in Oslo – for the first time directly with the PLO – which led to the 1993 Oslo accord. The Israeli ruling class and its strategists, because of their inability to defeat the intifada, partially abandoned their policy of direct military occupation. However, the accord opened up a period of major disappointment and increased bloodshed, because conditions for the Palestinians only worsened. It led to a Palestinian Authority (PA) being set up to administer part of the Gaza strip and just 18% of the West Bank, in 14 disconnected areas. Israel retained direct control of 60% of the West Bank. The other 22% had mixed control. The IDF continued to invade Palestinian areas; and Jewish settlements with their supporting infrastructure were expanded, imposing ‘facts on the ground’ to make a Palestinian state seem impossible.
The accord didn’t even mention a Palestinian state, which for Rabin – as for every leading Israeli pro-capitalist politician – wasn’t on offer. Rabin had been the army chief of staff in the 1967 war, and during the first intifada he had called for the IDF to ‘break bones’; he was no stranger to using brutality. It was only because brutality wasn’t subduing the Palestinians and the Oslo deal left Israel with overall control of the Palestinian territories that he sanctioned it.
Today there are over 700,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most of them live in the settlements for financial reasons – housing there is less expensive than in Israel – but a minority do so for the ideological purpose of colonising West Bank land, with mobs of them regularly inflicting atrocities on Palestinian villages to try to expel the residents.
The PA, firstly led by Arafat, and later by his Fatah successor Mahmood Abbas, is condemned by Palestinians as corrupt, with enrichment by those at the top while ordinary people live in poverty. It acts in collaboration with Israel’s security and military forces, as a first line of repressive policing. Despite doing the bidding of the Israeli state in that way, it has often been punished by the Israeli authorities through withholding tax and other funds that are collected from the Palestinians and due back to them via the PA – part of a deliberate strategy to weaken the PA. Today the PA is so unpopular that president Abbas has refused to call legislative elections for 17 years, knowing that Fatah won’t be re-elected.
After the collapse of Stalinism left-wing Palestinian organisations like the DFLP and the PFLP and the Communist Party became more confused and demoralised, and discredited themselves by tail-ending the nationalism of Fatah. Fatah had turned to the western capitalist powers for aid and looked towards them to put pressure on Israel to make concessions. But the western capitalists have never had any genuine concern for the peoples in the region. The terrible devastation inflicted by coalitions led by the US and UK on the people of Afghanistan from 2001 and Iraq from 2003 is a reminder of that.
Fear of the revolutionary potential of the masses of the Middle East has always been an underlying factor in the US’s alliance with the Israeli ruling class, as well as in support it has given to many Arab elites. However, some of the reasons underlying the alliance between the US and Israeli leaders have shifted since the collapse of Stalinism, with a key factor becoming a common interest in opposing the anti-western imperialist ‘Axis of Resistance’ led by Iran. US imperialism’s alliance with the Israeli ruling class limits US interventions for concessions towards the Palestinians, though at times US presidents have felt compelled to exert some pressure on Israel, reflecting pressure on their administration to do so. For example, George HW Bush withheld from Israel a $10 billion loan guarantee to persuade Shamir to enter into the 1991 peace talks.
However, the entire history of the conflict shows that the Palestinians can’t place any trust in the imperialist powers, the Arab elites or the Iranian-led axis to deliver a solution. Rather, the usual aim of most of those capitalist regimes has been to try to stabilise the oppression of the Palestinians. A number of the Arab elites have over time stepped up trade and links with Israel while sidelining the Palestinians’ plight. After the Israel-Egypt deal came one with Jordan in 1994, and deals with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in 2020.
Hamas and methods of struggle
In November 1995 Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing religious Jew who opposed the Olso deal. Shimon Peres took over but then lost the May 1996 general election to Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who proceeded to undermine the dismal results of Olso. Peres had been 20% ahead in the polls but Netanyahu gained an advantage from several suicide bombings that killed 67 Israelis, carried out by ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’ Hamas in opposition to Oslo.
Hamas, an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and based too on right-wing political Sunni Islam, was founded soon after the start of the first intifada and provided charitable services like health and education. Its founding charter called for the obliteration of Israel and an Islamist state based on Sharia law in the whole of Palestine but it later expressed willingness to enter into a long-term ceasefire. It carried out its first attack on Israel in 1989, killing two Israeli soldiers. Through its armed wing it came to be seen by many Palestinians as a leader of the fight against the occupation because of its combative approach and opposition to Oslo, in contrast to the inaction of the PLO and PA.
However, its actions, and those of the other Palestinian militias, aren’t under democratic control and their attacks on civilians play into the hands of the Israeli right and its uncompromising rhetoric. This has been a consequence that has happened many times during the conflict, including following the 1970s attacks on civilians carried out by the PLO. While such attacks draw attention to the oppression of the Palestinians and show the desperation of the young Palestinians who join the militias committing them, they cannot defeat the Israeli state with its massive military superiority and in every case they serve the interests of the Israeli right and the whole agenda of the Israeli capitalist class and its political representatives. The latter can point to the killings to step up their nationalist and racist propaganda and draw a large layer of the Israeli population behind the use of massive firepower with the false aim of delivering security.
This certainly doesn’t mean the Palestinians should renounce arms. On the contrary they have the right to armed resistance against the brutality they are up against. But their resistance needs to take the form of mass struggle and actions under the control of democratically elected popular committees of the working class and poor; and be directed against the occupation and not Israeli civilians. They would then be building the most effective means of struggle, and by targeting the forces and infrastructure of the occupation they would be better able to appeal to Israeli workers to oppose the military slaughters carried out by the Israeli state and gain the ear of a layer of them. That appeal could also have an effect on the conscripts in the Israeli army, many of whom question the occupation. This would be part of a process of helping to expose the class divide in Israel and of creating links between the Palestinian masses in the occupied territories and the working class in Israel.
That approach would be poles apart from the politics and methods of the Palestinian militias that have been to the fore.
The duplicity and manoeuvring of Israeli leaders was shown when they aided the predecessor of Hamas, Mujama al-Islamya, viewing it as a counter-weight to the PLO and to try to stop opposition to Fatah taking a left character. Later, Netanyahu encouraged funding from Qatar to Hamas because he considered Hamas’s hostility to Israel to be useful in bolstering support for the right in Israel and in warding off moves towards a Palestinian state.
More talks with the PLO in 1999 back at Camp David ended in failure. Desperation at their terrible conditions, together with frustration and despair following Oslo, led to the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000. The trigger was a mega provocation by Sharon. He walked into the Noble Sanctuary – the third most important religious site in the world for Muslims, containing the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock. To Jews it is the Temple Mount, once the site of Jewish temples.
Palestinian anger erupted, initially as an unarmed popular uprising. Ahron Bregman, in his book ‘Cursed Victory’, argues convincingly that Israeli strategists wanted to transform it into a violent insurgency so they could take advantage of Israel’s military capacity. The IDF fired “a staggering 1.3 million bullets” during the intifada’s first month and “did indeed manage gradually to transform the Palestinian civilian uprising into an armed insurgency in which … guns replaced stones”.
The IDF sent in tanks, attack helicopters and fighter jets. So this intifada had a different character to the first one. Mass action became superseded by individual and group terror attacks, with Israeli civilians targeted. This again played into the hands of right-wing reactionaries in Israel and led to Sharon winning the 2001 election. It’s worth noting, though, that to take into account the desire for peace in Israel, Sharon promised to pursue peace talks, a gross deception as he didn’t ever start moves towards a final status settlement for the Palestinian territories.
In 2002, after a series of suicide bombings in Israeli cities, he launched an invasion and re-occupation of West Bank towns in ‘Operation Defensive Shield’, destroying homes and hospitals and killing around 500 Palestinians. The settlements expansion continued and it was Sharon’s government that began construction of a massive security wall inside the West Bank that annexed a strip of West Bank land into Israel. This repressive act was widely supported by Israelis, who hoped it would end the suicide bombings. For the West Bank Palestinians it brought further torment, separating many from their land and becoming an extra obstacle for those travelling to jobs inside Israel – often restricted or blocked entirely by the Israeli authorities in any case. Throughout the growth of Israel’s economy its leaders have made sure never to depend on Palestinian labour, in recent years instead importing labour from countries like Thailand.
In 2003 came the intrusion of Tony Blair, fresh from the invasion of Iraq, who spearheaded a “road map” from the quartet formed by the UN, EU, UK and US. Then later in 2003 came a separate initiative – the Geneva Accord. Sharon made sure these limited interventions went nowhere and turned to superseding them with a plan of his own: unilateral disengagement from Gaza. That went ahead in 2005, with the removal of settlers from the Gaza strip, not as a concession to the Palestinians, but to remove the settlements that were the most difficult and costly to protect and to turn the strip into a blockaded prison. His senior advisor, Dov Weiglass, bluntly said: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state”.
Israel’s ruling class was concluding that the Palestinians couldn’t be subdued militarily, the occupation was expensive, and relative birth rates would result in Palestinians outnumbering Jews in all the land controlled by Israel, so a forced separation was in the best interests of Israel, not least to keep it as a mainly-Jewish state. As part of this, Sharon obtained written backing from US president George W Bush for Israel to keep the main six settlement blocs and for Palestinian refugees to be denied any right to return. The Gaza withdrawal involved the evacuation of just 2% of the total number of settlers. Sharon set about increasing the settler population in the West Bank by much more than that 2%, including plans to encircle east Jerusalem.
The withdrawal brought no freedom for people in Gaza. The IDF maintained control of the land, air and sea surrounding the strip, apart from its southern border which is policed by Egypt. Collective punishment was imposed on the Gazans through severely restricting movement out of the strip and goods going in. The occupation had only taken a different form.
Hamas elected in 2006
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that Hamas won the PA elections in 2006, under the banner “change and reform”, in what was a crushing defeat for Fatah. However, even Hamas was surprised by it and took steps to share power with Fatah. The western capitalist media screamed with alarm that ‘terrorists’ had won the election, while saying little about the massive state military terror the Palestinians had endured from Israel. US agents in collaboration with Israel intervened to try to prevent Hamas from being any part of the PA leadership. Favouring an unelected pro-western Fatah regime against the elected Hamas, they encouraged Fatah into a violent power struggle with Hamas, with the US and a number of other countries sending military aid to the Fatah PA military forces. The resulting clashes led to Hamas ruling in Gaza, and Fatah continuing to control the West Bank.
The blockade of Gaza was stepped up, along with regular missile strikes on Palestinian fighters and civilians inside the strip, killing around ten times more people in the strip than the number of Israeli civilians who were being killed by rocket fire into Israel from various Palestinian militias.
At the end of 2008 the IDF went to war on Gaza, in Operation Cast Lead, aimed at crushing Hamas. The three-week war killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Gaza’s parliament building was destroyed and around 4,000 other buildings. Few people in Gaza have access to reinforced ‘safe rooms’ and bomb shelters that are available to much of Israel’s population. Israel also has its Iron Dome system that intercepts most rockets.
Further terrible wars on Gaza were carried out in 2012, 2014, 2021 and 2023, repulsively dubbed “mowing the grass” by Israeli military figures. Each time the IDF inflicted mass slaughter and terror. None of the wars can wipe out Hamas, as its ideology can live on through a layer of the Palestinian population – that is, until they build an alternative means of struggle, in place of Hamas and the other Palestinian parties that have no solution.
The 2021 war came when Gaza-based militias responded with rocket fire in support of protests against evictions of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem and against Palestinians being repressed in and around the al-Aqsa mosque. The protests spread to the West Bank Palestinian towns and into Palestinian communities inside Israel, where violent clashes developed as a result of provocations by gangs of ultra-nationalist Jews. The Israeli state therefore faced simultaneous unrest from Palestinians in all parts of the occupied territories and inside Israeli cities, including a Palestinian general strike.
This history of the conflict has been written in November 2023 with the worst war yet on Gaza taking place. Before it, the death toll in the conflict since the year 2000 was 10,655 Palestinians and 1,330 Israelis. Both those figures have doubled in the space of just five weeks and the former is likely to treble or more. The unprecedented attack by Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Israeli military bases and residential areas on 7 October 2023 sent a massive shockwave across Israel. The scale of it led many Israeli Jewish people to view it as the start of a period of heightened existential threat to Israel and they overwhelmingly coalesced behind the Netanyahu government’s response of inflicting terrible devastation, displacement and trauma on the trapped population in the Gaza strip. However, at the same time, great anger was directed at the government for not having prevented the Hamas-led attacks.
This is the sixth government led by Netanyahu, with two of the most far-right parties being part of his coalition. They openly incite racial division, threaten Muslim prayer at the Noble Sanctuary /Temple Mount and desire further expulsion of Palestinians from all the land they claim as Jewish. The mainstream right in Israel has succumbed to their pressure in many ways; for instance Netanyahu called the 2023 war on Gaza ‘the second war of independence’, the first having been the 1947-49 war with its mass expulsion of Palestinians. Although the Israeli far right is particularly inflammatory and dangerous, the record of all Israeli governments has been willingness to use brute force against the Palestinians and deny them self-determination.
Israel is a capitalist, class-based society with the second highest level of inequality in the industrially developed world. Living standards for a majority of Israelis have been eroded by low wages, exorbitant housing costs, inflation, and cuts in services and benefits.
There have been a great many workers’ strikes – including some general strikes – and community based struggles. In 2011 a mass movement broke out against the housing crisis and extended to other issues, inspired by the uprisings that shook the Arab countries that year. From December 2017 large protests were regularly staged against Netanyahu over corruption charges against him, and from January 2023 began a nine-month mass movement – the largest ever – against the government curbing the powers of the judiciary. There have also been many struggles by minorities in Israel: Palestinian citizens of Israel, Ethiopian Jews, Bedouin, to name a few.
Ordinary Israelis are certainly not happy with the state of their country and the number emigrating is high. Middle East Monitor reported that the most common words in Google searches in Israel has become “moving out” (6.10.23). Support for the Labour Party has haemorrhaged away over the last three decades and there is disillusionment towards all the main political parties. Also, an increasing number of young Israelis have evaded serving in the military. That trend was temporarily reversed by the 2023 war, but when the war once again resolves nothing, the questioning and disenchantment will surely resume.
Each war has meant spikes upwards in the siege mentality inside Israel, drawing Israelis into supporting the use of military might. Some left organisations wrongly believe this will always be the case – that nationalism in the Israeli working class will forever come before support for the rights of the Palestinians. But the cause and driving force of the conflict has always been the imperialist powers and Israeli ruling class and not ordinary Israelis, who have nothing to gain from it. At many times a majority have expressed support for peace processes and for the Palestinians to have their own state but the interests of their ruling class have stepped in.
This doesn’t mean the Palestinians should wait for Israeli workers to challenge Israeli capitalism. As well as the intifadas there have been many other mass mobilisations of Palestinians that point the way forward for future struggles to advance their interests, from demonstrations next to the Gaza fence in 2018-19 to strike action by public sector workers and others. A third intifada is needed, only this time organised democratically and based on socialist ideas.
Palestinian workers also need to build their own political party that can challenge the pro-capitalist parties in the West Bank and Gaza. The same is true in Israel: an Israeli mass workers’ party needs to be built. As no solution to the conflict is possible in keeping with the interests of the capitalists and their rotting system, those parties will need to adopt socialist programmes for the removal of capitalism. Public ownership of the main corporations and democratically controlled economic planning would mean the necessary resources could be generated to end poverty and raise living standards on both sides, using environmentally sustainable methods.
The ending of capitalism with its need for competition and markets would also deliver the basis for ending the conflict. Democratically elected representatives from both sides would be able to negotiate solutions based on cooperation, in two socialist states if desired, with minority rights protected.
Today there is a loss of hope among the Palestinian people that two states can be achieved or is viable, due to the experiences of recent years, including the repressive and divisive actions of the Israeli regime and their experience of the Palestinian Authority. In Israel too, following the many dashed hopes in peace processes there is widespread scepticism of a two-state solution. However, the idea of two states has been much more acceptable on both sides than ‘one state for two peoples’, because the experience under capitalism has been an escalating level of distrust during the decades of bloodshed, understandable fear of being discriminated against in one state and of being denied national rights, and in Israel fear of a levelling down of living standards.
So, in today’s conditions, a programme posing ‘two socialist states’ has been more in keeping with aspirations on both sides than a programme posing ‘one socialist state’, though as political consciousness develops on what genuine socialism will mean regarding defence of rights and improvement in the lives of all people, the question of the state form will not be unaffected. On the basis of mass movements of Palestinian and Israeli workers being built that defend the national and democratic rights of Palestinians and Israelis, combined with a socialist programme to break with capitalism, it would be possible to find a solution based on democratic negotiation and agreement between Palestinian and Israeli workers’ representatives. Those discussions will determine what borders there will be and where, if any.
Under capitalism, conditions for the overwhelming majority of people in the entire region are becoming worse as time goes on. The rotten, dictatorial Arab regimes need to be overthrown as well as the ruling class in Israel and the elite in the Palestine territories. A socialist confederation of the Middle East on a free and equal basis will need to be built, with all resources under the democratic control of workers and the poor.
- The withdrawal of all Israeli military forces from the Palestinian territories.
- The right of Palestinians to resist repression and aggression. A mass Palestinian struggle to fight for genuine national and social liberation. The establishment of popular, democratically controlled committees to lead the struggle, with the right to provide armed defence.
- For national liberation for the Palestinians and their right to self-determination, including an independent socialist state.
- The building of direct links between workers on both sides of the national divide.
- The building of democratic and independent workers’ parties in both the Palestinian territories and Israel.
- The right of Israelis to self-determination, through a socialist Israel alongside a socialist Palestine, with full rights for minorities.
- A struggle by the masses of the Arab states against the dictatorial capitalist Arab ruling elites. For a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East.