|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
The Israel/Palestine cycle of violence
Violent repression against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has plumbed new depths, with intensified military assaults on civilian areas, ‘targeted assassinations’, and people forced out of their bulldozed homes. In order to cling to power in the face of potentially damaging corruption allegations, Ariel Sharon is attempting to balance between contending forces in the Israeli state. JENNY BROOKS explains the significance of recent events.
THE BRUTAL ISRAELI occupation of the Palestinian territories is continuing, with no end in sight to the cycle of bloodshed. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip have suffered a prolonged period of military assaults and controls, including killings, detentions, curfews, road blocks, and destruction of homes, crops and infrastructure. In retaliation to recent Israel Defence Force (IDF) attacks in the Gaza strip, Palestinian militias destroyed two Israeli tanks and killed thirteen Israeli soldiers in the space of a week (from 11 May). This has been followed by increased slaughter of Palestinians by the IDF, including an horrific attack on a demonstration on 19 May killing over ten young people, and a wanton orgy of destruction of Palestinian homes which has left more than 2,000 homeless. Over 3,000 Palestinians have now died in this three-and-a-half year uprising (intifada), and over 1,000 Israelis.
The recent plan of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, for partial disengagement of Israeli troops from the territories, is a desperate attempt to respond to a number of pressures (outlined below). If implemented, it will be imposed without agreement with the Palestinian people and will be a worsening of the repression they face. Sharon himself stated that the plan is a "fatal blow" for the Palestinians. Notwithstanding this, it has been met with vociferous opposition from some right-wing sections of Israeli society, and suffered a major setback on 2 May, when Sharon’s own Likud party voted against the proposals in a party referendum. However, Sharon vowed to continue with his plan with only minor modifications.
The initial part of his proposal is to remove the IDF and all the 7,500 Jewish setters from the Gaza strip, and to also remove four of the West Bank Jewish settlements that are isolated and therefore costly to defend. The IDF will remain along the border of the Gaza strip with Egypt, and intends to destroy hundreds of Palestinian homes there with no prior warnings (in addition to over 600 already demolished), to widen their corridor of control. Sharon later envisages removing further West Bank settlements while reinforcing others that will remain "for ever". The 450-mile wall currently under construction will be used to enforce a separation of the Palestinian areas and Israel, incorporating the reinforced West Bank settlements into Israel so that Israel ends up with around 90% of the land of pre-second world war Palestine. All this is to be done ‘unilaterally’, in other words, without any negotiation or agreement from Palestinian representatives.
The Palestinian areas would be split into barely connected, poverty-stricken cantons, with no control over their borders, air space, foreign policy and water access, and no right to an army. Their economy would be dominated by that of Israel. Even though the hated Israeli troops would be removed from their doorsteps, these troops would be on standby on the edge of towns, with the ‘right’ to re-enter them and carry out renewed onslaughts at any time.
Supporters of the Israeli settler movement, including many in Likud, strongly oppose the proposals because they want to see a future ‘greater’ Israeli state encompassing the territories, populating them with Jewish settlers to ensure a Jewish majority. Some call for the driving out altogether of the Palestinians as part of this process. They had viewed Sharon as a fitting representative, as he had pioneered the settlement project over many years. His present plan is seen by them as a massive betrayal. No other Israeli prime minister has ever attempted to dismantle established settlements in the West Bank or Gaza.
But Sharon has also proved himself to be a pragmatist, capable of manoeuvring and leaning on different layers when necessary to defend his career and privileges. Although a pioneer of settlements, in 1982 he executed the removal of the Yamit settlement in the Sinai peninsula when Israel did a peace deal with Egypt. His present manoeuvring and abandonment of many of his ideological followers will not be without a price. It will have particular consequences in Likud, which faces a period of turmoil and maybe a split if Sharon continues on his present path.
Reasons for disengagement
WHAT PRESSURES FORCED Sharon in this direction? Firstly, there are long-term considerations behind his strategy. At present, there is a Jewish majority in the land controlled by the Israeli ruling class between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. This is changing, though. As the birth rate in the Palestinian population is outstripping that of Jews, and as the economic crisis makes it difficult to attract large numbers of Jewish immigrants, it won’t be long before this situation is reversed and there is a Palestinian majority. This is viewed as a threat to the long-term viability of the Jewish state, so significant sections of Israeli society now view ‘separation’ with Palestinians in the territories as vital in the task of preserving a Jewish state. Defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, went so far as to say recently that the Gaza strip settlements were a historic mistake. While being a massive setback for the Palestinians, the disengagement plan also represents a major defeat for the historical ideology of much of the Israeli capitalist class.
Secondly, there is a growing questioning and impatience among Israeli people towards the lengthy occupation which is failing to end the cycle of bloodshed. Brutal military force has been used, yet it has not succeeded in suppressing the intifada. Reflecting the desire for peace and an end to the deaths of Israeli soldiers and civilians, a two-third’s majority in Israel favours the removal of Jewish settlements from the territories and the creation of a Palestinian state. Even more (70-80%) favour withdrawal from the Gaza strip. These majorities are lower if the withdrawal is to be unilateral rather than by agreement, though still significant. Even among the settlers, polls show that a majority would be prepared to move if given compensation, though there is also a hardline minority who would put up strenuous resistance. To counter the affect of the Likud referendum result, 150,000 people demonstrated on 15 May in Tel Aviv in support of withdrawal, led by a new alliance of left, centre and peace organisations calling itself ‘majority coalition’. This was the largest peace rally for a decade.
Another sign of the growing questioning is a greater tolerance towards the small but rising number of ‘refusniks’ - soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories. Any refusal to obey military instructions used to be commonly regarded as contrary to the basic defence and interests of the Israeli state and treated with disgust and punishment. However, although refusal is still not widely welcomed, some prominent individuals have recently reflected the changing attitudes in society by referring to it more sympathetically.
Thirdly, acute crisis in the Israeli economy is a factor in the ‘disengagement’ plan, because of the pressure it brings to reduce military expenditure, and to attract back tourists who have feared becoming victims of the violence. The economy has been through several years of recession, amounting to its worst crisis in the history of the Israeli state. There are 1.3 million Israelis living below the poverty line. Although there has recently been some economic growth, the underlying problems remain, and the improvement has not brought any relief to the poorest sections of society. Commenting on this, an editorial in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, said: "Such growth means increased inequality… and that is a social time bomb". It went on to conclude: "Without disengagement, and without a diplomatic horizon, the economy cannot sustain growth over the long term, unemployment will not decline and there will be no chance of healing society of its ills".
Fourthly and lastly, there were two different incidental factors pushing Sharon to hastily come up with a plan as a means of diverting attention. One of these was the threat of personal indictment on bribery charges, and the other was the fact that various ‘peace’ plans were being concocted internationally such as the Geneva accord, which involved concessions to the Palestinians that Sharon would not contemplate. At the time of writing, it is not known if indictment, forcing Sharon to step down, will be carried through, though it is likely that the attorney general is under political pressure not to indict a sitting prime minister thereby creating a situation that will add to present government instability. The Israeli ruling class, although not uncritical of Sharon, has the problem of not seeing any obviously suitable successor to him at the present time.
The proponents of increased settlement, knowing that they are in a minority on this issue, have been careful not to highlight this in their campaign against Sharon’s proposals. They have instead argued that the IDF and settlers would be withdrawing from Gaza with nothing in return from the Palestinians, that organisations like the Islamic Hamas would declare it a victory due to their armed attacks and suicide bombs, and that it would not end Palestinian attacks on Israelis in any case.
It was a minority of the 193,000 Likud members - little more than a quarter – who won the vote against the disengagement plan in the 2 May referendum, because only a third of the party actually voted. While still being a significant setback and miscalculation on Sharon’s part, he may still try to push the plan through his ruling coalition and the Knesset (parliament) without disbanding his coalition. But this coalition, which consists of four parties – Likud, the secular Shinui party, and two ultra-right parties – is teetering on the brink of collapse, and the referendum result has polarised the situation further. Shinui has threatened to leave the coalition if Sharon abandons the withdrawal from Gaza, but he faces opposition from the two ultra-right parties and from parts of Likud if he goes ahead. Sharon could decide to disband the coalition in favour of a new ‘unity’ coalition involving Shinui, Likud (or part of Likud), and bringing in the unpopular Labour Party, maybe accompanied by a national referendum on the plan. A less likely choice would be to call new elections.
IN THE RUN-UP to the Likud referendum, Sharon visited US President George Bush, gaining his public backing for the disengagement plan. Palestinians were shocked and outraged when Bush stated that a number of large Jewish settlements could remain in the West Bank for ever, and that Palestinian refugees have no right of return to Israel. This was the world’s superpower tearing up agreed international rulings for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and for the right of return.
Also to win support in Israel, Sharon authorised the assassination in the territories of the two top leaders of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin and Abdel Rantissi, to counter the idea that withdrawal from Gaza would reward Palestinian militias. The fact that these leaders had said they were willing to enter into a ceasefire if the IDF withdrew, and that they would accept having a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state for at least the present generation, made no difference to an Israeli regime that is not prepared to negotiate with them. These brutal state murders of two men with huge authority caused massive anger throughout the territories, with all the Palestinian militias swearing to execute a major bloody revenge. After a delay of weeks, the Islamic Jihad militia and others have succeeded in inflicting significant damage on the IDF in the Gaza strip, as mentioned above. Yet, at the time of writing, they have not yet carried out a suicide bombing inside Israel causing major devastation to Israeli civilians.
The IDF assassinations have served to increase the influence of Hamas, with polls showing support for them from around a third of Palestinians in the territories. The Financial Times (22 April) reported that $1 million has recently been raised for Hamas’s military wing following an appeal by mosques in the Gaza strip. Hamas’s support now surpasses that of Yassar Arafat’s organisation, Fatah, which is seen as being tainted with corruption and stained with its emphasis on negotiating with the Israeli government and foreign powers, sometimes trying to do their bidding by arresting militia activists, rather than leading a fightback on the ground. Arafat, who himself fears assassination, has recently felt compelled to recognise the influence of the Islamic organisations by holding talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad over a future power-sharing arrangement should Israeli troops withdraw.
The lull in revenge attacks is likely to be partly due to the disruption of the Palestinian militia networks caused by increased direct repression by the IDF. Although the Israeli government is shouting this from the rooftops to vindicate its onslaughts, it is completely mistaken if it believes that continued brutality can end the bloody responses to the occupation. Even if the government succeeds in damaging the ability of Palestinians in the territories to respond militarily, there are one million Palestinians outside the territories in Israel proper, who are far from indifferent to the plight of their brothers and sisters on the other side of the Green Line.
One or two states?
IF THE PALESTINIAN militias return to organising terror attacks aimed at Israeli civilians, it will be a tragic mistake that will never succeed in furthering their aspirations. They need a strategy of defensive and offensive actions that can win mass Palestinian support and defend Palestinian workers’ interests, while at the same time trying to avoid alienating the Israeli working class and thereby pushing it towards supporting the use of terrible military retaliation from the full armoury of the IDF. With the Israeli Jewish working class facing an economic onslaught from the capitalist class of repeated cuts programmes, and with its unwillingness to support defence of the Jewish settlements, the way forward is to support challenges by Israeli Jewish workers to all the policies of their capitalist government, rather than pursuing a strategy that papers over this class divide.
The only way for the Palestinians to develop a successful military strategy, and also to prepare the way for running their own society in a way that can guarantee decent living standards for all within it, is to start the process of building a mass, democratic organisation based on the interests of Palestinian workers and the rural poor. Only then can decision-making be taken out of the hands of competing, secretive leaders who often have vested interests, and placed in the hands of the mass of the people through electing their own representatives and making them fully accountable.
It is also essential that socialist ideas are developed in such an organisation, because it will not be possible to achieve a poverty-free Palestinian state on the basis of capitalism. Even in Israel, with its far more developed capitalist economy, capitalism is completely unable to provide acceptable living standards for a vast layer of ordinary people. The necessity is therefore for a socialist Israel, and a socialist Palestine, and for capitalism to be swept away in all the poverty-stricken countries of the region to create a socialist confederation in the Middle East. The democratic rights of minorities within all states must be defended, and the right of return of refugees also.
Some Palestinian intellectuals, faced with the reality of the new ‘security’ wall, which eats significantly into Palestinian land, and also with Sharon’s plans to further atomise and destroy any degree of Palestinian self-rule, now call for a single, secular, democratic state of Palestinians and Jews rather than two states side by side. But they raise this safe in the knowledge that the demographic trend is on their side. Any suggestion of a single state immediately raises enormous fear - especially among Israeli Jews - of ending up as a minority in such a state and suffering as a consequence.
It will be impossible to separate Israeli Jewish workers from their ruling class and to win them to socialist ideas unless they are guaranteed the right to their own state. Hillel Schenker, an editor of the Palestine-Israel journal summed this up: "There is absolutely no meaningful constituency in Israel that will respond to an international struggle for a single state. And… I doubt whether one can find such a constituency among the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza either". Or, as novelist Linda Grant said after living in Tel Aviv for four months: "I found not a scrap of evidence that Jewish Israelis will ever agree to a peace deal that will result in them becoming, within a generation or two, a minority dependent on the good-will of a Palestinian majority in a region without democracy or any real human rights". Even the Palestinian writer, Edward Said, who advocated a single state, admitted: "The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know".
The national aspirations of Palestinians and Israeli Jews cannot be fulfilled within the limits of capitalism. On the basis of socialism, however, with poverty wiped out and the building of trust across the national divide, Palestinians and Jews would be free to decide how they want to live without being conditioned by all the terrible afflictions of capitalism. In the meanwhile, there is no alternative but the building of the forces of working-class solidarity and socialism on both sides of the divide, with recognition of a right to their own state for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians.