|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
What now for Israel/Palestine?
The rapid decline in the health of Yassar Arafat has fuelled speculation on who will lead the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has pushed his disengagement plan through the Israeli Knesset (parliament). And with Bush’s victory in the US presidential election, attention has been refocused on Israel/Palestine. JENNY BROOKS reports.
HAVING PREVIOUSLY DECLARED Arafat as irrelevant, the Israeli government became very concerned about the possible consequences of his death. They fear that mass mourning could spill over into mass demonstrations. Even if doctors declare his illness to be from natural causes, his incarceration for three years by the Israeli army in a battered Ramallah compound can hardly be viewed as conducive to good health. Then they would face the dilemma of Arafat’s place of burial, an issue which alone could provoke huge unrest. Arafat has expressed a wish to be buried in the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem, whereas Sharon has declared that he won’t allow Arafat’s burial anywhere in Jerusalem.
There is also speculation on what would happen to Sharon’s plan to pursue disengagement unilaterally, without any negotiation or agreement with the Palestinians. His justification for this stance is that there is no point in talking to Arafat. Undoubtedly, a changed Palestinian leadership would be a complication for Sharon, but not one that is likely to derail his plan. If a post-Arafat leadership is one that he can bend sufficiently to his will, he could decide to involve it in his plans. But if he views it as too potentially intransigent, he can continue to declare that there is no ‘partner’ to deal with. He could even possibly find Arafat’s death useful in this respect, as members of his Likud party and others in the Knesset who are opposing the disengagement plan primarily on practical (rather than ideological) grounds could use the idea of a negotiated disengagement to drop their objections.
Arafat is far from ‘irrelevant’, but how great is his authority now among the Palestinian masses? On the one hand, he has been seen as a great father-figure and symbol of their struggle. No other Palestinian leader attracts a similar level of allegiance, which will be reflected in a period of mass grieving when he dies. But while most Palestinians will defend him to some extent in front of outside observers, especially while he is critically ill, he is also viewed with widespread disillusionment and often anger as a result of the bitter experiences of the failed Oslo peace process followed by the four-year intifada – which continues today – and of the corrupt nature of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Arafat is one of the ‘old guard’ of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) exiles, who returned to Gaza from Tunis in 1994. Palestinians in the territories, living in terrible poverty, saw this new elite arrive to live in luxury villas, engage in corrupt practices, and completely fail to offer any way forward in the struggle against the Israeli occupation. Although Arafat himself has attracted some respect for enduring confinement in uncomfortable conditions in his Ramallah compound, it is known that he has millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts and that his wife and daughter live in Paris in conditions far removed from those suffered by the Palestinian masses.
Should Arafat die, one element of the subsequent grief will stem from a feeling of desperation that there is no replacement Palestinian leader at present who is seen as having the potential to play a unifying role and head the struggle. Even though Arafat has failed to develop their struggle, a layer of Palestinians have placed the blame for this more on the hated clique around him than on Arafat himself, believing that maybe Arafat has been badly advised. Unfortunately, this has been misplaced hope, as he has always used mistaken methods – such as that of secretive guerrilla action in earlier years and later of negotiating with capitalist powers over the heads of the masses who support him. He does not base himself on fully democratic party structures or on a challenge to the capitalist system, without which there is no way out of a future of bloodshed.
Collaboration or infighting?
IN RECENT YEARS there has been increased jockeying and infighting for prestige and positions in Arafat’s organisation, Fatah, as well as in and between the PLO and other political organisations and armed militias. The balance of forces is in flux, with one feature of this being that Fatah is losing ground to the Islamic organisation, Hamas. Municipal elections are planned for later this year (though are not certain to take place). However, fearing a loss of support for Fatah, Arafat has limited the first round of these elections to just 36 carefully chosen local authorities out of the 180 that exist.
Infighting – especially in Fatah – is likely to increase further post-Arafat. As a Ramallah resident interviewed by a Financial Times journalist bluntly put it: "There will be fighting between Palestinians because all the leaders are competing mafias who rob the country". (29 October) But this does not mean that the most likely scenario is a rapid descent into civil war and chaos as some commentators predict. A senior Fatah member was quoted as saying that the inheritance of Arafat’s leadership is not that attractive, and this will be a limiting factor on the fighting for positions: "What does this inheritance offer after all? Ruling a frustrated, impoverished, hopeless nation that suffers daily military attacks?" (Haaretz.com, 29 October) It is also true that a recent trend, in the face of vicious Israeli repression, has been towards increased collaboration between the different militias, both Islamic and secular. There is talk of having a new Palestinian council – at first in the Gaza strip – that will encompass the main organisations, unlike the present situation, where Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others do not participate in the PA. It is therefore likely that the two processes – infighting and collaboration – will take place side by side.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian masses urgently need to turn away from all these organisations that are offering no workable programme, whether through political or military means, for defence or a way forward. The existing political leaders are pro-capitalist and either look to future negotiations with the Israeli government, backed up by support from foreign imperialist powers to further the Palestinian cause or to the acts of small, secret, armed groups – armed with rudimentary home-made bombs and smuggled guns. Their weapons are no match for the highly sophisticated ones of the Israeli army and only provoke increasingly horrific retribution when acting in isolation from the mass of the Palestinian population. Neither path is a route towards solving the Palestinians’ aspirations for their own state and decent living standards.
Instead, the Palestinian people need to build a new organisation from below that is based on democratic participation of the widest possible number of workers, unemployed and small farmers. Only such a new mass organisation, based on democratically controlled, mass defensive and offensive action, can develop the Palestinian struggle in the right direction.
WORLD POWERS ARE heralding Sharon’s disengagement plan as a step forward in the ‘peace process’, and are arguing that it can be a route back to the defunct ‘road map’. This view is also held by peace activists in Israel. But Sharon’s plan will bring few tangible benefits to the desperately impoverished 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza strip. It does, however, mark a major defeat for the ideology of the Israeli capitalist class in that they have historically favoured moves towards a greater Israel, encompassing much or all of the territories. A central feature of Sharon’s plan is the removal of the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip and four isolated settlements in the West Bank – the first removal of settlers from Palestinian areas in the history of the Israeli state. The intention is also to withdraw Israeli troops from the strip itself, though the plan involves further fortifying and widening some of the boundaries – and this fortification is already in progress, as Israeli bulldozers smash hundreds of homes to pieces and destroy orchards and crops.
Together with this preparation of the boundaries is a concerted military offensive inside the strip to try to subdue the population though killings and destruction. During the first two weeks of October, in an onslaught named Operation Days of Penitence, 2,000 soldiers were sent in with bulldozers, 200 tanks and carriers, backed up by helicopter gunships. There were 146 Palestinians killed in that ‘operation’, with over 116 (including 26 children) in just three neighbourhoods in the north of the strip. In terms of the numbers of civilians killed, this recent butchery is worse than the brutal onslaught carried out on the West Bank town of Jenin in 2002, which created a huge wave of international protest. Sharon’s professed reasons for this invasion – to prevent Qassam rockets being fired on Israeli towns and to counter Hamas – are a vile smokescreen, as it is obvious that his actions will only increase support for Hamas and an armed Palestinian response.
Rather than drawing attention to this slaughter in Gaza, it is not surprising that supporters of disengagement prefer to concentrate on the fact that the Jewish settlers will be removed from the strip. However, removal of these settlers is part of a plan to increase and consolidate the main, much larger, Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank, reducing heavily the total amount of Palestinian land in the process. The building of 1,500 new homes in the West Bank settlements has recently had government approval, despite mild rebukes from the US Bush regime that this goes against the ‘road map’ and breaks previous promises made by Sharon. The destructive West Bank separation wall, which cuts through Palestinian areas and may be as long as 750km when completed, is also part of Sharon’s overall plan.
Sharon’s aim has never been to further the ‘peace’ process. He stated early on when promoting his plan that it would be ‘fatal blow’ for the Palestinians. His close advisor, Dov Weisglass recently added to this by saying that the plan is a brilliant tactical manoeuvre designed to "put into formaldehyde" any talk of a broader withdrawal from the territories and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. He spelt out bluntly what Sharon had been determined to prevent all along: any discussion or negotiation on key issues that would need to be resolved in any genuine peace settlement, such as the future of Jerusalem, the right of return of refugees and the borders of a future Palestinian state, was off the agenda.
So it is clear that there is certainly no prospect of peace as a result of this disengagement plan, nor is it a step on the road to any peace. Israeli officials have even been reported as saying that they "expect violence inside Gaza to continue long after the disengagement, particularly in the south, where Israeli forces will be concentrated". (Financial Times, 23 October)
So what reasons do the Israeli ruling class have for going for a forced separation? Sharon explained what lies behind it when he said in the Knesset that if Israel continues with the status quo, demographic changes would end the nature of the country (because the Palestinian birth rate is outstripping that of Jews). He said that he had "learned from experience that one cannot be victorious by the sword alone. We don’t want to rule over millions of Palestinians, whose population is doubling every generation".
THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT still faces a number of hurdles before withdrawal from Gaza can be executed. A minority of the settlers are ready and willing to relocate, but many are strongly opposed and are likely to put up a violent fight against it. Rabbis in the settler movement have been stirring up opposition by declaring it a religious duty to resist. An appeal published by 60 rabbis called on soldiers and police to refuse orders if asked to remove settlers.
Other scenarios are also possible, for instance, armed settlers could carry out terror acts against Palestinians, to try to provoke too much instability for withdrawal to take place. So great is the anger among a layer of ultra-religious settlers and their supporters, that it is recognised by the state security services that Sharon could even be killed, as ex-prime minister, Yitzak Rabin, was nine years ago. Then there is also the possibility of Palestinian terror attacks being stepped up against Israelis, in response to the brutality that has been inflicted on Gaza, and aimed at making withdrawal of the settlers appear to be a withdrawal ‘under fire’. If this occurs, it could lead to massive military retribution from Sharon and, at the very least, delay execution of withdrawal.
Whether it will be Sharon implementing the full disengagement plan or a successor prime minister going for another version of it (as the Israeli ruling class sees no alternative to some form of separation), is also in the balance. Sharon’s government coalition is deeply divided and no longer has a Knesset majority. To win the Knesset vote on the plan, Sharon had to rely on votes from the opposition Labour Party. His preference is to bring Labour into his coalition to make it more viable, but is being prevented from doing this by strong opposition within his own party, Likud. Leading this opposition is the finance minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, who has declared that he is going to challenge Sharon for the party leadership.
Netanyahu did not dare go so far as to vote against disengagement, in fear of the political consequences for himself, but has instead led calls for a national referendum on the plan. Considering that two-thirds of the Israeli population are in favour of disengagement, pushing for a referendum can seem a strange move. However, the reasoning behind the call is partly that it would be a delaying tactic, as it would take at least a year to prepare the legislation for a referendum and organise it. It is also the case that anti-disengagement leaders have hopes they could win in a referendum by campaigning strongly to get their supporters to vote, while relying on a low turnout by everyone else. Sharon, though, is determined at present to resist the calls for a referendum, and as a majority of Knesset members are against one, it does not appear to be a prospect in the short term.
The budget & strike action
THE MOST LIKELY cause of an early fall of Sharon’s government is the coming vote on the 2005 budget. Following years of brutal cuts in the civil service and welfare state, more are planned in this budget, including widespread wage cuts. Although the opposition Labour Party fully supports neo-liberal measures, it would prefer to vote against the budget proposal so as not to be identified with the savage cuts involved. However, it is divided on this question. Chief whip, Dalia Itzik, has declared that they will have to vote for the budget ‘holding their noses’ in order to keep Sharon in power and the disengagement plan on track. Right-wing opponents of disengagement also have reason to vote against the budget, as it includes allowance for compensation to be paid to settlers who are forced to relocate.
For Israeli workers, the constant onslaught they have endured on their living standards over several years has no end in sight. Netanyahu boasted that economic growth last year had meant the creation of 92,000 jobs. But most of these jobs were unskilled and so low paid that they were around the level of the minimum wage. And the economy is forecast to stall next year.
Workers have been driven to take strike action against the neo-liberal attacks. There was a major public sector-strike in September in protest over unpaid wages in many municipalities and religious councils, and also against the 2005 budget. Some workers in the religious councils had not been paid for 14 months! The strike action was forced on the Histadrut (the trade union federation) from below, following action taken by council workers in the town of Yahud. They locked themselves in the city hall armed with gas tanks, to protest against eight months without pay and a plan to fire 60 workers. The national strike lasted for one-and-a-half days, and included bank and stock exchange workers who paralysed the finance markets.
The Histadrut leaders ended the strike following a government promise to pay the back wages (which was subsequently partly reneged on), though without compensation or interest payments, and with job losses. Israeli dock workers have also taken month-long strike action this year against the privatisation of the docks, again, with some demands being won.
It is on these economic and social issues, rather than the military issue, that the Israeli working class is coming into collision with its government at the present time. However, it is true to say that there are significant changes in consciousness taking place, on a smaller scale, regarding military strategy. Army reservists and young conscripts who refuse to serve in the occupied territories are not viewed as being quite as detestable and disloyal to the Israeli state as in the past.
A member of Maavak Socialisti (the Israeli section of the Committee for a Workers’ International) recently reported that at the beginning of August a group of bereaved families published an open letter to high school students, calling on them to rethink their approaching enlistment. They wrote: "The following should not be regarded as a recommendation not to enlist. On the contrary – we really recommend the draft. All of us, and of course, all of the dubious millionaires in the country, who steal large sums of money every day from the state, and who own some huge properties here, need the IDF [Israeli army] in order to keep their property safe. We will tell you about the dark side of the military… In the military they take advantage of your naivety and want you as a tool in the hands of ministers and fattened high ranking officials, who can think of nothing but their positions and their enormous salaries… None of them really think of you… You’re a slave on the wage of 15 NIS [€2.7] a day… They only look for cannon fodder. Free soldiers who will cost nothing, especially after they’re dead".
The language used by these families shows how sharply consciousness can change and with what great perceptiveness. At some point it is inevitable that Israeli workers will question their lack of political representation, and will move in the direction of creating a new workers’ party to represent their interests. The only viable way forward for their new party, faced with the extreme problems presented by economic crisis and the national conflict, is to adopt ideas that will challenge the capitalist system that created such a disastrous situation in the first place. These ideas will have to be socialist ideas, as the only path forward in Israel, and in Palestine, is for workers to take the future into their own hands, by bringing in public ownership of industry and the economy and full workers’ democracy. It is necessary to build a socialist Israel and a socialist Palestine, with both being part of a socialist confederation of the Middle East.