The opening trigger for this latest bloodshed was the Israeli assassination of five leading Hamas fighters, which was followed by over 40 Qassam rockets being fired by Palestinians on the Israeli town of Sderot, one of which killed an Israeli man. The subsequent Israeli onslaught on Gaza was coldly described by Israeli politicians as a “limited” operation, well short of the full scale invasion being considered.
The conflict then continued with an East Jerusalem Palestinian man shooting dead eight Jewish religious students in Jerusalem in the deadliest attack in Israel for over a year, and the first in Jerusalem for four years. The gunman’s family said he was reacting to the events in Gaza.
Conditions for the Palestinians in both parts of the occupied territories are now the worst in the entire 40 year occupation. In the “open air prison” of the Gaza strip, they are catastrophic, with a majority of people unemployed and suffering from malnutrition and a shortage of necessities. The Israeli government has restricted the power supply to the strip, causing power cuts for up to 12 hours a day, including to hospitals. The Israeli regime removed the Jewish settlements from the strip in 2005, but maintained complete control of the borders, sea and air space, and has let in few goods since Hamas – the Islamic Resistance Movement – was elected to government by Palestinians in 2006. Brutal Israeli army actions have regularly been carried out, using tanks, bulldozers and helicopters, including in the summer of 2006 when 400 Palestinians were killed.
At best, the western imperialist powers tend to describe the slaughter by the Israeli army as “excessive and disproportionate force”, whereas Palestinian violence is described by many of them as terrorism. The term “disproportionate” is a sickening understatement. Palestinian rockets have killed 14 Israelis since they were first fired in 2001. But last year alone, 379 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. Last year’s ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths in the conflict was 40:1. This year, over 200 Palestinians have been killed in the first 10 weeks alone.
As Seumas Milne pointed out in The Guardian, there are no Palestinian rockets being fired from the West Bank, nevertheless there have been 480 Israeli military attacks there in the last three months with 26 Palestinians killed. Socialists are necessarily critical of right wing Palestinian parties and those that act against workers’ interests, including Hamas and Fatah and their militias. But the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) has always defended the Palestinians’ right to armed resistance against the brutal occupation. However, this vitally necessary resistance, together with offensive campaigns against the occupation, should be democratically organised and controlled, involving the widest possible number of people. And it should be of a mass character, rather than being carried out by the various small, competing, secretive militias.
It also needs to be recognised that attacks on Israeli civilians in Israel are counter-productive. Enraged at the killings and repression, Palestinian militias want to imitate Hezbollah in Lebanon and inflict damage on the Israeli regime. But as well as bringing more repression down on the Palestinians, increasing their suffering and making struggle more difficult, the rocket fire is pushing Israeli workers away from sympathising with the Palestinians’ plight and closer to the war aims and other positions of the Israeli capitalist class. The recent escalation in rocket firings has strengthened the Israeli far right and increased the number of Israelis who favour violent retribution. The situation could escalate further at any moment, and the danger of a wider war drawing in surrounding states is ever present. Right wing Jewish settlers have threatened revenge attacks, particularly as five of the eight men killed this month in Jerusalem were from religious Jewish settlements.
The latest slaughter in Gaza inflamed Palestinians in the West Bank and inside Israel; demonstrations broke out, with some participants resorting to stone throwing and petrol bombs. Demonstrations also took place in other countries of the region, including Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has declared that: “everything is on the table – ground operations, air [strikes] and special operations”. The deputy defence minister, Matan Vilnai, threatened a “holocaust” on the Palestinians.
But the Israeli government is caught in a major dilemma between conflicting pressures. Some politicians, particularly on the right and far right, advocate a full invasion of Gaza, while others warn of the dangers of this, and 64% of the population – according to a recent poll – favour government negotiations with Hamas (the party that heads the Palestinian Authority in Gaza). A choice of a full invasion, which would mean deaths of Israeli soldiers as well as a great number of Palestinians, or the humiliation of negotiating with Hamas, is seen as a choice between “the plague and cholera”, in the words of a leading Israeli journalist. Olmert fears that if the Israeli army goes in, it will not easily get out again. When it went into Lebanon in 1982, it was there for 18 years.
The US Bush regime – which massively finances the Israeli military – is vehemently opposed to any negotiations with Hamas, which it calls a “terrorist” organisation, part of an anti-US “axis of evil” alongside Hezbollah and the Iranian regime. This is despite the fact that Hamas has said it would like to negotiate a long term truce. Hamas was elected to government in January 2006, with 43% of the vote, and quickly faced Israeli and international sanctions. The sanctions created a financial crisis which led to the non-payment of public sector workers’ wages. Clashes broke out between Fatah and Hamas’ security forces and individual supporters, because of Fatah supporters’ frustration at Fatah losing its privileges associated with its long time in power, and at the unpaid wages. The clashes were deliberately encouraged by Bush’s US regime, which was funding Fatah forces in order to try to destroy Hamas’ rule.
In an attempt in the occupied territories to cut across the division and end sanctions, a “unity” government involving both Hamas and Fatah was formed in March 2007 (negotiated in Mecca), but neither the US or Israel accepted this government, because of the leading role in it of Hamas, and they set out to destroy it. The UN Middle East envoy Alvaro de Soto spelt this out in a leaked report when he said that: “the US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas”. The US increased its funding of Abbas’ forces after the unity government was agreed, with the stated aim of giving Abbas the military power to be able to dismiss the unity cabinet.
Around 700 Palestinians died in six months of clashes, which culminated in June 2007 with Hamas ousting Fatah security forces in Gaza in a complete “takeover” of the strip, and Abbas then declaring a new government – which has only been able to operate on the West Bank. Far from weakening the Hamas leaders as the Israeli regime wants, the use of Israeli military force is strengthening them, as Palestinians see them as under attack by the population’s oppressors. Hamas also increased its standing, which had previously dipped, when it temporarily broke through the Gaza-Egypt border in January, allowing hundreds of thousands of Gazans to cross into Egypt to buy goods.
Instead of harming Hamas, the attacks on Gaza have weakened Israel’s present chosen “talks” partner, Palestinian president Mahmood Abbas, whose dwindling Fatah power base is confined to the West Bank. Faced with outrage from Palestinians, Abbas briefly suspended negotiations with Israel, only then to agree to resume them without even the precondition that Israeli attacks on Gaza should stop. And the use of Israeli military might is not stopping Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli towns, but rather is increasing it. In a new departure, a number of Grad rockets have hit Ashkelon, an Israeli city of over 100,000 people, 20 kilometres north of Gaza.
The Israeli regime has no coherent strategy at present. Not long ago, Olmert declared that Israel will have to accept a Palestinian state to avoid the prospect of Palestinians becoming a majority of the population within the area controlled by Israel. But as Financial Times writer Philip Stephens commented: “Analysis is one thing. The will to change course is another. Mr Olmert anyway lacks political authority. His coalition could collapse at any moment”. Olmert is certainly weak and detested, falling to 3% in opinion polls at one stage. But he remains in power because there is no obvious replacement; all the representatives of Israeli capitalism are highly discredited.
Not surprisingly, media commentators are saying that the “peace process”, that started in Annapolis last November, is in crisis. But it never was a remotely viable peace process, given the present stance of the Israeli ruling class. Even a Financial Times editorial (6.3.08) felt driven to say: “Israel, arguably, has never pursued a realistic peace settlement”. In the last week alone, the Israeli leadership has authorised the building of 400 more homes in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem and 750 in a West Bank settlement near Jerusalem, both of them Palestinian areas occupied by Israel since 1967. Now, fuelling continued pessimism by commentators, while the US demands a return to talks, it is not even calling for a ceasefire in Gaza by Israel.
The Israeli economy is in its fifth year of growth, yet there is a rapidly widening class divide, with the rich getting richer and a third of children now living in poverty. There have been waves of attacks on the welfare state and on secure jobs, by successive governments in pursuit of a neo-liberal agenda. Tremendous anger towards the government has built up, on economic issues and over deteriorating security. Israeli Jews will never be free of the constant cycles of violence as long as they are led by capitalist politicians who regularly have an interest in resorting to national conflict. On the contrary, the prospect of worse bloodshed is becoming greater. The Israeli working class, however, rather than being a future obstacle to a genuine Palestinian state (as some left organisations internationally believe), can develop into a powerful and decisive force against the Israeli ruling class, that must be defeated to solve both Israeli workers’ aspirations and those of the Palestinians.
Ordinary Palestinians have repeatedly shown a willingness to struggle, not just against the occupation but also against their own completely inadequate “leaders”, as recent workers’ strikes in the West Bank have shown. They do not want their “government” to be divided between Fatah and Hamas; there have been calls for “national unity” at the many funerals and polls show that this is presently seen as the most important issue. However, neither the politics of Hamas, nor the pro-western imperialism Fatah, can show a way forward. A capitalist Palestinian state, whether Islamic or secular, would not solve the Palestinians’ economic problems. The Hamas leaders have rejected the overt corruption of Fatah and have condemned the actions of US imperialism, but when in power, whether in councils or government, they have turned to passing the burden of economic crisis onto the shoulders of workers through job cuts and privatisation, as has Fatah.
Neither does either party have a strategy that can deliver a Palestinian state against the massively armed opposition of the Israeli ruling class. The development of new mass workers’ parties in both the Palestinian territories and in Israel is urgently needed. It is essential that socialist ideas are developed in these parties. A poverty-free Palestinian state will not be achieved on the basis of capitalism. And in Israel, with its far more developed economy, capitalism is unable to provide acceptable living standards for a vast layer of ordinary people.
Faced with the existence of the new “security” wall that has been built by Israel, eating significantly into Palestinian land; also with the expansion of Jewish settlements and atomisation of Palestinian areas; some on the left internationally call for a single, secular, democratic state of Palestinians and Jews. But this idea raises enormous fear in the region – especially among Israeli Jews, who fear becoming a discriminated-against minority in such a state, as the Palestinian birth rate is out-stripping that of Jews. Jewish workers will not be won over to seriously challenge their own ruling class and embrace socialist ideas, faced with such a goal. Only on the basis of a socialist Israel alongside a socialist Palestine can there be a rise in living standards for ordinary people on both sides of the divide, and the necessary democracy and links to ensure the building of trust and communication across the national divide, and an end to the bloodshed for ever.
– For the immediate withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Occupied Territories!
– For an end to the Israeli blockade of Palestinian towns and villages.
– For the establishment in the occupied territories of grass-roots committees, to provide the basis for genuine and democratic workers’ leadership. For the right of these committees to be armed for the purposes of defence.
– For a mass struggle of the Palestinians, under their democratic control, to raise their standard of living and to fight for genuine national liberation.
– For an end to the use of Israeli soldiers as cannon fodder by the Israeli ruling class and army generals. n For a struggle by Israeli Palestinians against institutionalised racism and their treatment as second class citizens.
– For an end to unemployment and poverty in Israel. For a struggle of the Israeli working class – both Jewish and Palestinian – to end capitalism.
– For a socialist Palestine alongside a socialist Israel as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East, with guaranteed democratic rights for all national minorities.