Archive article from The Socialist Issue 371
Obituary: Yasser Arafat
Palestinians mourn Arafat but struggle for liberation will continue
MANY PALESTINIANS will view the death of Yasser Arafat with a mixture of sadness and a wish that the Palestinian Authority he led, had done much more to end the poverty and oppression that blights their lives.
Rotem and Gal, Maavak Sotzialisti, Israel
Whatever doubts some Palestinians may have had about his leadership they will see in his death a snapshot of the brutal oppression and tenuous existence they face on a daily basis. Arafat remained a virtual prisoner in his compound for three years, a situation which undoubtedly contributed to the illnesses from which he died.
He is seen by most Palestinians as a symbol of the longstanding Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. His past, as a guerrilla leader since the 1960s and as one of the founders of the Fatah organisation and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation), gave him a special status among the Palestinian masses. It is hard for many Palestinians to think who could play the same role or have the same authority as Yasser Arafat.
But while respect will be shown for the role he played amongst many Palestinians, there will be others who rightly question Arafat's (and the other PLO leaders') tactics and strategy in attempting to win Palestinian national liberation.
In the earlier years of Fatah and the PLO this was armed attacks by secretive guerrilla groups, as opposed to mass action by the working class and peasantry armed for self-defence. Later on Arafat and other leaders attempted to form diplomatic alliances with corrupt Arab regimes and negotiate with imperialist powers.
WHEN ARAFAT was faced with a revolutionary situation, he unfortunately betrayed such movements. September 1970 in Jordan was one such example, where large sections of Palestinians and Jordanians rose up against the corrupt regime of King Hussein.
Arafat and the PLO leaders could have led a revolutionary struggle for power which would have changed the whole face of the Middle East. Instead, Arafat made concessions to King Hussein and tens of thousands of Palestinians were killed in the retribution by the Jordanian army that followed. This defeat became known as Black September.
Having been driven out of Jordan, the PLO leadership established itself in Beirut. In 1975 a civil war developed between the PLO and the right-wing Christian Phalange militia.
In 1982 Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) under the command of Ariel Sharon rolled into Lebanon in support of the Phalange and laid siege to West Beirut where Arafat was holed up. That August, a US-brokered deal saw the PLO leadership go into exile in Tunisia. In September, under the gaze of the IDF, the Phalange militia massacred up to 2,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Exile meant that Arafat and the PLO no longer had the same intimate connection with the Palestinians and also alienated them from the conditions that the majority of Palestinians faced.
The distance between the Palestinian masses and the leadership based in exile was clearly demonstrated at the beginning of the first Intifada (Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories which began spontaneously in October 1987 and lasted until 1991/93).
The PLO leadership in exile was completely taken by surprise by this event, as was the Israeli regime. The first Intifada provided the basis for the growth of a new leadership from below in the West Bank and the Gaza strip.
AFTER THE signing of the Oslo agreement (Israeli/Palestinian peace accords) brought the Tunis leadership back to the occupied territories, tensions and disagreements developed between it and the local leadership which have remained in different forms up to the present day.
At the beginning of the 1990s the pace of the Intifada had slowed as a consequence of years of struggle without the defeat of the Israeli military occupation of the territories. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the support of Fatah for Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War left the PLO politically isolated and financially bankrupt.
Under the pressure of US imperialism, which feared future upheavals in the region, the Israeli ruling class took advantage of the PLO's weakened position to force it into negotiations and to accept the Oslo agreement. This deal was never meant to give the Palestinians national liberation. It was designed to grant a Bantustan-type prison existence to the Palestinian masses with the Palestinian Authority (PA) acting as guards and the Israeli state as prison governor.
The Israeli ruling class preferred to deal with the old weak leadership from Tunis which was not as militant as the leadership on the ground. Arafat's regime represented the capitalist interests of the Palestinian elite and was totally dependent on the Israeli ruling class for its existence. As such it could not and never has intended to solve the problems of the Palestinians.
The standard of living under the PA regime declined severely, hand-in-hand with the continuing oppression by the Israeli Defence Forces. At the same time a small elite enriched itself on the expense of the masses. Billions of dollars in aid has flowed into the coffers of the PA, ostensibly to improve infrastructure etc, but an International Monetary Fund and European Union audit revealed that $900 million was missing.
Without any solution to the problems of daily life the peace process couldn't last for long. This was the basis for the second Intifada.
THE SECOND Intifada was aimed against both the Israeli regime and in a distorted way the PA (This uprising was sparked by Ariel Sharon's provaocative visit to the site of the al-Aqsa mosque, Jerusalem, in September 2000). The first reaction of the PA leadership was to condemn this outburst of the Palestinian masses. Only after they were unable to hold back the movement did they try to lead the Intifada.
Over the last few years the Israeli blockade on Arafat in the PA headquarters in Ramallah, gave him back the status of a symbol of the Palestinian resistance.
However, despite the fact that for many years Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, yearned for Arafat's death, the news about Arafat's life-threatening illness came at a very inconvenient time for him. In addition to the fear of being blamed for his death, and the effect it might have on the Palestinian street, the death of Arafat actually poses serious questions concerning the strategy of the Israeli ruling class.
For the last few years the main claim of the Israeli regime was that Arafat was an obstacle to any negotiation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This was one of the main arguments Sharon used to justify the disengagement plan.
The death of Arafat could lead to events which dramatically change the situation in Israel and the PA. Many names have been mentioned as candidates to replace Arafat as the PA president and the leader of the PLO and Fatah: Abu Alla, Abu Mazen, Mohammed Dahlan, even Farouq Kaddoumi (who opposed the Oslo agreement at first) and Marwan Barghouti, who has sat in an Israeli jail for more than two years and holds credit for that in the Palestinian street. But none of them have the credit Arafat had as a symbol and a guerrilla fighter.
Even during Arafat's life we saw early struggles over the future control of the Gaza strip, when last summer Dahlan's faction in Fatah challenged the control of Arafat's armed forces.
NOW THE situation has became more complicated, since Hamas have also laid a claim for a share in governing the PA. Hamas enjoy mass support in Gaza, but if it became part of the PA this might change over the long run and could cause enormous pressure to be exerted on the PA by the imperialist powers who could oppose its inclusion.
At the end of October Sharon won the vote on the 'disengagement' plan in the Knesset (Israeli parliament). The Israeli ruling class wants to withdraw from the Gaza strip (while still controlling its borders) but many of the Likud MPs from Sharon's party are opposed to removing the Jewish settlements there, which has exerted huge pressure on the Prime Minister.
Sharon suffers from a lack of support inside his party, and his governmental coalition includes less than half of all MPs and therefore the government is unstable.
At the moment he claims that nothing has changed since the death of Arafat, but there is strong pressure from inside the Likud for cancelling the disengagement plan and going back to negotiations with a new future partner.
The option of a government of national unity (bringing together Likud and Labour) is still open but it seems like the next general elections in Israel are only a matter of a short time away.
The death of Arafat has released forces of instability that were hidden beneath the surface, building up for a long time. These pressures did not develop because of the personality of Arafat but because of the inability of capitalism and imperialism to solve the daily problems of Palestinian and Israeli workers.
The solution is way beyond the hands of capitalism and its agents. The problems of the masses can only be solved by the organisation of society under a socialist plan to reconcile national differences by establishing two socialist states as part of the struggle to build a socialist federation on the basis of equal rights in the Middle East.
Bantustans were the poverty-stricken tribal areas designated for black people under the South African Aparthied regime. It was a means of denying citizenship to black people and guaranteed a source of cheap labour for the South African capitalist class.
How can a Palestinian state be achieved?
IMPERIALISM, BOTH in the past and today, bears the main responsibility for instability and the oppression of national rights in the Middle East.
Because the region is so strategically and economically important to the imperialist powers they have always been particularly quick to defend their interests by deploying the tactic of divide and rule and by backing dictatorial regimes.
US imperialism has seen Israel as its client state in the region since Israel's inception, it was an imperialist wedge against the threat of socialism and the Arab revolution.
Whilst US imperialism also leans on the conservative, right-wing Arab regimes to varying degrees at different times, Israel remains their primary point of support in the region. What is more, Bush and his cohorts are currently amongst the most crudely pro-Israeli of any US government.
Meanwhile, the European imperialist powers, terrified of the consequences of developments in the Middle East, are campaigning more strongly than Bush for a "viable Palestinian state". They decline to say what this actually means.
This is because they have no answers on the central issues of contention - the right of return, Jerusalem, water rights and land rights. In reality a so-called Palestinian state under capitalism would be a tiny impoverished statelet, its borders decided by Israel probably on more unfavourable terms even than the Oslo Accord.
Genuine Palestinian statehood would threaten the power, prestige and profits of the capitalist elite in the Middle East and of imperialism. It would fuel the national aspirations of other nationalities and minorities in the region.
It could also develop into a radical alternative for the Arab masses to the corrupt pro-imperialist regimes in the region and would therefore be a threat to imperialism's strategic and oil interests.
The Palestinians are facing constant oppression and the likelihood of repeated bloody occupations and incursions by the IDF. They are in a desperate situation.
Palestinians clearly have the right to armed self-defence against the IDF onslaught. However, attacks on Israeli civilians are counter-productive because they drive the Israeli working class into the hands of their own worst enemies; Sharon and the most reactionary elements of the Israeli ruling class.
Of course, the Palestinian people can't postpone their struggle until most Israeli Jews accept the need for a genuine Palestinian state. But as well as organising mass opposition to the occupation, the Palestinian struggle needs to help undermine the support of Israeli Jews, particularly the working class, for Israeli capitalism and all that goes with it. The Palestinians will not win the right to self-determination by military struggle alone.
What about Israel?
MARXISTS OPPOSED the establishment of Israel, recognising that it was built on the suffering of the Palestinian people, and moreover would become a bloody trap for the Israeli Jews. However, Israel is now in existence and over time the population have developed a national consciousness.
Given this, to deny the Israeli Jews the right to their own nation, is a violation of the right to self-determination. Moreover, it is unachievable given the military backing of US imperialism from the Israeli state.
There is an historical logjam. Just as the military might of Israel cannot crush the Palestinians' unquenchable desire for a state, the Israeli Jews' national consciousness could not be destroyed.
For the Palestinians to achieve victory it is essential that they split the majority Jewish working class from Sharon and the Israeli ruling class. This can only be done by supporting the existence of two states - Palestinian and Jewish - on a socialist basis, as a part of a voluntary confederation of the Middle East with democratic national rights for all minorities.
A socialist Middle East could provide the full economic and social resources to absorb the millions of Palestinians who would be given the right of return and guarantee increased living standards for the whole population.
That is why the building of strong working-class movements on both sides of the national divide in Israel and Palestine, committed to a socialist programme, is such an urgent task in the region.