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From The Socialist newspaper, 30 November 2001

THE US-led attacks on Afghanistan, under the guise of 'fighting terrorism', has incensed the workers and poor of the Middle East who point out the hypocrisy of Bush and co in backing the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon - a regime that continues to oppress the Palestinians. DAVE REID looks at the historical roots of this Middle East conflict, while SIMON CARTER examines the prospects for achieving a "viable Palestinian nation".

Israel/Palestine: Imperialism's Bitter Fruit

IN MAY 1948 the state of Israel was formed by Jewish settlers in Palestine after a civil war. 580,000 Arabs who had lived in Palestine for generations were driven out of their own country and dispersed as refugees to neighbouring Arab countries.

The big powers - Britain, the United States, France and the Soviet Union - stood back, because it suited their interests to allow it. But the terrible injustice to the Palestinian Arabs and the failure to solve any of the social problems of the Arab nations has left an open wound that has festered ever since. There can be no peace in the Middle East until these questions are resolved.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Arab people, spread over an area covering the whole of the Middle East and North Africa, saw their chance to break free from the Turkish Ottoman empire and form an Arabic state.

But the British and French imperialists had their eyes on what was a strategically important area through which their trade with the rest of Asia passed.

They moved in, competing with each other to carve up the region into their own areas for exploitation. During the First World War the British government promised the Arabs national independence if they took up arms with the British.

But after the defeat of the Turks the British broke their promise. In 1920 the League of Nations supported the division of the area between Britain and France with France taking Syria and Lebanon and Britain Palestine and Iraq.

Divide and rule

The British and French, using the strategy of 'divide and rule' to consolidate their control, played off all the various national and religious groups in the region.

One group was the Jewish migrants who had settled in Palestine. Alienated by centuries of racist persecution many European Jews had aspired for a Jewish homeland where they could live in peace. The Zionist movement organised the movement of Jews to Palestine, the site of the Biblical home of Judaism.

The British saw the Jews as a useful point of support in Palestine. In 1917 the British government had promised in the Balfour Declaration the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. They envisaged a Jewish statelet that could be used to divide Arab national aspirations and act as a useful point of support in area next to the strategically crucial Suez Canal.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there were a number of mass movements by Arabs across the Middle East for national independence. The British and French responded with repression through puppet regimes and by balancing between the competing interests of ethnic minorities including the Palestinian Jews to divide the opposition.

Anti-Semitism in Europe and the coming to power of the Nazis in Germany opened up a flood of Jewish settlers into Palestine reaching 28% of the population by 1939. Fighting between Arabs and Jews broke out in 1938 leading the British to limit Jewish migration with a view to withdrawal from direct rule eventually.

In the aftermath of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and the mass murder of six million European Jews, hundreds of thousands migrated mainly to Palestine and the USA.

The British who had used Palestinian Jews as a bulwark against the Arabs were now concerned about Jewish migration destabilising the area and attempted to prevent Jewish immigration into Palestine.

Jewish terrorist organisations carried out attacks on the British Army. By 1947 the British had had enough and announced their intention to leave in May 1948.

A civil war began as both sides attempted to grab as much land as possible before the British left. In the war that followed British withdrawal the Jewish paramilitaries were better equipped, better organised and completely united. They won a decisive victory against an Arab force divided and badly led by the corrupt regimes surrounding Palestine. Over half a million Palestinians, 78% of the Palestinian population were driven from their homes. Those that were allowed to remain lost half their land.

The imperialist powers acquiesced to this seizure for a number of reasons including the support in Western public opinion for the right of the Jewish people to a homeland. But the crucial factor for imperialism was the existence of Israel in a strategic position in the Middle East, itself a crucial area in the world.

90% of the known oil deposits in the world were to be found in the Middle East in 1948. It was also the communications crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia containing the Suez Canal through which most of the trade with the East was conducted by Europe.

To the Arab masses Israel was a Western colony supplanted in the middle of their areas and standing in the way of their aspirations.

Colonial revolution

THE DOMINANT forces in the world in 1948 were no longer Britain and France, but the United States and the Soviet Union. In the early 1950s American strategists were obsessed by the fear of the spread of Russian-style 'communism' or Stalinism.

Already the biggest nation on earth, China, had been lost to capitalism. Across the ex-colonial world capitalism was teetering and while the working class was not able in these undeveloped countries to take power new elites were taking over who were looking to move to a Russian-style state of nationalised, planned economies without workers democracy - 'deformed workers states'.

The USA calculated that Israel would be a useful counterbalance to any movements of the Arab nations in the colonial revolution.

In 1956 Israel in conjunction with Britain and France attacked Egypt. Israel wanted to seize land as a bargaining chip and Britain and France wanted to remove the Egyptian nationalist leader, Nasser, who had nationalised the Suez Canal. But the Egyptians put up a huge struggle and Britain and France were forced to withdraw and Israel to give back the land it seized.

In 1967 tensions between Israel and the Arab states Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq exploded into the Six Day War in which Israel won a resounding victory and seized even more land including the whole of Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan.

Egypt and Syria captured back small areas of land in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, but this merely confirmed to Sadat, the Egyptian president, that there was no chance of the Arab states defeating Israel militarily. In 1978 he signed an agreement with Israel to get back the Sinai and allow the possibility of autonomous areas for Palestinians.

In 1982 the Israeli Army invaded Lebanon to attack Palestinian and Lebanese militias who had launched attacks on Northern Israel.

The Israeli Army led by General Sharon, now Prime Minister of Israel, attacked the Palestinian camps causing terrible casualties and allowed its Lebanese allies to massacre hundreds of Palestinians at Sabra and Chatilla.

Palestinian Intifada

IN 1986 the first Intifada or Palestinian uprising broke out in the Israeli-occupied territories. After the defeat in the Six-Day War the leaders of the Palestinian Liberation organisation (PLO) had encouraged Palestinian militias to increase terrorist attacks on Israel and foreign aircraft.

The tactics of terrorism pushed the Israeli population towards the Zionist hard-liners who used increased repression against the Palestinians. But the Intifada was a mass uprising of the Palestinian people that shook Israeli society to its core.

Although the military response of the Israeli armed forces was brutal against youth armed only with rocks and sling shots, the Intifada split Israeli society and placed enormous pressure on the Israeli government to reach some kind of settlement.

By the mid-1990s the United States, fearing further instability, pressurised the Israeli government into accepting the Oslo Agreement allowing a Palestinian Authority in Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the ability of the ex-colonial world to use the Soviet Union as a support to counter-balance the USA was gone. Arafat and the PLO leaders capitulated to imperialism while the Arab states failed to show any way forward. Moreover a mass socialist force in the region was absent.

But the settlement agreed by the PLO leadership was a travesty of national autonomy. The Palestinian Authority has been shut into tiny poverty-stricken ghettos while Israel has refused to implement many parts of the agreement.

The whole experience of the 20th century has demonstrated conclusively that the only solution for the oppressed masses of the Middle East is a socialist revolution against the reactionary Arab states linking up with a movement of the Israeli working class to reach a solution to the national oppression of the Palestinian people.

A 'Viable Palestinian State'?

USING THE language of George Bush and Tony Blair, Israel's right-wing Prime Minister - Ariel Sharon - has launched a series of armed assaults into Palestinian Authority areas "to fight terrorism".

The resulting clashes between the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and Palestinian militias has led to scores more deaths - mostly Palestinians, including children, but also Israeli settlers - to add to the hundreds already killed over the last year. So far, the attempts by the US secretary of state Colin Powell to get a ceasefire and restart peace talks have failed.

Ariel Sharon, even before the assassination last month of the reactionary government minister Rehavim Ze'evi by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was determined to military crush those he deemed 'enemies of Israel' who operate within the 'terrorist entity' of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA). This state terrorism policy involves the assassination of Palestinian leaders.

The US administration, conscious of the need to keep the leaders of its 'friendly' Arab states in the West's anti-terrorist coalition, has promised to pursue a Middle East policy that includes the creation of "a viable Palestinian state".

However, despite US pressure, Sharon is refusing to play ball and negotiate with Arafat unless there is a complete cessation of violence in the PA areas for one week. (An impossible demand in the context of IDF repression and the economic stranglehold of Palestinian-controlled towns and villages which is causing massive hardship and food shortages.)

However, despite paying lip-service to a 'viable Palestinian state' George Bush too is refusing to meet with Yasser Arafat. He is determined to avoid making concessions that can be seen as rewarding Osama bin Laden and thereby justifying al-Qa'ida's terrorist campaign.

The US and British governments are pressuring the beleaguered Arafat to restrain Palestinian militants, which include the Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and also the more secular PFLP.

After Ze'evi's assassination Arafat, who had returned from a diplomatically successful tour of European capitals, suddenly found all his efforts dashed.

In response he rounded up various members of the different militias. But even this proved futile since Sharon then made the impossible demand that Arafat hand over to Israel these militants. If carried out it would have meant Arafat signing his own death warrant as the mood of the masses in the PA areas was overwhelmingly one of no compromise with Sharon.

Edging toward war

UNDER CAPITALISM a peaceful resolution of the Israel/Palestine national question is proving impossible. The prospect of the current armed conflict degenerating into an all-out war, leading to a wider regional conflict, is edging ever closer.

This perspective doesn't however rule out a tentative ceasefire agreement between Israel and the PA, leading to a certain relaxation of the IDF blockade. (Sharon, for example, has agreed to a meeting with George Bush in two weeks' time). But the likelihood of creating a Palestinian state, agreeing the final status of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees, resolving the issue of Jewish settlements, etc, looks impossible.

The prospect of a war igniting the Arab masses against the corrupt and rotten regimes in the Middle East is a nightmare prospect for US imperialism. One reason for the lukewarm support of Egypt and Saudi Arabia for the US-led 'coalition' is the fear of their working masses whose poverty and oppression is fuelling mass discontent.

Stalled uprising

THE INTIFADA (uprising), which began 14 months ago, is losing momentum and also its mass character. Partly this is due to arrests of militants by Arafat's PA police but it also reflects the lack of progress combined with the deepening economic hardships of Palestinians.

Last month, in a poll by the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion taken in the West Bank and Gaza, 75% of Palestinians supported the uprising. This month a poll showed that support had gone down to 58.6%, with nearly 30% wanting it to end.

This does not mean a lessening of the desire for an independent Palestinian state. In the same poll 63.2% said George Bush's and Colin Powell's recent statements did not go far enough. Nonetheless, it shows the current impasse of the Intifada which in reality is now groups of gunmen pitched against the IDF.

Socialist solution

ISRAELI CAPITALISM is facing acute problems and it's the working class who are paying the price of this failing system. The unemployment rate has soared to 9.3%, with a record 235,000 Israeli's officially unemployed. Some 155,000 have lost jobs this year due to 'downsizing' - double last year's total.

However, workers have been fighting back with a wave of strikes over the last month. Strikes could increase in the public sector after 21 December if the Treasury does not concede a 2.4% pay increase for workers.

What is happening to both the Palestinian and Israeli working masses shows the inability of capitalist politicians to resolve any of the fundamental social, economic and national issues in society.

Only if both working classes begin to build genuine independent parties around a programme of a socialist transformation of society can there be an end to the horrors of poverty, conflict and war.

This task set against the background of historical enmity between Jews and Arabs is not an easy task. But there is a growing realisation in Israel that peace and security cannot be achieved through repression of the Palestinian masses and equally among Palestinians that neither suicide bombings in Israel nor the corrupt PA can advance the struggle for an independent state.

Only a socialist Israel and a socialist Palestine as part of a voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East could guarantee democratic rights for all.

Socialists in Israel under the banner of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI - the socialist international to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) by linking the class issues to socialist change will continue to build support for such a programme.

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In The Socialist 30 November 2001:

War... Recession... We Won't Pay The Price!

Fighting For Jobs And Services

Afghanistan 'Endgame': Not The End Of The 'Game'

Western War Coalition: Buying Friends And Influence

World Aids Day: Warning: Drug Giants Can Seriously Damage Your Health

Anti-Privatisation Conference: 'We're Determined To Fight Back And Win'

Israel/Palestine: Imperialism's Bitter Fruit

Socialist Alliance Conference: The Issues At Stake


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