Issue 197 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review

When peace means war

John Rose

'It was a massacre. Not since Sabra and Chatila had I seen the innocent slaughtered like this. The Lebanese refugee women and children and men lay in heaps, their hands or arms or legs missing, beheaded or disembowelled. There were well over a hundred of them. A baby lay without a head. The Israeli shells had scythed through them as they lay in the United Nations shelter, believing that they were safe under the world's protection.'

Thus Robert Fisk opened his story on the Independent's front page on Friday 19 April. Some 101 people had been killed, bringing the loss of civilian life to over 200 during Israel's ten day offensive on the Lebanon. Over 400,000 had been forced to flee their homes.

The words of Sabra and Chatila evoked grim reminders of the climax of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982; the Palestinian camps in Beirut which Israeli soldiers sealed off and allowed the Lebanese Phalange - Christian Fascists - to methodically cut the throats of old men, women and children. Altogether 30,000 Palestinians and Lebanese lost their lives in that year. Israel's objective in breaking the will of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation might have been achieved. But Hizbollah took its place.

It took this new massacre to stir Western politicians into making some effort to restrain Israel. Until then Israel's attempts to 'crush Islamic terror' were defended as enhancing the 'peace process' between Israel and the Palestinians and eventually the rest of the Arab world. The re-election of premier Peres was the highest priority. The Economist described television footage of Peres at war:

'It is all far more effective than anything the campaign professionals could possibly have contrived... Suspicions of Mr Peres' "weakness" have vanished. His campaign slogan, "A strong Israel with Peres", suddenly rings true.'

The US believed that only Peres can consolidate the deal with the Palestinians. An added bonus would be cutting Assad, Syria's leader, down to size. He's been blowing hot and cold about a peace with Israel, and his soldiers control Lebanon. Here was the chance to force him to bring Hizbollah to heel as well as back to the negotiating table over the Golan heights and an eventual full recognition of Israel.

What about 'disproportionality' - the word being used to describe Israel's murderous response to Hizbollah's Katyusha rockets fired into the border towns of northern Israel? Some of the more intelligent journalists quite properly used it to ask about a grizzly civilian death score where Israel kills over 200 and Hizbollah rockets kill 0.

Not surprisingly over 200 million Arabs had some difficulty making sense of this way of making peace. The mainstream Egyptian newspaper, al-Ahram, wrote:

'It is impossible to underestimate the scope of the anger sweeping the Arab masses, including our people here in Egypt...who were bound to revolt against such humiliation... What Israel is now doing is returning the Arab-Israeli conflict to a question of life or death where the Arab peoples are concerned... These operations may be vote winners in national elections but they unveil the depth of Israeli hatred for everything Arab, which in turn breeds a desire for revenge... If a car is burned in Israel, she finds it enough reason to burn a whole country and displace its population. That - a thousand teeth for one tooth - makes Israeli state terrorism into racism. How long can Arab governments remain committed to peace when Israel itself chooses to blow up all its foundations?'

The US brokered Middle East 'peace process' crucially depends upon the consent of the Arab rulers who in turn will control their own populations. The massacre at the UN shelter threatened that consent.

At the time of writing a US imposed ceasefire seemed imminent with most commentators reporting that Israel had suffered a major setback, while Hizbollah has been strengthened - its credibility in Lebanon has never been higher.

It is a legitimate part of the politics of Lebanon as a key representative of Shia Muslims. For the first time ever it has received support from Christian Beirut. In addition, the bargaining position of Syria's Assad has been improved. The delay in obtaining the ceasefire reflected his suddenly increased confidence.

In Israel itself the mood was subdued. There was speculation about splits in the armed forces, increased doubts about the re-election of Peres and a rise in the bank lending rate dampening the recent wave of economic optimism.

When the United States invaded Vietnam in the 1960s it said it was 'making the country safe for democracy'. In the 1990s the US and Israel are more open about their objectives. The peace process is about making the Middle East safe for capitalism, with Israel as its catalyst. 'We want', says Israeli premier Peres, 'a Middle East dominated by banks not tanks, ballots not bullets, and where the only generals are General Motors and General Electric.'

Yet Israel remains ever ready to apply military force to impose its economic will. The attack on the Lebanese power station was a clear warning that the Lebanese economy would not be allowed to recover unless there was 'peace' in Galilee.

Israel likes to give the impression of economic self confidence. According to the Bank of Israel, foreign investment leapt from virtually zero, three years ago, to $2.1 billion last year. Intel, Nestlé, Volkswagen, Medtronic, the US based manufacturer of medical equipment, Disney, and Citibank, the largest bank in the US, are just some of the names reported to be lining up the dollars. The Hamas suicide bombings hardly registered a blip on the Tel Aviv stock exchange, that 'most sensitive barometer of business sentiment', falling only 1 percent in two weeks.

How Israel deals with its huge balance of trade deficit, running at $1 billion a month, is explained by Arie Casper, economic commentator for Ha'aretz, Israel's best known 'liberal' newspaper, 'For now US aid and a flow of cash from abroad, from sources that remain unclear, are allowing the government to cope.' In other words the United States continues to sustain Israeli living standards at artificially high Western levels, reinforcing most Israelis' sense of superiority over their Arab neighbours.

According to the Economist, Israel's gross domestic product is the highest in the Middle East. Its predictions for 1996 are that Israel's per capita GDP will be $16,320 - compared with $6,930 in Saudi Arabia, $2,710 in Lebanon, $1,730 in Algeria, $1,690 in Jordan, $1,450 in Iraq, $910 in Egypt and $880 in Iran.

Thus Israel thinks it is poised to dominate the Arab economies. In the words of Erel Margalit, general partner in the Oxton Israel Capital Fund and a recognised authority on Israel's regional economic ambitions, 'The world sees Israel as a progressive island in the region that will assume the role of an east-west meeting point.' There are plans for a massive expansion in the country's infrastructure. Israeli roads 'already have the highest number of cars per kilometre of any country in the world'. It is said that its ports at Ashod, Eilat and Haifa cannot cope with the increasing flow of cargo. The airports cannot cope with the anticipated massive tourist buildup. The energy minister, Gonen Segev, expects a linkage of the Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian electricity grids. He even foresees connecting Israel to the European grid if there is a peace with Syria. Natural gas deals are predicted with Egypt, Azerbaijan and Qatar. A range of new financial services - including 'training Arab entrepreneurs' - are coming on stream.

Israel's English language financial press is busy promoting this 'good news peace dividend', mixing fact with the marketing of an economic strategy for expanding Western investment and dominating the growing Arab market. It's a 'come on' to the West as well as reflecting real developments. There is some huffing and puffing, thus the GDP statistics, by measuring per capita, conceal the very different (and much poorer) population levels and hence conceal far greater potential productive capacities of countries like Egypt, Iraq and Syria.

Even so the imbalance with Israel's new Palestinian 'partner' could hardly be more starkly revealed. 'Bantusan' is such an apt description. The Palestinians face the following choice. Behave and you can come to Israel and sell your labour and your goods, though on our terms and that means cheap. Misbehave and we'll shut you out and ruin you. Also we'll determine definitions of good behaviour. So we'll shut you out after Hamas suicide bombs even though nowhere on the West Bank and Gaza does Hamas have majority support. (Though of course Israeli action is helping them to grow.)

The Israeli economy is nearly 30 times larger than the Palestinian economy. The borders were sealed following the Hamas bombs as a deliberate form of collective punishment. The Palestinian economy lost $4 million a day as a result. Half of this is loss of wages, the other half is loss of exports - the Palestinian economy is almost totally dependent on Israel.

Following the ban on Palestinian workers, Israeli employers have imported over 100,000 East European and Thai labourers. In addition there are thousands of illegal immigrant Arab workers from Egypt and Jordan.

The peace process is now hated by most Palestinians and this is clear in the universities on the West Bank and Gaza which have traditionally been sensitive barometers of the shifts in the struggle against Zionism.

At the end of March, in the biggest operation since 'self rule' on the West Bank, Israeli troops arrested hundreds of students from Birzeit University, quickly followed, as though on cue, by Palestinian police storming an anti-Zionist student rally at the Nablus' An-Najah University, using tear gas, batons and live ammunition. Though both operations were designed to curb Hamas, their combined effect was to provoke the entire student body into a confrontation with Arafat. In an event virtually unreported in the west, but which rapidly became common knowledge throughout Palestine, the student wing of Arafat's own organisation, Fatah, led an unprecedented 1,000 strong civil rights march from Birzeit. They demanded a meeting with Arafat who was in nearby Ramallah. Palestinian police, who at one stage opened fire, failed to deter the march.

Arafat agreed to conduct, in his words, a 'dialogue' with his grievances. He made a number of promises, including that henceforth Palestinian campuses would be 'inviolate places'. It is too early to say if this is the start of a wider movement. Certainly some observers, like Hanna Nasser, president of Beirzeit University, see, in this struggle for student democratic rights, the shaping of 'the cornerstones of contemporary Palestinian civil society' itself. But how long can a Palestinian democracy movement tolerate the new oppressive dependency on Israel which is at the heart of the 'peace process'?

I was in Israel just before the Lebanon adventure, my first visit since 1966, when I was enthusiastic supporter of the Zionist state. This time I spent many hours in 'Old Jerusalem', the old walled city where the myths and the realities of three of the world's greatest religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, are wonderfully jumbled together. The Ottoman Turkish character of the city bazaar with its Armenian, Muslim, Christian and Jewish quarters provides anyone with an ounce of humanitarian justice with blessed relief from the rest of the modern city.

On Easter Saturday afternoon I watched in sheer amazement as rabbis, praying at a site claiming to be the tomb of King David, mingled with guided tours of American Christians and wealthy Egyptian Muslim tourists. Nearby six year old Jewish boys wearing religious skullcaps played with toy rifles. Ten minutes walk away, religious Jews prayed and kissed the famed wailing wall. Just behind it is the golden Dome of the Rock. This spectacular building, built in 691 on the site from which Muslims believe Muhammed ascended to heaven, has been well described by, of all people, ardent Zionist Abba Eban, as 'still the most brilliant jewel of the Jerusalem skyline'. And, of course, it is only a short walk to the site of Herod's temple where it is said that Jesus of Nazareth challenged the money changers.

Disney's entry into Israel, it seems, is rather fitting, surely the perfect partner for the Israeli government's 'God and Mammon Jerusalem Old City Entertainments Inc'. The exploding tourist industry has already driven land values so high that some houses outside the walls are selling at $1 million. The profits from tourism are enormous. 'It's a very good export,' says one Israeli economist. 'There's very little raw material that has to be imported so virtually every dollar you earn has a high value-added element.'

But he cannot explain why Israelis should be the sole beneficiaries.

Meanwhile the Israelis continue to build around the old city, transforming Arab villages into Jerusalem Jewish suburbs. Every time they do this they steal Arab land. Ruined small farmers look for work in the ever growing metropolis. 'I suppose the best that you could say is that they are proletarianising us,' a Palestinian socialist told me ruefully as we stared, from what was left of his village, at the new block of Jewish flats. At the Damascus Gate of the old city, a point which invisibly separates Jewish and Arab Jerusalem, 18 year old Jewish boys and girls, wearing Israeli soldiers' uniforms and carrying huge guns, continuously harass nearly every Arab who passes. Did they have the right papers? You need one set if you are an Arab/Israeli citizen, another set if you live in East Jerusalem. If you live on the West Bank or Gaza, and they find out, then you can be instantly arrested. Their contempt for everything Arab is palpable. Their harassing is bored and gratuitous. Their remarks about the Arabs, whom they bait, are all the worse when we consider the struggle of Jews throughout history against anti-Semitism and racism.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page