Issue 246 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
'This is a story about lies, bias, hatred and death. It's about our inability--after more than half a century--to understand the injustice in the Middle East. It's about a part of the world where it seems quite natural, after repeatedly watching on television the funeral of 11 year old Sami Abu Jezar--who died two days after being shot through the forehead by Israeli soldiers (the 24th Palestinian child to be killed by Israeli soldiers)--for a crowd to kick two Israeli plainclothes agents to death... It's about a people who are so enraged about the killing of almost 100 Palestinians (by Israelis using American weapons) that they try to blow up an American warship.' So said Robert Fisk, writing in the Independent on 13 October.
The events in the Middle East have not only exposed the bankruptcy of the so called 'peace process', but also, as never before, an extremely harsh light has been thrown on the raw racist nature of Zionism and the catastrophic failure of the Palestinian leadership. Only the long-suffering Palestinian people emerge with real credit--they are desperate to make a revolution but cannot make it on their own.
That the 'peace process' was a fraud has been well documented in this magazine. But as Palestinian writer Edward Said observed (Guardian, 12 October), the fraud has been illustrated this time round in a truly remarkable way. Not only did Israel's most notorious war criminal, Ariel Sharon (responsible for the deaths of 2,000 Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut in 1982), assert Israeli supremacy by going walkabout at Haram al-Sharif, Islam's holiest shrine in Jerusalem, but he did so with the full support of Israeli leader Ehud Barak, who provided him with a 1,000 soldier strong guard of honour.
The significance of this incident cannot be underestimated. It demonstrated conclusively and finally that Israel would never share Jerusalem with the Palestinians. It also showed that this is not about religion--it is about politics, albeit expressed with religious symbolism. It is also about Israel stamping out Palestinian politics. Palestinian national liberation is impossible without Jerusalem as its capital.
Religion is partly carrying the outward expression of the struggle for both sides, though this process began with Zionism and not with 'militant' Islam, as the western press would have us believe. Secular Zionism has always played the religious card like a race card. Its most famous political leader, Ben Gurion, was the supreme master and teacher of this game. In the famous battle for the Sinai desert with the Egyptian army during the Suez crisis of 1956, left of centre and atheist leader Ben Gurion told Israeli soldiers that the halo of Sinai glowed over their heads as if their parents were present at the time of Moses. Thus an Old Testament script legitimised the soldiers' behaviour. This ugly brew of religion and modern nationalist politics easily becomes a form of religious racism.
This has emerged very clearly with this crisis in relation to the 'Israeli Arabs'--really Palestinians--trapped behind Israel's borders since 1948. For the first time in significant numbers they had the nerve to support their brothers and sisters on the West Bank and Gaza. This provoked some Israelis to launch pogroms (the word used by more liberal sections of the Israeli media) against them, to such an extent that Barak had to call for restraint, reminding Israelis of some of their grandparents' origins in the pogrom-ridden lands of the eastern Europe of the 19th century. Both Palestinian and Israeli human rights organisations are documenting major human rights abuses against Palestinians by Zionist settlers on the West Bank. These include repeated accusations of capture and then torture.
Some of the more liberal sections of the western media were shaken by these developments. Yet these hatreds have deep roots in both Israeli and pre-Israeli history. Tony Cliff, the SWP's founder member, was brought up in a Zionist home when Palestine was still a British colony. He quickly learned that Zionism and socialism were incompatible. As a teenager he watched Zionist activists smash up Arab fruit and vegetable stalls in the name of 'Jewish produce only!' He puzzled about the Zionist trade union movement, which called for rights for 'Jewish labour only!' He wondered about the 'socialist' kibbutz system, which excluded Arabs even though these Jewish-only collectivist farms were always built on, and often stolen from, Arab land.
To his credit, Israeli writer David Grossman was rallied to the defence of the 'Israeli Arabs'. He has described the systemic discrimination against them today: 'Sewage in many [Israeli] Arab villages flows down the streets in open gutters...the school curriculum, when it addresses Arab identity and national history, is both biased and humiliating... This Palestinian citizen funds with his taxes a ministry of absorption that has, over the past decade, brought to Israel almost a million Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, with the declared goal of reinforcing the Jewish majority. These new immigrants have taken jobs from Israeli Arabs, and to make room for them the state has more than once expropriated land that has for generations belonged to the Arabs.' (Independent on Sunday, 8 October)
An additional crisis for the Palestinians, throughout Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and beyond to the refugee camps in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world, has been the leadership of Yasser Arafat. Edward Said has rightly pointed out that this new Intifada is partly directed at Arafat. This is not just about the way he tried to sow illusions about the 'peace process', though that is bad enough. It's about the way that he and his cronies have been seen to directly benefit financially from it, while for the mass of Palestinians the numbers unemployed and living in extreme poverty have rocketed in the past five years. Said estimates that 60 percent of Arafat's public budget goes to his bureaucracy and burgeoning security forces, while just 2 percent goes on public services infrastructure. Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone missing. As Said notes, 'His international patrons accept this in the name of the "peace process", certainly the most hated phrase in the Palestinian lexicon today.' Western pundits may puzzle over Arafat's sudden rediscovery of militancy. But the answer is obvious. He had to place himself on the crest of the new wave of Palestinian anger. Had he not done so he would have been finished.
But the leadership crisis for the Palestinians, as always, goes far deeper than this. Even in the days when the Palestine Liberation Organisation had the mass support of Palestinians everywhere, it was unable to defeat the Israelis. The PLO was never the ANC. Black workers in South Africa could paralyse the apartheid system. Palestinian workers can close Israeli building sites and restaurants, and with demonstrations and riots they can create mayhem, but ultimately the core of the Zionist system is dependent on highly privileged and almost exclusively Jewish labour. Sadly, privilege and ideology have always sealed these workers off from the traditions of internationalism and socialism.
Yet Palestine has always captured the imagination of the rest of the Arab world. Its liberation is the unfinished business of 20th century Arab resistance to British, French and now US imperial domination. This is quite clear from the waves of solidarity demonstrations with the Palestinians throughout the Arab and Muslim world in the past few weeks. Herein lies the answer to the crisis of Palestinian leadership. The rest of the Arab world must rally support that moves from street demonstrations to active revolutionary resistance. There is no doubt that there is mass enthusiasm for this on Arab streets, as nervous western observers know only too well. As the Financial Times reported (14 October), 'Now, the region's rulers, weakened by their own lack of legitimacy, are facing unprecedented pressure from public opinion to help the Palestinians and stand up to Israel.'
But here too there is a leadership crisis of massive proportions. The political force that powered Arab resistance in the 20th century disintegrated long ago. Symbolised in the person of Egypt's revolutionary nationalist and military leader, Nasser, who challenged Britain at Suez, Arab nationalism--backed by money, arms and the tainted ideology of the former Soviet Union--is no more. And even Nasser compromised, trapped both by the Cold War intrigues of Washington and Moscow, and the need to manage a state capitalist economy. Trapped too was the huge independent left in the Arab world, dominated by Communist parties which toed the Moscow line. In place of independent Arab nationalisms have come Arab governments thoroughly dependent on US patronage. Corrupt, extremely repressive and hated by their own people, these regimes are desperate to put the so called 'peace process' back on track. A half hearted move in any other direction could release the same pent-up fury which has exploded in Palestine.
Of course this means there is a massive political vacuum throughout the Arab world. Versions of militant Islam are competing to fill it. This provides a totally understandable focus for the groundswell of emotions that urges the use of any means necessary to throw off the oppression of centuries. Militant Islam is right to identify western imperialism and its tool in the Middle East, Zionism, as the enemy. It is right to demand sustained struggle against this enemy. However, this is a focus only for aggressive militant rhetoric and occasional heroic deeds, though these are often deeds with tragic ends which do not always advance the struggle. In addition, the anti-Semitism of some of its factions demonstrates the movement's backwardness, and its inability to go beyond kneejerk reactions. Everywhere it has failed to deliver, seeking compromises with local ruling classes and sowing disillusion among its many supporters. Militant Islam is incapable of organising a revolutionary war, because such a war requires modern ideas as well as modern weapons.
The result of all these failures is that mass opposition is unable to translate the deep hopes for change into focused action. At the time of writing it is impossible to know where the present crisis in Palestine will lead. However, the political vacuum in the Arab world may well mean that the US/Zionist/Arafat axis may yet assert some form of control, albeit much weaker than before, with many more sporadic outbursts of resistance.
In other words, the ferment and agitation will not go away. All oppositionist groupings are likely to grow in influence--certainly the Islamists, and probably variations of reborn Arab nationalism. But socialists too should suddenly discover a wider audience, however few in number our starting point may be in today's Middle East. Socialists have one great advantage--a political strategy which both places the Arab masses at the centre of the struggle and locates the point at which mass Arab power can be most effective. This is at the point of industrial and agricultural production. This is where political and economic power is ultimately concentrated. A mass revolutionary movement could simultaneously challenge Zionism and all of the Arab regimes.
'Arabs were driven into exile' Henry Maitles