Issue 256 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stop this war

Dangerous liaisons

The Israelis have launched another offensive against the Palestinians as John Rose explains

In the build-up to this war, truth may not be the first casualty. As Ariel Sharon gleefully ordered the Israeli army to plough into Palestinian areas under the shadow of the global shockwaves emanating from the tragedy in New York, a senior British Foreign Office source told the Guardian that the Israeli leader was 'the cancer at the centre of the Middle East crisis'.

We now know Bush had to rein Sharon in, with the Washington Post warning him not to become 'the first leader of Israel to refuse to cooperate with America'. Sharon and Palestinian leader Arafat were then successfully recruited for the west's global coalition in the 'war against terror'. A ceasefire was agreed, and Arafat won diplomatic plaudits all round.

The Palestinian leadership's calculation is that concessions can be wrung from the US as its price for entering the coalition. Arafat and the 'moderate Arab leaders' are an indispensable part of this coalition, runs the argument, and they can only control their own populations if the US is now seen to force Israel back to the negotiating table with real gains for the Palestinians.

It's a dangerous game, full of illusions. First, what appears plausible one day can appear meaningless the next, given the deepening global instability, especially if the west takes its 'war against terror' to the Middle East, or even to its borders. The ceasefire, shaky from the start, could collapse at any time. A civil war in Pakistan, sparked by western military intervention in Afghanistan, could easily spread throughout the Middle East, given the loathing felt for American policies on the Arab street. A much more violent intifada could erupt, well out of Arafat's control, and become the focus of a full-scale regional war against the US and Israel.

Second, Israel may be America's watchdog in the Middle East, but there is no guarantee that, under extreme circumstances, the watchdog cannot snap its lead. Suppose Israel's religious right, a key player in Sharon's government, see the territorial concessions demanded by the US as an affront to 'god's promise of Judaea and Samaria to the Jewish people'. Decoded, this means the West Bank. Everyone is terrified by the prospects of the fanatics seizing power in Pakistan and getting hold of the country's nuclear weapons. But in Israel the fanatics are already in power, and they already have control over nuclear weapons.

But it is the third argument that is the most worrying. Concessions ordered by the US will be within the framework of the Oslo peace accords. Even the much-vaunted Mitchell proposals (US Senator Mitchell's commission to the Middle East called for a Jewish settlement freeze on the West Bank) in no way challenge Oslo. And Arafat has not distanced himself from Oslo.

But the intifada was a revolt against Oslo. Oslo allowed Jewish settlements to double in size. Oslo crippled the Palestinian economy. It did not challenge Israeli domination of the West Bank and Gaza. It gave no guarantees on Jerusalem. It made no promise over the right of return of the 5 million refugees. Thus it is easy to see how Arafat's diplomatic coup can turn into surrender--with just a few settlements disbanded as a face saver.

This would be a terrible defeat, and it would confirm that spectacular acts of terror fatally damage the cause of those on behalf of whom the act was executed. The intifada, for all its weaknesses, was a mass based popular liberation movement. The terror in New York has already led, indirectly, to its suspension.

Whatever happens though, the growing anti-war movement in the west must not forget the intifada nor lose sight of its wider historical and political significance. That a pacifist organisation like CND should invite a Palestinian supporter of the intifada, an armed movement after all, onto its anti-war platform for the 13 October demonstration in London is excellent. It signals the new flexibility the left needs for this crisis.

It was Edward Said who first noticed the intifada as both an anti-colonial and an anti-globalisation struggle. This was underlined by a tremendous demonstration of black South African trade unionists in support of the intifada just before the United Nations anti-racism conference in Durban. The conference itself succeeded in making both the legacy of western colonialism, especially the transatlantic African slave trade, and the current Israel/Palestine conflict the dominant issues.

This elevated the intifada to the status of a major anti-colonial struggle, unfinished business, a leftover from the great anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. It also de-legitimised Zionism, exposing it as a racist colonial project. Of all people, it was Kofi Annan, United Nations general secretary, who understood the significance of this when he responded to US and Israeli accusations of anti-Semitism. He broke a carefully crafted Zionist taboo by issuing the statement to the conference, recognising the Holocaust as one of the gravest crimes ever against humanity, but at the same time warning Israel not to use the Holocaust as an excuse to oppress and slaughter the Palestinians.

The conference also reflected a widespread feeling that the Palestinians are fighting a struggle of a new type. Israel/Palestine is a fault line for global inequality. It's less than a morning's car drive from Tel Aviv to Gaza City, yet it's the economic equivalent of going from Southern California to Bangladesh. The Palestinians are 'in the face' of US economic and military global power. Israel, in its present form, would not survive one moment longer without the support of the US. And the Palestinian solution to their very own very special refugee crisis catches the imagination of many of the world's fast growing refugee army.

Palestinians not only want the political security of their own homeland. Like all the other refugees, they want economic security. During their enforced absence, Israel has developed the Palestinians' homeland, with breathtaking amounts of US dollar aid, guaranteeing western living standards for its citizens. Palestinians have a moral and political claim not only on the land but on those living standards too.

The Palestinians have become a 21st century symbol for the struggles for the world's poor and dispossessed. We owe it to them to keep the spirit of their struggle alive on the global stage.

Further tensions in the Middle East
Further tensions in the Middle East

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