The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 65 (Fall 2002).
As we write, the Palestinian people are still facing a ferocious attack by the Israeli military (IDF) throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The attack has made itself felt in the daily lives of every Palestinian -- through draconian curfews and sieges, random shootings, shellings and bombings, and a profound deepening of the poverty of the Palestinian masses. The masses’ dire conditions helped provoke a new round of mass demonstrations and strike action in September, reviving the intifada. In the months since, mass struggle has taken some backward steps, confronted with the continued grinding effects of the occupation.
In particular, pogroms by Zionist settlers on the West Bank against peasants attempting to harvest their crops display the ongoing cruelty of Israel’s colonial-settler project. A recent spate of shootings and bombings at the settlers, who are a well-armed, fascistic strike force aimed at Palestinian civilians, gave a pretext for an intensified crackdown by the IDF and contributed to renewed squabbling among the Zionist rulers over strategies for suppressing the intifada.
Suppress it they must, for their interests demand it. As a combined result of the intifada and the growing international economic crisis, Israel faces an aggravation of its perennial budget problems. The stability of its own imperialist capital depends upon the extension of credit and aid on incredibly preferential terms by the U.S., which it earns through its role as junior partner, policing the Middle East to defend the U.S.’s dominance. The intifada’s continuation poses a threat.
In March and April of this year, the intifada did what no one had thought possible: it brought U.S. imperialism’s rampages to a temporary halt. Palestinian resistance to Israel’s re-occupation of the cities and refugee camps on the West Bank, and the mass demonstrations that it inspired in neighboring states, forced the leaders of the Arab states to noisily claim to oppose the U.S.’s planned invasion of Iraq. (See For Arab Workers’ Revolution to Smash Israeli/U.S. Terror! in PR 64.) Without a prospective base of operations and an Arab cover, U.S. imperialism had to confront its first significant obstacle since last year’s terrorist attacks.
With U.S. war plans against Iraq escalating once more (see Stop U.S. Imperialist War on Iraq! in this issue), both the Iraqi and the Palestinian peoples now face a worse situation. In the intervening months, many Arab rulers did their best to shift toward accommodation with the U.S.’s war plans. The breathing space necessary for this move was provided by a lengthy retreat of the intifada, which was being stifled not only by Israel’s attacks but by internal sabotage by many of the forces which claimed to lead it. Its revival -- in a more effective working-class-led form -- is crucial to the future of the fight against imperialism in the Middle East, and is a litmus test for leaderships and programs.
Up against Israel’s heavily armed soldiers, tanks, fighter planes and attack helicopters, provided and bankrolled by the U.S., the Palestinians’ room for maneuver has been greatly diminished. This is no surprise; one must expect imperialists to act like imperialists. The leadership of any struggle has to know how to adapt to the conditions imposed by oppression, and can be judged accordingly. For example, during the previous intifada (1987-1992), Palestinians were living under constant, unremitting occupation, but were nevertheless able to maintain a high level of mass mobilization. Yet the leadership on the ground remained tied to the PLO, and so their efforts were pacified by the now-discredited Oslo accords.
Today, much of the established Palestinian leadership, associated in various degrees with the Fatah organization, seeks a return to some form of the collaboration with Israel that existed under the provisions of Oslo. This is only possible if the Palestinian leadership keeps a lid on mass movements. Yet from Israel’s perspective, if their army can do a better job of policing the Palestinians than can Yasser Arafat & Co., the Palestinian leadership is largely superfluous. The leaders have had to try to place themselves at the head of the movement in order to defend themselves from Israeli attack, but they are more afraid of what might result from any mass movement. Sabotage of the struggle by the Palestinian Authority (PA), or what little remains of it, is a major factor in the Palestinian masses’ crisis of leadership.
The U.S. ruling class recognizes, in its own way, that there is a “problem” with the Palestinian leadership. For them, the problem is that Arafat is incapable of ensuring sufficient submission to imperialism by the Palestinians. Bush’s speech contained the usual quota of appeals for “reform,” “transparency” and “democracy” that the U.S. employs to present itself as a friend to all the world’s peoples. Yet the U.S. never minded corruption, secrecy and authoritarianism from the PA and Arafat, so long as the many security agencies were doing the job delegated to them under Oslo -- stamping out Palestinian resistance. It was only when they seemed incapable of putting a stop to the intifada that Bush saw fit to recommend that the Palestinians “elect new leaders” and make sure that they are acceptable to Israel and the U.S.
Bush’s speech on June 24, at the beginning of Israel’s latest invasion of West Bank cities, was widely interpreted as a green light to the Israeli government to do as it pleased, especially when it came to Arafat. Nevertheless, the U.S., in order to help preserve illusions that it serves as some kind of arbiter, has repeatedly “warned” Israel not to directly harm Arafat.
It is not surprising that, in all these months, even with ample force and opportunity, Israel has neither killed Arafat nor forced him into exile, despite all the warnings and widespread speculation that this is what they want. In chess, one never actually kills the opponent’s king; one simply maneuvers him into a situation where, under threat of death, he can make no moves. That is called checkmate. Despite the evident contempt in which Bush and Sharon hold Arafat, he is still useful to them, as they seek to checkmate not just Arafat but the Palestinian people he uses as pawns.
Even though the explicit content of Bush’s speech was “Arafat must go,” all that has gone has been what little remained of Palestinians’ basic freedoms and living standards. The U.N., in its role of high hypocrisy, has pointed out that over half of all Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are facing malnutrition. Fields lie fallow and destroyed as soldiers keep farmers out for “security” reasons. Workers go without wages for months at a time, unable to go to their jobs even in the next town because of the “closures.” Even garbage disposal goes untended under the Israeli gun, increasing the risk of epidemics of infectious disease. Each Palestinian city, town and refugee camp has been reduced to a slum.
Over and above these persistent threats to the health and lives of Palestinians hovers the ever present threat of violent death. On July 22, a U.S.-provided Israeli F-16 fighter jet fired a missile into a crowded apartment building, with the stated intention of killing Salah Shehadeh, commander of the Qassam Brigades associated with Hamas. It leveled an entire block, killing Shehadeh and eight children. Sharon pronounced it “a great success,” with the agreement of all his cabinet members. Then, on August 29, an Israeli Army unit shelled a Bedouin encampment in an isolated corner of the Gaza Strip, killing four people. Over the following month, over fifty Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops, as individuals or in small groups, in a series of comparatively quiet incidents, while the intifada remained suppressed.
The purpose of these atrocities is to grind down and terrorize the Palestinians. In a political context where a majority of the Israeli population is friendly to the idea of one form or another of “transfer,” i.e., the final ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from territories occupied by Israel, this can have an insidious effect. The Israeli ruling class is not presently carrying out this particular genocidal policy. But the ground for a possible future resort to it is being prepared: logistically, through the starvation and terrorization of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; juridically, through the Interior Ministry’s recent claim of the power to strip citizenship from Palestinians within Israel proper, and the Supreme Court’s confirmation of the government’s right to carry out population transfers for “security” reasons; and politically, through a recent escalation in the Israeli media’s hysteria over the “demographic threat” that Jews may soon be a minority in Palestine once again.
In addition to laying the groundwork for extending the genocidal logic of the Zionist enterprise, Israel’s attacks serve a short-term purpose. Its attempts to crush the intifada militarily serve a secondary aim of temporarily bolstering Arafat’s stature. Any potential alternate leader who seemed able to win a substantial local base of support has been arrested, deported or killed. And particularly in moments like the present, when Arafat suffers the effects of the Israeli attack, thousands, including those who were disenchanted with him, unite in his defense.
In coming out for demonstrations in defiance of the Israeli curfews, as happened in a thousands-strong mass march in Ramallah on September 22, Palestinians have shown great courage. Unfortunately, such events have been the exception rather than the rule for most of the present intifada, which has been characterized less by mass action and more by small-group armed attacks than the previous intifada. There have been fewer strikes and demonstrations and far more commando actions directed against soldiers and settlers, as well as suicide bombings within Israel itself.
In part, this is a result of setbacks that the Palestinians suffered during the Oslo period. During the previous intifada, general strikes -- embracing both Palestinians inside Israel and those who commuted from the West Bank and Gaza to jobs in Israel -- cut economic output by as much as one-third. As a result, Israeli capitalists have consciously followed a strategy of reducing their dependence on “Arab labor,” in favor of new immigrants and guest workers from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. In the current intifada, before Palestinian workers could test their strength with the general strike tactic, they found themselves victimized by a general lockout tactic, in the form of the closures. Periodic general strikes have been called by trade union leaders aligned with Arafat’s Fatah, most recently in response to the siege of the Ramallah compound, but their impact on the Israeli economy is difficult to estimate against the overall impact of the costs associated with the intifada and its suppression.
The desire of many young Palestinians to strike blows at the oppressor was a predictable, and in itself progressive, step in the struggle. During the Oslo years, some young fighters took advantage of the inefficiencies and contradictions of Arafat’s security apparatus to arm themselves in preparation for the next uprising. Rather than present themselves as sacrifices to superior Israeli force, armed only with stones, they wanted to be able to shoot back.
Nevertheless, elitist manipulations of the healthy desire to fight back led to nationalist and Islamist strategies which helped make Israel’s job easier. Despite the heroic efforts of fighters like those in Jenin to defend themselves and take enemy soldiers with them, as a rule it is easier for the more heavily armed power to take out such small armed groups than to suppress an armed mass movement. Arms are not the answer in themselves, but are best used as an adjunct and a means of self-defense for a growing uprising of the masses themselves. A people that never takes up arms in self-defense will never be free. But any leadership that arrogates to itself the sole right to action instead of arming the masses is responsible for setting up the masses and ultimately themselves for slaughter.
None of the major nationalist leaderships of the intifada -- whether secular, like Fatah, or Islamist, like Hamas -- has openly come out against mass action. To do so would be politically suicidal. However, the armed actions they have chosen, particularly suicide bombings directed against Israeli civilian targets, are not simply mis-aimed. They are calculated to encourage passivity and a cult of martyrdom, in place of encouraging the masses’ confidence in their own ability to struggle. The recent turn of Fatah leaders toward calling strikes and demonstrations is motivated by the obvious impotence of other strategies -- whether the diplomatic begging by elements associated with the PA or the small-group armed actions of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades -- against the ferociousness of the Israeli assault. Above all else, Fatah leaders fear being discredited with the Palestinian masses, and therefore seek to be able to turn their already limited appeals for mass struggle on and off at their convenience.
Whatever their political differences, the dominant political currents in the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois Palestinian leadership accept a counterposition between mass action and armed action, and implicitly prefer a non-mass approach. Yet a reversal of the preference is no alternative. This is the choice of the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP, former Stalinists). With several elected representatives in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), a presence in the apparatus of Palestinian trade unions, and a track record of grassroots leadership in the previous intifada, the PPP is not an insignificant organization, and its role in the present intifada merits examination.
For example, in response to Israel’s invasion of Tulkarem in January, the first step in the re-occupation of West Bank cities, the PPP called upon the masses “to return to the activities of the greater intifada” by the following methods:
Breaking the curfew that is imposed by the occupation troops in the quarters and cities that are being reoccupied. Going out in peaceful marches and organizing various sit-ins and other activities that affirm our clinging to our national goals and demand the evacuation of the occupation army, administration, settlers from the Palestinian lands. (Statement, January 12.)
Despite the PPP’s support among sectors of the Palestinian population, as far as we can tell no Palestinians followed its recommendations. And with good reason. Passive resistance in the form of curfew-breaking and sit-ins, in the face of a heavily armed and blood-thirsty opponent, is a recipe for victimhood. To stipulate ahead of time that a march will be “peaceful” is to promise that it will neither pose a threat nor defend itself from attack. It is practically an invitation to the Israeli Army to terrorize at will. It is only fitting then, that even today, the PPP continues to push a utopian demand for imperialist institutions like the U.N. to “bring the Israeli war criminals to international courts and provide the Palestinian people with international protection.” (Statement, August 23.)
Marches and other forms of mass action are necessary to demonstrate to Israel and the U.S. that the intifada has not been defeated. Their revival is a welcome development. But if Israel can repress them with impunity, the masses will be atomized once more. Defending the intifada requires the clandestine political and logistical preparation of a workers’ militia to enable mass armed self-defense, in place of both the elitism that encourages passivity, and pacifist illusions that feed on that passivity. Under the current situation, that could only be accomplished by a revolutionary proletarian leadership.
In fact, the political forces with the readiest access to both mass organization and to arms are those which have been most actively engaged in sabotaging the intifada. An ever-shifting constellation of figures within the administration of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, both still headed by Arafat, vie for the scraps of power left by Israel.
Until the latest attack on his compound, Arafat’s deputies had been negotiating with the Israeli government, army and politicians to put a stop to the intifada and then, maybe, a few months from now, the worst outrages of the occupation as well. Sari Nusseibeh, the Jerusalem representative of the PLO, has been meeting with Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet secret police, to claim a mandate to forego the Palestinian right of return and self-determination in exchange for a few scraps of land as a “state.” Arafat’s advisor, Mohammed Dahlan, who was formerly in charge of cracking down on Hamas rivals in Gaza, has sought to revive high-level contacts with the Israeli government. Dahlan’s replacement in Gaza and the new interior minister for the PA as a whole, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, had a bit more success, negotiating a “Gaza first” plan for withdrawal with Ben-Eliezer; yet this collapsed after the shelling “accident” in August.
These people have little popularity and, apart from a few cops, no independent base. So long as Arafat remains under attack from Israel, he retains his popularity, and his deputies can use that to maintain their authority -- even when making such widely reviled sell-outs. His reserve of support had been drying up as a result of their actions, as manifested in a rebellion of Fatah deputies in the PLC. As he has done so many times before, in threatening Arafat with physical death, Ariel Sharon has helped preserve his political life.
Yet even the most radical of Fatah leaders share the perspective of a “two-state solution” -- that is, a more or less “generous” revival of the Oslo-created Bantustan, as well as collaboration with Israel. An instructive example is that of Marwan Barghouti, a political leader of Fatah in the West Bank who was arrested by Israel and is now being tried on bogus charges of “orchestrating” the intifada. On the contrary, Barghouti repeatedly called upon militants of the Al-Aqsa Brigades to confine their attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in order to graphically demonstrate their support for a constricted Palestinian “state.” Revolutionaries do not recognize the right of the murderous Israeli state to stand in judgment over any Palestinian, and we defend Barghouti as a symbol of the struggle of the masses, demanding the dropping of all charges. But we also warn the Palestinians that he does not represent a real alternative to Arafat in the struggle to realize the right of self-determination.
None of the supposedly “realistic” schemes for “peace” with Israel can begin to address the material needs of working-class Palestinians. Water resources, crucial to any kind of economic development, remain under Israel’s firm control. The theft of Palestinian lands by Israel resulted in a massive and growing population of refugees and their descendants, over six million strong, most of whom lead immiserated lives. Their conditions cannot be addressed without the unrestricted right of Palestinians to return. A Palestinian mini-state, even if by some miracle it were established on the whole of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and not mere scraps, would remain at Israel’s mercy economically and militarily -- a concentration camp of cheap labor to be superexploited at the hands of the Zionist bourgeoisie.
The Palestinian situation is a sharp confirmation of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution; in the imperialist epoch, the democratic rights of the oppressed masses at large, and the social needs of the working class in particular, are inextricably intertwined, and can only be addressed through a socialist revolution led by the working class.
Despite the obstacles, the Palestinian working class does have the capacity to challenge the bourgeois nationalists, both left and right, for leadership of the intifada. If they do, it would set an example for workers throughout the region. The Palestinian working class has been weakened by the closures and occupations, and the Palestinian masses as a whole are overwhelmingly outgunned by the U.S.-backed Israelis. But their struggles have already sparked mass unrest in other Arab countries. General strikes against the bourgeois Arab dictators and princes could open possibilities for an international working-class struggle against Zionism, imperialism and capitalist exploitation, and begin a revolutionary wave leading to the defeat of imperialism and all its pawns.