Three weeks of slaughter by Israel this past winter, three weeks of bombing, shelling, and a partial invasion by heavily armed ground troops, and what were the results? More than 1300 Palestinians dead, thousands more grievously injured by shrapnel, debris and the agonizing burns of phosphorus munitions. Such casualty tallies, set alongside the toll from the amateurish rocket attacks by Palestinian militants that served as a convenient provocation for Israel’s mayhem, give an arithmetical expression to the racist algebra of an imperialist state: For every one of ours you harm, we will massacre 100+ of yours, to teach you a “lesson.”
The lesson Israel seeks to teach the Palestinians is a simple one: Bow to us, acquiesce in your oppression and exploitation, cease your struggle, and you can scrape out a living on the land we don’t want in your territory. The lesson has not taken, not because the pupils are foolish or stubborn, but because oppression breeds resistance and the lesson is false to its core.
The aims of the Israeli government in bombing and invading Gaza have been summarized well by Mousa Abu Marzook, member of the political bureau of Hamas:
Israel’s objectives from the war on Gaza were set long before its launch: to remove the Hamas movement and government, achieve the reinstallation of the Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in Gaza, and end the armed resistance. Two other objectives were not announced. First, restore the Israeli public’s wavering confidence in its armed forces after its defeat by Hizballah [in Lebanon] in 2006. Second, boost the coalition government in the coming elections.
On each of these points, despite the wanton carnage, the war was a failure. The Hamas government in Gaza has increased its popular support. Far from riding back into Gaza on the back of an Israeli tank, Abbas has been undermined in the West Bank as a result of suppressing popular demonstrations in defense of the people of Gaza, and even his former supporters in Gaza are now defecting toward Hamas. Hamas and other armed resistance groups in the Gaza Strip have been weakened by the loss of fighters and munitions caches, but they still exist.
In its domestic political aims, the Israeli government also lost ground. The main parties of the coalition government at the time, Kadima and Labor, sought to reverse the discredit into which they had been brought by the failed attack on Lebanon in 2006, in advance of the Knesset elections that took place in February. Instead, they were weakened. The main beneficiary was the Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, which is based on an openly racist program of making Israel free of Arabs. Lieberman is now Israel’s Foreign Minister in a governing coalition composed exclusively of right-wing and religious parties, headed by Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud party as Prime Minister.
The Jewish population of Israel came out nearly unanimously in favor of the Gaza war, by a margin of 94 percent. All the Zionist parties fell in line behind it, with only the small social-democratic Meretz party chirping some minor objections to the scale of civilian casualties. With the exception of a march of both Jews and Palestinians in Tel Aviv, called by Hadash (the electoral front of the Communist Party) on a pacifist basis, protests against the war in Israel were composed largely of the local Palestinian Arab population.
The rightward polarization of the Israeli Jewish population and the lockstep march to war are symptoms of the colonial-settler character of Israeli society. In terms of the standard of living of the bulk of the Israeli Jewish populace, Israel stands in the lower ranks of imperialist countries. This relative prosperity is made possible by the dispossession and continued oppression of the Palestinian people. When Israel expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, their land was appropriated by organizations designated by the state of Israel to administer it on a discriminatory, apartheid basis, for the use of Jews only. The bulk of this expropriation benefits the kibbutzim and moshavim, collective agricultural enterprises run on a capitalist basis, while the housing, water, and other resources available to Israeli Jewish workers also result from it. In addition, the U.S. pays massive military and economic subsidies to Israel in exchange for its role in disciplining rebellious Arab masses in the Middle East, a job that the twin failures in Lebanon and Gaza show Israel is less and less suited to perform.
The land expropriated from the Palestinians and the blood money from the U.S. are essential to maintaining the comparatively privileged position of Israeli Jews. One example: in the pro-Israel U.S. media, much is made of the firing of crude, homemade Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip into the Israeli town of Sderot. The population of Sderot is largely impoverished, and, by law and custom, 100 percent Jewish. This town was built on the lands of the Palestinian village of Najd, whose inhabitants were forcibly expelled by the Hagana, the Zionist militia that went on to form the Israel Defense Forces, in May 1948, days before the proclamation of the state of Israel. Most of the refugees from Najd and their descendants, now numbering in the thousands, live in the squalor of Gaza’s refugee camps – where today they face the peril of slaughter, siege and starvation by the institutional descendants of the very forces who dispossessed them. The contrast between the conditions in Sderot and those in the ritzy neighborhoods of Tel Aviv shows that Israel has massive internal class disparities. But the reflection of these class distinctions in political consciousness is shaped by the colonial-settler, apartheidist character of the state.
Whereas the Israeli Jewish population polarized strongly to the right, the war – combined with a racist attempt spearheaded by Lieberman to ban Arab parties from the Knesset elections – has radicalized the Palestinian Arab population within Israel. Unlike at the beginning of the Second Intifada in September-October 2000, this has not resulted in riots. There has, however, been massive state repression, with more than 700 Palestinian citizens of Israel, mostly young people, imprisoned to prevent unrest. Despite this repression, the largest demonstration in history of Palestinians in Israel took place in the Arab city of Sakhnin in the north during the Gaza massacre, with tens of thousands, possibly more than a hundred thousand, demonstrating.
Repression by the mercenary Palestinian Authority security forces led by Abbas, combined with the IDF’s extensive system of checkpoints and walls, minimized the demonstrations in the West Bank. But the political repercussions cannot be checked merely through force of arms. Abbas’ government and his Fatah party now have little support beyond those elements directly dependent upon their patronage. Any credibility that his claim to speak for the Palestinian people may once have had is long gone.
The Israeli government called a bogus, unilateral cease-fire on the eve of the U.S. presidential inauguration, in part as a welcoming gift to Barack Obama, and in part because continuation of the invasion to take the core of Gaza City would have resulted in further deaths of Israeli soldiers, which is politically risky in Israel. Yet six months later, the Gaza Strip remains under blockade, with shipments of medicine, food and other humanitarian aid backed up at the border crossings.
Obama has appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy to handle negotiations, and along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, they continue to speak as if a “two-state” solution – a powerful, heavily-armed imperialist state of Israel, alongside an economically unviable, geographically dispersed, disarmed and miserably impoverished Palestinian “state” – were possible. Netanyahu, after taking the measure of Israel’s U.S. sponsors, recently agreed to this sort of Palestinian “state,” attaching only two not-so-minor preconditions: that Israeli settlements be allowed to grow indefinitely on the land of the Palestinian “state,” and that the Palestinians proclaim Israel to be the homeland of the Jewish people.
Perhaps the issues of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and/or the status of Jerusalem could be worked through with difficulty through capitalist diplomacy, though even that is doubtful. But recognizing Israel as a Jewish homeland would have consequences difficult for even the most craven of Palestinian leaders to swallow. First, it would mean agreeing that whoever the Israeli government chooses to define as Jews throughout the world, whether born in Brooklyn, Belarus or Buenos Aires, has greater rights to the land than Palestinians who have been settled there for generations. That is, it means the permanent condemnation of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel to second-class status at best – or, as Lieberman and his ilk would prefer, their disenfranchisement or expulsion.
Finally, it means the permanent displacement of Palestinian refugees, who would have no right to return to their homeland. No pro-imperialist, capitalist government could stably rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza with the persistence of such a large proportion of the population in such dire dispossession. And they remain a potential source of instability in neighboring states like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. For these reasons, a two-state solution was never possible. The collapse of the Oslo Accords as a result of the Second Intifada, and now the mass slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza, have made that impossibility obvious to all.
Of course, recognition of the right of refugees to return to their native places would imperil Israel’s ethnically exclusivist character as a Jewish state. A single state, clearly Palestinian in its majority national character, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, is the only solution compatible with the oppressed Palestinian people’s right of self-determination and the refugees’ right of return. That would mean the end of the State of Israel, though it would mean full political rights for those Israeli Jews who could accept the new situation. But such a genuinely democratic solution is not compatible with capitalist rule.
This is another example of the theory of permanent revolution: Trotsky’s theory explains that in the epoch of capitalist decay, only socialist revolution could meet the unfulfilled democratic aspirations of oppressed nations and oppressed people. Once capitalism had been transformed into imperialism it could no longer carry out its own promises of equality and liberty.
Through expropriation, capitalist exploitation and development, and imperialist subsidy, Israel has built itself into a regional imperialist power in its own right, a junior partner to the U.S. And the U.S. has invested too much into this partner over the last four decades and more to willingly cut it loose. Israeli imperialism is, from a capitalist point of view, too big to fail. But like other such enterprises, fail it will.
Nor do the bourgeois nationalist leaders of oppressed peoples have any solution. In reconciling itself to the two-state non-solution, Fatah long ago bound itself to the defense of Israel, ensuring its own political discredit. Hamas, by virtue of its Islamist ideology, refuses to reconcile itself to Israel directly, and for this it has the epithets “terrorist” and “extremist” heaped at its door. Yet it does seek recognition of the legitimacy of its government in Gaza by the “international community” – a euphemism for those who police the imperialist status quo – and to that end it has repeatedly proposed prolonged truces with Israel. Hamas is a movement with a leadership that is much divided on geographical and political grounds, but it is clear that those who ultimately call the shots would willingly shelve the urgent demands of the Palestinian people in exchange for a crumb of international recognition.
Palestinians alone have not been and will not be able to defeat Israel. In particular, Israel’s strategy of apartheid walls and starvation blockades has weakened the Palestinian working class. Yet in the face of any popular uprising in the Middle East, the Israeli ruling class will be called upon to earn its keep and terrorize the masses into submission, a task for which it is less and less fit. The Palestinian people have a tremendous reserve force in waiting: the working classes of the entire region. We cannot predict exactly what form revolutionary struggles in the Middle East will take. But already, the first tremors of the current economic crisis resulted in mass strikes in Egypt, frightening the government that plays a key role in helping Israel imprison the Palestinians of Gaza. The overthrow of pro-imperialist, capitalist rule in Egypt would remove a crucial underpinning of Israel’s dominance. Such a struggle would pave the way to a socialist federation of the Middle East, of which a Palestinian workers’ state would form a part.
Such an outcome would represent the ultimate interests of all the workers of the Middle East – including the Israelis. We can expect, nonetheless, that many Israeli Jews would prefer to fight in defense of their temporary privileges, tied to the state they have been taught is theirs. Those Israeli workers who come to recognize that a fight in defense of a colonial-settler state is doomed and who take the side of the Arab workers – most likely, unfortunately, a minority – will be an important element in undermining Israel as an outpost of imperialism. The nationalist strategy of Hamas, emphasizing tactics such as indiscriminate rocket fire that provide fodder to the Zionist right-wing, is incapable of capitalizing on this potential division.
Capitalism’s international economic crisis will trigger more political crises, and with them more wars. Workers’ struggles in Egypt and Iran have been developing. These struggles can grow to present a revolutionary challenge to the region’s neo-colonial rulers and to Israel itself. For this it is essential that the most class-conscious workers succeed in building revolutionary parties that can show their fellow workers that the cause of their oppression is the imperialist capitalist system, and that socialist revolution is the only solution.