The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Palestine-Israel:
Oppression Feeds Chaos and Strengthens Reactionary Currents

Sep 5, 2021

The following article is translated from issue #218, September-October of Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the Trotskyist revolutionary group active in France.

In recent years, Western powers had clearly placed the Palestinian question on the back-burner, or even tried to forget it entirely. In 2020, with Trump’s support, Benjamin Netanyahu normalized Israel’s relations with four Arab governments: Bahrain, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco. He used this to cynically claim to have worked toward peace and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the spring of 2021, the revolt of a new generation of Palestinians exposed this as a lie by rising up against the expulsion of families from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Hamas had not started this revolt, but it seized the occasion to assert itself as the representative of all Palestinians and get back into the political game by launching rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In doing so, it had little regard for the population of Gaza, who suffered through murderous Israeli bombardments as a consequence.

This initiative of Hamas had the effect of transforming the young Palestinians’ revolt into a clash between two military apparatuses.

In the face of escalated fighting, Western heads of state pretended to take action. They called for dialogue, at the same time saying that the Israel bombings were a “legitimate defense.” This is a continuation of their disgusting attitude which consists of placing both actors in the crisis on the same level, as if the military means at each side’s disposal were the same. But on one side is a heavily armed colonial state, while on the other is a people resisting its oppression.

The oppression of the Palestinians is deeply linked to the original project of Zionist organizations, which aimed to found a state for Jews under the protection of the imperialist countries, with no regard for the national rights of Palestinians. The United States used Israel as a weapon to defend its interests in this very strategic region, with the goal of weakening the Arab nationalist regimes that were trying to escape U.S. control. The U.S. equipped Israel with considerable military and financial resources, allowing it to expand its territory during wars waged against neighboring states. It became possible for Israel to annex East Jerusalem and occupy the West Bank, as well as the Sinai Desert and the Gaza Strip, which had both been under Egyptian control. Evicted, repressed, dispossessed of their land, and condemned to exile, the Palestinians have known a history defined by revolts.

Jerusalem: Epicenter of the Revolt

In 1967, the Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem refused Israeli citizenship as a protest against the city’s annexation. Today, there are 250,000 of them, holding a residency status which Israel can remove if they leave the city for an extended period of time. They cannot vote or have a passport. Israeli politicians consider Jerusalem to be their capital and have the ambition of making it an exclusively Jewish city. Ever more populated Jewish colonies encircle Arab neighborhoods. Since the city government’s long-term goal is to expel the inhabitants of these neighborhoods, it deliberately neglects them, finding pretexts to destroy housing and refusing to grant construction permits.

Israeli colonist organizations also mobilize to expel the inhabitants, relying on a law passed in 1970. The law stipulates that any Jew who can prove that their family lived in a house before 1948 can claim the property and demand that any Palestinians living there be expelled. On the other hand, Palestinians do not have the right to demand that their former homes be returned, neither in Jerusalem nor in any part of Israel. It is because of this law that the families of Sheikh Jarrah, who were condemned to be expelled from their homes, appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court. Their protests set off a response from ultra-reactionary Jewish militants, like the one when the organization Lehava demonstrated while chanting “Death to Arabs!” Beyond these provocations, which resulted in daily clashes that left dozens injured, there were also those of the police, who prevented Palestinians from entering the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount right in the middle of Ramadan.

The images of Israeli security forces storming into the al-Aqsa Mosque on May 7, injuring 500 worshippers and driving them away with tear gas, added the final spark to the revolt.

Without waiting for parties or politicians, a mass of young people converged on the Temple Mount and challenged the forces of repression. Young people from the occupied eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem and those of the West Bank were joined by young Palestinian citizens of Israel, which had never happened to such an extent.

The Revolt at the Heart of Israel

The most disturbing aspect for the Israeli ruling class was the fact that young Arab Israelis rose up in unison with young people from the Occupied Territories. Israeli society was flooded with scenes of rioting from the so-called mixed cities like Lod, Haifa, Jaffa, Ramla, Acre, and Beersheba, where Arab and Jewish populations live side by side. Young people armed with Molotov cocktails and stones clashed with riot squads from the border police, hastily transferred from the West Bank to try to reestablish order. TV channels showed a live broadcast of armed members of a Jewish nationalist militia pulling a man from his car and lynching him. Militia members were also recorded attacking Palestinians as they were leaving a mosque. These far-right militias poured into Lod from all over the country and the colonies of the West Bank to carry out punitive expeditions in support of religious colonists who had recently moved into the city. They acted with impunity, under the protection of the police and with the support of the mayor, who called for the army to intervene. “Civilians carrying weapons are helpful to authorities in immediately neutralizing threats or dangers,” declared Amir Ohana, Public Security Minister at the time.1 At the same time, Netanyahu, who was Prime Minister at the time, labeled the Arab “rioters” as terrorists and promised to treat them as such.

Set off by the repression in Jerusalem, the anger of young Arab Israelis has its roots in the catastrophic social situation in which they struggle. They are the descendants of the 156,000 Palestinians who managed to remain after the founding of Israel in 1948, a small part of the 870,000 people who then lived in this part of Palestine. Today, they number 1.5 million, or 20% of Israel’s population. The towns where they live are the poorest, with under-investment in infrastructure, education, and trash collection. They face an unequal treatment from the government, which pays them an average of 30% smaller subsidies than those received by Jewish towns.

Arab Israelis no longer accept being treated like second-class citizens without the same rights as Jewish Israelis. After 1948, the state dispossessed them of their land, and the Jewish National Fund, which owns 13% of all land in Israel, refuses to rent it to non-Jews. Since 2012, a law has authorized towns and cities to create “Admission Committees” to reject applicants deemed “unsuitable to the social life of the community … or the social and cultural fabric of the town,” or in other words, Arabs. Besides this kind of discrimination, they feel the weight of a constant suspicion of being untrustworthy and disloyal to the state. They are blocked from military service, and many public sector jobs, even those almost completely unconnected to the country’s security, are off-limits to them.

In recent years, the situation of Arab Israelis has degraded even more. They are subject to mass unemployment and form the most exploited fraction of the Israeli working class, along with immigrant workers and the Palestinians who cross the border from the Occupied Territories every day. They hold the most insecure, hardest, and lowest-paid jobs in the industrial and service sectors. Their wages are 30% lower than the national average. Their overall unemployment rate is four times higher than that of Jews. Fifty percent of all Arab Israelis are considered poor, while this rate falls to 10% for the Jewish population.

They were also in the front lines during the COVID crisis. Half of all the country’s pharmacists, one-fifth of all doctors, a quarter of nurses, and almost all cleaning staff are Arabs. Besides appalling social conditions, they face hatred and harassment. This includes disdain for the Arabic language, which is no longer considered an official language since a law passed in 2018: “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” Certain employers ban their workers from using Arabic to communicate among themselves. This hatred also takes shape in the systematic inspections carried out by police who openly declare their racism against Arabs, racism broadcast from the heights of government power. Netanyahu’s campaign slogan, “No loyalty, no citizenship,” clearly meant “Arabs, get out!”

The Radicalization of the Israeli Far-Right: A Product of Colonization

The events of May 2021 shattered the myth of peaceful coexistence between the Arab and Jewish communities. Scenes of lynching and retaliation among colonists and Arabs had usually been associated with the Occupied Territories, but now they were playing out right in the territory of Israel. This was a shock for a part of its population, who awakened to find themselves in a society showing the face of apartheid with an increasing threat of fascism.

The political discourse of right-wing leaders encouraged the anti-Arab racist violence which far-right militias carried out in the street. But this radicalization is also a consequence of the choices and policies of the Labor Party. This is the party that presided over the foundation of the new state and governed it for 30 years. Even while claiming the banner of socialism, it acted in the name of Zionism to violently expel Palestinians and build a state where the rabbis could impose their law. It was the Labor Party that proceeded to occupy the new territories and favored colonization. This policy paved the way for the right, and then the far-right.

In 1977, Menachem Begin, the first representative of the right-wing Likud Party to govern the country, declared: “From now on, the name of the Territories has changed. No longer occupied territories, they have become liberated territories. This land is Israel’s land. We are calling on the youth of the country and the diaspora to come and live here.” Jewish colonies in Palestinian territory proliferated in successive waves, benefitting from billions of dollars in aid.

Today, half of all U.S. aid to Israel or three billion dollars per year, is set aside for the colonies. After half a century, occupation of the West Bank has been transformed into its colonization. The Jewish colonists, of whom there were 12,000 in 1977 and 280,000 in 1993 at the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords, today number 700,000. Both nationalist and religious Jewish colonists have radicalized and turned toward far-right organizations. As a result, the far-right has become an indispensable force weighing on Israeli political life. Since Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister in 2009, this has been reinforced. To keep himself in power, Netanyahu took up the claims of the far-right and religious parties, then allied with them, and finally offered them posts in his government.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home party with deep roots among the colonists, complained during a campaign that Netanyahu had stolen his program, which promised to annex 62% of the West Bank, where most Israeli colonies are concentrated. After becoming his Minister of Education in 2017, Bennett rose to the position of Prime Minister after the legislative elections held last March.

Netanyahu, who was mired in corruption charges at the time and searching for a parliamentary majority that would grant him immunity from prosecution, allied with Jewish Power, a tiny Jewish supremacist party. This movement, which had been banned for many years, was therefore able to enter Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Its leader, Itamar Ben-Givr, gained a level of prestige and credibility that allowed him to expand his audience. The party’s militants, having the assurance that they could act with total impunity, were in the front ranks of those provoking and attacking Palestinians in Jerusalem and lynching young Arab Israelis.

Ben-Givr’s project of expelling Arabs from Israel is taken up and discussed very seriously in public debates and the media. Newspapers, magazines, and public radio and television channels have followed this evolution. Netanyahu could make use of the most widely-read free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, financed by the U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The paper has a circulation of over 500,000 and generally transmits all of these reactionary ideas.

Israeli Policies Benefit Hamas

If colonization has contributed to a radicalization of Israeli political life, on the Palestinian side it has contributed in return to the rise of Hamas, an Islamist party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israeli politicians present the Islamists of Hamas as their worst enemies, but for many years, especially in the 1980s, they did not hesitate to favor them in order to counter the influence of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which stood for a progressive and secular nationalism. Arafat’s policy, which counted on the support of Arab governments to obtain the creation of a Palestinian state, proved to be in vain. In the 1970s, Palestinians learned from experience that they could count only on themselves. They saw Jordan and Syria, Arab states which they believed to be their friends and which claimed to be their allies against Israel and imperialism, repress them just as ferociously as had the Zionist state.

In 1987, the First Intifada, a spontaneous revolt of Palestinian young people, forced Israel to take a step back. Unable to overcome this uprising, which had escaped Israel’s control, and under the pressure of Israeli public opinion, the Labor Party Minister of Defense, Yitzhak Rabin, after having ordered soldiers to “break the bones” of the insurgents, was forced to begin negotiations with Yasser Arafat. The Oslo Accords of 1993 and the promise to work toward the creation of a Palestinian state elicited an immense hope among Palestinians, but also the anger of the colonists. Rabin became the target of a campaign of hatred from the right and the far-right and was eventually assassinated by a far-right militant. Under pressure from colonists and the right, the Labor Party Prime Ministers Shimon Peres (1993–1996) and Ehud Barak (1999–2001) tried to outbid them with authoritarian and security measures. They claimed to be working at a “peace process,” but colonization continued actively on the ground. In order to neutralize and get around Israeli public opinion, which was favorable toward peace and dialogue, they claimed that the failure of the process was due to Palestinian intransigence.

A Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat, was set up in Gaza and part of the West Bank. Its representatives, whom Israel treated with disdain, quickly discredited themselves by appearing corrupt and ineffective in resolving the problems of the population and preventing Palestinian families from being driven from their land. Colonization continued without the slightest obstacle.

This failure of the Oslo Accords set off the Second Intifada in 2000, when far-right general Ariel Sharon dared to parade in front of the mosques of the Temple Mount. Sharon had been Minister of Defense during the massacres in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982, when far-right Lebanese Christian militias massacred 1,500 Palestinians with the complicity of the Israeli army.

Hamas was able to take advantage of this new revolt due to the discredit of Fatah, the main organization of the PLO. Hamas militarized the uprising and recruited young Palestinians into its militias, with no policy other than the organization of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. In the space of five years, 600 Israelis were killed by suicide attackers, creating a climate of panic among the population. The terrorist policies of Hamas only reinforced the right and far-right in Israel. The defenders of the Palestinian cause and of peace became a smaller and smaller minority, accused of treason.

In 2005, Israel presented its evacuation of the Gaza Strip as a sign of its desire to withdraw from the Occupied Territories. For its part, Hamas claimed this as a victory, which allowed it to win the local elections in 2007 and to control the territory. In reality, Gaza had become costly and unmanageable for Israel to protect 9,000 Jewish colonists occupying the most fertile land and most of the drinkable water of this 140-square-mile strip, with 1.5 million extremely poor Palestinians packed together around them. The Gaza Jewish colonies were dismantled, but Israel and Egypt imposed a joint blockade on the territory, making it a true open-air prison.

An Increasingly Colonized West Bank

Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza has allowed it to deploy more forces for the colonization of the West Bank. Colonists monopolize vast extents of land there, which is among the most fertile. The colonies have multiplied to such an extent that the territory has been compared to a leopard’s skin, divided between regions more or less controlled by the Palestinian authorities and those under Israeli jurisdiction. The autonomous Palestinian enclaves do not form a continuous geographic entity. The proliferation of walls, barriers, and checkpoints makes the slightest journey very difficult, or even impossible. The Israeli army can seal areas at any moment, cutting off a Palestinian city from the rest of the world or depriving it of water. The colonists, with the army’s help, can prevent farmers from going to their fields and force schoolchildren to stay home, or block access to the road that leads to the hospital.

Workers are laid off when they cannot make it to work. Travel restrictions sever cultural and family ties. Someone who lives in the West Bank can no longer freely journey to Gaza or Jerusalem. In order to allow the colonists to reach Israeli cities without encountering a single Palestinian, bypasses are built for them alone to use. Arbitrary inspections and arrests are the norm. It has been estimated that, since 1967, almost half of all Palestinian men have spent time in Israeli prisons.2 The oldest even say that life there is harder than it was during the period of occupation, before the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

The current leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, 86 years old, is now hated by the population of the West Bank and faces challenges even in his own ranks. Even though he remained passive during the mobilization against the expulsions from Sheikh Jarrah, he used the pretext that the Palestinians in East Jerusalem were not “guaranteed the right to vote” to indefinitely postpone the first elections scheduled in 15 years. This was due to his fear that he would suffer defeat at the hands of Hamas or dissidents from Fatah, since the population has registered on electoral lists in massive numbers. Hamas was thus deprived of a possible electoral victory in the West Bank.

Even though it did not take part in the revolt, Hamas seized on the occasion presented by the police provocation at the al-Aqsa Mosque to politically exploit Palestinians’ anger, in order to gain ground on the Palestinian Authority.

A War that Serves the Interests of Hamas and Israel

The energy of spontaneous revolt by young people and the population as a whole against colonization, humiliation, and oppression was thus transformed into a military clash between Israel and Hamas, both of which feared that the revolt would spread. This military confrontation allowed them to reinforce their political grip over their respective populations.

The launching of rockets into Jerusalem was certainly popular in the West Bank, where many Palestinians could feel that they had achieved vengeance. Hamas was able to present itself as the sole defender of Palestinians and to extend its influence beyond the tiny Gaza Strip.

Hamas would like to impose itself as the only credible interlocutor, the indispensable player in future negotiations with international institutions, ready to play the same role of police force in the West Bank that it already does in Gaza. After the discredit of the Palestinian Authority’s representatives, Israel might see it as an acceptable negotiating partner. Waiting, the population of Gaza pays a heavy price for these maneuvers. Two hundred forty Palestinians, mainly civilians, lost their lives in the latest military confrontation, which also caused serious material destruction.

Hamas’ rocket fire also served as a political gift to Netanyahu and now to Naftali Bennett. The Israeli regime had been facing its own difficulties in public opinion, which was troubled by the revolt in the mixed cities and the acts committed by Jewish supremacist militias. Forced to take shelter, hundreds of thousands of Israelis lived in a state of fear for 11 days. The atmosphere of a security threat allowed the Israeli government to silence its critics and justify its repression of young Arab Israelis, whom it classified as terrorists. Almost 2,000 young people who demonstrated for the first time, many of whom were minors, were arrested and brutalized. The oppressor posed as the victim.

Which Way Out?

After 11 days of fighting, Hamas and Israel agreed on a ceasefire, with each side claiming victory. Each one can effectively consider that they won, although not against the other. They each won against their own respective peoples, who have sunken even deeper into a stalemate.

In Israel, Netanyahu was defeated in the elections, and a large part of the population was relieved. But his replacement, Naftali Bennett, can use the number of far-right deputies in parliament to accelerate colonization even more, preparing a pure and simple annexation of the Occupied Territories.

Israel has not escaped the chaos that it has contributed to creating in the region. Decade after decade, its leaders’ oppression of the Palestinian people has reinforced increasingly reactionary forces, which in the end have taken the country hostage. This state presents itself as a response to the drama that made Jews the victims of Nazi barbarity, but today its population is ruled by the far right and by fascism, which its founders claimed to oppose.

A people that oppresses another cannot be a free people. The future can only be built in a common and conscious struggle of the two peoples, aiming to go beyond the divisions carved for decades by imperialism and by the maneuvers of their leaders.

1 The Times of Israel Massive forces sent to Lod as Netanyahu vows to restore order with ‘iron fist’

2 Orient XXI Israël-Palestine: L’incarcération des Palestiniens, clé de la colonisation israélienne