the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Oct 13, 2023
The following article is a translation of an article first appearing in Lutte de Class, #235, November 2023. LdC is the political magazine of the French revolutionary Trotskyist organization, Lutte Ouvrière.
The October 7 Hamas attack on Israel may have quickly raised tensions in the Middle East, but it came as no surprise. It was preceded by the radicalization of the Israeli government, particularly after Netanyahu brought in some new far-right ministers, enabling him to form a majority. Repressive operations and provocations against the Palestinians have already led on several occasions to armed retaliation by Hamas, which has thus sought to assert itself as the fighting organization that represents and protects them. By closing off all hope of a somewhat favorable evolution in the situation of the Palestinians, this Israeli government, like those that preceded it, was bound sooner or later to provoke a reaction in return.
Netanyahu’s policy is a dead end for the Israeli people, just as Hamas’s is for the Palestinian people. But the conflict that has pitted the two peoples against each other for decades cannot be reduced to a conflict between two nationalisms over a disputed territory. It is part and parcel of all the conflicts in the Middle East. Fanned throughout the 20th century by imperialist intervention, these conflicts have turned the region into a global hot spot, sustaining an explosive situation well beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone.
For centuries, the Ottoman Empire had provided a framework for the relative coexistence of many peoples of different languages and religions. But the First World War brought about its collapse, followed by dismemberment by the great imperialist powers, for whom control of the Middle East was of strategic importance. The presence of such an important raw material as oil also whetted their appetites.
From 1918 onward, under the guise of a “mandate” from the League of Nations, France and Great Britain, colonial powers, drew up borders in the Middle East to suit their own tastes, while ferociously repressing the national feelings of the different peoples. At the same time, British imperialism encouraged Jewish immigration to Palestine as a means of counterbalancing the rise of Arab nationalism. The instrument of this enterprise was the Zionist movement, including inside of it many activists inspired by socialist ideals. However, this “socialism,” illustrated for example by the collective nature of farms such as the kibbutz, was intended to be exclusively Jewish. By sidelining and often expelling the local Arab/indigenous populations, it amounted to an enterprise of colonization, which despoiled them and totally disregarded their aspirations.
After the Second World War and the extermination of millions of Jews, the movement took on a more massive character, with many of the survivors seeing emigration to Palestine as a means of escaping the European society that had rejected them, and of building a state that was truly their own. Their right could have been recognized, but Zionist leaders, resting on their aspirations, instead used them as troops, not only to engage in the struggle against the British colonizer of Palestine, but then to build a state that defined itself from the outset as a Jewish state, the State of Israel. After the Zionist militias had expelled a large part of the Arab populations from the territory, turning them for years into refugees, the Arabs who remained within Israel’s borders became second-class citizens. They had fewer rights than any Jewish citizen newly arrived from Europe or America, since, in the name of the Law of Return, every Jewish person was granted the right to settle in the country and acquire citizenship.
At a time when the aspirations of the Middle East’s poor to emerge from their condition were openly expressed, and when the poor masses were shaken by revolts, Zionist leaders preferred to turn their backs on them. Not only was a historic opportunity lost to unite the aspirations of camp survivors and the region’s poor masses in the same struggle against imperialism, but the new state would also prove to be an instrument of oppression in imperialism’s service.
In February 1947, Great Britain handed over its mandate to the U.N., which voted to divide Palestine between a Jewish state and an Arab state, in agreement with all the major powers, including Stalin’s USSR. With both parties refusing to accept the partition, a first war between Zionist militias and neighboring Arab states led to the proclamation of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, followed by its enlargement and recognition by the great powers. The envisaged Palestinian Arab state, however, never came into being; the West Bank and Gaza remained occupied by Jordan and Egypt.
In the Middle East, the departure of the colonial powers led to the establishment of states such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others. Instruments of the local bourgeoisies and feudal royalties, amid their rivalry, these new states gave imperialism the means to continue dominating the region by playing on their divisions. While the same was fundamentally true of the State of Israel, the conditions of its creation seemed to make it a special ally of imperialism, and imperialism was quick to verify this.
In the years following the Second World War, most Arab states aimed at installing nationalist governments seeking to oppose the pressure of imperialism. But in 1956, when Nasser’s Egypt decided to nationalize the Suez Canal, it came up against military intervention by France and Great Britain, with Israel as their ally. In the end, the two powers had to pull back facing pressure from the USA and the USSR. That gave American imperialism the opportunity to take over, having also verified just how reliable an ally Israel could be for it.
The next war, in 1967, saw Israel confront Syria and Egypt, weakening their nationalist governments to the satisfaction of imperialism and with the support of all its leaders. The 1967 war ended with the military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, driving a new flood of refugees to neighboring Arab countries. It also marked the choice of Israel’s leaders to anchor themselves in the imperialist camp for a long time to come. But by waging this war, by once again driving out hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, by choosing to colonize new territories, they were creating yet more enemies. At the same time, they instilled in the Israeli population the profound feeling of being under siege, with no choice but to ally themselves with imperialism to face a hostile environment.
It was this situation that made Israel the most reliable support for the imperialist powers in the region. Even if the Arab states or the Shah’s Iran could also be a support, their alliance was far less reliable due to their political instability and the contrary pressures of their populations, as was to be verified on several occasions. Sometimes by waging war against them, and in any case by posing a permanent military threat, Israel showed it could be a useful instrument, allowing imperialism to ensure its domination of the region.
The situation created by the 1967 war led to the beginning of a revolutionary radicalization among the Palestinians that could have reversed the course of this evolution. The discrediting of Arab leaders following their military defeat pushed Palestinians to the side of increasingly radical nationalist organizations. The increasingly visible support of the popular masses for the Palestinians became a destabilizing factor in neighboring countries, threatening the political powers that be, so that the first violent repression of the Palestinians came from the Arab states. During Black September of 1970, the army of Jordan’s king crushed the militias formed in the refugee camps, which had become an embarrassment to his power. Then, in 1975, civil war was triggered in Lebanon by the offensive of far-right Phalangist militias against the Palestinians in the camps, whose mobilization increasingly found an echo from the Lebanese masses themselves.
It was during these crises that the political limits of even the most radical Palestinian nationalism became most apparent. The echo it received throughout the Arab world gave it a historic opportunity to go beyond its specifically Palestinian objectives and to express the aspirations of the masses to put an end to oppression and shake off the tutelage of imperialism, which the various regimes relayed. But the aim of the Palestinian leadership, and in particular of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), was neither social revolution, nor even a pan-Arab national revolution that would have encompassed the various states and torn down the borders artificially established by colonization. On the contrary, while respecting this division, their aim was to obtain the support of the various regimes, and beyond that of imperialism, for the recognition of the right of the Palestinian Arab bourgeoisie to its own state, albeit on a necessarily very restricted territory. Failing to interpret the revolutionary aspirations of the Arab masses, Palestinian nationalism was to become an accomplice in their repression. But in so doing, it also lost a large part of its credit.
Repression by Arab regimes was followed by repression by the Israeli regime itself, notably with the military expedition of June 1982, in which the Israeli army went all the way to Beirut to confront the Palestinian militias in the refugee camps and break up the PLO. Fatah, the PLO and Arafat would have one more chance when, from 1987 onward, a new wave of revolt, the Intifada, shook the Palestinian masses, particularly the youth. The Israeli regime’s difficulties in restoring order through repression led to the Oslo Accords of 1993–1995, under which Israel gave the PLO an embryo of power in the form of the Palestinian Authority. The latter was in fact given the task of collaborating with the Israeli state to keep the masses of the West Bank and Gaza in check, playing on their hopes for a distant political solution that would someday put an end to the occupation.
What followed showed that the Israeli regime was not prepared even to let the Palestinian bourgeoisie have a state with any real prerogatives in its small territory. The hypothesis that the conflict could be cooled by means of a “two-state” solution fizzled out, fundamentally because the policy of imperialism and its protégé Israel left no room for it. In Israel, the choice of this aggressive policy compounded by colonialism has provided the breeding ground for the development of increasingly reactionary, ultra-nationalist, fundamentalist Jewish religious tendencies, openly racist or advocating the expulsion of all Arabs. As left-wing Labor governments encouraged or gave in to these tendencies, the trend was toward increasingly right-wing governments. This has put the Israeli population itself in the position of being permanently mobilized to wage war on its neighbors. The right-wing radicalization of the government has led it to rule out any real compromise with the Palestinian leadership.
The Oslo Accords were only an ephemeral interlude, resulting in the creation of a Palestinian Authority that was quickly discredited. This led to the development among Palestinians of radical tendencies of a new type, often Islamic fundamentalists, breaking with the more or less progressive nationalism of the PLO, advocating armed struggle for the destruction of Israel. Hamas, in fact, was an Islamist organization, initially favored by Israeli leaders to counter the influence of nationalist organizations, but it gained influence by gradually radicalizing its discourse and actions against Israel.
In Gaza, the impossibility for Israeli leaders to control the situation led them to end the occupation of the territory in 2005, but only to follow it with a permanent military and economic blockade, maintained in collaboration with Egypt, and this blockade continually worsened the situation of the population. In 2007, the predictable result of this policy was the takeover of the territory by Hamas, which on several occasions sought to establish its image as a fighting organization by firing rockets into Israel. Israeli leaders responded not only by maintaining the blockade, but also by waging successive wars against Gaza, notably in 2008–2009 and 2014, and carrying out repressive operations at whatever cost to the civilian population. The stated aim of “breaking Hamas” had to be constantly renewed, as these operations served only to awaken in more people a readiness to fight.
The entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is thus marked by the radicalization of both sides, in a headlong rush into an impasse and an endless conflict. But the absence of a solution is not due to a supposed historical incompatibility between the Jewish and Arab populations, whether Muslim or Christian, for there was and is room in the Middle East for all these peoples. At every stage of the conflict, the influence of imperialism has been decisive, particularly in encouraging the extremism of the State of Israel, and of its leaders with the most reactionary tendencies, and in giving it every means to arm itself. Except in rare and brief moments, imperialist leaders have done nothing to push for compromise solutions, even though they would have had every means to do so. Instead, they covered up all the atrocities of the Israeli regime.
There are a number of reasons for this, including the power of pro-Israeli lobbies in the USA, or to a lesser extent in imperialist countries like France, making it politically difficult to put pressure on Israel’s leaders. But these circumstantial reasons conceal a much more fundamental one: imperialism has a vested interest in the continuation of such conflicts, which enable it to continue having a reliable ally like Israel, with a powerful army equipped by imperialism, helping it control the Middle East region and threatening all those who might be tempted to challenge its tutelage.
Imperialism’s need to maintain this conflict is all the greater given that its policies have provoked and sharpened a whole series of crises over the years, over and above the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Iranian revolution of 1979 brought to power the Islamic Republic regime, which sought to shake off imperialism’s tutelage and suffered sanctions and wars in return. Similar attempts by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Assad’s Syria earned them imperialist intervention and Israeli bombing. One consequence of these interventions has been the development of militias such as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, destabilizing these countries and prompting further military intervention.
This instability and these crises are not only the consequence of imperialism’s domination of the region, they also provide it with the opportunities and the means to intervene and maintain it. Although imperialism sometimes presents itself as the fireman who wants to put out the fire, it is a pyromaniac fireman and an arsonist. As with other hot spots on the planet, imperialism has every reason to keep the Middle East conflicts alive without resolving them, to fan the flames and provide the fuel for them, if only in the form of arms deliveries. The multiplicity of conflicts also leaves open all sorts of possibilities for going toward a generalization of war.
The conflict in which the Israeli and Palestinian populations are locked shows the impasse to which bourgeois nationalisms lead in the age of declining imperialism in a region like the Middle East. If there once had been any space left for them to develop, this space has been reduced to nothing in a region like the Middle East. The endless, unresolved conflicts in the region bear witness to this. More than ever, the only way forward for the various peoples is to give themselves the means to put an end to imperialist domination, to the regimes that drive it, and to the borders that divide them. The only force capable of accomplishing this task is the proletariat, if it overrides its national divisions. The only way to put an end to permanent war and chronic underdevelopment is proletarian revolution, leading to a socialist federation of the peoples of the Middle East and the world.