The Spark

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

Israel-Palestine:
Sharon's Provocative Escalation

Jan 19, 2002

A murderous escalation: this is the only way to describe the policy of the Israeli leaders faced with the revolt of the Palestinian people. Their sole response to suicide attacks and demonstrations is increased repression. After the blowing up of homes, the flattening of entire neighborhoods, the targeted assassination of Palestinian leaders and the military siege of Palestinian territories, came measures aimed against the Palestinian Authority itself. First there was the shelling of official buildings which house this Authority, then the destruction of the Gaza airport and Yasser Arafat's personal helicopters, blocking him for days in the town of Ramallah, within a few hundred yards of the Israeli tanks, leaving him no means to travel. In the middle of January, the Israeli Army sent troops and two armored bulldozers into a neighborhood of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip. According to an Israeli human rights group, 60 houses, holding 112 families with 614 people, were flattened.

At the same time, Prime Minister Sharon and his government continue to hold Yasser Arafat responsible for the terrorism of Islamic organisations, demanding that he put a stop to their terrorist attacks. They know full well that it is the policy of their government which drives the Palestinian people further and further into despair, thus providing these organisations with a continuous flow of new recruits recruits who are ready to die in suicide attacks and in the process take as many casualties as possible from the Israeli population with them. They also know that it is their self-same policy which discredits Arafat in the eyes of the Palestinian population and which each day further deepens the gulf between Palestinians and Israelis, making any prospect of a resolution of this conflict ever more distant.

As a result of this deadlock, many commentators are now wondering whether the aim of the Israeli government is simply to eliminate the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat and even the whole so-called "peace process." This may very well be possible. But even if it is, Sharon's policies are not substantially different than those of his predecessors in the Labor Party. From the point of view of the Israeli leadership, the "peace process" was never meant to do more than use the Palestinian leaders to get their population to accept the diktats of Israel, even if it discredited Arafat, etc. completely. Sharon is just following in the footsteps of previous Israeli leaders, although he is doing it with a brutality that is both more open and cynical.

Beyond this use of force against the Palestinians, Sharon is also demonstrating something else: his willingness to act as a regional strong man in the service of the interests of imperialism against the peoples of the region.

The Interlude of the Oslo Accords

In hindsight, the 1993 Oslo Accords appear as a very temporary conciliatory interlude in the long continuum of Israel's harsh repression against the Palestinian people. The Accords were a response to the first Intifada the uprising of the Palestinian population and particularly its youth that continued for six years, despite harsh military repression. The Intifada took a toll on the Israeli population. They were tired of their sons and daughters having to spend years in military service, in order to police Gaza and the West Bank. Top army officials also began to question the usefulness of devoting so much of the military's resources to this task. So, the Israeli Labour Party politicians made overtures to the Palestinian leaders, paving the way to what was to become the Oslo process.

With the Oslo Accords, the Israeli government recognized the possibility that Palestinians would run a territory which was then occupied by Israel. This was an important Israeli concession. Of course, the Israelis agreed to a phased withdrawal from these areas ... some time in the future, after a long and tortuous process of verification. Moreover, the Israeli leaders continued to demand that the Palestinian Authority, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, immediately put an end to the Intifada as well as to any actions by the Palestinians against the Israeli occupation, while the Israeli leaders did not commit themselves to stopping the growing numbers of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Once again, the Israeli leaders were playing for more time. In return for the promise of a Palestinian state that never really materialized, Arafat and the Palestinian leaders were expected to keep a lid on their people's impatience. Meanwhile, the Israeli side continued to carry out all its old policies.

The Israeli far-right nationalist and religious extremists continued to create settlements in the middle of designated Palestinian areas. Under the pretext of "protecting" the settlers, the Israeli army moved in to defend them and to protect their "rights of way." In other words, the Israeli leaders were doing what Israeli leaders, whether from the left or right, had always done: "change the situation on the ground" and then present their adversaries with a "fait accompli," that is, legitimizing new settlements after the event, once they had been fully developed.

In 1995, a far-right Israeli extremist murdered the Israeli prime minister, Yitzak Rabin. Since then, there have been three governments two right wing, under Netanyahu and Sharon, and one Labor Party, under Ehud Barak. It was the Labor government under Barak that allowed the largest number of new Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas.

Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why Arafat lost so much credibility among the Palestinian population for defending the "peace process," while the Islamic groups, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which responded to Israel's incursions by carrying out suicide attacks, saw sharp increases in popularity.

Are the Israeli leaders now ready to go so far as to eliminate Arafat? In any case, they seem prepared to risk letting Arafat lose what is left of his authority in the Palestinian camp. For them, the Palestinian leader was valuable only in so far as he was prepared to cede to Israel everything it demanded, without receiving anything real in return from the Israeli state.

What would happen if as a result of bowing to the diktats of Israel, Arafat becomes completely discredited in front of his people? This is where the extreme right wing, represented by Sharon, and the Labor Party leaders, notably Shimon Peres, probably disagree. Shimon Peres apparently figures there is more of an advantage in continuing to deal with Arafat a little bit, rather than risk having a more radical leader emerge. Sharon, on the other hand, obviously believes that the Palestinian leader is already completely used up and discredited, and that the Israeli government should look for another Palestinian who could serve as a "partner." According to Sharon's calculation, if and when this is necessary, it will be possible to find a Palestinian leader, Islamic fundamentalist or otherwise, who will be willing to engage in the same game as Arafat did.

Of course, it's merely a tactical disagreement that separates Shimon Peres's and the Labor Party's solidarity with the Sharon government. This is borne out by their continued participation inside the Sharon government. In either case, the result is there for all to see. One Israeli government after another makes one concession after another to extremist Israeli settlers and to the far-right, while Israeli leaders prolong the so-called "peace process" indefinitely, thereby taking the risk of discrediting the existing Palestinian leaders in this game to be dumped when they are no longer of any use.

The Israeli Population: Hostage to their own Leaders

The Israeli leadership claims that its political objective is to maintain the security of the Israeli population above all else. But their policy has not resulted in the reduction of suicide attacks. On the contrary, the risks have increased tremendously, as more young Palestinians, made desperate by the situation, volunteer to carry out such attacks. There is no security measure, no matter how draconian, which can totally prevent such attacks by perpetrators who are prepared to be blown up by the bombs they carry.

The policies of the Israeli leaders are condemning the Israeli population to live in perpetual fear, under the constant threat of terrorism. The only viable perspective for the Israeli population would be the pursuit of a means to coexist with the Palestinians and the Arab peoples in general. But instead, the Israeli leaders are condemning their own population to a permanent war with the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere. This is precisely the choice that has been made by the Israeli leadership and, in particular, by Sharon.

Of course, Sharon is only making the same choices as all the Israeli leaders who came before him, including the early leaders of the Zionist movement, which went on to found the state of Israel. When large numbers of Jewish people began to emigrate to Palestine, they could have taken the interests of the Arab population in the region into account. After all, the Arab peoples were also victims of subjugation. Up until World War I, Palestine was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Then, with the fall of the Ottomans, the British occupied the territory. But the Zionist leaders decided to completely ignore the interests of the Palestinian population. Instead, the Zionists chose to impose their rule by force, and in so doing, to gain support from British imperialism. This was illustrated for the first time in 1917 by the famous declaration by the British minister, Balfour, that favored the creation of a "Jewish national homeland."

From its beginnings, this choice provoked violent confrontations with the Arab population. To assure the security of the first Jewish colonies, the Zionist leaders resorted to violence, and they created militias, notably the Hagannah (which means "defense" in Hebrew), which developed into today's Israeli army. Indeed, at every stage in this process, from the creation of Israel to the present day, the Zionist and then the Israeli leaders have imposed their policy on the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab peoples through force.

And while Israeli leaders indignantly protest against the terrorist methods of the Palestinian organizations, let us not forget that in the fight to create the Israeli state, the Zionist leaders also resorted to terrorism: sometimes against the British colonizers, but most often against the Palestinian population.

For the Israeli leaders, this policy of force and violence had certain short-term advantages. It cemented their rule over the Israeli population. It created a sense that the Israeli population was living under a state of siege, surrounded by enemies, where there was no other choice but to fight. This allowed the Israeli leaders to foster an atmosphere of national unity among the Israeli population and to silence all criticism.

At the same time, this policy was aimed at gaining the support of the imperialist powers. The effort to create a Jewish colony in Palestine against the will of the Palestinian inhabitants never could have succeeded without the support of these outside powers. But this project coincided with the interests of the imperialist powers. The Balfour declaration, written in 1917, that is, when the British were preparing to occupy Palestine, illustrated that the British leaders were planning to follow their old colonial policy of "divide and conquer." The Balfour declaration showed that they understood it was in their interests to be able to rely on the Jewish colonizers in order to rule over the Arab population. When the British occupation was ended and the British were sent packing, this convergence of interests between Israel and the outside imperialist powers was continued, but this time with the U.S.

Thus, the policy of the Israeli leadership also reflected a more long-term choice: it aimed at assuring the continued existence of Israel by making it into imperialism's most reliable ally in the region.

Israel and Imperialism

For the imperialist leaders, the Middle East has a strategic importance, if only because of its huge oil resources, which are so vital to Western economies. This is why British and French imperialism and then U.S. imperialism, which gained control of this region in the 1950s, did whatever was necessary to maintain their domination over the Middle East.

In the period following World War I, British and French imperialism very consciously divided the Arab world into many pieces. France divided Lebanon from Syria, while Great Britain separated Iraq from the emirates, and Jordan (which at the time was called Transjordan) from Palestine. This was done in such a way as to oppose people inside the same country against each other. Most important, the Jewish people were pitted against the Palestinian Arabs.

Weakened by World War II, Britain and France were forced to give up direct domination of their colonies. This domination passed quite naturally to U.S. imperialism, which took up where the earlier imperial powers had left off, in a region divided up into many states that were formally independent. To assure its domination, the U.S. played the different states, with their own particular interests, against each other.

Today, imperialism has many proxies in the region: the Gulf emirates, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But while in the long run the different states in the region finally complied with the interests of imperialism, it was not without a number of crises and attempts to contest its domination. Today, all the big countries of the region Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Iran are underdeveloped countries, dominated by imperialism. Even when their regimes show obedience to the U.S., this cannot be taken as a true reflection of the sentiments of their populations. Imperialism is well aware that these are unstable regimes, continually facing the threat of a coup d'etat, or other political changes, which could bring to power new leaders who may show some degree of opposition to the imperialist order. This was the case, under various forms and in different periods, in Egypt and in Iran, in Iraq and Syria, and also, even though this was a long time ago, in Turkey, under Mustafa Kemal.

The situation of Israel, though, is very different. Over a long period of time, there was a real convergence between the interests of imperialism and those of the Zionist leaders. The Zionist leaders wished to create a state and impose it on the Arab populations. Imperialism needed a stable support for its domination over the region. The leaders of Israel made the Israeli state a sort of mini-imperialist power in the heart of the Middle East, a kind of extension of the developed West, benefitting from all kinds of American subsidies that let it guarantee its population a relatively high standard of living in the middle of an underdeveloped region. Given the history of the country and the policy of the Zionist leaders, this higher standard of living helped create a kind of consensus in which is mixed the mentality of a people under siege with the willingness to defend privileges inside a region where the population lives in misery.

Israel is the only state in the region where the imperialist leaders can be sure that a pro-American policy finds deep support within the population, since this population is convinced that its only guarantee of survival is its alliance with Washington and its readiness to fight its neighbors for as long as is necessary.

Of course, as a result of this Zionist policy, the state of Israel is completely dependent on U.S. support. But for the United States, Israel is an indispensable ally. This is what makes the Israeli leaders confident enough to try to impose its policy on the U.S., even when it risks causing some tension between the U.S. and its Arab allies. Basically, the policies of the U.S. and Israel converge.

Sharon Pushes his Advantage

Today, since the international situation has put them in a stronger position, Sharon and the other Israeli leaders must feel they have more elbow room in which to operate.

When the U.S. brought together its coalition to fight against Afghanistan, Sharon's provocations in the occupied territories risked damaging U.S. relations with Arab leaders. So Bush temporarily took a distance from Sharon's policy in words only, of course. But it did not take long before the American leaders once again came out in support Sharon's policy, as did the European leaders, although with a few more hypocritical statements criticizing Sharon.

Sharon knows that, once the offensive against Bin Laden and the bombing of Afghanistan are over, Washington may choose to launch new military operations. In that case, an ally like Israel will be indispensable to U.S. imperialism. Sharon obviously does not even believe his own speeches likening Arafat to Bin Laden. But this kind of talk does reveal a precise calculation. While driving Arafat further and further backward, by rejecting any perspective of negotiations with the Palestinians, thus heating up Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Sharon is reinforcing his own political position. He is also preparing the Israeli population for a war in the interests of U.S. imperialism, if necessary.

The policy of the Israeli leaders has always been to convince their population that the only way to ensure their security against their neighbors is to live with weapons in hand. This ensures that the Israeli population is always there to be used as cannon fodder in a war to defend the interests of imperialism. With his already notorious record of military adventurism, Sharon represents this same policy in its most provocative form, up to and including the risk of burying a "peace process" which was already more virtual than real, and regardless of the cost to the Palestinians and the cost to the Israelis themselves.

But national oppression can only chronically engender more revolts, fed by the high level of permanent social oppression. The misery that most of the Palestinian population suffers, the high unemployment, the fact that the Israeli government regularly closes the demarcation line that separates the occupied territories and Israel, thereby depriving a part of the Palestinian population from the work that they found in Israeli factories all this naturally turns the discontented of the Palestinian population against the Israeli state which oppresses them.

But as the past shows, most notably during the war in the Lebanon in 1982, Sharon may well be overestimating his possibilities. Neither the state he rules, nor imperialism, can subject populations to state terror indefinitely. In any case, this is what one hopes.

The only real perspective for the Palestinian people, as for all the Arab peoples and for the Israeli population, is coexistence, a fraternal cooperation between peoples. But this can only be realized by putting an end to the imperialist presence in the region, as well as to the oppression exercised not only by the Israeli state, but by all the other local states and possessing classes, which to one degree or another, do imperialism's dirty work.