Jul 31, 1994
The massacre in Hebron in the Israeli Occupied Territories represented a major hitch in the process initiated less than six months before in Washington under the auspices of U.S. President Clinton, when the Israeli government and the PLO signed the "Gaza and Jericho first" agreement, and the Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands.
On February 25, a far right-wing Israeli settler burst into the Hebron mosque and indiscriminately shot down Palestinians who had gathered to pray, killing thirty people in the space of a few minutes. This massacre high-lighted all the uncertainties of this agreement, which is so fragile that after only a few weeks of euphoria, the talks about how to apply it had already bogged down.
The Hebron killing was initially presented by the Israeli government as the individual act of a single "psychopath". But the government itself effectively admitted that this act could not be dissociated from the climate in the Occupied Territories created by groups of far right-wing settlers – notably the Kach group founded by Meir Kahane, to which the Hebron killer Baruch Goldstein belonged. Carrying any weapons they like, always ready to act, and displaying anti-Arab racism and even calling for murder, these far right-wing groups aim to set up a political base among the settlers and even in the Israeli population as a whole. They call for resistance to any concession made to the Palestinians, and unmitigated opposition to the compromise reached by the Israeli government and Arafat's PLO.
These far right-wing groups represent only a small minority of the Israeli population. They don't even begin to represent the 120,000 Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories. No doubt, many of these people who went to live in the Occupied Territories, where the majority of the population is Palestinian, did so with the idea of integrating this area into Israel. In any case, they believed that the Israeli occupation would continue indefinitely. But many – perhaps the majority – settled there only because they had no other place to live. Above all, they would like to live in peace.
If the tension between the two communities were to make the situation unbearable, such people would pay the price for the criminal policy carried by the leaders of every Israeli political party. These leaders have encouraged a section of Israel's population, often made up of recent immigrants, to settle in the territories. The Jewish settlers did not go into the territories on the basis of equality and coexistence with the Palestinians. On the contrary, the Jewish settlers were turned into foot soldiers for Israel's expansionist policy. They were given a position and rights which the Palestinians did not enjoy. This made them the oppressors of the Palestinians, and thereby brought them into conflict with the Palestinians.
Although the Israeli leaders have now made only slight concessions to the Palestinians, including the creation of autonomous Palestinian territories, even these concessions have put the settlers into a position of opposition to official policy.
The far right-wing groups obviously intend to exploit this contradiction, by playing on and exaggerating the settlers' fears of living under a Palestinian authority. Their hope is to win all the settlers over to the far right-wing camp.
It is not the future of the settlers which these far right-wing groups are concerned about. The assassin Baruch Goldstein had not been an Israeli for very long. He was not a Jew who had been a victim of anti-Semitism. He was not like the survivors from the World War II concentration camps, who had no place to live in peace. He was an American doctor, a far right-wing militant, who had recently come to Israel with the declared intention of "killing Arabs" in the name of a "Greater Israel" ideology.
A group like this can exert pressure out of all proportion to its real support in the population. Israeli governments of the left and right have constantly given way to these groups in order to avoid being outflanked by the Zionist "ultras" and the religious parties. And, by encouraging settlements in the Occupied Territories, successive Israeli governments have maintained the idea that, sooner or later, "Greater Israel" would become a reality.
When the Rabin government recognized Arafat's PLO and signed a compromise with him, it was admitting that it could not make "Greater Israel" into a reality. The Israeli population and the army itself were showing signs they were growing tired of the occupation and the repression which they had been condemned to carry out. Faced with a Palestinian population whose "Intifada" was continuing, the Israeli government was forced to find a compromise, promising to hand over at least some power to Palestinian officials and police. To begin with, they ceded Jericho and Gaza, the areas where the position of the Israeli army had become the most untenable.
The agreement did not make it clear, however, what would become of the occupied territories in the future. In fact, the Palestinian leaders, led by Arafat, were invited to first prove that they could set up, in a very limited part of the Territories, an administration and police force able to contain its own peoples' demonstrations. The Israeli government promised only that the limits of this territory would later be extended, without giving any precise commitment. They did not even specify the exact boundaries of the Gaza Strip and Jericho which were to be under "autonomous" Palestinian control.
Vague as it was, this promise was nevertheless essential to lend some credibility to the September 13 agreement. It enabled the Palestinian leaders to assert that this agreement would be only a first step, that there would be other steps once Palestinian authority had been recognized in a small part of the territories. Without this, the agreement would have been too clearly unacceptable for the vast majority of the Palestinian population.
This mere promise was enough to call into question the future of the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. But the Israeli government pretended to be unaware of this. It preferred to put off the question to a later date, maybe to use it as a possible bargaining chip. But it also has to get around its own traditional weakness with regard to the settlers and the Israeli right-wing and far right-wing. At the very moment of the Hebron massacre, the Rabin government was engaged in difficult negotiations to include a small party of the religious right in its coalition. These negotiations concluded positively when Rabin made a promise to this tiny party concerning the vital question of a ban on the importing of "non-kosher" meat into Israel!
In other words, Israeli politicians are ready to give way to blackmail, even in its most absurd forms, when this blackmail comes from the right. They are weak when faced with a few rabbis brandishing a Talmud or a few settlers brandishing a machine gun, provided it is done in the name of Zionism, religion or the ideology of "Greater Israel". The Hebron massacre and its aftermath brought this all out into the open, revealing to much of the Palestinian population that the September 13 agreement was a swindle. How could the Palestinians believe the promises of a government which continues to ruthlessly repress Palestinian demonstrations in the Occupied Territories, while giving the far right-wing settlers a free rein to massacre Arabs?
The position of the Israeli government is all the more difficult because each passing day brings new revelations about its collusion with the far-right. Under questioning about the Hebron killing, Israeli soldiers revealed that the army had explicit instructions to do nothing against groups of armed settlers acting against Palestinians. They also said that the army was involved in a conspiracy of silence over the presence of a second settler at the Hebron mosque who, unlike Baruch Goldstein, apparently managed to escape.
Arafat's and the PLO leadership's position was more weakened by the massacre, than was that of the Israeli government. They were threatened both with being completely discredited in the eyes of the Palestinian population, and outflanked by groups that are critical of the compromise.
So for awhile, the Palestinian leaders could not openly defend the compromise. Talks concerning the application of the agreement were suspended. The PLO demanded an international force in the territories as a condition for resuming talks. But now that the outrage over the massacre has receded somewhat, negotiations have been resumed.
So the Hebron massacre did not change the strategic orientation, neither of the Israeli government nor of the PLO, even though the PLO leadership wasn't able to continue negotiations as if nothing had happened. In fact, once the first outcry had died down, the PLO used the massacre as a bargaining chip to obtain a few additional concessions from Israeli leaders.
The Hebron massacre has thus altered the course of the negotiations. Will the Israeli government still be ready to drag them out, bogging the negotiations down in endless discussions? Perhaps so. A standard tactic of past Israeli governments has been to make more and more demands, while at the same time creating settlements and occupations which become bargaining chips in further negotiations, chips the Israeli government uses to raise the stakes about as quickly as their opponents grant concessions.
However, Israel is less likely to adopt such a policy this time. The deteriorating situation in the territories and the weariness of public opinion forced the Israeli government to recognize the PLO. By provoking renewed demonstrations by the Palestinian population, the Hebron massacre probably forced the Israeli government to take a few more steps towards a solution. In any case, the only source of leverage the Palestinian population has is its continuing mobilization.
In fact, it now appears that an economic agreement between Israel and the PLO has been signed, and that a political agreement will soon be signed. The economic agreement makes it clear that the Palestinians are not yet to have their own state, even if symbolically, in that they are not yet to have their own currency. In addition, the limits of the economic concessions given by Israel to the PLO can be seen by the fact that while borders are to be open in principle to the free flow of merchandise, the five main products constituting the bulk of all production in the Occupied Territories, will not be allowed unregulated entry into Israel.
Perhaps the most important point in the economic agreement is that Israel will continue to collect taxes from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Jericho and then turn over about 80 percent of them to PLO authorities in the "autonomous areas". In other words, the PLO authorities will be funded.
The most important aspect of the political agreement that seems about to be signed is that the PLO will – immediately upon implementation of the agreement – introduce several hundred Palestinian police officers into the Gaza Strip and Jericho, with the number increasing to 8,000 cops or more within a short time. That is, the PLO is to be allowed to have the armed forces necessary to control the population of these areas as a test to see if the PLO will, in fact, bring the Intifada and the terrorism of Palestinian groups outside the PLO under control.
If the September 1993 agreement is really applied, that is, if a Palestinian authority is really set up in Jericho and in Gaza, as it now appears it will be; and then, if a few additional steps are taken, this will place obvious conditions both on the Israeli and on the Palestinian side.
On the Israeli side, the far right-wing is determined to make Jewish settlements in the Territories a political issue. This is probably not because it thinks it can maintain its presence in all these settlements. Part of the population of these settlements is tired of finding itself at the heart of confrontations which it did not expect. And some settlers are beginning to leave without even waiting for the promised compensation. But the Israeli far right-wing is aiming at gaining a mass base among a frustrated population, which feels deceived by all the successive governments that promised the easy life.
This is the kind of reasoning frequently used by their counterparts in other countries, including the Afrikaaner far right-wing in South Africa and the OAS at the time of the decolonization of Algeria. In the case of Algeria, the OAS calculated wrong. The French colonists that lived in Algeria for many generations were repatriated to France and easily integrated there, mainly because the economic conditions inside an imperialist country in the 1960s were favorable.
But the same would probably not be possible within a very small imperialist country like Israel, in a very different time period, with the world economic outlook increasingly bleak, and with Israel's traditional supporters, like the United States, having less and less funds available to assist Israel economically. Also, because of the crisis, the imperialist countries' borders are becoming increasingly closed to immigration.
Meanwhile, official Zionist ideology forces the Israeli leaders to accept the immigration of Jews from crisis-racked Eastern Europe. Most of the immigrants are engineers, lawyers, musicians and so on. The tiny Israeli economy obviously cannot guarantee the social position these immigrants had come to expect. In the past, such immigrants often moved on to western imperialist countries. But this route is increasingly blocked. And the settlement of the Occupied Territories turns out to have been a trap. Such a frustrated and disappointed population concentrated within Israel may constitute a base of support for the Zionist far right-wing. They may be susceptible to its nationalism, its religious mysticism and often its racism.
On the Palestinian side, the calculations of the Islamic fundamentalist groups mirror, to some extent, those of the Zionist far right-wing. By denouncing the agreement that Arafat reached with the Israeli leaders, these groups are probably not so much aiming to prevent its application. Instead they are probably positioning themselves to benefit when Arafat and the PLO will inevitably be discredited. Most likely the new Palestinian authority will be increasingly seen as the powerless hostage of Israel – and imperialism. The hopes of economic improvement will be increasingly dashed. The extremist groups of Jewish settlers will still be ruling the roost. Meanwhile, the Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon or elsewhere will be prevented from returning, perhaps by the Palestinian police force itself.
If the agreement is implemented, at best we might see a fragile coexistence between two states: Israel and a possible Palestinian state. Far right tendencies advocating revenge will grow inside both countries. At best, it will be an armed peace between two hostile states sharing a tiny territory.
This is clearly why the Israeli left can have no political future if, for example, it limits itself to supporting the "peace process" of Rabin and Peres. Nor can the Palestinian left have a future if, after criticizing the agreement signed by Arafat, it goes on to form a political front with the fundamentalists. The fundamentalists would inevitably be the winners.
Revolutionaries obviously support the Intifada, which has done more to shift the Israeli government than years of so-called PLO "actions". More generally, they support the Palestinian peoples' demand to be freed of Israeli domination.
But the Hebron massacre and its consequences are a reminder that this "peace process" which imperialism, particularly American imperialism, is claiming to sponsor, has done nothing to solve the problems of the region.
Imperialism bears the main responsibility for having turned the Palestinian and Israeli people against each other. It bears the main responsibility for making the Palestinians oppressed victims and the Israelis oppressors.
In choosing a Zionist policy right from the beginning, the Israeli leaders are responsible for agreeing to implement an imperialist policy in the region. As for the Palestinian nationalist leaders, they bear the responsibility for never seeking to break the framework imposed by imperialism on the relations between the peoples in the region.
Hope for the future lies not in negotiations between these leaders, who at one level or another have all had a hand in making the Middle East an unbearable place to live. Under the domination of, and arbitration by, imperialism, there is no salvation. The trials of the past and the absence of perspectives for the future might, however, lead to the emergence of political forces within the exploited classes which stand for class struggle, internationalism and the destruction of the capitalist system. Or at least, we hope for this. Because only such forces can open up the prospect of fraternal and egalitarian coexistence between the peoples of the region.