Aug 31, 1985
In May of this year, the Palestinian people once again came under brutal attack in Lebanon. The refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila around Beirut were the scene of a bloody massacre in which Palestinian men, women and children were indiscriminately slaughtered. It was only three years ago, in 1982, that these same camps were the scene of a massacre carried out against the Palestinians by the Maronite Christians, with the aid of the occupying Israeli army that surrounded the camps. Today’s massacre of the Palestinians is being carried out by the Shiite Muslim militia, the Amal, as the Lebanese and Syrian armies stand guard for them.
Thus, we now see the two poorest and most oppressed communities of the region pitted against one another. The Shiites, who have lived side by side with the Palestinians in the slums of Lebanon, are now digging a ditch of blood between themselves and the Palestinians. Those who, only ten years ago, fought side by side against the fascist militias of the Lebanese bourgeoisie are now lined up against each other.
In short, the new massacres at Sabra and Shatila stand as grave markers for the once potential social revolution of the poor and the working classes of the Middle East. Over the last decade we have seen a struggle of prolonged combat, a struggle that has shown no lack of determination. This struggle held out the potential of a struggle of all the workers and poor of the Middle East not only against Israel, and U.S. imperialism which stands behind it, but also against the Arab regimes which also represent class interests opposed to the workers and the poor. There was the potential of international social revolution in the Middle East.
Instead, today there is only the massacre of the Palestinians and the inter-Arab bloodletting between the poor masses of Lebanon.
Such a development was by no means inevitable. Rather it is the result of the nationalist policy followed by the organizations leading the struggles of the oppressed in Lebanon. It is this policy which aborted the potential social revolution, transforming the struggle in Lebanon into a dead end for the workers and the poor of the Middle East.
Today in Lebanon the poor and the workers stand opposed to each other, divided across national and religious lines. These divisions are by no means new. Lebanon’s political structures have been, and remain to a significant degree, organized along feudal-like lines. There are the various clans within the Christian, Druze, Shiite and Sunni communities, each organized behind traditional leaders who were most often feudal chiefs or merchants or religious clerics. Each community is organized separately, with its own militia, as the traditional leaders attempt to assert their interests in the ever-changing balance of forces within Lebanese society. And all the political parties, of the left and of the right, with the possible exception of the Communist Party, in reality are organizations based in only one particular community, even when they claim to be national.
Historically, imperialism, and especially French imperialism, reinforced these divisions within Lebanon as a means better to maintain control over the population. At the same time, French imperialism singled out the Christian Maronite community for special treatment. The Maronites generally represented the wealthier part of the population, and it was the section with the most ties, both historically and economically, to France. When the French were forced to grant independence after World War II to Lebanon, they turned state power over to the Maronites, arming them to serve as their cop in the area.
Thus, for the Lebanese population, it has long appeared that the main line of demarcation in the population was between the Christians on one side, and the Muslims – the Sunnis, Shiites, and Druze – on the other. But in fact, in these Muslim communities, there was also a bourgeoisie and rich landlords. And among the Christians, there were also classes: the bourgeoisie which has been in charge of the state, a large shopkeeper petty-bourgeoisie, but also layers of poor peasants and workers, as well. These layers had the same interests as the other poor, the Muslim poor, and could potentially have been won to their side.
Then there were the Palestinians, refugees who flooded into Lebanon at various junctures. With the establishment of Israel in 1948, some 140,000 Palestinians were forced to flee into Lebanon. With the Israeli-Arab War in 1967, and then Black September in Jordan in 1970, the number of Palestinians increased to 350,000. Most Palestinians were kept as outsiders to Lebanese society, with one-third still remaining in the refugee camps around Beirut as late as 1975.
Underneath all the national, clan, and religious divisions, there was a class reality. There was a commonality of interest among all the workers and the poor against all the exploiters and oppressors who have stood over them and become rich at their expense. Just ten years ago, this common class interest came to the fore during the civil war in Lebanon in 1975. Even as the social conflict began, the class structure remained partly masked, due both to historical patterns in Lebanon, as well as the current political divisions in the country. But nonetheless, the reality of the class struggle broke through as poor Lebanese, mostly Shiites, but also Christians, and poor Palestinians stood side by side in their fight.
The poor Palestinians and the poor Shiites especially have shared common conditions of life in Lebanon. On the one hand, they have been pushed together by the policy of Israel, as they have both been the continual victims of bombing raids. Many Shiites were driven from the land in south Lebanon by the bombings of the Israeli air force. They migrated in search of peace and of jobs to the area of Beirut, living in the slums that encircled the city, right next to the Palestinians.
The poor Palestinians and poor Shiites shared a common class position in Lebanese society. They both lived in the slums of Beirut. Together they made up a labor pool, those who were mostly unemployed or poorly paid when they found work. Together those of the slums and the refugee camps around Beirut were more and more united by a common class hatred of the rich of Lebanon, who lived in separate neighborhoods in luxurious housing, and who frolicked in the westernized resorts and entertainment districts of Beirut.
The economic crisis of the early 1970s, in hitting Lebanon, led to an increase in social conflicts over the standard of living and the conditions of life. There were a series of strikes and demonstrations, often met by force from the Lebanese state, and often resulting in deaths. In response, and following the example and the lead of the Palestinians, the poor Lebanese armed themselves in defense.
In 1975, there was a demonstration of poor Lebanese fishermen in Sidon who felt threatened by the creation of a new fishing consortium under the chairmanship of Camille Chamoun, one of the traditional wealthy Christian leaders. The demonstration was joined by Palestinians. The Lebanese army attacked, killing 11, including the mayor of Sidon. The town of Sidon rose up behind barricades, and a general strike spread throughout southern Lebanon in protest. The Lebanese army was forced to withdraw from the area.
Confronting this development, the Lebanese bourgeoisie counted on its extra-legal force, the fascist Christian Phalange, led by Pierre Gemayel, to launch an attack against the workers and the poor. The Phalange began the attack against Palestinians, hoping to arouse a chauvinist response among the Lebanese population. But very quickly, attacks were carried out against poor Lebanese as well, showing that the poor of all the communities were the real target. The Phalange wanted to destroy all the organizations of the oppressed, no matter what community or nationality.
The Phalange, however, met a massive response from the workers and the poor, from the Lebanese and the Palestinians, who had organized and armed themselves. They rose up in a popular insurrection, pushing back the Phalange, as well as the Lebanese army that stood behind them. The poor Shiites and the Palestinians fought side by side against their common enemy. Poor Christians began to join in the fight as well. The Lebanese army split apart, incapacitating the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie.
Just ten years ago, this popular uprising of Lebanese and Palestinian poor could possibly have led to the social revolution in Lebanon, bringing the workers and the poor to power. For this to have happened, what was needed was a clear class policy proposed by the leaders of the left. First of all, such a policy was needed to win the poor Christians to the side of the revolution, thus preventing them from being pushed into the arms of their own bourgeoisie and acting as the troops against the other poor in Lebanon. But also, a class policy was needed to unite all the poor of all the different communities, so as not to leave them alone, each behind the rulers of their own clan or religious grouping – Sunni separated from Shiite, separated from Druze, etc. In order to unite the poor and the workers across all these divisions, in order to coalesce these various groupings into a single powerful force, it was necessary that all the workers and all the poor have a clear understanding of their common class interest.
But no organization in Lebanon put forward such a class perspective. Instead, each of the leaderships of each of the organizations had a nationalist policy – or even worse, and more precisely, a communalistic one. Each of the Lebanese organizations had a perspective only in relation to its own community, separate from the others, and often even against the others. The Palestinian leadership, the most prestigious and most powerful at this time, did exactly the same.
The leadership of the Palestinians was held by the PLO, overwhelmingly by Al Fatah of Yasir Arafat. At the beginning of the civil war, the Palestinians had to engage in the fight despite this leadership. The policy of Arafat and the PLO was against Palestinian participation in what was called, “a conflict among the Lebanese.” In 1969, Arafat had signed the Cairo Agreement which granted the right of the Palestinians to carry on their fight against Israel from within Lebanon in exchange for the promise of the Palestinian leadership to “undertake to control the conduct of the members of its organizations and to ensure their non-interference in Lebanese affairs.” Citing this agreement, Arafat ordered his followers to stay out of the civil war, to stand by while the Phalangists massacred workers and poor and attempted to disarm the Lebanese left. Arafat defended this position by saying, “All that is taking place in Lebanon is unjustifiable. Lebanon can in no case profit from a crisis that destroys all. The Palestinian revolution knows, on its part, that the real battlefield is Palestine and that it cannot gain any benefit from a marginal battle which turns it from its true direction.” Arafat ordered many of his troops to the south of Lebanon, leaving the field of battle more open to the Phalange.
However, it was not possible for the Palestinians to follow the policy of Arafat and the PLO. Even if the Palestinians chose to stay out of the battle, the Lebanese bourgeoisie would not let them do so. Despite all the pledges from Arafat about staying out of the affairs of Lebanon, the mere existence of the Palestinians within Lebanon was a threat to the Lebanese bourgeoisie. To have an armed population in its midst, outside the control of the Lebanese state, acting as a pole of attraction for the Lebanese poor, was something the Lebanese bourgeoisie could not accept. It is why the Phalange, which had originally started its attack against the left by attacks against the Palestinians, continued to attack the Palestinians by surrounding the refugee camps of Tal Zaatar and Jisr al-Pasha.
Finally, with these attacks on the camps, the main forces of the PLO were thrown into battle. But the Palestinians engaged in the common fight without a clear consciousness of what was at stake, that is, that the common fight of all the oppressed could have a common goal, social revolution in the whole region.
The Lebanese forces against the Phalange were organized in the National Movement. The largest grouping was the Progressive Socialist Party of Kamal Jumblatt, a landowner and traditional leader of the Druze. Jumblatt had no choice but to oppose the Phalange, which had as its aim to destroy all other political organizations. Because he was the leader of the Druze, Jumblatt was put at the head of the movement which opposed the Christians. It was this opposition, and nothing else, which gave the PSP its claim to be of the left. The PSP never had as its goal the social revolution, nor even a radical transformation of Lebanese society. Just the opposite. Jumblatt himself once stated this openly when he said that the purpose of his organization was to “save Lebanon from radicalism.”
Also included in the National Movement were a number of Nasserists, Ba’athists, the Shiite Movement of the Deprived, as well as the two communist organizations of Lebanon. George Hawi, the leader of the Stalinist Communist Party – and probably the organization with the least ties to any specific community – declared that “the reforms we (of the National Movement) are seeking aim at transforming our sectarian feudalistic system into a secular, democratic, liberal system which would maintain the production relations of capitalism.”
All of this shows clearly that the goal of the so-called Lebanese left was simply to reorganize the government, to force the Christian bourgeoisie to accept a greater role within the Lebanese government for the bourgeoisies of the Druze and the Shiite communities. When attacked by the Phalange, the National Movement mobilized the poor of the different communities in battle. But it was always done within the same political perspective, that is, of redividing the positions in the government, which not only did not push for a class unity of the poor, but which reinforced their divisions along community lines – even when they were fighting side by side against a common enemy, the Maronite bourgeoisie.
Once the PLO and the National Movement engaged fully in the battle, the strength of the poor masses which were mobilized against the Phalange was overpowering. The Phalange appeared on the verge of defeat. At this point, it could have appeared that the policy of the PLO and the National Movement would lead them to victory, driving the Christians out of governmental power.
But the nationalist limits of their policy were inherent in this fight, and they became strikingly apparent when the Syrian army of Assad intervened in Lebanon, precisely to prevent the PLO and the Lebanese left from crushing the Christian Phalange. If the fight of the PLO and the National Movement was to continue, it meant being ready to carry on a fight against Assad, and against the other Arab regimes which supported him.
Such a fight was possible. Throughout the Middle East, there were other concentrations of Palestinians who could have spearheaded such a fight. Throughout the Middle East, the Arab peoples, oppressed by U.S. imperialism and threatened by Israel, identified with the cause of the Palestinians. These peoples shared a common language, a common culture, and a common tradition. All of this could have made it easier to overcome the problems of national division. All of this could have helped clear the ground for the fundamental class conflict in the region. For above all else, throughout the countries of the Middle East, the masses shared a common class interest, the interest of those who are dominated and exploited by the bourgeoisie. It was this common class interest that could have provided the basis for a common fight throughout the region.
The potential to begin the socialist revolution in the Middle East existed in Lebanon. But it was never realized. And if it wasn’t, it is because neither the PLO nor the National Movement had as their goal for the workers and the poor to take power, to rule society.
For the petty-bourgeois leadership of the PLO, the goal has been to form a Palestinian state, to be included and respected as the leadership of a nation among the other elites that rule other nations. To achieve this, the PLO has sought to rely on those Arab rulers who head the Middle Eastern countries and to turn its back on the millions of true allies of the Palestinian people, the workers and the poor of the Middle East. It has been to turn away the support already being given in Lebanon, by all those who took the Palestinian cause as their own. The choice of the PLO was a class choice.
Confronting the intervention of Syria in Lebanon, the PLO worked to disengage all Palestinians from the conflict and to reinforce their prior commitment to abstain from the internal affairs of other Arab nations.
There was no revolutionary direction for the mass of the workers and poor coming from the Lebanese left either. The National Movement stopped its offensive against the Phalange. Jumblatt and others split the movement, each attempting to find an increased role for himself within a national unity government, by competing in front of Syria to prove himself the best ally. To do so, each leader tried to strengthen his hold over his community, reinforcing the idea among the poor that the critical divisions in the society were between communities, and not between classes.
Since the Syrian intervention, the leaders of the PLO and of the National Movement have largely fragmented the social movement of the workers and the poor. We saw this fragmentation, even when the Palestinians and the Lebanese were facing attack from their common enemy, Israel. In 1978 and again in 1982, the Palestinians and the militias of the Druze and the Shiites initially joined forces against Israel. In part, there was a feeling of solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians. But for the most part, the common fight was a response to a foreign invader, one which didn’t distinguish between the different armed groups it met on its march to Beirut.
But as the wars continued, Israel attempted more and more to split the opposition forces, and it succeeded in doing so. In particular, there were direct separate negotiations and agreements made with the Druze leader, Jumblatt. Then there were all the negotiations between the different traditional Lebanese leaders and Gemayel. Each of the leaders carried on his own negotiations, maneuvering for the best position possible within the newly formed government. Each accepted to play a role in that government – at the very moment that the Palestinians were being expelled in mass from Lebanon.
The workers and poor of Lebanon have paid dearly for the absence of a revolutionary leadership. Their struggle has been split apart, with the different parts turned against each other in a bloody fight. Their struggle was betrayed, and sent to a dead end.
It is the Palestinians who have suffered first of all. The one thing all the power brokers agreed upon, and which they demanded from those seeking their favor, was the continued attack against the Palestinians. Not only Israel, but also all of the Arab regimes acted to limit and control the Palestinian movement, to be sure that this armed population does not find the means, despite the explicitly nationalist policies of the PLO leadership, to ignite the aspirations of all the workers and poor of the region, as it began to do in Lebanon, and in Jordan before that.
The leaders of the Lebanese forces have been ready to accommodate the demands of Syria, Israel and imperialism. Walid Jumblatt (the son of Kamal, who was assassinated at the end of the civil war) stated, after the Israeli invasion: “The Phalangists and others know that I have banned a Palestinian presence in the mountain area... because I did not want the mountain area to become, like the south, a place of anarchy and many parties and other things.” Furthermore, Jumblatt did nothing to oppose the Israeli move into the Shuf, and instead sought an alliance with Israel. In late 1982, he unilaterally dissolved the National Movement, a gesture which showed that he considered himself first of all as the leader of the Druze community, and nothing else.
The leader of the Communist Party, George Hawi, published a critique in November of 1982 of the leftist movement in Lebanon. He indicated clearly his stand against the Palestinians: “In recent years we have always emphasized the need to keep the internal conflict strictly Lebanese.... After Camp David, could Lebanon still afford such an extended presence of the Palestinian army, an army which was nearly everywhere in the country, and loaded with arms, but unable to organize their use or even to defend them?”
The Amal leadership of the Shiites has acted exactly as the others, also ready to turn against the Palestinians. In 1985, the Amal of Nahbi Berri carried on a bloody slaughter in the Palestinian refugee camps, letting Berri prove himself indispensable in the eyes of Syria, and also of imperialism. By completing the attacks against the Palestinians that the Israelis and Syrians began, the Amal leaders demonstrated their usefulness in establishing the order these regimes want in Lebanon.
Today we see the full consequences within Lebanon of a fight which remained on a national and religious basis. The poor Christians have turned to the Phalange and to Israel to defend their interests. The poor Muslims turn to the Druze and Shiite bourgeoisie to represent their interests. The trap of nationalism, of religious divisions and of clan divisions is taking its full toll – as the fratricidal war continues in Lebanon, with the poor on all sides as its victims. Today we see the Palestinians, who yesterday were the inspiration of all the poor, being chased out and slaughtered by other sections of the poor masses.
In the Middle East we can see the results of a nationalist policy played out to the end. Even from the viewpoint of the nationalists themselves, their policy is a failure. The nationalist policy, especially of the Palestinian leaders, has not been able to do away with the Zionist state of Israel. The nationalist policy has not led to the liberation of the Palestinian people, it has not given them a homeland. Nor has the nationalist policy freed the Arab peoples of the Middle East from the grip of imperialism.
Finally, that policy has done exactly the opposite from what it claimed it would do. It has increased the split in the Arab world, and reinforced the antagonism between different Arab peoples. And thus it has given imperialism the means to strengthen its hold in the Middle East, as well as reinforce Israel’s position. For the Palestinians, the nationalist policy has led them further down the path towards extermination as a people.
If ever there is a proof to show the dead end of nationalism, to show that in our epoch nationalism is unable to solve the problems that face the world, it can be seen, first of all, in the plight of the Palestinian people and, secondly, in the situation of Lebanon today.