With over 1,300 Palestinians killed, a third of them children, since the violence began on 27 December, thousands injured and widespread devastation of the already impoverished area, the Israeli assault on Gaza was marked by its extreme brutality. A ceasefire is now in place but nothing has been done to remove the root causes of this war. Only this round seems to have come to an end. ROBERT BECHERT writes.

ONCE AGAIN THE masses in the Middle East have endured more suffering, injury and death. This attack on Gaza has been one of overwhelmingly brutality. On the first day, 225 people were reported killed, one of the bloodiest days in Israel’s history.

Internationally, Israeli government propaganda that the destruction was necessary to stop missile attacks on southern Israel was not accepted. The scale of the attack was seen as being out of all proportion and would do nothing to bring peace. The growing evidence of the war’s impact on civilians, including the strikes on those sheltering in UN buildings, increased the outrage. Socialists’ opposition to some of Hamas’ policies and methods did not for a minute dent our campaigning for an immediate end to this attack on Gaza.

One aim of the Israeli government in inflicting this collective punishment on the Palestinians was to undermine support for Hamas, which won the January 2006 Palestinian assembly elections, and crush the Palestinian will to resist oppression and occupation. The Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza was designed to soften up the population so that they would tamely accept any agreement that imperialism foisted onto them. Another aim war was to force Palestinians into accepting leaders who were acceptable to the Israeli state, reactionary Arab regimes, and imperialism.

It more than likely that the Israeli government’s most immediate war aim, re-election on 10 February, will not be achieved. The forces further to the right, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), have gained in the polls. While this slaughter illustrates the Israeli army’s military power, following its defeat in the 2006 war on Hezbollah in Lebanon, it has not provided a solution for the Israeli ruling class.

This war’s cost to the Palestinian working class and poor is enormous. But, whatever the short-term gains for the Israeli regime, in the longer term, it will bring nothing positive to the Israeli working class. This slaughter will not bring peace or security to the working people of Israel. On the contrary, it will lead to another cycle of conflict in which the working class and poor, Palestinian but also Israeli Jewish workers, will suffer most.

This war again poses sharply to Palestinians the questions of how they can end oppression and achieve liberation. Clearly, the Arab regimes, even those which verbally denounced this assault, are incapable of preventing the oppression of the Palestinian masses. On the contrary, they are more fearful of a radicalisation of the Palestinians and their own populations. This experience has shown again that it will only be through their own actions that the Palestinian workers and poor can really defend themselves and realise genuine freedom and security.

Playing Fatah against Hamas
THE IDEA THAT levelling large parts of Gaza would lead its population to switch their allegiance from Hamas to the more compliant Mahmoud Abbas and Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leadership is utterly false. Hamas may have been militarily weakened, with key personnel killed, but politically, Hamas is likely to emerge strengthened. Hamas originally built its support because it was seen as less corrupt and less amenable to imperialism than the Fatah leadership. This war is resulting in a further weakening of Fatah’s support and the strengthening of more radical forces.

This is why the US and other powers are increasing their efforts to bolster Fatah. The plan is to give the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), which Fatah runs, control of the distribution of reconstruction funds, especially the promised $1 billion from Saudi Arabia, and a limited role in administering Gaza’s border with Egypt. The Wall Street Journal reported a ‘top European Union official’ saying the EU “wouldn’t help to rebuild buildings and infrastructure destroyed in Israel’s offensive until Gaza is governed by rulers acceptable to the EU”. The same article reported a ‘Western diplomat in Jerusalem’ explaining their plan: “The PA comes back to save the people of Gaza. That’s the narrative”. (20 January) So much for self-determination and humanitarian help for Gaza and its suffering people!

This war was deliberately provoked by the Israeli government under the cover of dealing with missile attacks from Gaza. Its only justification was Hamas’ refusal to extend the six-month ‘ceasefire’ (literally, ‘calm’ in Arabic and Hebrew) unless the blockade was lifted, and the resumption of firing of relatively small, and not very effective, missiles from Gaza into southern Israel. Naturally, this terrorises the local population, but they have caused relatively minor damage and loss of life, unlike the casualties inflicted by the Israeli military. Nevertheless, they gave Ehud Olmert’s government a ‘Casus belli’ (pretext for war) and enabled it to mobilise the vast majority of Israeli Jews behind the assault. The US and other governments made these missiles the major issue, pushing to second place the slaughter and suffering of the Palestinians.

Socialists support the right of Palestinians, like any oppressed people, to defend themselves through armed action if necessary. However, to be effective, such defensive action has to be based on mass support, and under the democratic direction of the wider population, organised through grassroots committees. Otherwise, there is the danger that secretive militia organisations develop that can degenerate into criminal extortion and be infiltrated more easily by the Israeli security services.

Moreover, the policy of rocket attacks and, previously, suicide bombings against Israeli citizens – methods and targets the CWI opposes – cannot defend the Palestinians and has led to the current overwhelming Israeli-Jewish support for the state’s onslaught. The argument that such attacks will show Jews that the Israeli military cannot defend them and, thereby, undermine the Israeli state is wrong. Their main effect has been to strengthen the right-wing nationalists and support for this war. This is why the Israeli government’s propaganda machine, and its international supporters like George Bush, keep repeating the mantra of ‘missile attacks’, while keeping all foreign journalists out of Gaza to try to limit reports of the carnage wrought by Israeli missiles and shells.

While the timing of this onslaught flowed from the early general election in Israel and the end of the Bush administration, the intensity and scope of the military action shows that it had far wider war aims. They were to demonstrate again the power of Israel’s military, wreck Gaza’s infrastructure to cripple Hamas rule and, if possible, secure regime change by removing the elected Hamas government and replacing it with more compliant elements around the outgoing Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

This war had been prepared for six months, if not longer. Part of this was the organisation of a propaganda machine that would try to present this attack as purely defensive against the missiles fired from Gaza. But, notwithstanding the missile attacks, there was general understanding internationally that the battle was not between equals. In these past three weeks, 13 Israelis – ten soldiers and three civilians – were killed. This pattern has been seen before. During 2005-7, eleven Israelis were killed by missiles fired from Gaza while Israeli military action killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children. In 2007, 83 Palestinians were killed by Israeli action in the West Bank despite no missiles being fired from there. As in Lebanon in 2006, the Israeli air assaults have wiped out whole families in the name of ‘peace’.

Throughout the three-week assault the Israeli and other governments feared that the longer the fighting continued, the higher was the possibility of major upheavals in Arab countries and the escalation into a wider war. Faced with rising anger in the Middle East, and growing disgust around the world, the major powers were compelled to appear to act but, despite UN resolutions and Nicolas Sarkozy flying around the region, nothing happened. Possibly now there will be the suggestion to put in foreign troops to police the borders between Gaza and Egypt, perhaps inside the Gaza Strip itself and on its border with Israel. But this will not give freedom of movement, let alone self-determination, to the Palestinians. The international forces in Lebanon did not prevent the 2006 invasion. Eventually, such forces can face increasing opposition as they are seen to be defending the interests of the imperialist powers.

The lies and distortions justifying the Israeli attack were shameless. As is normal, the aggressor presents its actions as simply defensive. Thus, the Israeli government simply ignores the fact that it still occupies or, in the case of Gaza, lays siege to the territories it seized in the 1967 war. Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, stood before the world denouncing terrorism while ignoring the Israeli state terror employed in the occupied territories and beyond. Livni’s hypocrisy is particularly striking as her parents were key members of Irgun, the right-wing Jewish group that carried out the single most deadly terrorist act in Israel/Palestine, the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Despite growing evidence of their use, the Israeli military are simply evasive on whether they used white phosphorous shells, banned as a weapon of war in civilian areas.

The Israeli elite continually manipulate the memory of the Holocaust to try to silence critics and, more importantly, play on the fears of Israeli Jews. But the tragedy for the Jews in Israel is that they are in a situation where, as long as capitalism and exploitation remains, they face repeated wars and the fear of being ‘pushed into the sea’ if they are defeated. Until they see an alternative, many Israeli Jews will have a siege mentality that can lead to support for their government’s aggression.

Punished for voting the ‘wrong way’
THE HISTORY OF the current cycle of military operations dates back to January 2006 when Israel fired artillery shells into Gaza following Hamas’ victory in the elections, with 44% of the vote and 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament. This vote shocked the Israeli government which hoped that its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza would enable the pliant Fatah leadership to run the area.

Fearing that Hamas’ calls for resistance would undermine its plans, the Israeli government sought to effect regime change in Gaza. Immediately, attempts began to undermine Hamas by turning the Gaza population against it. These did not succeed. A US-backed attempt to stage a coup against Hamas, later documented in the US magazine Vanity Fair, was thwarted in June 2007 by Hamas ousting Fatah from Gaza. However, in the West Bank the more dominant Fatah, aided by the Israeli regime, increasingly sought to suppress Hamas supporters. Today, over 40 Hamas MPs are imprisoned, while others have been assassinated.

Hypocritically, the imperialists denounce Hamas’ June 2007 action and justify the subsequent tightened blockade of Gaza. This is despite the admission by the main Middle East advisor to the then US vice-president Dick Cheney that, “what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen”. The imperialist powers and the corrupt Arab regimes fully backed these moves against Hamas, fearing that its success would boost opposition throughout the Middle East.

When it suits them the imperialist powers speak about ‘democracy’, but not when it produces results they do not like. None of the major powers have commented on the current attempt to ban Palestinian parties from standing in February’s Israeli election. As the Palestinians, in imperialism’s view, voted the ‘wrong way’, no reference is made to Hamas’ 2006 election victory and it is just repeatedly denounced as a terror group. Thus, Egypt closed the Rafah crossing into Gaza while the Israeli government withheld tax receipts owed to the Palestinian authorities, cutting the number of trucks carrying humanitarian supplies. Soon there was a series of Israeli and Hamas attacks and counter-attacks.

In explaining and opposing the Israeli-US-Arab assault, socialists do not give political support to Hamas. Despite its anti-imperialist and anti-corruption rhetoric, Hamas is a pro-capitalist, movement. It seeks to impose its own particular religious views on society and can ruthlessly suppress its opponents among Palestinians. Hamas’ policies and tactics will ultimately set back the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Its present support is because many Palestinians see the Hamas leaders as much less corrupt than their Fatah counterparts and more militant in their language against Israeli aggression. The hypocrisy of the Israeli government’s demonization of Hamas is that, originally, the Israeli secret services supported Hamas’ foundation in order to undermine its stronger rival at the time, the secular PLO. But, as happened with the CIA and Saudi-funded ‘Islamic resistance’ in Afghanistan, what was intended as a pawn became too powerful and a threat to their former sponsors. But opposition to Hamas’ policies, and helping to build workers’ organisations that can end the conflict in the interests of the working class, oppressed and poor, is not in contradiction to resisting the Israeli, US and other imperialist governments.

A carefully laid trap
LAST YEAR, THE firing of missiles from Gaza by Hamas and other Palestinian groups were only one of the breaches of the six-month ‘calm’ – which the Israeli military used to carefully prepare Operation Cast Lead. Prior to the ‘calm’, the Israeli government steadily imposed a tighter and tighter blockade of Gaza, aided by the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. In late 2005, workers from Gaza were mostly barred from entering Israel to work. Then Gaza’s commercial trade was massively restricted and, finally, from mid-2006, humanitarian aid was squeezed. The result was that last year Gaza received only 25% of the imported supplies it received in 2005. This was why one of the main demands of Gazans was a lifting of the blockade. The hundreds of tunnels dug under Gaza’s borders are not mainly for weapon smuggling, as Israeli and western governments claim, but to try to overcome the effects of the blockade.

This siege was tightened even more towards the end of last year. The Wall Street Journal reported that “between November 5 and the start of the most recent conflict, an average of 16 trucks a day were allowed into Gaza, down from 123 a day in October and 475 a day in May 2007”. (8 January) The 5 November date is significant, as it was the day after the Israeli military raid that started the countdown to the latest assault. Effectively, the Israeli government put Gazans on starvation rations: the UN says it requires about 40 trucks daily to meet Gazans’ minimal needs. This was why even the UN spoke of Israel’s ‘collective punishment’ of Gaza.

The economic siege and military raids provoked Hamas into rejecting a continuation of the six month ‘calm’ unless the border was opened, and resuming missile attacks into southern Israel. The Hamas leadership effectively fell into this trap and made it politically easier for the Israeli government to launch its pre-election war.

This trap was triggered by the provocation of the first significant breach in the ‘calm’ when, on 4 November, an Israeli raid killed six Hamas members. The Israeli military claimed that it had intelligence that a tunnel was being dug for the purpose of abducting Israeli soldiers.

What happened next was recorded by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC), an organisation whose material is published by the Israeli government. Having previously recorded only eleven rockets and 15 mortar shells fired from Gaza in the four months between July and October, the ITIC reported that “during the six months of the lull, the terrorist organisations fired 223 rockets and 139 mortar shells”, with most of them fired “during the six weeks between November 4 and December 19”.

Clearly, the 4 November raid changed the situation, as it was intended to do. It seems clear that the Israeli government was working to a timetable of preparing for action in the run-up to the 10 February election, an election called at the end of October.

There are many reports that Hamas wanted to maintain the truce, while demanding that the blockade be lifted. It sent a delegation to Cairo in mid-December to discuss this. Around the same time, former US president Jimmy Carter met Khaled Meshal, the Syrian-based chairman of the Hamas political bureau, in Damascus. Meshal indicated that Hamas was willing to go back to the ceasefire, “if there was a sign that Israel would lift the siege on Gaza”. A few days later, Yuval Diskin, head of Israel’s security agency, Shin Bet, told the 21 December meeting of the Israeli cabinet: “Make no mistake, Hamas is interested in maintaining the truce”. While Hamas leaders kept saying they would extend the truce if the crossings were opened, the Israeli and Egyptian governments refused to do so.

It seems that the barrage of rockets that Hamas fired after the truce ended on 19 December was not necessarily the start of a long offensive. The ITIC said that the attacks peaked on 24 December. In other words, the attacks subsided before the Israeli air force launched Operation Cast Lead on 27 December. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram (20 January) quoted Meshal as saying that Hamas only expected a three-day military response. Instead, there was a 22-day slaughter.

Because of this misjudgement, and because Hamas is not based on the mobilisation of the masses, it fell into this provocation. It could have mobilised the population in Gaza around its main demand of reopening the Gaza border, as agreed in the ceasefire plan. A mass mobilisation to the border with Egypt demanding that it be opened could not have been described as terrorism. Such action, combined with an appeal to Egyptians for support, would have put the Mubarak regime in an impossible position, either having to open the border or face revolt.

This is not a dream. Less than a year ago, after a hole was blown in the border near Rafah, mass action secured free travel for eleven days until Hamas agreed to its re-closure. In December, the Hamas leaders hoped that firing a few hundred missiles would change the situation. Instead this gave the Israeli government the excuse it had wanted to launch a pre-election war. The mass action that kept the border open in January/February last year was an example, like the two intifadas, that this form of struggle is the key to Palestinian liberation. Over time, the policies and tactics of Hamas will start to be questioned, as were Fatah’s previously.

The collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza – by siege and military action – has only deepened the hostility towards Israel. It has not undermined Hamas or strengthened Fatah’s position. It has united Palestinians against Israel. However, the Israeli military may be counting on war-weariness to create a more submissive mood. It seems that there is in Gaza a combination of despair and desire for revenge, with Hamas leaders anxious to show that the Israelis are responsible for any renewed fighting.

Any chance of a deal?
IT IS POSSIBLE that the popular jailed Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, may play a role in future developments. Barghouti’s popularity grew during the second intifada, at the beginning of this century, as a leader of Tanzim, a Fatah armed branch. Jailed by the Israelis he split from Fatah to form a new party, al-Mustaqbal (The Future). He ran on a joint list with Fatah in the January 2006 elections. Later, Barghouti helped draft the joint agreement by prominent imprisoned Palestinian leaders from most groupings, including Hamas. This statement, the National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners, put forward the basis for a Palestinian national unity government and a deal with Israel. Barghouti could yet be released in an attempt by imperialism to involve the more popular leaders in some kind of deal.

But even a temporary deal depends on the situation in Israel. Despite the attempt by the government to present the Gaza war as a victory, the war is still unlikely to save the Kadima-Labour coalition, and a Likud-led government could attempt an even more aggressive attitude. Despite the wishes of some imperialist powers for a settlement that allows for the formation of two states, key sections of the Israeli elite will not allow any moves towards the formation of a viable Palestinian state. They fear that such a state, even the attempt to form one, would add a new destabilising factor into the region.

Nevertheless, within Israel there will be increased questioning of the war. While such questioning came quickly after the discredited 2006 Lebanon war, it may take a bit longer now as the Gaza war is being presented as a success. But, inevitably, the question will be asked: what is the long-term future? Although there was overwhelming Israeli support for the attack, mainly because of the missiles and Hamas’ previous suicide bomb strategy in the 1990s, there was a minority in opposition, including some in the military. In Tel Aviv and Jaffa there were sizeable joint Palestinian–Jewish demonstrations against the war. Even among the war’s supporters there was no support for a long term reoccupation of Gaza.

Over time, Israeli Jews will ask: what has really been achieved? The polarisation in Israeli society will continue. The extreme nationalists will demand further action against the Palestinians. Others will feel growing revulsion at the mass killings of civilians, especially children, as full news of what happened is reported. Such a development could be cut across if there is a major resumption of missile attacks, or new suicide attacks, in an attempt to show the Israeli state that it has not won.

The siege mentality and the legacy of the Holocaust are powerful issues which are regularly exploited by the Israeli elite. Despite the cynical exploitation, these are real factors that have to be taken into account if this deadlock is to be broken in the interests of working people and the poor. Unless a viable alternative is offered to Israeli Jews the vast majority will fight with all means if they think that their very existence is threatened.

A weakened Israel
ISRAELI JEWRY IS not a homogeneous bloc. There are increasingly sharp class divisions, especially after the neo-liberal dismantling of many parts of the welfare state. From the formation of Israel there have been racial divisions. The original Israeli elite discriminated against Jews from Arab countries who made up over 45% of the migrants into Israel until 1995. The past decade has seen important workers’ and students’ struggles, including big strikes and demonstrations, which are likely to be repeated as a result of the unfolding world economic disaster. If Likud again pursues neo-liberal policies it could quickly lead to class battles developing. These could carry within them possibilities for building a genuine workers’ movement as a fighting force in Israel, and also as a step towards common struggles by Israeli and Palestinian workers.

Internationally, mounting revulsion against the savagery of the assault on Gaza has weakened Israel’s position, especially as it comes after the 2006 Lebanon war. This may be used by those sections of world imperialism that see the Israeli government’s policies as destabilising and wish for some attempt at a ‘settlement’.

It is likely that the new Obama administration’s initiative will try to go down this road, calling for some Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied after the 1967 war and, perhaps, making contact with Hamas to seek to involve them in some kind of Palestinian government of national unity. Before this war, Olmert argued for a ‘land for peace’ deal, which the Obama administration may now push for. However, while these moves would be made with great fanfare and raise hopes, at the end of the day, they will prove to be limited. No deal along these lines would challenge the domination of capitalism, including Israel’s regional strength. Undoubtedly, the Palestinian workers and poor will find themselves betrayed, yet again.

This war has had a huge effect on opinion in Arab countries. The mass of Arabs were furious, but did not see concretely what could be done. Even if there were only limited protests on the streets, the impact of this war will be felt over the next period.

Hamas is clearly seen as a threat to Middle East regimes. The ties between Hamas, a Sunni movement, and Iran are seen by the pro-US regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as opening a way for the Shia Iranian leadership to gain influence in predominately Sunni countries. Hamas’ anti-corruption and anti-imperialist propaganda that was so effective against Fatah can also inspire opposition to the rotten and undemocratic regimes tied to imperialism. One US Brookings Institute analyst said that “Hamas has never had this much legitimacy”. This was reflected in the attendance of Meshal at the 15 January Arab and Iranian summit in Doha, Qatar. This meeting again showed the divisions among Arab states as the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian regimes did not attend.

This war has set the scene for more turmoil in the Middle East, especially for those regimes that effectively supported this attack and the 2006 assault on Lebanon. Obama may try to involve a larger number of Arab regimes in an attempt to reach agreement on different issues, but agreement is not the same as a settlement.

The root causes of the conflict in the Middle East lie in capitalism’s inability to meet the social and economic needs of the population, its inability to resolve the conflicting national questions, and the continual efforts by the imperialist nations to maintain a grip over an economically and strategically vital region. These have deepened the national conflicts throughout the region because they cannot be resolved without the overthrowing of the ruling elites and capitalism. Until this is done there will be no end to the periodic wars, repression and deprivation that extends through much of the Middle East.

The basis for peace
TO SOME, THIS latest war may seem as yet one more in an apparently endless series of conflicts that has swept the region for over 60 years. Faced with the seemingly intractable conflict between Jews and Palestinians some may draw the conclusion that there is no way out and that the peoples in the Middle East are doomed to suffer one calamity after another.

This is not the view of socialists. The mass of the Middle Eastern population want to live in peace and security. The CWI believes that genuine peace is achievable. However, this is only possible if working people – Palestinian and Israeli Jewish – negotiate a deal on the basis of recognising their common interests, and building a socialist alternative as a way to achieve them.

This can only be achieved by the development of independent action and organisation by the working class and poor in the Palestinian territories, Israel and the region. Such movements would have to stand against capitalism and the corrupt regional elites, and in defence of the national rights of all working people if they are to succeed. They should defend the idea that all working people should benefit from the wealth of the Middle East. In this way, trust and cooperation could be built between the two sides, opening the way to genuine peace. Without such socialist movements the ruling elites will maintain their rule by exploiting the fears of the masses, and the region will face a continued cycle of bloody conflict.

Against the interests of their local rulers and imperialism such organisations could fight for a socialist solution – a genuinely independent socialist Palestine that can satisfy the national aspirations of the Palestinian people and which could exist alongside a socialist Israel. Only within a socialist framework can the plight of the Palestinians be resolved, with open borders redrawn in accordance with the wishes of local people, a shared capital in Jerusalem, and with guaranteed democratic rights for all national minorities. Only with the national rights of the Palestinians and Israelis resolved would the question of the right to return of those who wish to not be seen as a threat. A socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel could, in turn, be part of a free and voluntary socialist confederation of the region.

The terrible suffering of Gaza over the past weeks, coming on top of years of oppression, struggles and failure to secure fundamental change, is sure to provoke discussion and debate among Palestinians over what to do next. The rottenness of the Fatah leadership and the limitations of Hamas will result in a new search for a way forward in which the ideas of mass struggle and a socialist alternative will be able to find an echo.

Within Israel it is significant that, from the beginning of this war, there was opposition to it with joint Jewish and Palestinian protests. However, in Israel this opposition, in which the CWI played a role, was in a small minority and suffered repression, which was particularly aimed at the Israeli Arabs who protested. Nevertheless, this Israeli opposition laid down a marker that will come to be recognised as it becomes clear that this pre-planned election war, and any future wars, will not guarantee security for Israeli Jews.

The experience of these brutal events, the immense suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, the cynicism of the Israeli leaders, the rottenness of the Arab leaders, coupled with the inevitable impact of the world economic crisis, will create the opportunity to begin to build socialist organisations that can fight against oppression, poverty and capitalism.

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