Published in Socialism Today, Issue 182, October 2014
The dust is still settling on the most recent war in Gaza, which included the massacre of over 2,000 Palestinian civilians at the hands of the Israeli state terror machine. It is the latest bloody chapter in the Israeli occupation, as a timely book tracing its history shows.
Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories
By Ahron Bregman
Published by Allen Lane, 2014
Ahron Bregman’s very readable Cursed Victory covers the four decades of Israeli occupation from the 1967 Israeli war against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, until 2007. The author marks the 1967 war as “the turning point when, in popular western perception, the Israelis turned from the beleaguered victims of Arab aggression to occupiers”. He is astonished that “a vibrant and intellectual nation overwhelmingly aware of the pain of history – went down the path of military occupation”. Bregman, an academic at King’s College London, is an Israeli who served for six years in the Israel Defence Force (IDF), who then left Israel because he strongly opposed the occupation.
In just six days in June 1967, the Israeli military unexpectedly seized the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza strip, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. The extent of the victory buoyed the mood in Israel to enable those in power to override the idea of immediately returning newly acquired lands they saw as beneficial to keep, especially the West Bank and the walled old city of Jerusalem, which they viewed as the ‘cradle of Jewish history’.
Bregman describes the widespread destruction of West Bank villages that took place during the war. In East Jerusalem, the Muslim ‘Moroccan Quarter’ was also wiped out of existence, with some residents left buried in the rubble. In the Golan Heights, taken from Syria, 95% of the 138,000-strong population fled from the Israeli advance or were evicted, and could not return. Only the Druze were allowed to remain.
The book also highlights the horror of forced emigration from the West Bank to Jordan in 1967. Many of those pushed from their homes were second-time refugees, the first time being in 1948. In 1967 some were ‘encouraged’ to leave and many were overtly compelled, with the result that “somewhere between 175,000 and 250,000 Palestinians left during and immediately after the war, [and] only a fraction, perhaps 14,000 in all, were allowed to return”. In addition, many people were forced out of the Gaza strip to live on the West Bank or in Jordan. In the 18 months after the war, the strip lost “a staggering 25% of its pre-war population”.
Israel’s then defence minister, Moshe Dayan, wanted to make the occupation as invisible as possible but, as Bregman rightly recognises, this was not out of concern for the Palestinians but had the aim of minimising resistance. Dayan’s real outlook was shown by one of his quotes in the book: “We want emigration [out of the West Bank]… we want to create a new map”.
Dayan’s softly-softly approach was soon set aside when faced with a wave of revolt in schools across the occupied areas against Israeli dictates distorting history. For being at the forefront of the protests and strikes, the town of Nablus suffered a vicious clampdown by the IDF, including arrests, curfews, house searches and a shutdown of the telephone system and public transport. Dayan was carrying out his sinister threat to the town: “If you choose rebellion, we’ll have no other option but to break you”.
A few years later, following an attack on a Jewish family visiting Gaza, Israeli general, Ariel Sharon, unleashed brutal assaults on the strip, with the throwing of grenades into houses before troops entered them. He authorised the destruction of rows of houses to allow military vehicles to patrol at will.
Israeli Regime’s Interests
Most of the areas seized in 1967 effectively remain occupied today. Only the Sinai Peninsula was eventually given up by Israel completely, in the peace treaty of 1979. Bregman outlines the huge pressure applied by U.S. president, Gerald Ford, to bring about an Israel-Egypt deal, including when in 1975 he froze arms deliveries to Israel – and then went on to make secret commitments to give Israel massive ongoing military and financial support. Bregman quotes the then Israeli defence minister, Shimon Peres, boasting: “We gave up a little to get a lot”.
Some Jewish settlement took place during the first decade of occupation, with 3,200 settling on the West Bank. Then, in 1977, Menachem Begin headed the first right-wing Likud government in Israel’s history, and “embarked on a grand plan to make the occupation irreversible, at the heart of which was the construction of Jewish settlements”.
A thread throughout the book notes the Israeli regime’s reticence to invest in the occupied areas. This was partly manifested in the early period by Dayan allowing Jordan’s King Hussein to go on paying West Bank public-sector wages and for the Jordanian dinar to continue in use. Meanwhile, a stranglehold on all aspects of the Palestinians’ lives was initiated by requiring permits to be obtained for virtually everything they wanted to do, from growing certain food plants, to painting their homes, or travelling, and so on. One of the worst restrictions was on water supply and the drilling of new wells as this limited agriculture, a central means of securing a livelihood.
Nevertheless, the economy in the territories developed – on an unsound basis – in the early years of the occupation because a large number of Palestinian workers travelled into Israel to do unskilled and semi-skilled work and then spent the money back home. At the same time, Bregman comments that, “teachers, doctors, engineers and other professionals – in fact, the elite of West Bank society – emigrated to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and elsewhere”.
From the start of the occupation, divisions surfaced in the Israeli ruling class over how to proceed, which continue to this day. The book describes the clashing ideas of 1967 deputy prime minister, Yigal Allon, and Moshe Dayan, including over how much land to annex, where to build settlements, whether to separate from the Palestinians or ‘integrate’ them, and whether to offer land back to Jordan.
In December 1987, the death of four Palestinians in a car collision with an Israeli tank transporter triggered clashes that were the start of the first, six-year, intifada (uprising). All the anger and humiliations suffered at the hands of the occupiers – including the exploitation endured by workers who travelled into Israel each day to do menial labour – surfaced in a spontaneous mass revolt across Gaza and the West Bank. Unarmed people filled the streets despite being shot at by the IDF – over 1,000 Palestinians were killed during the intifada. When the detention camps became full, Israeli soldiers were ordered to ‘break the arms and legs’ of protesters as an alternative to arrests.
Cursed Victory explains how Yasser Arafat and other exiled leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Tunis, who were building up military equipment in Iraq, Sudan and Yemen, “were becoming quite concerned to see that the uprising was being run by local activists, over whom they had little control… At the same time, it was plain that the grassroots rebellion was proving far more effective than armed attacks on Israel”. Arafat proceeded to assert the authority of the PLO on the activists on the ground in order to take credit for the struggles taking place.
Faced with a mainly unarmed uprising, with women and children in a leading role, the IDF felt unable to use its high-tech weapons and so developed new tools of repression, such as vehicles that could fire rubber balls. It also resorted to curfews, sieges, house demolitions, torture and deportations.
Bregman draws attention to widespread hostility during the intifada towards the regime in Jordan as well as that of Israel, due to its ongoing ‘buying of influence’ in the West Bank while the occupation went on. This opposition, along with King Hussein’s fears of the intifada spreading to Jordan, led him in 1988 to relinquish his claim over the West Bank and end ties with it. During the course of the book, Bregman only very lightly questions Hussein’s professed concern for the Palestinians and steers clear of drawing out the self-interest of the Arab elites and the world’s main powers when intervening in Israel-Palestine.
Also deficiently, he places the onus on the U.S. leaders to broker a lasting Israel-Palestine peace by “being tough with Israel and when necessary bribe it into compromise”. This is despite him describing the strong support and bribes given by the U.S. leaders to the Israeli regime over a long period, including citing U.S. president Bill Clinton’s secret reassurance to Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, of “the unshakable U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and to the maintenance of its [weapons] qualitative edge”, and “determination to… provide Israel with long-term and enduring diplomatic, economic, security and technological backing”.
Later in 1988, under pressure from the intifada, the Palestinian National Council met in Algiers and futilely announced the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ie on 22% of Palestine as it was under the post-first world war British Mandate. For the first time, this meant accepting UN resolution 242 that recognised the right of Israel to exist.
In September 1993, following talks in Oslo, Arafat and Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, reached an agreement. This insisted on an end to the intifada. But, as Bregman points out, while the prospect of a Palestinian state was indirectly raised, any moves towards real independence would depend on further talks. Nonetheless, the deal allowed Arafat to return to Gaza from exile the following year to head a Palestinian Authority (PA), which was given some administrative responsibilities in part of the Gaza strip and Jericho, and in further areas after the Oslo II deal a year later. Meanwhile, the Jewish settlements expanded massively: in the seven years following Oslo I, the number of settlers increased from 120,000 to 206,700.
Towards the end of 2000, the Oslo process and more rounds of talks had still failed to deliver any of the Palestinians’ aspirations. Barak was warned by his intelligence services that a new rebellion was brewing. Cursed Victory contains plenty of detail on the rounds of ‘peace’ talks over the decades it covers and amply portrays the manoeuvrings, delaying tactics, subterfuges and backtracking that went on among the powers and elites involved.
Bregman cites information from ‘top secret’ diplomatic communications never before in the public arena, some of which were recorded by Israeli intelligence agents. These even include tapped phone conversations between Clinton and other world leaders; the staunch support of U.S. imperialism for Israel did not exempt it from the Israeli spies. Last year, spying by U.S. agents on Israeli leaders was also exposed – they all spy on each other! The conversations revealed in the book are interesting and provide more detail on the rounds of talks but they back up existing knowledge rather than revealing anything fundamentally new.
The more disturbing points made about the Israeli agents concern their coercion of many Palestinians into being informers. The methods described include blackmail after prying into people’s lives to find vulnerabilities, or photographing women naked, and denying permits to those who would not ‘cooperate’.
It is apposite to mention here that in September 2014, 43 graduates of the IDF’s elite intelligence unit 8200 announced their refusal to do future reserve duty “related to the Palestinian arena”. They no longer wanted to “violate the rights of millions of people” by picking out ‘targets’ in the territories and noting information that could be used to drive people into collaboration. They also said that a significant portion of the people they had monitored were civilians who had nothing to do with military activity against Israel, including people involved in politics.
The intelligence warnings to Barak were not wrong: when Ariel Sharon provocatively toured the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound in September 2000, it triggered the outbreak of the second intifada, also known as the al-Aqsa intifada because the al-Aqsa mosque is there – one of the holiest Muslim sites.
All the outrage at the increased Israeli colonisation of the territories and the poverty and repression endured by the Palestinians erupted again. Bregman points out that this intifada again began as an unarmed popular uprising, and argues that the Israeli military wanted to transform it into a violent insurgency so that they could take advantage of their technological superiority. So the IDF fired “a staggering 1.3 million bullets” during the intifada’s first month, and “did indeed manage gradually to transform the Palestinian civilian uprising into an armed insurgency in which… guns replaced stones”.
The IDF went on to use attack helicopters, warplanes and a policy of assassinations. New prime minister, Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud party, told his chief of staff: “Strike at the Palestinians everywhere… simultaneously. The Palestinians should wake up every morning to find out that twelve of them are dead…” Reading Cursed Victory brings home how each cycle of bloodshed has brought worse and worse military atrocities, a trend continued in the onslaughts on Gaza in recent years that were beyond the scope of the book.
Ominously for the Israeli capitalists, during this intifada, the Palestinians inside Israel also exploded in anger, and were met with gunfire by the Israeli police. It was not long before Palestinian militias in the territories were resorting to suicide bombings inside Israel; there were 145 suicide bombers in the first two years of the uprising. Bregman clearly understands why the Palestinian militias felt driven to carry out those indiscriminate attacks, while noting the limitations of them against the might of the IDF. But his book stops short of suggesting an alternative form of struggle. In a July 2014 interview with Cicero magazine, Bregman argued for ‘non-violent’ resistance, adding that he once elaborated this as “the Palestinians should, for instance, use social media to encourage as many Palestinians as possible to get out to the streets, wrap themselves in white sheets, and throw flowers at the soldiers”.
However, non-violent resistance does not have to be counter-posed to the right to armed actions as commentators and polling agencies often do. The Committee for a Workers’ International defends the Palestinians’ need for arms for the purposes of defence and against the occupation, but argues that there should be democratic control of the struggle by Palestinians at grassroots level and mass participation in it. Also, we oppose any targeting of civilians, not least because it pushes Jewish workers towards the most reactionary Israeli political parties and aids the interests of the Israeli ruling class.
Bregman argues that when Clinton made a last ditch peace proposal that was accepted by Barak in late December 2000, “there is little doubt that… Arafat missed an opportunity to have an independent Palestine with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital, including… Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif”. Bregman speculates about why Arafat rejected this, suggesting that he wanted to hold out for the right of return of refugees.
However, the author’s detailing of the concessions offered can cloud the overall picture, which was that no genuinely independent Palestinian state was on offer, with control over its borders and natural resources. The Israeli government’s aim was to head-off Palestinian struggle by ending direct occupation of certain patches of land and to subcontract repression in them to Arafat’s elite with its numerous security arms. The Arafat-led PA had already shown itself capable of a dictatorial style of rule in its own interests and those of the Israeli regime – not hesitating to arrest and beat trade unionists and human rights activists, among others.
Whatever the machinations of each ‘peace’ process, the Israeli ruling class has always been unwilling to move towards accepting a genuinely independent Palestinian state on its doorstep, which it fears could elect leaders very hostile to its interests. And U.S. imperialism has backed the Israeli regime – albeit with ups and downs in relations – for geopolitical reasons, and because the class interests of the U.S. capitalists lie in supporting Israeli capitalism rather than the interests of working-class people on either side of the Israel-Palestine divide.
So, although some further kinds of Palestinian entity or ‘state’ may be negotiated into existence under capitalism, it will only be on a socialist basis that the Palestinians’ desire for national liberation can be satisfied, along with permanent peace in the interests of all working peoples. Only the building of movements that can bring about public ownership of the dominant businesses and services, under democratic working-class control, can lead to the basic necessities of life being available for all on both sides of the divide. That would open the door to mutually beneficial cooperation and the solving of the present-day problems in a confederation of a socialist Palestine alongside a socialist Israel.
Today, pessimism on the prospects for two states has understandably increased in the region due to the failed rounds of talks between capitalist politicians and the almost continuous Israeli settlement and infrastructure construction. At the same time, only a minority of Palestinians across the PA and a minority of Israeli Jews support a one-state solution. One of the central reasons for this is that both these populations fear becoming a discriminated-against section of society in one state. For Israeli Jews, the Israeli state was meant to guarantee their traditions and security, so a large majority strongly oppose the idea of one state with a potential Palestinian majority – and it cannot be achieved through force.
In 2005 Sharon presided over unilateral withdrawals of Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip and a token four in the West Bank, and he developed a separation barrier on the West Bank. Such separation was first touted by Barak when he was leader of the Israeli Labour Party – an example of the lack of fundamental differences in approach between many of Israel’s mainstream politicians. Sharon’s acts had the aim of an enforced partition, to retain Israel’s main settlement blocs and extricate it from the blind alley of imposing military repression and from the prospect of a slide towards one state with Jews in a minority. They were also aimed at avoiding concessions regarding a Palestinian state.
The Israeli ruling class was horrified when Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) was elected to power across the PA in 2006. Cursed Victory reminds its readers that when offshoots of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood became active in the territories in the 1980s, the Israeli leadership “actively contributed to the strength of the Islamist groups, regarding them as a counterweight to the secular, nationalistic PLO, which the Israelis considered a greater threat”.
At the end of his book, Bregman concludes that “the verdict of history will regard the four decades of occupation… as a black mark in Israeli and, indeed, Jewish history”. He warns that “it could take many generations before a true reconciliation takes hold”. However, ordinary people on both sides of the national divide cannot contemplate it taking that long for an end to the cycles of bloody conflict. It is urgent that independent working class-based organisations are built both in Israel and the Palestinian territories, to put forward socialist programs that can clearly indicate an entirely different future.