Judy Beishon, Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales) executive committee
The 70th anniversary of the 1948 foundation of the Israeli state is being marked this month in Israel. For Palestinian refugees, however, it marks only their ‘Nakba’, the Arabic word for catastrophe, when over 750,000 were forced from their towns and villages to become homeless and impoverished.
A further 300,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes in the 1967 six-day war. Since then Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have lived under an increasingly unbearable and brutal Israeli occupation.
In the run up to a large protest march planned for this year’s Nakba day, 15 May, anger and frustration have been expressed in weekly protests – initially over 30,000 strong – near Gaza’s perimeter fence, demanding the right of return for refugees. Fearing these escalating, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sanctioned soldiers to shoot to kill, with the horrific result that over 45 protesters have so far been killed and thousands injured.
Adding fuel to the fire of the mass anger is the moving of the US’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on 15 May. This is a strong signal to Israel of US president Trump’s support for its domination of that city and a huge rebuff to the Palestinians’ demand for their own state with its capital also in Jerusalem.
Trump has also cut US funding to the UN agency that assists Palestinian refugees, further worsening the already dire conditions in the occupied territories. The densely populated Gaza strip suffers shortages of electricity, tap water and basic goods and 50% of its workforce is unemployed.
Palestinian residents across the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza face land confiscations, house demolitions and regular incursions by Israeli soldiers during which killings and harming of Palestinians are obscenely normal.
In addition, right-wing Jewish settlers often harrass or attack Palestinians, and these ‘hate crimes’ are on the rise at present according to Israel’s intelligence agency Shin Bet.
Detention in harsh conditions is also a commonplace tool of the occupation – a majority of the adult men in the territories have been detained at some point. Over 6,000 Palestinians, including children, are currently held.
These include 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi whose case spread in the news internationally after she was jailed for slapping and kicking an Israeli soldier who wouldn’t leave her family’s courtyard. The incident took place just after Ahed heard that her cousin had been shot in the face by the Israeli military.
In the face of the deadly actions of Netanyahu’s government, the Palestinians’ struggles clearly need to be very well organised; and democratically run, assessed and escalated to achieve the maximum potential impact and success. Mass actions aimed against the occupation can be very effective, as the first intifada (uprising) – which broke out in 1987 – showed.
Last summer, when the Israeli authorities placed new restrictive checkpoints around the Jerusalem Al Aqsa mosque compound, mass sit-down protests of Palestinians in the east of that city forced a government u-turn.
Initially the protests near Gaza’s border during recent weeks also took the form of mass mobilisations, under particularly repressive conditions. Developing this type of struggle is the way forward, and not so acts of desperation like a return to the individual or group terror attacks against Israeli civilians that were a mark of the second intifada.
Those methods were counterproductive, aiding the agenda of right-wing politicians in Israel. While socialists fully support the Palestinians’ right to arms for defence and struggle, at the same time we call for a concerted appeal to be made to ordinary Israelis, explaining that they are not the target, rather it is the removal of the brutal occupation and blockades.
Class divide in Israel
On neither side of the divide do working class or middle class people have anything to gain from the conflict, or from the poor or precarious living standards that the pro-capitalist political parties offer.
In Israel, the minority Palestinian population suffers the highest levels of poverty but it’s also the case that around 20% of Jewish children are in poverty and a large layer of Israeli Jews face endemic low pay, insecure work, a massive shortage of affordable housing and overall a struggle to make ends meet. Israel has one of the highest costs of living of the 35 OECD group of advanced and developing economies, and yet disposable income after government intervention is the second worst in the OECD, with only Mexico being poorer.
It is a class society like others across the globe with one of the worst gaps between rich and poor – a small number of ‘tycoon’ families at the top control the economy. Israeli workers are regularly forced into struggle. Last December for instance, workers at Teva pharmaceuticals occupied a Jerusalem factory and demonstrated against 1,750 job losses, and were supported by a half-day general strike.
The following months saw demonstrations in Tel Aviv of tens of thousands of Israeli Jews and asylum seekers – mainly African – against forced deportations of refugees. There have also been weekly demonstrations – at one point tens of thousands strong too – against corruption at the top of government. Many MPs and officials are under police investigation, including Netanyahu, who the police have recommended be indicted.
However, regarding the national conflict, with none of the mainstream political parties offering a solution, a majority of the Jewish population presently falls prey to the reactionary mood propagated from above.Israeli governments are not new to whipping up fear of attacks by Palestinian militias, individuals or neighbouring states – especially Iran – and Netanyahu’s coalition is no exception. Ministers created a barrage of propaganda during April in response to the Gaza protests, with defence minister Avigdor Lieberman declaring there are “no innocent people” in Gaza and “everyone’s connected to Hamas” there.
The national conflict is in an impasse with no meaningful negotiations taking place. Netanyahu faces opposition in his Likud party and the collapse of the government coalition if he makes concessions, in particular due to the presence in the coalition of the pro-settler Jewish Home party.
His right-wing government has been putting divisive laws through parliament to curb NGOs that assist the Palestinians’ cause and to reduce the rights of the 1.8 million Palestinians in Israel, including by declaring Israel to be the nation state of the Jewish people.
But the occupation status quo is also a great problem for the Israeli ruling class and it is divided on what to do. Some at the top advocate concessions to the Palestinian Authority to try to buy a period of more stable coexistence. The occupation and repression is expensive – the military takes up 13% of the state budget – and Israel faces criticism and a degree of isolation globally for its brutality in the territories.
In addition, although Netanyahu continues to create geographical ‘facts on the ground’, expanding settlements and Jewish-only infrastructure, Israel’s ruling class faces a demographic problem regarding its national base because the Palestinian population in all the areas it controls will soon outstrip the Jewish population – if it doesn’t already.
One state or two?
Due to the failure of the mainstream political parties to deliver a two-state solution and the extent to which the settlements enterprise has broken up the West Bank, minorities exist on both sides of the national divide that believe that only a one-state solution is now possible.
On a socialist basis – whether early on or at a later stage – a single state meeting the needs and aspirations of both Palestinians and Jews could be democratically agreed and brought about. But from the starting point of today, the mistrust following decades of bloodshed and the fear on both sides of becoming a discriminated-against section of a single state (as Palestinians inside Israel are today) mean that a one-state solution isn’t contemplated by most.
This view is strong among Israeli Jews as a result of living in a state which they were told would protect their interests following rounds of persecution of Jews in eastern Europe and beyond, and then the horrors of the holocaust. Today the wars raging in neighbouring Syria and the support of the masses across the Middle East for the Palestinians’ cause add to a ‘siege mentality’ for Israeli Jews and defence of the Israeli state.
For Palestinians, on their part, abhorrence of repression and victimisation has become strong having endured a denial of basic rights by the Israeli regime. But the political parties in power in the Palestinian Authority show no more of a way forward than do those in Israel.
Support for Palestinian president Mahmood Abbas, the leader of Fatah, has plummeted as living standards fester and his strategy of pleading with the world’s imperialist powers to deliver a Palestinian state repeatedly fails.
Those powers view their commercial and geopolitical links with Israel as far more important. And in any case they can’t simply override the refusal of the Israeli ruling class to concede a genuine Palestinian state on its doorstep.
The right-wing Islamist party Hamas, tenuously in power in Gaza, has no choice but to adopt a more anti-imperialist stance than Fatah as the US and EU label it a terrorist organisation.
But it too has no strategy to advance the struggle for Palestinian liberation. It will never contemplate the only possible path towards fully realising it – that being democratically organised struggle based on a socialist programme – as it would mean the removal of its positions and privileges.
To cling onto some of these elite ‘entitlements’, and in response to pressure from the Egyptian and other Arab regimes, it has tried to reconcile with Fatah, agreeing to formally give up its leadership in Gaza, but the deals haven’t stuck so far.
A poll taken early this year indicated that over 50% of people in Gaza and the West Bank don’t trust any of the current political or religious factions. In Israel, in the last general election only 16.7% voted for Netanyahu’s party Likud. The largest section of the electorate was the 27.7% who didn’t vote at all.
New, independent workers’ organisations need to be built on both sides of the divide, democratically run and controlled and able to attract support by acting in the interests of ordinary people.
The only ideological path to gaining that support is through the adoption of socialist programmes, as only a socialist solution can end the insecurity, wars, inequality, dispossession, discrimination and poor living standards that are all rife under capitalism in the Middle East today.
Our Marxist forerunners opposed the creation of the Israeli state in Palestine 70 years ago, foreseeing that it would not bring security for Jews and that it would bring suffering to the Palestinians.
However, in the decades since then, Marxists have had to recognise that an Israeli national consciousness has developed, a large majority of the population is now Israel-born and a ruling class exists with one of the strongest, heavily armed military forces at its disposal on the globe. Crucially though, we also recognise that a millions-strong Israeli working class exists with the potential power to challenge and remove their capitalist exploiters.
Opposition to Zionism, the Israeli right and Israeli capitalists is not in any way antisemitic opposition to Jewish people, or to the Israeli working class and middle class.
Our sister organisation in Israel-Palestine, Socialist Struggle Movement – like us, part of the Committee for a Workers’ International – has branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa which support the struggles of Israeli workers, Jews and Arabs, and argue the need for unity in a new workers’ party.
They actively protest against the occupation and the blockade of Gaza, supporting the right of return of the refugees, and the call for two socialist states with full rights for the minorities within them.