The Middle East: The Second Intifada Beckons

by Kevin Simpson, CWI

A brief look at developments in the Middle East over the last year show the hopes of Western imperialism that a new period of stability would open up as a result of the so-called peace settlement to be totally false.

A brief look at developments in the Middle East over the last year show that the hopes of Western imperialism that a new period of stability would open up as a result of the so-called peace settlement to be totally false. In reality, the last twelve months have seen a visible increase in tension and instability. In some cases this has led to open conflict, such as the Israeli bombing of Qana in the Lebanon, or the bombing of the US base in Saudi Arabia.

Beneath the surface other less visible processes are at work: the effects of increasing poverty and polarization of wealth across the region; the growing anger of the masses against repression and dictatorship; and their increasing search for an answer to these problems. Any examination of the daily experience of life in the Middle East hammers home the idea that capitalism as a social, political and economic system of rule is completely incapable of solving the national question in the so-called ex-colonial world. It cannot answer basic democratic aspirations, and it is unable to provide more than starvation living conditions for all but the minority.

The so-called peace settlement in the Middle East has unleashed forces which will bring these contradictions to the surface over the longer term. This will occur because the experience of the process will expose totally and utterly how completely false the idea of an imperialist brokered peace actually is. In doing so, it will also expose all those ruling elites and political forces [that] attached their fortunes to the peace process. But it will also test out those forces which oppose the “peace” deal.

In 1993, the CWI produced a statement in response to the important changes which the first stage of the peace process represented. It is important to draw up a balance sheet of how the CWI’s position stood up to the subsequent development of events. The CWI outlined how the collapse of Stalinism and the Palestinian intifada had created the conditions which led to the peace process. It explained how despite the extremely limited concessions given to the Palestinians, this was primarily a deal in the interests of Israeli Zionist capitalism. It pointed out how the Palestinian Police Force would become a weapon of repression used to keep a PLO leadership in power which lacked a social base of support. It emphasized that the fundamental problem facing Israel-Palestine – the national liberation of the Palestinian masses – could never be solved by this peace process.

The balance sheet shows that a Palestinian parliament has been elected and the IDF has withdrawn from the towns and villages across the West Bank and Gaza. The $2 billion promised by the West has mainly not been delivered and where money has been received it has made very little difference to the living conditions of the masses. In general the perspectives outlined by the CWI have been proved correct. In this case it is unfortunate because over the short term it will lead to complications in the objective situation. For the Palestinian masses the peace process has meant a worsening of economic conditions especially through the border closures, an extremely repressive PLO led regime, and the ever-present danger of raids by Israeli Defense and security forces. There is a general feeling amongst the Palestinian masses that they have been betrayed by Yasser Arafat and the PLO. For the Israeli Jewish working class, the promise of peace and security through the Oslo deal has been completely shattered by the Hamas bombings, leading to the election of a right wing Likud government.

From the very beginning the new Palestinian authority was run as a repressive semi-dictatorship. The Oslo I agreement outlined the importance of the proposed Palestinian Police Force “to guarantee public order and internal security”. After negotiation its proposed size was increased from 17,000 to 30,000. It is now estimated there are up to 50 000 personnel connected with Arafat’s security services, with over 10 different distinct arms to his security apparatus. This means there is one member of the security forces for every 50 of the population compared to Los Angeles where the figure is one to every 2000. The proliferation in security forces and the unprincipled alliances which Arafat has developed has meant that in effect the heads of the different security forces are in fact local warlords. They use “soldiers” under their command to engage in corruption and extortion on an unprecedented scale and compete among themselves for control over various sectors of the economy. Arafat’s development of an extensive security apparatus has created a certain basis of support in society through providing jobs. It gives him the ability to attempt to control and if necessary crush any determined opposition to his rule.

In terms of the recent “democratic” elections held in the self-governing authority on 20 January 1996, it was clear that Arafat manipulated and massaged the process. Before the elections he increased the number of seats from 83 to 88. He did this in order to allow him to reopen nominations since the Fatah selection meetings had chosen non-Arafat supporters to stand in the elections. He reduced the election campaign from three to two weeks. In Salfit, in the northern part of the West Bank, he sent in his security forces to intimidate the Palestinian Peoples’ Party (former Palestinian Communist Party) so that they did not stand in the election.

As well as the generalized feeling of betrayal there is a growing realization especially amongst the more conscious activists and also growing layers of the masses that the repression of the Israelis has been replaced by that of the PLO and their hired thugs. This is linked to a growing consciousness that the PLO are acting as the agents of the Israeli state. As one Palestinian, recently released after 17 years in an Israeli prison, said in an interview to the British Guardian (6 July 1996): “I never imagined there would be a time when people started saying that the occupation was better. But it is one thing to be imprisoned, beaten, or robbed by your enemy. It is far more demoralizing to suffer the same from your liberators”.

In response to the first stage of the Oslo peace settlement (the withdrawal from parts of Gaza and Jericho) there was widespread jubilation. There was no such response to the second part of the process. Israeli Police Minister Shahal explained this by saying: “If Oslo I gave the Palestinians everything they wanted but the settlements, then Oslo II reversed what had been agreed upon and has kept everything in the Israeli hands but the Palestinian cities”. This is not correct. The difference in attitude of the Palestinians results from a realization that the agreement actually meant a complete betrayal. This consciousness developed between the two stages of the agreement. In effect this consciousness is best articulated in the following way: “What is the point of having your own land if it is a prison compound surrounded by barbed wire. What is the point of electing your own representative if he is under the direct orders of the prison commander”. This is not an exaggeration since there is a clear evidence of a hand in glove relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli security services.

In a closed session of the Israeli Knesset (parliament), the head of the security services explained how information from the Palestinian Authority had led to 70 attacks against Israel by Islamic fundamentalists being foiled. The direct relationship between Arafat and the Israeli government was shown even more clearly after the Hamas bombings. Arafat responded by saying: “I condemn these operations completely. They are terrorist operations”. The Peres government handed Arafat a list of 15 wanted Hamas members. 900 Palestinians were arrested at the end of Palestinian security force operations. After the Hamas bombings, the IDF raided Bir Zeit University supposedly part of Palestine, arresting 200 students. Before the operation, the Israeli Liaison officer to the Palestinian Authority told the Palestinian security forces to “stand aside”. This was followed by a raid on al-Najah University – this time by Palestinian security forces. As a result of these actions there are growing signs of open opposition to Arafat. A layer of Fatah members stood as independent candidates for the Palestinian assembly. The leader of the Fatah faction at Bir Zeit University stood as an independent candidate in the Students Representative Council elections. A mass demonstration against Palestinian security forces repression at al-Najah University took place organized by non-Hamas forces where Arafat was shouted down by demonstrators in June.

While the worlds’ press portrays opposition to Arafat as Hamas led, events will prove it to be much more complex than that. However, the Hamas bombings in February and March do raise the question: will the mass of the population go over to Hamas? This depends on its ability to provide an alternative strategy and program to the PLO. It also depends on the cohesion of Hamas. Arafat tried a mixture of concessions and repression to split Hamas. In the period before and after the Hamas bombings some progress was made with this strategy. The PLO leadership attempted to co-opt the more moderate wing of Hamas, based in Gaza, with offers of positions in the Palestinian Authority as well as extra funds for their welfare programs. This demonstrates growing splits and tensions within Hamas. These exist between Hamas as a whole and their military wing – the Qassam brigades. Also there are divisions within Qassam itself. This was evidenced by contradictory communiqués issued by Qassam during and after the bombings.

The split within Hamas has occurred because of two main trends of opinion in this organization. The first, mainly made up of those in the leadership see statements about the armed struggle as increasingly just radical rhetoric. Far more important for them are the jobs, prestige, and power offered by an accommodation with the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat. The second trend with most of its support amongst the rank and file, and especially amongst the Qassam brigade activists, are composed of those layers who have been driven into the armed struggle by decades of repression by the Israeli state. They are enraged by the by the betrayal of Yasser Arafat and under present conditions see that the only way out is to strike at the heart of the Israeli Jewish population.

This division will continue and could be become formalized after a period depending on the direction in which the two main trends will travel and the different pressures they will face.

The support for Hamas amongst layers of the youth will continue to be a feature of the situation in the absence of a genuine revolutionary alternative. Support for Hamas does not mean membership of the organization; neither agreement with all their policies: amongst many Palestinians it represents an identification with and espousal of the anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist rhetoric of these groups.

The next period could see dissidents from Fatah forming a completely different organization in opposition to Arafat. This could merge or form alliances with opposition elements within Hamas. Such formations may get limited support from the Palestinian masses as they test them out as an alternative.

The realization of the betrayal implicit in the Oslo agreement will lay the basis for a new and more bloody second intifada. An unnamed US diplomat quoted in the British Guardian commented: “Arafat risks hanging by his own rope. Either the Israelis will remove him when his time is up through the lobby he has let them acquire in the security services, or the whole lot will join the people in the next intifada against both him and the Israelis”.

This second intifada will take more time to develop. CWI members did underestimate somewhat the extent of the demoralization which would occur amongst activists as a result of the betrayal of Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership at the beginning of the negotiations . Also the accumulated tiredness (both physical and political) of the activists at the barriers facing the further development of the Intifada acted as a break on sustained struggle in the period following the negotiations. However, the widespread demoralization of the activists at the extent of the betrayal encompassed in the Oslo agreement represents the first step towards the complete breaking of illusions in the peace talks that existed amongst sections of the masses at the start of the negotiations. This demoralization will be replaced by anger, and a return to the scene of struggle by the masses.

However, this intifada will not develop in the same way as the first one, which spread through the occupied territories like wildfire engulfing the area in semi-insurrection. Sections of the population are still affected by the tiredness which characterized the movement prior to the start of negotiations. There is still the residue of faint hopes that negotiations may lead to a “better, fairer peace”. Also the present opposition groups have not succeeded in attracting widespread support, partially because of the limitations of their program and tactics.

In the previous intifada the Palestinian masses were faced with a clearly identifiable and universally hated enemy, the Israeli Zionist capitalist state. Once the first blow was struck, decades of internalized hatred exploded, and the intifada spread like wildfire.

This time the masses are faced with a so-called liberator turned enemy in the form of the PLO leadership which uses a brutal repressive security apparatus in the name of the self-governing authority (together with back up from the Israeli security services) to remain in power. The Palestinian masses are also faced with the repressive might of the Israeli state as well. This has posed new problems for the activists (and through them the masses) as far as confidence, strategy and tactics are concerned.

Therefore, the second intifada will begin as a series of engagements between the masses and the forces ranged in opposition to them, characterized by explosions of anger and testing out those organizations that oppose Arafat and the PLO leadership as well as leading to the formation of new ones. Overtime it will assume the same levels of mass insurrections as it did in the last intifada. This perspective of a return to mass insurgency by the majority of the population is the one that terrifies imperialism, the reactionary Arab ruling elites and Israeli Zionist capitalism, the most.

The period since the signing of the initial accord has seen important developments as far as the Israeli population is concerned. Instability and polarization has increased both within the Israeli Jewish population and between them and Israeli Palestinians.

For the Israeli Jewish population it has been a period of huge shocks to their psychology. Historically, Israeli Jewish society was characterized by its surface cohesiveness, and an apparent lack of class division. However, this was never a “natural” cohesion where basic class contradictions had been overcome. The surface stability arose out of the relatively high living standards and social welfare system provided by massive state intervention, which is in the process of being massively cut back. But different classes in Israeli Jewish society were forced together by the perceived external threat of the surrounding Arab countries. This cohesion was maintained on the basis of constant promises of peace and security, bolstered by the perception of the existence of a highly trained, armed, and motivated army and security forces which could deal with any threat.

More recently this has been severely undermined. In the Gulf war scud missiles landed in cities like Tel Aviv, something which had not happened in five previous wars since 1948. The illusion of peace and security was given a further battering by the shooting of Rabin. This feeling was given a further twist since the assassin was an Israeli Jew, and was therefore concrete evidence that Israeli Jewish society was deeply polarized and divided.

However, it was during the Hamas bombing campaign that the biggest fears amongst Israeli Jews have developed. A feeling of panic developed which had as its central core the idea that whatever security measures were developed the bombings could not be stopped and that Israeli Jews were no longer safe anywhere. It was because of these fears that Likud won the elections for Prime Minister and won the majority in Parliament, in the general election in May of this year.

After Rabin’s murder, Peres, the Labour leader, was ahead in opinion polls by 40%. Partially a reaction to the murder of Rabin, there was a feeling that Peres and Labour were the best guarantors [of] peace, while Likud was seen as encouraging right wing extremism, which would lead to further conflict. Even the Israeli ruling class was terrified at the thought of a Likud election victory: “The stock market wants a Labour victory because of the peace process” explained Gad Hacker, senior analyst in Batucha securities. However, this mood evaporated during the Hamas bombing campaign, especially amongst large sections of Israeli Jews.

The victory of Likud was portrayed as a massive move to the right in Israelis society. Whilst there was a certain move in this direction, this was not a qualitative change. However, in contrast to the last election, Likud was able to put together a coalition of at least six right wing parties. One of the changes to have an effect was that during the previous election the Russian immigrants in general voted for Peres, but in these elections they had their own party which linked up with Likud in return for government portfolios. There was also a change in voting patterns of Israeli Palestinians. While the vast majority of Israeli Palestinians voted for Peres (as opposed to Netanyahu) for Prime Minister, larger sections of [the population], especially youth, voted for the Israeli Communist Party electoral alliance. Traditionally Israeli Palestinians have been bought by the Labour Party. This swing behind the CP represents an increased radicalization amongst this section of the Israeli population.

The election promises of Likud for deregulation and attack on the state industrial bureaucracy open up a period of conflict in Israeli society. Likud promised the privatization of the majority of state owned industry, and has plans for £1 billion in state spending cuts despite putting forward general rhetoric during the elections about reducing poverty.

These plans of the Likud government take place against a background of an economy which has seen 6 years of boom with an average growth rate of 6% per annum and an increase in foreign investment by a factor of twenty over that period. Its gross domestic product now puts it in the league of developed countries. But Israel has become a country of enormous wealth polarization in this time. The top three income categories have received 70% of the wealth generated during the period of the boom. In the same period the number of Israeli Jews living below the poverty line has increased to over 1 million.

What has been the basis of this unusual economic growth? Undoubtedly the main reason has been the peace settlement and the period of relative stability which it seemed to open up. This led to an inflow of foreign investment, with many international companies preparing the way to use Israel with its relatively developed financial and manufacturing infrastructure as a springboard into the rest of the Middle East. Also the Israeli economy is a small one by world standards and relatively small amounts of investment have had quite a marked effect. Other important factors are that Israel has a highly skilled workforce with investment into “niche” industries. It also has the third highest spending on research and development and the highest number of engineers and scientists per head of population in the world.

Despite these advantages there are worrying signs on the horizon. There are growing inflationary pressures in the economy. The faltering peace settlement will have a major effect on the extremely volatile nature of foreign investment and could lead to an outflow of such funds if negotiations break down for any significant period of time.

The lack of confidence of foreign investors in the near future will be accentuated by the social instability in Israeli Jewish society. The recent general strike called by the Histadruth leadership in July against job losses caused by privatization was the result of enormous pressure from below. Once the Histadruth bureaucracy (who rely for their jobs on the state sector) are convinced that they will have posts in the new companies, then they will join the government in pushing ahead with privatization. This will be met with a fierce reaction, the outlines of which were shown in the recent general strike where a clear class-consciousness crystallized amongst Jewish workers. The neo-liberal measures which are proposed by the Likud government will have longer term consequences in undermining the stability and cohesion of the Israeli Zionist state.

This Likud government will represent important changes in other ways as well. In a sense it represents a change of generations from previous bourgeois political leaders in Israel. Leaders like Rabin, Peres, and Begin were seen as nation builders with a certain vision, whereas Netanyahu represents a newer younger type with a short term view which is much more concerned in the amassing of money and power in as short a time as possible whatever the consequences.

It is likely that this government will be remembered as one of tensions and instability amongst Israeli Jews. There will be increased frictions between the ultra-religious parties in the coalition and the more secular Russian immigrants’ party. This will be against the background of wider frictions within Israeli Jewish society coming to the surface. There has recently been the movement by Ethiopian Jews against discrimination. This arose from press leaks that the blood transfusion service refused to use blood donated by Ethiopians because of fears of aids. If the cuts in state spending bite deeply and coincide with a downturn in the economy, there could be a flare up of protest from Sephardic Jews (who are in the main working class Jews with origins in the Middle East).

Whilst these developments will indicate a sharpening of the class divide in Israeli Jewish society, there will not be a simple linear development of consciousness amongst the Israeli Jewish working class. The national question stands as a major obstacle in the way of this development. There may even be a tendency for protest at worsening social conditions to be reflected by increased support for right wing ideas in the first place.

The increasing social, economic, and political crisis could lead to the collapse of the Likud government coalition and the formation of an “emergency government of National unity” made up of Likud and Labour.

There has been a debate amongst activists in the Middle East about whether the Likud government represents a qualitative difference from the previous Labour administration in terms of the repression of the Palestinian masses. In terms of the brutality of the oppression faced by the Palestinian masses there is no qualitative difference between Likud and Labour. The “Grapes of Wrath” military operation by Israeli Defense Forces in the Lebanon was sanctioned by the Peres government. In terms of the brutality meted out to the inhabitants of Qana in the Lebanon by the IDF there was little difference to the massacre that occurred at Sabra and Chatilla during the Lebanon war, except this time Israeli soldiers were directly involved. The previous Labour government was responsible for the internal curfew of Palestinian towns and villages in the former occupied territories which lasted for an unprecedented 11 days solid (following the Hamas bombing campaign). This resulted in cases of severe malnutrition in these areas as well as the deaths of Palestinians who needed hospital treatment but were barred from leaving their places of residence by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Despite Likud’s reactionary rhetoric during the election campaign Netanyahu will be forced back to the negotiating table with Arafat especially after the US elections. There cannot be a return to the previous situation in the Occupied Territories without this area being invaded and occupied by the Israeli Defense Force.

Even though there may be no qualitative difference between Likud and Labour in terms of the repression of the Palestinians, a different set of events could unfold than previously thought. This is not because of radically different policies undertaken by Likud (as opposed to Labour) but because of the actions of extremely reactionary forces associated with the government and also the effect of Likud’s reactionary propaganda during the elections on sections of the population. Flash points are likely to be around the question of withdrawal of IDF troops from Hebron, and the issue of Jewish settlements in and around Jerusalem. This could lead to a sharp increase in tension.

Whatever the exact course of events the most important thing to understand is that a generalized consciousness will developed over the next period that this peace settlement was not an agreement for the majority but for the leaders in the region. This will lay the basis for an increase in tension and a return to mass struggle with accompanied rise in violence and instability.

It will be events like these that will have an effect on the balance of power in the region and the relations between different regimes in the Middle East. The changes in the balance of forces in the Middle East since the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 and especially the Gulf War will have a tendency to lead to new developments in the region in the future.

Prior to 1989 a more rigid framework of power relations existed in the region. This not to say that there weren’t wars and conflict but generally different regimes in the region were aligned with US imperialism or the Soviet Union. Now the situation is much more fluid.. An example of this is the new US brokered pact between Israel and Turkey at the beginning of this year which while covering military and economic issues, is basically an alliance against Syria’s military capabilities, its demand for increased water supplies, and its continued support for the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party). New alliances are developing which rather than stabilizing the situation will destabilize it even further.

Despite the new Islamic dominated Refah government in Turkey, the persecution of the Kurds in Turkey will continue. The Turkish military and ruling class cannot accept any deal which involves genuine self-determination. However, they will learn, just as the Israeli ruling class has done, that the oppression of any national minority has a tendency over the longer term to tear away at the social fabric of society. The struggle of the Kurdish masses also provides a graphic demonstration of the fact that borders artificially drawn by imperialism decades ago will not stop the struggle for national liberation. The existence of an oppressed Kurdish population in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey will mean increased elements of instability in the region.

Islamic Fundamentalism will also play an important role in developments in the region. There are uneven processes as far as this phenomenon is concerned. In some countries Islamic fundamentalism is growing as a force and in others it is subsiding. In countries like Iran, there have been major protest movements against the regime with food riots against price rises and important strikes in the major urban areas. These represent a rejection of Islamic Fundamentalism. In Sudan, the Islamic government, although mouthing anti-imperialist rhetoric has conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing of the tribal peoples of southern Sudan. The extent of social and economic collapse in Sudan has led to the National Democratic movement (a liberal bourgeois organization) joining the opposition groups in the South of the country, who are calling for the armed overthrow of the present regime.

In Algeria there has been a general undermining of support for the FIS as the masses have become increasingly weary of the civil war. The bombing attacks by armed Islamic Fundamentalist groups, many of which have killed innocent civilians as well as leading to increased repression on wider sections of the population by the state security services.

In the Gulf States especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain there have been important signs of increasing discontent and division. This has taken the form of bombing attacks by “radical” Islamic Fundamentalist groups, some of which have support in the armed forces of these countries.

In the Middle East the contradictory nature of Islamic Fundamentalism is shown. The foundation of this ideology is reactionary – however, in some countries it has gained support where it was perceived as a movement that provides jobs, welfare provision, and education. But more importantly its strident anti-imperialist rhetoric has led to a growth in its support amongst the most deprived sections of society, especially the youth. This is especially the case where there is no alternative pole of attraction for these layers.

The Middle East faces a new, stormier period. The situation is complicated by the lack of a mass revolutionary alternative for the masses and working class of the region, the growth of Islamic Fundamentalism, and the difficulties created by the national question.

The national question poses the greatest challenge of all political issues facing Marxists in the modern world in terms of tactics, strategy, and program. While the CWI has only toeholds of support across the Middle East and Mahgreb, it is the concrete experience of its work in this area which will lay the basis of clarifying these issues as the foundation of building a mass basis for the ideas of revolution and socialism.

Postscript to Middle East

Over the last two months the entire negotiations process has stalled. Violence has flared across the former Occupied Territories with the beginnings of a second intifada in September and October. Much of the western bourgeois press has raised the possibility of a new war in the Middle East, because of the intransigence of the Likud government. While there are likely to be flare-ups of intense conflict between the Israeli state and the Palestinian masses, a full blown military confrontation between Israel and one or more of the Arab nations is unlikely over the short term. Following the US elections, the Clinton administration is likely to exert extreme pressure on the Netanyahu government in an attempt to prevent that the situation degenerates no further.