Chris Harman


Hizbollah and the war Israel lost

(Autumn 2006)

From International Socialism (2nd series), No.112, Autumn 2006. [1]
Copyright © International Socialism.
Downloaded with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

For the first time, the Israel Defence Forces were unable to prevail in an all-out war.

Olivier Roy, Financial Times

What is new – and dramatically so – about this campaign is its outcome. Arabs soon dubbed this the sixth Arab-Israeli war, and for some of them – and indeed for some Israelis – it already ranks, in its strategic, psychological and political consequences, as perhaps the most significant since Israel’s ‘war of independence’ in 1948 ... A small band of irregulars kept at bay one of the world’s most powerful armies for over a month, and inflicted remarkable losses on it.

David Hirst, the Guardian’s veteran Middle East correspondent

Israeli military authorities talked of ‘cleaning’ and ‘mopping up’ operations by their soldiers south of the Litany river but, to the Lebanese, it seems as if it is the Hizbollah that have been doing the ‘mopping up’. By last night, the Israelis had not even been able to reach the dead crew of a helicopter – shot down on Saturday night – which crashed into a Lebanese valley.

Robert Fisk, of the Independent, on the last day of the war

Hizbollah could not inflict a major military defeat on Israel, a possibility that was always excluded by the utterly disproportionate balance of forces in the same way that it was impossible for the Vietnamese resistance to inflict a major military defeat on the US; but neither could Israel inflict any defeat on Hizbollah. In this sense, Hizbollah is undoubtedly the real political victor and Israel the real loser in the 33-day war.

Gilbert Achcar, Lebanese Marxist living in France

Hizbollah has remained as it was. It has not been destroyed, nor disarmed, nor even removed from where it was. Its fighters have proved themselves in battle and have even garnered compliments from Israeli soldiers ... In Israel, there is now a general atmosphere of disappointment and despondency.

Uri Avnery, Israeli writer

The same conclusion came from all sides after the summer’s 33-day war of Israel against Hizbollah and Lebanon. What began as a long planned Israeli attack aimed at destroying Hizbollah ended in a humiliation for Israel.

This outcome was not only a shock to the Israeli military. It was also a devastating blow to George Bush and his junior partner Tony Blair in their attempt to rescue US global hegemony from the debacle of their Iraq adventure. The US administration gave at least a nod and a wink to the Israeli military and may well have been involved in planning the onslaught unleashed on 12 July, as US journalist Seymour Hersh has claimed. [2] Their aim was simple. The Israelis were to deal a devastating blow to Iranian influence in Lebanon – and hopefully to Iranian influence over the Shias in Iraq – as part of the offensive against Iran itself.

As Charles Krauthammer put it in the Washington Post:

“The defeat of Hizbollah would be a huge loss for Iran, both psychologically and strategically. Iran would lose its foothold in Lebanon. It would lose its major means to destabilise and inject itself into the heart of the Middle East. It would be shown to have vastly overreached in trying to establish itself as the regional superpower.” [3]

The assumption of the Israeli and American governments was that victory would be easy.

Hani Shukrallah (managing editor of the influential Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly) has spelt out how they saw it:

“Hizbollah’s head seemed ‘ripe for the picking’. A year before, a great section of the Lebanese people had risen up in rebellion against Syria’s political and military sway over their country ... Washington had found a willing, if uncommon ally in Paris, the erstwhile ‘old Europe’s’ supreme representative ... The Arab regimes had reasons of their own for wishing Hizbollah to simply go away ... muttering darkly about the growing threat of a ‘Shiite arc’ in their midst ... So confident were the Americans and Israelis of the success of this strategy, they initially gave it a week to work”. [4]

But things turned out very differently:

“Week one passed into week two, into week three, Lebanon did not fracture ... Seventeen days after the start of the Israeli attack on Lebanon, Israel was withdrawing its elite Golani Brigade from the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, which they had claimed to have taken a week earlier”. [5]

What was meant to be a great military and poltical advance for Israel and the US turned into its opposite:

“Everybody was changing their tune. The Israelis, who initially had spoken of crushing Hizbollah, were now talking of keeping Hizbollah’s rockets out of range of northern Israeli towns. US state secretary Condoleezza Rice, who had been literally sticking her tongue out at world public opinion as Washington continued to veto a ceasefire call a mere week before, was heading back to the region and speaking of the ‘great sacrifices’ both sides had to make. The Europeans, who had been happy to look the other way, mumbling about ‘disproportionate’ response, were now ... willing to actually come out in condemnation of Israel’s brutality and slaughter of civilians ... And the ‘Arab friends’ were in a fix – yet again. Faced with the intensifying rage of their peoples, they were now scrambling over each other in their rush to find suitably heated and flowery rhetoric with which to express their condemnation of Israel”. [6]

There could hardly be a greater contrast with previous Arab-Israeli wars. They saw very quick victories for the Israeli armies, the Arab armies very quickly suing for peace. The 1967 war was the most graphic example, with the Israeli force smashing three Arab armies in six days, taking control of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights (which they still hold 39 years later) and the Sinai Peninsula (which they returned to Egypt after the peace treaty of 1977).

For a whole generation of Arab nationalists the 1967 defeat was the death of their project of achieving independence from imperialism and liberating Palestine. Now it is an Arab army which has been victorious. [7] The consequences for the Middle East as a whole can be immense.

Behind the Hizbollah victory

There were two main reasons for the ease of past Israeli victories, besides the general superiority of their armaments (because of massive US military aid since the early 1950s) [8]:

Things were different on both sides in this summer’s war.

This has enabled Hizbollah to combine ‘a guerrilla force’s decentralised flexibility and a national military’s sophistication, fielding weapons like the C-802 Noor radar-guided anti-ship missile (an Iranian-made knockoff of the Chinese “Silkworm” C-802) that struck an Israeli warship on 14 July’. [11]

While an Arab force has finally emerged with these characteristics, the Israeli army has lost some of its old winning points. The early settler society, with its commitment to creating a new society on another people’s land, has given way to one dominated by second and third generations who have not experienced any sense of threat to their own well-being for four decades. The new settlers (like the million Russians, many of whom have only dubious claims to be Jewish [12]) come to enjoy the benefits of this established society, not to fight to build it. They have been conscripted to take part in the occupation of the West Bank. But that has involved bombarding civilians from the security of fortified posts and heavily armoured tanks, not real fighting.

The former Israeli minister Yossi Sarid has argued:

“The IDF was not properly prepared for this new war in Lebanon ... Instead of functioning and preparing like an army, the IDF has been deployed and has been behaving like a foreign legion or quasi-police force ... The young soldiers and officers were told during the intifada years that they were at war ... But any similarity between the fighting in the territories and war is vague at best ... Attempts to apprehend wanted terrorists by surrounding a house – that is not war; targeted assassination – that is not war; raiding factories – that is not war; even the siege placed on Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah is not a military campaign about which books will be written. Almost everything that happens in the occupied territories, from the day the IDF occupied them, has really only been a deluxe form of war”. [13]

The result was that after failing to subdue Hizbollah by creating terror through aerial bombardment of civilian targets the Israeli forces pushed into Lebanon with their tanks – and their soldiers found themselves sitting targets for the Hizbollah anti-tank guns. From working with the US and Britain to avoid at all costs a UN call for a ceasefire in the first days of the war, Israel ended up a month later heaving a sigh of relief at the US-French agreement to push for UN resolution 1701 with its promise of an international force to try to do what the Israelis had failed to do – stop Hizbollah activity in the area between the Israeli border and the Litany river.

The reasons for Hizbollah’s success

An account of Hizbollah by one of its members explains its greater military successes compared with previous Arab resistance to Israel as based on two things: ‘the fighters’ belief in the cause’ [14] and stress within Hizbollah of not getting ‘trapped’ by ‘subordination’ to politics of regimes. [15]

But it was not just because they were run by governments that previous Arab armies were so unsuccessful in resisting Israeli aggression. It was that the governments and their armies reflected the class character of the societies. The armies which fought so unsuccessfully in 1948 were those of regimes representing the interests of the old ‘feudal’ landowning classes and imposed by the Western colonial powers – with the most effective army, that of Jordan, getting its orders from British officers (see Anne Alexander’s article later in this issue). The divergent interests between the different ruling classes meant there was no strategic or military coordination and the war was as much a scramble between them to grab Palestinian land for themselves as a battle against the Israelis.

By the time of the 1967 war revolutionary movements and military coups had replaced these regimes with ones who were verbally committed to Arab nationalism, with talk of a single Arab nation ‘from the Atlantic to the Gulf’ standing in the interests of the mass of the population. There had been substantial reform, with a break up of the big landed estates and nationalisation of much industry. But it was reform in the interests of the class from which the army officers who oversaw it came – a section of the middle class who aspired to upward mobility by using the state to advance its own interests. This was reflected in the behaviour of the bulk of the officer corps itself, which showed little more dedication, courage or competence than in 1948. And however much they used rhetoric about ‘the Arab nation’, their priorities lay with their own class interests, bound up as they were with the advance of their own particular state and not with a united, coordinated struggle against Israel. This was reflected in strategic and tactical ineptness, and an unwillingness to draw the Israeli army into forms of guerrilla struggle that might damage their own material interests.

Writing immediately after the 1967 defeat, Tony Cliff contrasted the disastrous approach of the most significant of the Arab nationalist regimes, Nasser’s in Egypt, with that used by the National Liberation Front against the US in Vietnam:

The strength of any anti-imperialist liberation movement is in the masses of workers and peasants mobilised, in their self-activity on the one hand, and the correct choice of the weakest link in the imperialist chain on the other. Hence the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam is absolutely right in relying on mass guerrilla bands and armies, and harassing the US army and its hangers-on. The potential strength of the Arab anti-imperialist movement lies in the mass of workers and peasants. The targets of attack should be the oilfields, the oil pipelines and refineries. The peasants should carry out revolutionary land reform, thus creating the base for a guerilla war. Nasser’s military confrontation with Israel is exactly the opposite of the policy and tactics of the NLF. [16]

The Arab nationalist regimes as class regimes tied into capitalism were incapable of the sort of warfare needed to defeat Israel and its imperialist backers. And once they had failed to defeat Israel a third time in the 1973 ‘Yom Kippur War’, despite some initial successes, they drew the logic and one after another did deals with imperialism and even, in the case of Nasser’s successors in Egypt, with Israel.

Hizbollah’s record has been different, not because it is not a state, but because it originated out of an organisation of struggle from below.

The Shias of Lebanon were historically the most opprssed section of the country’s people. This did not mean they were all peasants or workers. There was always a handful of very wealthy families, and a layer of shopkeepers, traders and middle class professionals. But a much greater proportion of the Shias belonged to the lower classes than was the case with the country’s other religious groups – they were ‘over-represented among working classes in the under-developed sectors of industry and agriculture’. [17] Even the middle classes were squeezed by the state structure bequeathed by French imperialism, which divided political power between the leaders of the Maronite Christians, the Sunni Muslims and the Druze. At the time of independence from the French 40 percent of the highest posts in the civil service were Maronite, 27 percent Sunni, only 3.2 percent Shia [18], and such discrimination remained fundamentally in place, though in less blatant proportions, until the Taif agreement that ended the country’s civil war in 1989.

Two things interacted to give rise to Hizbollah as a movement. The first was the way the Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought to power a regime led by Shia clerics. Some of the Shia clergy in Lebanon had close educational and family ties to the victors in Iran and were inspired by their ideology of overcoming oppression and poverty through the creation of an Islamic ‘community’ that united rich and poor, doing away with the greed and atomisation resulting from ‘Western influences’. They sought to bring about change by combining religious preaching with the establishment of ‘a socio-political movement with the primary mission of alleviating poverty’, especially in South Lebanon, the Eastern Beka, and ‘boroughs of misery around Beirut’. [19]

The second was the Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 aimed at smashing the Palestinians. It soon became clear that the local Lebanese population, mainly Shia in composition, was bearing the brunt of the Israeli occupation. The radical Shia clergy began working in the Beka valley with a big detachment of Revolutionary Guards from Iran to create a guerrilla organisation capable of putting up resistance to the Israeli occupation. The training was not just military. It involved a very high religious content, aimed at creating an intense dedication to the struggle. As one account puts it:

Hizbollah’s fighters have to undergo the greater jihad, that is, spiritual religious transformation, if they are to master the smaller jihad, that is, armed struggle that requires martyrdom. By overcoming one’s self and earthly desires, through acceptance of the virtues of martyrdom, Hizbollah’s fighters have been able to evoke fear and alarm among their enemies. [20]

A willingness to accept martyrdom was seen as essential to the struggle – ‘the power imbalance’ caused by the much greater armoury available to Israelis ‘could only be equalised through martyrdom’. [21] And a very deep Shia religious commitment was necessary to establish the required frame of mind. But suicide attacks were by no means the usual predominant form of struggle.

‘Priority is with methods that do not necessitate martyrdom ... Only twelve operations executed with car bombs were recorded.’ Most martyrdom was through ‘atypical’ operations where death was ‘an expected result’. [22]

The key to Hizbollah’s strategy against the Israeli army’s occupation of South Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 was to hit the enemy unexpectedly and not to engage in supposedly heroic but in reality disastrous fights on the enemy’s terms. In this way, the number of operations grew from 100 in 1985-89 to 1,030 in 1990-95 to 4,928 in 1996-2000 [23], when the disarray in which the Israeli forces finally withdrew gave an enormous boost to Hizbollah’s popularity. Sources say that three years ago Hizbollah had ‘20,000 fighters and 5,000 security personnel’. [24]

Such has been its popularity, that it has had non-Shias wanting to join in its resistance activities, and has set up special guerrilla units for them – although it ensures that overall control is in the hands of the ‘devout’. According to Hamzeh, Hizbollah’s Islamic Current includes Sunni groups that coordinate their activities with Hizbollah, plus Lebanese Resistance Brigades that include Islamists and non-Islamists. [25] In the 33-day war it also coordinated its activities with independent resistance groups, for instance those run by the Lebanese Communist Party.

If Hizbollah did not begin just as a military organisation, it is much more than that today. Its welfare network of clinics, hospital, schools, community and educational scholarships has expanded massively, until according to some accounts it is greater than that of the Lebanese state in the southern suburbs of Beirut, in the Beka valley and in southern Lebanon. [26] Its medical units, for instance, are said to deal with half a million people a year. And in order to solidify support, it has branched out from providing services to Shias to also cater for some Sunnis, Christians and Druze in its localities.

It runs a fully equipped TV channel, al-Manar, which ‘has a corporate atmosphere with several hundred employees’ [27] and its ‘syndicate unit has representatives in the Lebanese Labour Federation, the Lebanese trade unions, the Lebanese Farmers’ Union, the Lebanese University Faculty Association, the Engineers Syndicate Association, and the Lebanese University Student Association’. [28]

It is this network of popular activities and organisations that explains the degree of popular support it has built up and which enabled it to operate under the very turrets of the Israeli tanks. The network has also enabled it to insert itself into the very centre of Lebanon’s public institutions, with influence over local authorities, MPs and, since last year, two members of the cabinet.

Yet this involves it in two different sorts of compromises.

The first are with its religious basis. The Shias are a minority in Lebanese society, although today the biggest single minority, and there are other political forces among the Shias besides Hizbollah. In order to build the influence of their organisation in such a situation – and to avoid plunging the country into another sectarian civil war – the Hizbollah leadership have effectively dropped the demand for a Shia Islamic state on which they were originally founded under Khomeini’s influence. [29]

The Hizbollah historian of the organisation, Qassem, quotes the Quran as opposing compulsion in religion and argues that, therefore, ‘the creation of an Islamic state is not a function of adoption by one group or branch and a subsequent imposition on other groups’. Hizbollah, he writes, calls for ‘implementation of the Islamic system based on direct and free choice by the people and not through forceful imposition ...’ and that ‘We believe that our political experience in Lebanon has proved a pattern that is harmonious with an Islamic vision within a mixed society – a country not following an Islamic mode of thinking’. [30] In municipal elections Hizbollah placed great emphasise on economic and social issues and ‘introduced its candidates on a non-sectarian basis, emphasising honesty and seriousness in municipal work’. [31]

This does not mean that Hizbollah has transformed itself into a free thinking liberal organisation. In the past it has used its weapons to deal with those who opposed it – in the early 1980s against some Communist resistance fighters and against its Shia rival Amal (although many Communist activists joined its ranks soon after and today it collaborates both with the Communist Party and Amal), and its leaders are still committed to a religious vision and do their best to get acceptance of their notions (like the veiling of women) in the areas they control. They attempt to administer them using their version of the sharia (which puts enormous stress on the role of Islamic judges in mediating conflicts in order to break old vendetta traditions between families). [32] But the fact that its leaders reach out to non-Shias, and even non-religious forces in order to confront the ‘Great Satan’ of the United States and the ‘little Satan’ of Israel is an element in contradiction to the narrow religious standpoint from which they started, and has been one of the factors behind past splits within the Hizbollah leadership. [33] It is a contradiction that will grow greater in so far as the non-Shia and non-Muslim resistance to imperialism internationally grows.

However, this contradiction is interwoven with compromises of a different order – towards the Lebanese state, the country’s other political parties, including those aligned with imperialism, and the other Arab states. The Lebanese political system rests upon deals in which political leaders within each religious group do deals with the leaders of other groups in order to get their hands on sufficient state patronage to maintain the allegiance of their followers. In such a system there can be enormous conflict between different parties, including armed conflict, without the essentials of the political and economic system ever being brought into question. After denouncing this system in its early days Hizbollah has chosen to join it. This has meant electoral agreements not only with the anti-imperialist left, but also with the pro-imperialist right. In elections it had joint lists with the Communist Party in Nabatiyyah and Tyre – but in Beirut joined a list formed by Saad Hariri, the Saudi-connected billionaire son of the assassinated prime minister Rafic Hariri. It justified the deal with ideological and political opponents ‘so as to maintain sectarian balance’. [34] The most recent deals have been with the Maronite general and prime minister in the last phase of the civil war in the 1980s, Michel Aoun.

It is claimed that such deals protected Hizbollah a little during the confrontation with Israel. Aoun, in order to advance his own presidential ambitions after 15 years of exile, did provide some support for Hizbollah, for instance, organising the hosting of thousands of refugees in Christian villages in Mount Lebanon. But the pro-Western Hariri bloc that dominates the government placed its hopes in Israel smashing Hizbollah so that it itself could take control of the south of the country. [35] Hizbollah’s real protection came from its wide social base and its fighting ability – if that had flagged at any point, most of the ‘allies’ would have put the knife in its back on behalf of their friends in Washington, Paris or Riyadh. What those deals certainly do is constrain its ability to act.

It used to vote no to Rafic Hariri’s budgets because it said he saw Lebanese cabinets as acting as ‘boards of directors’ – with Hariri treating the country as one of his businesses. [36] By joining the government last year, it opted to accept that way of running things. This must weaken its ability to deliver the improvements in conditions of the poor that it has built its base on and to undercut the hold which the various sectarian politicians exercise over their followers. Hizbollah may be able to deliver certain welfare services through its own charitable networks. But they cannot be a substitute for the sorts of services which should be and could be provided by the state if it were not for its entanglement in neo-liberal capitalism.

Such political deals also cut Hizbollah’s capacity to wage the struggle against imperialism and capitalism as it might like. In the closing stages of the 33-day war there was enormous pressure on Hizbollah to sign the final truce agreement, to which it eventually conceded. But this left Israeli forces in Lebanon, an Israeli blockade intact, and provided for the entry into the country of forces from France – even though the French government had agreed with the US that Hizbollah should be disarmed. The Hizbollah leader Nasrallah explained, ‘We face the reasonable and possible natural results of the great steadfastness that the Lebanese expressed from their various positions’. [37]

The pro-American government was ‘in danger of collapse’ when its hopes in a quick Israeli victory fell apart. Its ‘very survival was down to Hizbollah. The party sees no alternative to “broad consensus”.’ Yet since the Hizbollah victory ‘the Sinhora government has been working hard to block and undermine the rebuilding effort while accepting US money ... The most recent example is the government veto on aid payments to those made unemployed by the war – a measure proposed by the minister of labour, Hizbollah’s representative in the government’. [38]

It is not only domestic compromises that are involved. Hizbollah has long relied on its alliance with Syria. Naim Qassem, reflecting official Hizbollah thinking, argues that ‘it is only natural that Hizbollah’s views coincide with those of Syria, for no one is safe from Israel’s ambitions’; that it believes in ‘the existence of strategic Syrian-Iranian relations’ since the Islamic revolution, and that ‘the relationship with Syria’ is ‘the cornerstone for facing major regional obligations’. [39] But the Syrian regime is certainly not motivated by any anti-imperialist – or even anti-Zionist – principles. It willingly worked to help the US at the time of the first US war against Iraq. Before that, in 1976, it intervened in Lebanon in order to prevent the alliance of the left and the Palestinians achieving victory in the first stage of the civil war and then, in the mid-1980s, followed a policy of preventing the Palestinians re-establishing armed bases in the south. Qassem admits, ‘Syria massacred 27 [Hizbollah] party members when it entered Beirut to stop the civil war in 1987’. [40] It is an open secret that Syria would do a deal with Israel (and the US) tomorrow if it could get back the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967.

But it is not only Syria that Hizbollah considers looking to. Qassem is adamant that none of the Arab states, however compromised with imperialism and Zionism, needs to be overthrown. They ‘need to adopt a series of changes aimed at achieving reconciliation with their peoples’ [41] and ‘active social forces need to work diligently and contribute to positive transformation through political means, away from armed conflict’. [42] But ‘whoever takes up the slogan of liberating Arab regimes as a prerequisite for liberating Palestine is on an erroneous track and only complicating the task of liberation’. [43]

In line with this approach:

“Hizbollah has welcomed involvement by Qatar in the south. The Quataris, despite close relations with the US and Israel, are being given the green light to rebuild the south. This will come with a political price tag. There has been little condemnation of Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia from with the ranks of the party – though lots from people close to it”. [44]

A lesson from the past

No Arab army has achieved as much as Hizbollah did during the 33-day war. But this is not the first time a guerrilla force has arisen that seemed able to fight in the way that the Arab states could not. Such a movement emerged in the shape of the PLO in the wake of the 1967 defeat [45], with not only Palestinians, but activists throughout the Middle East, looking on it as pole of attraction after the failure of the Arab regimes, whether of the old or the new, nationalist sort. A Palestinian student using the name Ibrahim Ali wrote in this journal early in 1969:

The June War, exposing to a certain extent the corruption and bankruptcy of these regimes, has forced the Palestinians towards a revaluation of their position vis-à-vis these states ... This has manifested itself in massive popular support for the guerrilla organisations, who operate independently of the Arab governments. [46]

Fatah was able to channel this feeling and take the leadership of the Palestine movement by achieving a remarkable victory over the Israeli forces in March 1968, only nine months after the 1967 defeat. The Israelis launched a big attack on the Jordanian village of Karameh, where Fatah had its headquarters. Resistance by the guerrillas held off the Israeli attack long enough to draw the Jordanian army into the battle, leading to 28 Israeli deaths, 80 wounded and the loss of four tanks. [47]

But Karameh proved a flash in the pan. The victory depended on the Israelis advancing into an area where Palestinians were already armed and on the involvement of the regular Jordanian army. It did not provide an approach capable of taking on the Israeli army across the Jordan in Palestine itself. As Ibrahim Ali correctly noted:

Guerrilla attacks ... have not been accompanied by the establishment of guerrilla bases in Israeli-occupied territories. This cannot only be explained on the basis of Israeli vigilance and their policy of massive retaliations. Most West Bank civil servants receive double salaries – from the Jordanians and the Israelis. Regular commercial traffic between the East and West Bank continues while Israeli aircraft napalm Arab villages. The Israelis are using the double-edged policy – massive reprisals on the one hand and concessions on the other. No guerrilla organisation has put forward a programme, although all call for armed struggle leading to a de-Zionised, democratic bi-national Palestine. [48]

There would have been only one way for the Palestinian guerrilla organisations to shift the balance of forces sharply in their own favour. That was to help bring about revolutionary change in one or other of the Arab countries bordering Israel. There were strong possibilities in this direction, especially in Jordan. The monarchy was increasingly unstable, its army having lost half its fertile land to Israel (the West Bank was part of the Jordanian kingdom in 1967) and more than half the population in the area still under Jordanian control was Palestinian. Its weakness was shown by the way it was forced to allow the Fatah-led PLO to operate virtually as a state within the state. But instead of organising for a revolutionary overthrow of a monarchy that had been installed by the British and had done secret deals to partition Palestine with the Israelis in 1947-48, the Fatah leadership followed a policy of ‘non-interference’ in Jordan. Faced with questions about what to do about the reactionary Arab states, even left-inclined figures in Fatah used an Arab saying to the effect that there was no need to pick the fruit from a tree when a storm was going to shake it – and the storm would be the defeat of Zionism. [49] In the meantime the PLO looked upon the various Arab states, including the most reactionary monarchies in the Gulf, for funds – and tailored its policies accordingly.

The consequences were to be seen when the Jordanian monarchy decided to drive the PLO from the country in Black September 1970. Even in the midst of the attacks on it, instead of following a revolutionary strategy designed to break the allegiance of Jordanian soldiers to their monarchy, the Fatah leadership agreed to temporary truces that allowed the monarchy to reinforce discipline over its forces before moving on to the next attack. In the midst of the catastrophe the Fatah leader, Arafat, was photographed embracing the Jordanian king, Hussein, as an ‘Arab brother’. [50] Hussein reciprocated by forcing Arafat and his forces to leave the country best placed for organising guerrilla warfare in Israel.

The behaviour of Fatah can only be understood by understanding its class basis. Although there was enormous identification with it by the great mass of Palestinian peasants, workers and refugees, it was run politically and militarily by members of the middle class, very similar in their attitudes to those who dominated the Arab nationalist governments. Arafat and the other guerrilla leaders were typically Palestinian professionals – civil engineers and the like – who had begun careers in the oil-rich Gulf States. The Fatah organisation was organised hierarchically, with people from a similar background holding the commanding posts – and receiving salaries several times higher than the ordinary fighters. And people from such a class background took it for granted that they had to appeal to the Palestinian middle and upper classes politically, opposing the Israeli occupation but not challenging the class basis of their own privileges either in Palestine or in exile.

A similar logic worked itself out after Black September, when the PLO established a base for itself in South Lebanon. The possibility for revolutionary action was shown in 1975, when Palestinian forces united with the Lebanese left joined together in a movement based on a struggle against social and economic deprivation which came close to overthrowing the regime. Syrian intervention, backed by the US, was necessary to defeat the movement. After that, however, PLO control of Southern Lebanon took on some of the characteristics of a foreign occupation, with allegations of repression, harassment of the local population and banditry. A top-down middle class run military organisation of the Palestinians could not rule in a way that did not trample on the interests of those beneath it.

Finally, when the first Intifada of 1987-90 did force the Israelis to negotiate seriously, it was prepared to settle for a fragment of power in isolated islands of land in the West Bank and Gaza. It hopes that it might find on a microscale the possibilities of using the state to advance its interests that it could not achieve on a large scale without a revolutionary challenge across the Arab world as a whole. Its attempt not only left Israel with a free hand to expand its settlements, but also led to the setting up of Palestinians quasi-state institutions that became notorious for their corruption, incompetence and repression, as if all the faults of the Arab regime had been concentrated with the attempt to imitate them in the small enclaves in which the PLO was allowed to operate.

The class base of Hizbollah

Hizbollah, by relying on deals with its own state and by rejecting a revolutionary approach to the other states, is in danger of going along the path travelled over so many years by the PLO. If it does so, its victory in the summer will not translate into an active strategy for confronting the Israeli state’s domination of the Palestinians or imperialist schemes for the region as a whole.

Yet Hizbollah’s way of operating ties it into the deals and the compromises. The network of welfare organisations which are so important in cementing its popular base have not arisen out of thin air. They have to be financed. The finance comes mainly from two sources: from an Iranian state within which there are influential political forces who would deal with the US if Iran was accepted as a significant regional power, and from the Shia middle class and business interests in Lebanon and abroad. According to Hamzah, it relies on ‘donations from individuals, groups, shops, companies, and banks as well as their counterparts in countries such as the US, Canada, Latin America, Europe and Australia’, and on Hizbollah’s business investments which take ‘advantage of Lebanon’s free market economy’ with ‘dozens of supermarkets, gas stations, department stores, restaurants, construction companies and travel agents’. [51]

It is hardly surprising that an organisation so dependent on functioning within capitalism in reality accepts a ‘conservative’ economic programme [52] at home and rejects the overthrow of the neighbouring Arab governments. One is reminded of the degree to which the social radicalism of the IRA/Sinn Fein was moderated by its dependence on money from prosperous supporters in the US even while it waged a guerrilla war in the North of Ireland.

But working within the system risks having other effects on Hizbollah, as it did on the PLO. Its compromises involve the radical anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist clerics at the top of the organisation relying on a layer of upwardly mobile middle class professionals to sustain its political networks. ‘The candidates or lists backed by Hizbollah in 2004 consisted mainly of individuals from professions – engineers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen’. [53] With such people dominating the practical implementation of its politics, it is perhaps not surprising that the social and economic demands in its programme of action for the local elections were hardly more radical than New Labour’s:

Encourage the citizen to play a more active role in the selection process of development projects.

Increase the functions and powers of municipalities in the provision of education, healthcare and socioeconomic affairs.

Involve qualified people in development projects.

Finance development projects from both municipal revenues and donations.

Exercise control over public works and prevent embezzlement.

Renovate the physical and administrative structures of municipalities and provide them with computer facilities. [54]

Hizbollah has become reliant on forces in Lebanon that will support its guerrilla activities in so far as they deter Israeli forces from attacking and occupying the country. But these forces will act as a brake on any notion of offensive actions against Israel – or even provocations on the border designed to draw Israeli troops into traps inside Lebanon. To that extent they will thwart any ambition of direct aid to the Palestinians against the Israeli state.

Response of the left

The Lebanon War produced an enormous wave of opposition, not only in Muslim countries, but in Europe and Latin America. These not only saw demonstrations in some countries bigger than any since the first year of the Iraq war, but there was also an unprecedented willingness to stand up against Israeli aggression. This was in marked contrast to the reaction of most left wing opinion to the 1967 and 1973 wars or even the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 with its massive Lebanese and Palestinian death toll.

But there was still a weakness in some of the arguments and the slogans of many sections of the left. These gravitated around the linked questions of the ‘ceasefire’ and of ‘the Israeli state’s right to defend itself’.

Take, for instance, the approach of one of the few principled left wing columnists to write for the Guardian newspaper, George Monbiot. He had no hesitation in opposing the Israeli aggression. But he also felt compelled to criticise Hizbollah for taking action against the Israeli state, even though the Israeli state had in the previous weeks been launching repeated onslaughts on Palestinians in Gaza. So he wrote:

Yes, Hizbollah should have been pulled back from the Israeli border by the Lebanese government and disarmed. Yes, the raid and the rocket attack on 12 July were unjustified, stupid and provocative, like just about everything that has taken place around the border for the past six years.

And then, after arguing for ‘withdrawing from the occupied territories in Palestine and Syria’, he also called ‘to defend the border, while maintaining the diplomatic pressure on Lebanon to disarm Hizbollah (as anyone can see, this would be much more feasible if the occupations were to end)’. [55]

Such arguments were prevalent on many sections of the liberal and social democratic left. So, for instance, some supporters of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain were not happy with Lebanese carrying pro-Hizbollah placards and flags, as if a purely pacifist approach was the only permissible one. And even on the far left there were people who took a ‘neither nor’ stance on the war – neither for the Israeli aggressor, not for the Hizbollah-led resistance in Lebanon. So, for instance, the Socialist Party/CWI wrote in their paper, the Socialist:

It is the ordinary people of Lebanon, Israel and Gaza who are paying a terrible price. Neither side can win. Hizbollah can never defeat the might of the Israeli state and liberate the Palestinian people from occupation. And the latest conflict can only deepen the divisions between working people in Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian areas.

It quoted an ‘Israeli socialist’ as saying that ‘this current conflict is about who wins most in terms of prestige and political kudos. The people who lose out in all this will be the working class on both sides ... At the root of these national conflicts is a power struggle between the different ruling classes in the region backed by different imperialist powers.’

It handed out a leaflet arguing:

Hizbollah with its aim of destroying Israel and creating an Islamic state like the reactionary regime in Iran cannot succeed. It can only further divide the multiethnic/religious populations of Lebanon and the Middle East.

Its slogan was not ‘Solidarity with the resistance’ but an abstract call ‘for a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel as part of a socialist confederation of the Middle East’.

Similarly, the leadership of the now virtually defunct Scottish Socialist Party qualified their opposition to the war with denunciation of Hizbollah as ‘one of the most ferocious terrorist organisations in the world’ and criticism of it for ‘an illegal and ruthless raid across the border’. [56]

The problems of all such arguments were shown once the ceasefire had taken effect. The US, Israeli and British propaganda machines went into top gear demanding the rapid forming of the UN force under resolution 1701 to work with the Lebanese army to disarm Hizbollah and to seal Lebanon’s borders so as to provide Israel with an alternative means of ‘defence’ other than disarming Hizbollah itself. In effect, they were demanding foreign military occupation of Lebanon. There was, of course, no talk of foreign military occupation of Israel to prevent the daily attacks on the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. All those on the left who opposed military action by both sides in the war and simply demanded a ceasefire opened the door to these arguments.

Such confusions bring out two questions of importance for the whole left internationally – the analysis of the state of Israel and the attitude to those Islamist organisations that confront imperialism and Zionism.

The character of the Israeli state [57]

Liberal-left commentators and the pro-US and pro-Israeli right repeat a single theme over and over again – ‘The Israeli state has the right to exist.’ Anyone who questions this is accused of anti-Semitism and of wanting a new holocaust, this time in the Middle East.

But the ‘right to exist’ of a state is not at all the same as the ‘right of its people to continue to live’. The first half of the 20th century saw the destruction or disintegration of numerous states – the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire for example. No one on the liberal left lamented the demise of these states, or complained of genocide when it happened. Similarly the last 17 years have seen the disappearance of the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia without anyone screaming about the ‘right of states to exist’.

Whether you support or oppose the continued existence of a certain state does not depend on any abstract ‘right to exist’ but on its character and on what the alternatives to its existence are.

The most important feature to understand in the case of the Israeli state is that it is a settler state – that is, one of those states formed by European settlers that accompanied the growth of the European empires. Some 120 years ago the Jewish population of historic Palestine (i.e. what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza) was just a few thousand, the Arab population hundreds of thousands. The Ottoman census for 1893 gave the Jewish population as a mere 9,817 [58]; estimates including then-recent immigrants put the figure at about 25,000 as against an Arab population of between 400,000 and 600,000. [59] The growth of the Jewish population until it amounts to 55 percent of the area’s population is a result of massive settlement since. This is shown by the fact that in the late 1960s only 24 percent of the adult Israeli population were born in historic Palestine – and only 4 percent of Palestinian-born parents. [60]

Such a population could only expand and eventually, in 1948-49, establish a state encompassing three quarters of the area, by dispossessing the existing inhabitants. As the Israeli general and politician Dayan put it in a speech in 1956:

We are a settler generation, and without the steel helmet and cannon we cannot plant a tree or build a house. Let us not flinch from the hatred enflaming hundreds of thousands of Arabs around us. [61]

In this it was like other settler states established by European colonists at the expense of the local population in North America, Australia, French-ruled Algeria, white-ruled Rhodesia or apartheid South Africa. The fact that in the forefront of settlement were people fleeing oppression in Europe, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust, did not alter the basic fact that settlement took place at the expense of the indigenous population. Many of the North American settlers were fleeing religious persecution or poverty, many of the Australian settlers arrived as a result of transportation by the British state and many of the Algerian settlers arrived there as deportees punished for participation in the revolution of 1848 or the Paris Commune just as the Jewish settlement was by people who had suffered acute oppression in Europe. But having arrived, they could only maintain themselves by actions against the existing population. The logic of colonial settlement is that those who have been the oppressed become the oppressors.

There were different models of colonisation. The North American and Australian model involved the near and sometimes complete extermination of the local population, so that eventually it represented no threat to the settler population and their descendants and had little or no impact on the character of the state. The model in French Algeria, white Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa involved using the indigenous population as cheap labour for white owned farms and businesses, so that virtually the whole white population identified with the repressive functions of the state as a way of holding on to their own privileges – to such an extent that a million French Algerians migrated to France when Algeria became independent in 1963. The Zionist model in Palestine involved the settlers driving the indigenous population out of the areas of settlement in order to establish wholly Jewish settlements and businesses.

As Tony Cliff, who was brought up in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, explained:

A series of human tragedies brought the Jews to Palestine – pogroms in Tsarist Russia, persecution in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust of Nazism. When they reached Palestine they found it was inhabited by Arabs. Whatever the motivation that brought the Jews in, an increasing conflict between Zionist settlers and the Arabs was unavoidable. The colonists would buy land from the Arab landowners and then drive the Arab peasants from it, and they would exclude Arabs from the businesses they set up.

The Arab peasant offered labour and produce at a very low price. How could a European worker find a job under such conditions? The only way was to block the employment of any Arab workers by Jewish employers. In Tel Aviv, which on the eve of the founding of the state of Israel had barely 300,000 inhabitants, there was not one Arab worker nor one Arab inhabitant.

The Zionists prevented the fellahs [peasants] from selling their produce in the Jewish market. And when, under pressure of hunger, a fellah dared to break the boycott, he was beaten.

Every member of the Zionist trade union federation, the Histadrut, had to pay two special compulsory levies: (1) ‘For Jewish Labour’ – funds for organising pickets, etc., against the employment of Arab workers; and (2) ‘For Jewish Produce’, for organising the boycott of Arab produce. Not one Zionist party, not even the most extreme ‘left’ of Hashomer Hatzair, now Mapam, opposed the boycott of the Arab workers and peasants. The boycott of the Arabs was inherent in Zionism: without the boycott no European worker or farmer would have survived economically. [62]

Such actions necessarily aroused the ire of the Arab masses. There was only one way the settlers could protect themselves against such anger. It was to do a deal with one or other of the imperialist countries. So in the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s they collaborated with the British – for instance, providing them with armed assistance in smashing the Palestinian uprising of 1936-39. The military training they received under British rule then enabled them, using US diplomatic backing and East European arms, to seize most of historic Palestine through three military offensives (interspersed with two truces) when the British left in 1948 – and to use terror to drive most of the Palestinian population out of the areas they took control of. In the decades that followed, British imperialist interests were increasingly overshadowed by those of the US – and it was to the US that Israel turned.

The liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz summed up the relation of Israel to imperialism on 30 September 1951:

Israel has been given a role not unlike that of a watchdog ... Should the West prefer for one reason or another to close its eyes it can rely on Israel punishing severely those of the neighbouring states whose lack of manners towards the West has exceeded the proper limits. [63]

In return for playing this role Israel, despite its relatively small size, receives a third of all US overseas aid, much more than any other country. One estimate is that total US aid to the country amounted to over $84 billion between 1949 and 1997. That works out at over $14,000 for each Israeli citizen. [64] A lot of this aid goes on providing Israel with the most up to date military technology for intimidating and, if necessary, attacking other Middle Eastern states. So for 2003 Israel was promised $720 million in economic aid as well as $2.04 billion in military assistance. [65]

A classic Marxist analysis of the Israeli state by Haim Hanegbi, Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr has pointed out that such aid has also allowed Israel to enjoy economic expansion on the cheap:

In the years 1949-65 Israel received $6 billion more of imports of goods and services than it exported, i.e. $2,650 per person in the 21 years ... In 1949-65 period net saving in Israel averaged zero – but investment was equal to 20 percent of GNP.

Israeli society is not only a settler society ... It is also a society which benefits from unique privileges. It enjoys an influx of material resources from the outside of unparalleled quantity and quality ... Israel is a unique case in the Middle East. It is financed by imperialism without being economically exploited by it. [66]

They argue that among the beneficiaries has been the Jewish working class:

The Jewish worker does not get his share in cash, but in terms of new and relatively inexpensive housing; in industrial employment which could not have been started or kept going without external subsidies; in terms of a general standard of living which does not correspond to the output of society. [67]

Certainly, US aid has been used to blunt, although not stop, the impact of economic crises. So, as the American Jewish Yearbook 1990 says, ‘during Israel’s economic crisis of 1984-85, emergency US aid ... helped Israel [68], while at the beginning of 2003, when Israel’s economy was ‘suffering from one of the worst crises in the country’s history’, an Israeli delegation went to the US to ask for ‘an emergency aid package worth $12 billion. [69]

The aid was not expected to be for free. What Israel offered in return was, as the Year Book explained, ‘US-Israeli strategic cooperation’ which survived because ‘of the perception that ties with Israel were in America’s interest’. [70] In line with this approach, part of the aid Israel wanted in 2003 was to ‘boost its defence preparations’ [71] for the subsequent US-led war against Iraq.

The Israeli state could not have been established without and can only maintain itself because of such deals. Without the subsidies they provide, there would be no incentive for Jewish people from elsewhere in the world to migrate to Israel. And many existing Israelis, accustomed to European or North American living standards, would migrate to Europe or North America in order to try and get them.

But faced with the possibility of economic crises causing dissension at home and undermining the whole rationale of an exclusively Jewish state, Zionist politicians do not sit passively and wait for the subsidies. They have an interest in encouraging the US to take an aggressive stance in the region, so destabilising existing regimes and making it look even more to its watchdog. That is why there is a natural affinity between the Zionist politicians and the neocons in the US, and why even the more peace inclined section of the Israeli Labour Party always ends up going along with such policies. The more disorder there is in the region, the more important the role of Israeli military might in helping to subdue it and the more likely the state is to receive more subsidies and more possibilities of fulfilling the Zionist aim of further Israeli expansion. Instability in the region is also a precondition for presenting themselves to Jewish people elsewhere in the world as continually under threat and therefore needing continual succour.

This has an inevitable impact in shaping the attitudes of the Israeli working class. The mass of the population of Israel, as in other advanced industrial countries, work and are exploited by their employers. But in the Israeli case, the subsidies which pass to them via the state from US imperialism mean that they are cushioned against part of the impact of this exploitation. They identify with the state and with its collaborating with imperialism, since without this collaboration they would have to suffer the much worse living standards of other workers in the Middle East. Their identification with the state against Palestinians has material roots. Even those whose conditions are very bad tend to see the answer in more identification with the state, not less. So the Jews who migrated to Israel from elsewhere in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s have tended to support the more right wing Zionist parties, despite the fact that they are usually worse off than those from Europe.

In this sense they are like white South African workers – even the poorest white South African workers – were before the fall of apartheid.

Haim Hanegbi, Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr noted the 1970s: ‘The experience of 50 years does not contain a single example of Israeli workers being mobilised on material or trade union issues to challenge the Israeli regime itself.’ [72]

Developments since have not challenged this conclusion. There has been a whittling away of the welfare state and an adoption under Likud-led governments of neo-liberal policies which have produced unemployment levels of up to 11 percent and cuts on dole payments. But the cumulative effect of the subsidies from imperialism still means Israeli workers enjoy living standards way above those of those in Palestine or the neighbouring Arab countries. So the minimum wage at the beginning of 2004 was 3,335 New Shekels (around $700 a month), while the minimum wage in neighbouring Egypt is $28.40 a month. Detailed analyses show welfare benefits to be the middle range of those available in Europe. [73] They are under attack, but the subsidies mean they are still at Western levels, not at the Third World levels available to the Palestinians driven out in 1948 and their descendants. But they only get these subsidies because of the deals the Israeli government does with imperialism. And so their struggles against these attacks on their wages, working conditions or welfare benefits can always be contained by the state, whose easy response to economic crisis is to turn to the US.

There are contradictions. There are big business interests in Israel – interests increasingly linked with North American or sometimes European multinational capital – who see the future in market penetration of the rest of the Middle East and who therefore have a certain interest in peace. But these pressures in themselves have not been sufficient to stop the state adopting an aggressive stance to the Palestinians in the occupied territories or to one or other of the other Middle Eastern states. They will not do so in future either. Multinational capital invests in Israel because it looks to Israeli hegemony in the region (and, it should be added, to profitable military contracts). It shares with Israeli capital an interest in an Israeli state that has the military power to intimidate its neighbours through an armed peace – and that requires a sufficiently aggressive posture to mobilise the mass of the population behind the state as necessary.

Under these circumstance, those who assert ‘the right of the Israeli state to exist’ are defending a state which necessarily acts as a willing tool of imperialism and behaves aggressively towards its neighbours.

Opposing the Israeli state, it must be repeated, is not the same as wanting to see the Jewish population ‘driven into the sea’, any more than opposing the apartheid state meant wanting to see the eradication of an Afrikaner population who had lived in the country for 350 years with some elements of a national identity of their own (language, literature, religious institutions and so on). It meant in South Africa the dismantling of a state based upon discrimination by the descendants of settlers against the indigenous population. In the case of Israel, it means dismantling a state based upon forcible removal of the indigenous population from its territory, continual expansion into the ‘occupied territories’, and massive and bloody military repression of those who fight the occupation and the expansion of the settlement or who fight to return to the land from which their families were expelled.

There are two hypothetical ways of dismantling the settler state. The first would be for the Israeli population to accept the right of return of the Palestinians driven out in 1948, and an end to the occupation and settlements in the West Bank. The second would be the dissolution of Israel into a united, secular democratic state across the whole area of historical Palestine, in which all the inhabitants would enjoy equal citizenship rights. In practice the two roads would end up at the same destination. As the Zionists continually insist, the ‘right of return’ for the Palestinians would destroy the whole rationale of the settler state by doing away with the privileges for those of Jewish origin, and open the door to a unified secular state. That is why a small minority of Israeli activists and intellectuals are beginning to accept that the only real alternative to the pattern of repression, settlement and war is the path of the secular state.

What force can bring this about? The whole burden of the argument above is that the key to bringing it about does not lie within Israel. So long as the Zionist state seems strong enough to continue to get the subsidies from imperialism to provide even the poorest of its Jewish inhabitants with privileges compared to the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and the refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon, the majority of them will turn to it. The state can be weakened by class struggle inside Israel, but that will never be enough by itself to break the state, its aggressive policies and its eagerness to work for imperialism. It is weakened when sections of young Israelis rebel against military service in continual occupation and repeated wars. In the process, some at least can come to see the reality of what the Zionist dream has led to.

But for this to develop on any scale depends on the Israeli state losing its capacity to wage war that is virtually cost free, both in financial terms (because of US subsidies) and in terms of Israeli lives. In other words, it depends on Israel suffering a very serious military defeat. Only such a defeat can cause such a shock inside Israel as to lead large numbers of people to see that there is only one secure way forward for them – to break with the whole Zionist vision of building an ethnically pure state – and to make the US ruling class wonder whether their subsidies to Israel are worth maintaining.

As Hanegbi, Machover and Orr argued 30 years ago, participation in the internal struggles in Israeli society, including the struggle of the workers, ‘must be subordinated to the general strategy of the struggle against Zionism’. [74] The conclusion remains valid today. Those who fail to see this and take a ‘neither nor’ attitude to wars like that in Lebanon, accepting the sanctity of Israel’s borders, weaken the struggle against imperialism and Zionism, however well intentioned their motives.

Breaking the hold of Zionism on the great majority of the Israeli population remains a very distant prospect. The defeat in Lebanon was only a partial defeat, which not only Israeli leaders but the great bulk of the Israeli population expect to be able to reverse. It is wishful thinking to pretend otherwise, to believe that:

All this has blown open a window in which it is possible to glimpse the possibility of a comprehensive settlement of the near century old conflicts which lie behind the recent war. Now that the status quo ante has been swept away, we may even see an F.W. de Klerk moment emerge in Israel (and among its indispensable international backers). [75]

A ‘revolutionary breakthrough in the Arab world’ [76] remains the precondition for creating the sort of challenge to the Israeli state which could make Zionism buckle. It has not happened yet.

The impact of the victory

Hizbollah achieved a notable victory in the summer, which has cut Israel’s pretensions down to size and so has given a boost to all those forces pushing for fundamental change across the Middle East. But Hizbollah cannot be the political tool for achieving that change. This is not mainly because of its religious conceptions, but because beneath them lies reliance upon class forces that cannot go beyond a certain point in confrontation with either Israel or imperialism. It needs to be repeated again and again: victory against imperialism in any country cannot be achieved simply by a struggle confined to that country or victory over Zionism by a struggle confined simply to Palestine. What is needed is a breakthrough in one country which can unleash a revolutionary process across the whole region. The Hizbollah victory will contribute to this insofar as it opens up optimistic visions of what is possible, just as the defeat of 1967 plunged the region’s activists into depressive pessimism.

It will probably, in the short term, increase the attraction of forms of Islamism. But there can also be an important shift in the versions of Islam that are popular. The defeats of the past encouraged narrow versions of Islam, which stressed religious purity on the one hand and elitist forms of individualist direct action of the jihadis type on the other. Where these failed miserably, as they did in the contests with the Egyptian and Algerian states, many activists fell back into mild forms of religious reformism. The stress on religious purism also tended to set those with one religious interpretation against those with other forms – not just Islam against other religions, but Sunni against Shia. Such divisions could then be manipulated both by imperialism and its agents, as in Pakistan or much more bloodily in Iraq, and by opportunist careerists out to establish a political base for themselves.

The Hizbollah victory will work against these trends. Hizbollah’s own example will be taken as showing that alliances that cross over religious boundaries can be established. The Arab regimes are already worried about the appeal of its victory to their own Sunni majorities. But more is involved than just this. Victories widen people’s horizons. They see possibilities they never did before. And examples of anti-imperialist action elsewhere in the world – like anti-war demonstrations in Europe and the US, or Hugo Chavez’s withdrawal of the Venezuelan ambassador to Israel – can open people’s ideas to see that they have non-Muslim allies just as they have, in the existing Arab regimes, Muslim enemies.

In all this, it is worth repeating a thousand times that Hizbollah’s methods are the opposite of Al Qaida’s. It is not only that in words Hizbollah rejects the methods of planting bombs to kill civilians in the West or the Third World, but that its own military success has been dependent on its mass work. Its limitation is that it does not see that mass work is needed among those suffering from imperialism and its local capitalist allies elsewhere in the Arab world – the workers and peasants of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere. Its victory will, however, make it easier for those who see this to find an audience, including among some of those with certain Islamist conceptions.

What next for the US?

The situation for US imperialism in general and for the Bush administration in particular is serious. The blow which was meant to destroy Hizbollah and weaken Syria and Iran has had the opposite effect. Even before the results of the 33-day war were clear the prestigious Royal Institute for International Affairs was warning that Iran was the great gainer from the Iraq debacle:

There is little doubt that Iran has been the chief beneficiary of the war on terror in the Middle East. The United States, with Coalition support, has eliminated two of Iran’s regional rival governments – the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2001 and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in April 2003 – but has failed to replace either with coherent and stable political structures. [77]

Iran views Iraq as its own backyard and has now superseded the US as the most influential power there; this affords it a key role in Iraq’s future. Iran is also a prominent presence in its other war-torn neighbour with close social ties, Afghanistan. [78]

Now Hizbollah has increased its prestige massively and in effect forced Arab regimes that would have loved to see it defeated to do a U-turn, at least verbally, and praise its ability to fight the Israelis.

How will the US react now?

The most unlikely reaction is to accept the logic of defeat and to follow the advice of those like the Royal Institute of International Affairs who are effectively urging the US to accept Iran’s strength and to do a deal with it:

Iran is in a powerful regional position and its cooperation and positive influence are needed to help douse the many fires currently alight ... The resolution of the many crises afflicting Iran’s region will partly require an improvement in Iran’s relations with the West through careful and patient diplomacy on both sides ... Iran is frequently depicted as a manipulator and instigator of violence in the broader Middle East; the Iranian regime is wary of provoking generalised chaos in the region because it is essentially conservative and seeks to maintain the status quo. [79]

Effectively this is to argue that Bush should follow the precedent of Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 after it had become clear that victory was impossible for the US in Vietnam – to do a deal with the regional power previously painted as the source of all evil.

There is no sign of that. The Bush administration has bet heavily on being able to so strengthen US global hegemony as to maintain it through the ‘new century’. It fears that any deal with Iran would not only jeopardise that ambition, but go further and reduce US influence. The success of a fairly weak medium power like Iran in forcing the US to do a U-turn would encourage others to follow the same path of defiance. The only difference between the Bush camp and their mainstream critics is that these believe the US has to mend its fences with ‘old Europe’ and Russia in order to put pressure on Iran to capitulate symbolically by abandoning its nuclear programme. As that influential journalistic apologist for imperialism Thomas (McDonald’s and McDonnell Douglas) Friedman put it at the height of the Lebanon War:

But the administration now has to admit what anyone – including myself – who believed in the importance of getting Iraq right has to admit: it is not happening, and we can’t throw more good lives after good lives ... But second best is leaving Iraq. Because the worst option – the one Iran loves – is for us to stay in Iraq, bleeding, and in easy range to be hit by Iran if we strike its nukes ... We need to deal with Iran and Syria, but from a position of strength – and that requires a broad coalition. The longer we maintain a unilateral failing strategy in Iraq, the harder it will be to build such a coalition. [80]

But a thoroughgoing compromise with Old Europe and Russia (let alone China) is difficult. The motive of war against Iraq was not merely to seize control of the country’s oil for US corporate interests. It was, above all, to end what the neocons saw as the dilly dallying of US global strategy in the 1990s, to gain such a dominant control over the world’s most important raw material, oil, as to be able to exercise dominating influence over the other great powers so as to ensure ‘a new American century’. [81]

Even if a US administration is eventually forced to compromise fully with Europe, Russia and China, it will first try to reassert its power. This makes a renewed military offensive in the Middle East not only possible, but likely.

Israel’s Lebanon war was, from the point of view of the US administration, a detour intended to make it easier to humiliate Iran. The detour turned out to be a dead end. The instincts of the Bush administration will now be to proceed down the main road to some sort of attack on Iran. Its problem is that that road is a very bumpy one, with huge potholes that could derail its efforts – potholes called Shia dominance of southern Iraq, the increased confidence and strength of Iran’s allies in Lebanon, and the massive sympathy across the whole Islamic world for those allies as the only force to beat back an Israeli army in 58 years.

The Royal Institute for International Affairs report warns:

There exists a very real possibility that, if the US attacks Iran, then Iran will inflict a devastating defeat upon the US in Iraq, and also take the fight to the US across the Middle East. Even now the Multinational Force is struggling to influence political developments in the south and central Euphrates regions of Iraq, where there is a predominantly Shia population, and the Arab Sunni insurgency continues to be a deadly presence inflicting catastrophic losses upon the nascent Iraqi security forces and their US backers. These situations could be magnified by Iranian intervention, to the point that the coalition might conceivably be forced to evacuate Iraq, leaving Iran not only as the undeniable formative force in Iraq, but also as the undisputed hegemon in the Gulf. [82]

What we are witnessing is an acute crisis for US imperialism, in which it faces two unpalatable options. One is to retreat after the Iraq and Lebanon debacles. But that means the Bush adminstration admitting that its ‘war without end’ drive for unchallengeable global hegemony has been a failure and to suffer the consequences, in term of a loss of neocon influence at home and of the US’s ability to get its way abroad. The other option is to gamble heavily on an attack on Iran, or at least a further Israeli offensive into Lebanon. Despite the immense dangers of this course, this is the one it is most likely to take.

A wounded beast is a dangerous beast, and it is even possible that before people read these words a new war will be upon us with further large scale fighting in Lebanon or with an attack upon Iran. There are also very real prospects of attempts by the French and Italian troops, under US and Israeli pressure, to disarm Hizbollah.

The 33-day war emphasised the unpredictable nature of Bush’s ‘war without end’, the way its slowly spluttering fuse can suddenly ignite explosively, throwing whole states into crisis and shaking people’s ideas elsewhere. It is not the last time this will happen. Nor is it the last time that we will see massive resistance – resistance that can destabilise imperialism’s client governments in the Middle East and advance the anti-capitalist movements in its heartlands.


1. Thanks are due to Gilbert Achcar, Anne Alexander, Simon Assaf, Lindsey German, Ghassan Makarem, John Rose and Sabby Sagall for comments on and factual corrections to the draft of this article.

2. S. Hersh, Watching Lebanon, New Yorker, 21 August 2006.

3. Washington Post, 4 August 2006.

4. H. Shukrallah, It Didn’t Work, August 2006, available on

5. As above.

6. As above.

7. Hizbollah’s first victory was, of course, in forcing Israel to leave Lebanon in 1990; but it was not nearly as dramatic in terms of its effects on people’s perceptions as their beating back the onslaught of the Israeli army in front of the whole of the world’s media this time round.

8. US and Soviet support (with Czech weaponry) ensured their victory in 1948-49, but it was in the late 1950s that massive US aid became a permanent feature.

9. Tony Cliff’s written analysis at the time exists on the website of this journal at but he made many pertinent points at meetings which are not contained in any printed text.

10. N. Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within (London 2005), p.68.

11. M. Williams, Counterpunch, 14 August 2006.

12. The Israeli state has encouraged immigration from the former USSR of anyone with even the vaguest claim to have ‘Jewish’ connections. The aim has been to keep the ‘Jewish’ population of Israel expanding more rapidly than the Palestinian population in Israel and the occupied territories. See, for example, Mark Reutter on; Lucy Ash on the BBC website, at The policy is at one with substituting a quarter of a million temporary workers from places like the Philippines for Arab workers from the West Bank and Gaza.

13. From the Israeli paper Ha’aretz,

14. N. Qassem, as above, p.69.

15. As above, pp.72-73.

16. Tony Cliff on the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, as above.

17. A.N. Hamzeh, In the Path of the Hizbullah (Syracuse University Press, 2004), p.13.

18. As above, p.11.

19. As above, p.13. The first efforts to build a ‘Movement of the Deprived’ were begun in 1974 by Musa al-Sadr (who disappeared during a trip to Libya in 1978), but its early development was soon overshadowed by the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon.

20. As above, p.87.

21. N. Qassem, as above, p.74.

22. As above, pp.74-75.

23. A.N. Hamzeh, as above, p.89.

24. As above, p.75.

25. As above, p.77.

26. As above, pp.50-55, gives figures for its various sorts of expenditure – but an examination of them makes me suspect he (or the typesetter) had put a few noughts in the wrong place.

27. As above, p.59.

28. As above, p.67.

29. For a long discussion on the shift in Hizbollah’s approach to this issue, see A. Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbu’llah, Politics and Religion (London 2002), pp.34-59.

30. N. Qassem, as above, p.31.

31. A.N. Hamzeh, as above, p 123.

32. According to the account by A.N. Hamzeh, as above, pp.105-108.

33. Both Hamzeh and Qassem discuss these splits, although from different standpoints.

34. A.N. Hamzeh, as above, p.126.

35. According to private correspondence from Simon Assaf in Beirut, 6 September 2006.

36. Quoted in A.N. Hamzeh, as above, p.121.

37. Quoted by G. Achcar in Lebanon: The 33-Day War and UNSC Resolution 1701, This article provides an excellent account of the manoeuvring over the wording of the resolution.

38. Correspondence from Simon Assaf in Beirut, 6 September 2006.

39. N. Qassem, as above, p.243.

40. As above, p.240.

41. As above, p.243.

42. As above, p.244.

43. As above, p.245.

44. Correspondence from Simon Assaf in Beirut, 6 September 2006.

45. The PLO and Fatah were founded in the mid-1950s, but it was not until after the 1967 war that they came to hegemonise the Palestinian struggle.

46. I. Ali, Palestine: Guerrilla Organisations, International Socialism 36 (first series) (April-May 1969).

47. See, for instance, the brief account in

48. I. Ali, as above.

49. This is based on my personal recollection of discussions in Amman in August 1969.

50. Again my own recollections, from attendance at a PLO conference in Amman during the first phase of the Black September civil war in 1970.

51. N. Qassem, as above, p.64.

52. The description is from Gilbert Achcar in conversation.

53. A.N. Hamzeh, as above, p.135.

54. As above, p.123.

55. G. Monbiot, Guardian, 8 August 2006.

56. Centre pages, Scottish Socialist Voice, 21 July 2006

57. For a fuller elaboration of the history of Zionism and of the character of the Israeli state, see John Rose’s excellent little book, Israel: The Hijack State, available from Bookmarks, London, and also in a digital form on

58. See the discussion over the validity of the census results between Ronald Sander and Yehoshua Porath in the New York Review of Books, 16 January 1986.

59. Y. Porath, New York Review of Books, as above.

60. Figures for 1968 given in H. Hanegbi, M. Machover, A. Orr, The Class Nature of Israeli Society, New Left Review 65, January-February 1971, p.4.

61. Quoted in above, p.5.

62. Tony Cliff on the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, as above.

63. Ha’aretz, 30 September 1951, quoted in H. Hanegbi, M. Machover, A. Orr, as above, p.11.

64. These figures are from the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, see

65. Economist Tallies Swelling Cost of Israel to US, Christian Science Monitor, 9 December 2002, on

66. H. Hanegbi, M. Machover, A. Orr, as above, p.9.

67. As above, p.10.

68. American Jewish Yearbook, 1990, p.270.

69. BBC News, Sunday 5 January 2003, 02:23 GMT,

70. American Jewish Yearbook, 1990, p.270.

71. BBC News, Sunday 5 January 2003, 02:23 GMT,

72. H. Hanegbi, M. Machover, A. Orr, as above, p.6.

73. See, for instance, R. Cohen and Y. Shaul, Social Protection in Israel and Sixteen European Countries (Jerusalem 1998), They conclude that, compared with the countries of the EU before its recent expansion, ‘Israel lies in the middle of scale with respect to maternity allowances and work-injury benefits, but ranks relatively low in terms of unemployment’, with overall unemployment benefits worse than those in countries like France and Germany, but about the same as in Britain.

74. H. Hanegbi, M. Machover, A. Orr, as above, p.11.

75. George Galloway’s claim in Hizbullah’s Victory has Transformed the Middle East, Guardian, 31 August 2006.

76. H. Hanegbi, M. Machover, A. Orr, as above, p.11.

77. R. Lowe and C. Spencer, Iran, Its Neighbours and the Regional Crises (Chatham House, August 2006), p.6. Available at

78. As above.

79. As above.

80. New York Times, 4 August 2006.

81. For my version of this argument, see my article, Analysing Imperialism, in International Socialism 99 (Summer 2003).

82. R. Lowe and C. Spencer, as above.

Last updated on 13 January 2010