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Peter Hadden


After Sharon – Middle East in turmoil

(January 2006)

From The Socialist (Dublin), 12 January 2006.
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The departure of Ariel Sharon has thrown Israeli politics and the situation in the Middle East into further turmoil. Sharon had just split from Likud, which he had helped found in 1973, to launch his own Kadima (National Responsibility) party.

Kadima was an attempt to redefine Israeli politics around the personality and the ideas of Sharon. He had cast himself as its absolutist leader, with all key decisions centralised in his grasp.

Before he suffered his stroke, his new party appeared to have gathered an unstoppable head of steam in the countdown to the elections that are due in March. MPs had defected from both Likud and Labour, including veteran Labour politician, Shimon Peres, and some polls indicated that it would gain 42 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. Polls taken immediately after Sharon’s illness indicated that the support for Kadima was holding up but it is questionable whether this can be maintained.

His departure from politics could mean that Likud, now led by arch right winger, Netanyahu, could hold its ground in the election. This prospect casts some uncertainty over Sharon’s “disengagement” plans from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, which had led to him being presented internationally in the unfamiliar role of a “dove” and “peacemaker”.

In reality the idea that Sharon, with his brutal military history stretching back to the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and including his role in facilitating the massacre of more than 3,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla Beirut refugee camps in 1982, had suddenly come to recognise the rights of the Palestinians is completely fanciful.

It is true that the “disengagement plan” represents a step back from the earlier idea of Israel’s right wing rulers that all the land from the river Jordan to the sea should become part of a Greater Israel. Having faced two Intifadas, the decisive sections of the Israeli ruling class have had to come to terms with the impossibility of maintaining indefinitely their military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

The costs in terms of the demoralising effect on the army (IDF) and the opposition created to the occupation inside Israel, plus the pressure from the US to recognise some form of Palestinian entity, have led them to modify their approach.

Washington may try to portray recent Israeli policy as an attempt to reach a new accommodation with the Palestinians in line with Bush’s “road map”. The truth is somewhat different. This supposed “new direction” is nothing more than a brutal attempt by the Israeli rulers to impose their current will on the Palestinians.


Continued occupation and the defence of the 9,000 Gaza settlers was too costly an option for the Israelis so they have unilaterally withdrawn. For the 1.4 million Palestinians crammed into this tiny area this is no genuine liberation.

Up until 1993 the Israeli capitalists used Gaza as a source of cheap labour and its economy was tied to and completely dependant on Israel. In 1993 the Israelis closed the border and began a policy of encouraging overseas immigration to provide cheap labour that could replace the Palestinians. This had a devastating effect on Gaza.

The brutal methods of the IDF during its recent occupation, with homes, schools, factories, hospitals and agricultural land destroyed, dealt a further blow. The result is that unemployment in Gaza currently stands at around 40%. Whereas 30% of Gaza’s people were regarded as impoverished in 2000, that figure is now close to 75%.

As part of the Disengagement Plan Israel has declared its intention to reduce further the number of Palestinians working in Israel and eventually to bar them completely, thus dealing a further blow to the economy of Gaza, and of the West Bank.

Despite the withdrawal, Israeli domination of Gaza will continue. Israel will have sole authority over its airspace and territorial waters. It will supply Gaza’s electricty, water, gas and petrol. The shekel will remain the currency.

Gaza has not been liberated. It has been turned into a vast prison camp surrounded by two 70 kilometre long electrified fences with a buffer zone several hundred metres wide in between. As far as the Israelis are concerned, the only role its Palestinian Authority rulers are to play is that of prison guards keeping the population in order.

In relation to the West Bank, “disengagement” actually means ongoing annexation and division. As 9,000 settlers were forced to pack their bags and leave Gaza, 6,400 new settlement homes were being planned for construction in the West Bank. While Palestinian territory is being carved up by settlements and settler highways into isolated cantons, 40 tunnels are being built to link Jewish settlements.

Separation wall

Meanwhile the construction of the 620 kilometre Separation Wall has been speeded up. This carves through Palestinian territory leaving 242,000 Palestinians, ten percent of the West Bank Palestinian population, stranded on the Israeli side. The wall also places a physical barrier between East Jerusalem and its West Bank hinterland, while people living in what are really Palestinian suburbs of Jerusalem will be cut off from the city by this nine meter high concrete blockade.

These policies will not bring peace or stability to the region. Already there is turmoil in the Palestinian areas, especially in Gaza, and mounting opposition to the Palestinian Authority leadership which is dominated by the Fatah wing of the PLO.

The PA leadership is corrupt and repressive and increasingly discredited, especially among the youth. They have tried to present the Gaza withdrawal as the first step in a disengagement process which will involve future negotiations, when, among the people of the Gaza and the West Bank, there can be few such illusions about what the Israelis are up to.

In Gaza the PA is increasingly suspended in mid air, with effective power in the hands of the militias, the Hamas militia as well as dissident armed wings of the PLO and Fatah. Hamas did very well in local elections held at the end of last year in West Bank cities. They are certain to poll significantly in the PA elections due this month – if the PA leadership allow them to go ahead.

Following the elections, if they are held, the PA leadership may have no option but to try to bring Hamas into the government in order to prevent a further drift of support towards their brand of political Islam. Israel, under US pressure, may have little option but to swallow this bitter pill for now.

But whatever combination of the various factions comes to power in the PA they will be unable to meet the aspirations of the Palestinian people and to prevent the tendency towards increased turmoil and conflict within Gaza especially, but also the West Bank as the impoverished and angry Palestinian youth seek a way out. Any idea that Israelis may harbour that partial disengagement plus a wall will guarantee security will be dashed.

The policies of the Israeli ruling class are a dead end for the mass of the population of Israel, both Jew and Palestinian, never mind what they mean for those who live in Gaza and the West Bank. They will not bring security, either in the military or the economic sense.

No lasting settlement under capitalism

The Sharon government, like its predecessors, has implemented a vicious neo-liberal agenda of attacks on living standards and privatisation. The result is growing poverty, especially among the Sephardic Jews (those of Middle Eastern origin) who have been second class citizens since their arrival during the 1950s.

More than 1.5 million of the seven million population currently live under the poverty line. Young people are worst affected. In 2004, 33.2% of those aged 18 or under lived in poverty – up from 22.8% in 1998.

For the working masses and poor, Arab and Jew, the policies pursued by the all the rulers of this region – the Israeli ruling class, the current Palestinian leadership and the corrupt elites who rule the surrounding Arab states – offer only a future of relentless poverty and intractable conflict.

There is no way a lasting settlement can be arrived at on the basis of the current economic system; no capitalist “road map” to a peaceful solution. It is the working class and oppressed people of the area, Arab and Jew, who can resolve the conflict, not any of today’s rulers and not the emissaries of the imperialist powers.

If there is to be a way out it can only be through a struggle, spearheaded by the working class and poor, for the overthrow of the current rulers and regimes and the economic system they all represent.

The strategy of the Palestinian leadership has created only an open prison in Gaza and a series of Bantustans in the West Bank. The only way a viable state can be achieved is by linking the struggle against the occupation with a struggle to remove the current PA leadership and build a democratic and socialist Palestine.

Role of Israeli working class

It would not be possible to consolidate a viable socialist economy in current Palestinian territory, even including East Jerusalem. But were a socialist movement in Palestine to appeal to the masses in the Arab states to follow their example and overthrow the rotten dictatorial regimes that rule them – rather than do deals with these rulers as the PLO leadership have historically done – a very different scenario could open.

An appeal to the working class of Israel – including a class appeal to the often very reluctant conscript soldiers of the IDF – could also have a huge impact. This would be a far more potent weapon than the suicide bombs and other attacks inside Israel which are counterproductive in that they leave people in Israel feeling that they have no option but to support the “security” measures of the government.

Those on the left internationally who write off the Israeli working class as hopelessly enslaved to reactionary Zionist expansionist ideas and incapable of struggle, know nothing of the real situation in Israel, where there has been a rich history of bitter class struggle.

The current neo-liberal offensive by the Israeli ruling class has been met with stiff resistance by the working class. There have been strikes against cuts in services, wage cuts and redundancies. The privatisation agenda has been opposed, as shown by last year’s struggle by the dockers against the sell off of the ports which, partly due to the role of the Histraduth (trade union) leadership who opposed the strike, ended in defeat.

These movements have had political repercussions - as was vividly demonstrated last November in the Israeli Labour Party leadership election. The Israeli Labour Party has always been, in reality, an establishment party; one of the principal architects of the state and of the oppression of the Palestinians. For the last three decades their base has been principally among the more privileged Ashkenazi (European) rather than the Sephardic Jews.

When Histraduth head, Amir Peretz, put his name forward as a candidate for the Labour leadership he appeared to have little chance against the octogenarian establishment figure, Shimon Peres. Yet Peretz won the election, with the backing of 42% of the 64,000 Labour Party members, while Peres got 40%.

Peretz won by campaigning on class issues. He called for a 50% increase in the minimum wage, an end to the government’s attack on pensions and a state pension for all.

His campaign not only won support among Labour Party members, it struck a wider chord among the population as a whole by tapping into the seething class anger that exists below the surface of Israeli society.

Much of the Likud electoral base is among the Sephardic working class Jews who were alienated by the right wing policies of past Labour administrations. In recent years the Sephardic Jews have borne the brunt of the economic attacks of the Sharon Likud administration. Peretz himself is of working class Sephardic origin, the first Labour leader to come from this background.

His victory, and the radical rhetoric he is likely to use in the run up to the election, opens the prospect of Labour eating into the Sephardic vote that has gone to Likud and other right wing religious parties.

Basis for working class alternative

Peretz’s election does not, in and of itself, signal a transformation of the Labour Party. Behind the populist image, Peretz himself has played a quite cautious role. For example, he opposed the dockers strike and has in the past supported what he calls “humane privatisation”. For now there are big hopes among workers that Peretz will offer something different but, following the election, and with experience of the role of Labour under his leadership, the issue of building a new party of the working class is likely to again come firmly onto the agenda.

The real significance of Peretz’s victory is that it has shown the potential for the emergence of a genuine class party in Israel and the impact a clearly spelt out socialist alternative could have.

There is similarly a real basis for a class alternative in the areas run by the Palestinian Authority. Opposition to the Abbas/Fatah dominated administration has, to now, largely been channelled through groups like Hamas who really only represent another dead end.

But some genuine steps have also been taken towards the emergence of genuine organisations to represent Palestinian workers. Independent workers committees have been set up and have organised protests on issues like free health insurance for workers and the unemployed as well as exemption from school fees.

Some of their protests have been attacked and broken up by the Palestinian police. In the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza the police fired shots over the heads of one demonstration of parents and children on the fees issue.

The official trade unions are linked and tightly controlled by the various, factions of the PLO. The workers committees are demanding free elections of the union leaders. At an initial conference to found an independent workers’ organisation held at the end of 2004, the organisers were able to claim a paid up membership of 8,000.

It is to initiatives such as this that we have to look to see a way forward. Our sister organisation in Israel/Palestine, Mavaak Socialisti, is attempting to build support on the ground for a socialist solution, a socialist Israel and a socialist Palestine as equal partners in a wider socialist federation or confederation of the region.

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