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The Struggle for Palestine

By Lance Selfa

International Socialist Review, Spring 1998

 

When the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel agreed to limited "autonomy" for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in 1993, most Palestinians were willing to give the "peace process" a chance. But more than four years after the signing of the original Oslo Accords, the more than 2 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories can feel that their conditions have worsened. What is more, they see the Palestinian Authority as a corrupt and repressive regime, and that Arafat has succeeded only in making himself Israel’s cop.

Meanwhile, Israel continues to repress the Palestinians and to steal their land. In 1997, Israeli death squads terrorized Palestinians to drive them from areas designated for Israeli settlers. According to one report:

Mohamad Abad al-Aziz Hilu, 57 years old and the father of 10 children, was murdered . . . by an Israeli undercover squad known as Mistaravim, an elite, dangerous, trigger-happy, secret group of soldiers who dress like Palestinians, infiltrate their towns and kill people with almost total impunity. When Mr. Hilu and several other villagers discovered the squad in their village of Hizme, the three undercover agents fired at the men, wounding four of them in the legs, including Mr. Hilu, who they then grabbed and forced to the ground. One soldier sat on the back of Hilu's neck while another beat him on the head with a radio transmitter, according to testimony. Hilu was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.Later, an Israeli army spokesperson announced that Hilu had been shot and killed 'by accident.'
 

. . . Now Mr. Hilu's widow finds herself not only alone with 10 children, but also facing house demolition orders. Israeli authorities plan to tear down her shack-like home and run her off the land where she and her children tend their sheep, their only source of income.. . .[Earlier] near the settlement of Susiya, outside Hebron, bulldozers destroyed the 100-year-old home of Mohamad Abdel Rashid, the foundation of which was built on caves used by shepherds from the time of the Romans. Such construction is common in the area. "About 100 soldiers plowed down our homes, then pushed the rubble into the cave so we would have nowhere to go. But we're not leaving, I'll sleep under the stars before I will leave here," said Abdel Rashid who, along with neighbors who suffered the same plight, now is living in a tent. They were warned by Israeli soldiers on several occasions not to clean out the rubble and return to the shelter of the caves.

". . .It reeks of ethnic cleansing. They're making it clear that as long as they have the power to enforce it, only Jews can live on this land," said Abdel Rashid's son Wahid, who is the local schoolteacher.

These terrible conditions contrast to the lives of a small number of Palestinians - most of them Arafat loyalists - who have gotten rich under the PA. To take one example, 27 "private" and "public" monopolies control the import into Gaza of fuel and basic foodstuffs.

Controlled by a handful of PA officials with particularly close ties to Israel’s security and business establishments, the political purpose behind the monopolies is to generate revenues for the bureaucracy and so consolidate the PA’s rule in the autonomous areas. But the economic impact [on Gazans] has been disastrous, with the monopolies causing spiraling price rises, destroying local firms and creating a lawless climate that serves as a major disincentive to private investment.

This class divide in the Palestinian movement has always existed. For most of the 11 years before signing the Oslo Accords, the PLO leadership administered the organization’s affairs in Tunis, far from the daily repression of the Israeli occupation in Palestine. When the mass Palestinian uprising (the intifada) began in 1987, young fighters denounced the likes of Arafat as "Cadillac revolutionaries," more accustomed to high-stakes diplomacy that to fighting the Israelis up close.

From its formation under the sponsorship of Arab states in 1964, the PLO maintained a policy of "non-interference" in the affairs of the Arab states. Over the years, the PLO relied on one Arab regime after another - and faced betrayal from each Arab state. In 1970, King Hussein expelled PLO fighters from Jordan. In 1976, Syria sided with the Lebanese right and against the Palestinians when it intervened in the Lebanese civil war. In 1991, the Gulf states conducted pogroms against Palestinian guest workers to punish the PLO for supporting Iraq in the Gulf War against the West.

With each defeat, the PLO narrowed its demands. From 1964 to 1974, it fought for the liberation of all of Palestine. From 1974 onward - after the Black September rout in Jordan - it backed the idea of a "ministate" coexisting with Israel. Its 1993 acceptance of the Oslo Accords marked a retreat from the previous "two-state" position.

The PLO never sought to connect the Palestinian struggle to the only force powerful enough to break the hold of imperialism and Zionism on the area: the working classes of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. By divorcing the fight for national liberation from workers’ and peasants’ struggles, the PLO’s nationalist politics led it to the dead end of Oslo. Forced to choose between the interests of the majority of Palestinians (including Palestinian refugees, whose right to return to their homeland isn’t even recognized in the "peace" process) and their desire to run a Palestinian "statelet," PLO leaders chose the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The failure of secular nationalist politics has created an opening for Islamist organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to gain influence in the Palestinian movement. Hamas and Islamic Jihad clearly have reactionary politics. In that sense, the growing influence of Islamism among Palestinians—whose main organizations in general are secular and left-oriented—represents a real backward step. But for all their backwardness, they at least are seen as fighting the Israelis. Since the right-wing Netanyahu government took over in Israel in 1996, Islamist influence has grown. Arafat acknowledged the growing Islamist influence when he embraced two Islamist leaders in August 1997.

In the short term, the prospects for Palestinians seem bleak. But every time in the past 50 years that the Palestinian movement has suffered a defeat which its enemies said would consign it to "the dustbin of history," it has come back. After Israel routed the PLO from Lebanon in 1982, the Arab regimes began to distance themselves from support for the Palestinian cause—even expressing support for a long-time U.S.-Israeli scheme for joint Jordanian-Israeli control over the occupied territories. But the intifada pushed the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of world politics. It also raised the cost of the occupation to Israel.

Breaking out of the current dead end will take nothing less than a new intifada throughout the region. A movement that stresses class, rather than national solidarity, will be crucial. Any intifada-like uprising in the occupied territories or the "autonomous" regions under PA control will confront not only the Israeli forces, but PA security forces. An uprising against the "peace process" will be a de facto uprising against the PA whose entire legitimacy is invested in continuing negotiations with Israel. The success of a movement will require appeals to Palestinian security forces to join the movement—to "turn the guns around" as they did, briefly, in September 1996.

Only a region-wide challenge to the stability of the "state system" the U.S. and Israel prop up in the Middle East will shift fortunes for the Palestinians. Challenging the Arab ruling classes, which desire to be full collaborators with Israel in imperialist domination of the region, will shift the balance of forces in the region. And the only force which can shake the foundations of the Arab states is the Arab working classes. The U.S. moved to impose the "peace process," in part, because it feared repeats on a bigger scale of the intifada-inspired unrest which shook regimes from Algeria to Jordan in 1987 to 1991.

A new movement for Palestinian liberation would have to jettison the entire tradition on which the PLO and many of its secular nationalist critics embrace. A new strategy would have to place emphasis on building class solidarity between Palestinian and other Arab workers. Such a strategy would be based on connecting workers’ struggle in the region to the fight for a secular, democratic state of Palestine. There will be no peace in the Middle East until there is a secular democratic state in all of Palestine in which Jews and Arabs can live as equals.

  1. Maureen Meehan, "Israel Carries Out Massive House Demolitions Throughout the West Bank," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April/May 1997, pp. 6-7.

  2. Middle East International, June 27, 1997, p. 4



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