The origins of the conflict part 2

Submitted by AWL on 24 February, 2004 - 2:23

As World War Two ended, Jewish groups started large-scale guerrilla war against the British, trying to drive them out. Fringe groups had already started such activity during the war. With the oil industry developing, Britain was more than ever concerned to maintain an alliance with the dominant classes in the Arab countries. In November 1947 the United Nations declared for partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Britain effectively abdicated the state power from that point on. Its calculation was that Jewish-Arab war would show that it was essential for Britain to reassert control as a "mediator" and "peacekeeper".
Communal/national warfare broke out, with Jews and Arabs jockeying for control of strategic hills and roads. Jewish Jerusalem suffered a long siege and the Jewish quarter of the old city fell to the Arabs. The Jewish militias seized other areas. In the village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, a Jewish-chauvinist militia massacred perhaps 254 Arabs (though some authorities give lower figures, maybe 100 to 110: Morris, Righteous Victims, p.209). That atrocity was immediately condemned by the mainstream Jewish forces. The very next day 60 Jewish medical personnel were ambushed and massacred. In other words it was a horrible communal/national war between peoples living close by each other.

Outside Arab volunteers joined the Palestinian Arabs.

On the authority of the United Nations decision, the Jews declared an independent state on 14 May 1948. They immediately faced invasion and attempted invasion by the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and a task force from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Azzam Pasha, secretary of the Arab League set up with British sponsorship in 1945, declared that it would be "a war of extermination and a momentous massacre" and promised that the Arab forces would "sweep the Jews into the sea".

The Jews were less numerous, and had weaker international support. Israel was not a creation of the western imperialist powers. Britain encouraged and helped organise the Arab invasion, intending to reoccupy the territory as an indispensable "peacekeeper" between Jews and Arabs. The invading Arab forces had many more tanks, armoured cars, planes, etc., and British officers; both Britain and the USA imposed an arms embargo on the Israeli state fighting for its life; Israel depended for arms supplies on smuggling and on Stalinist Czechoslovakia (thanks to a calculation by Stalin that by support for the Jews he could strike a blow against the British Empire). But the Jews, fighting for their existence, won the war.

Over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven out. The new state of Israel would not let them back in; the Arab states would not integrate them economically, or conclude negotiations with Israel which might allow at least some of them to go back, and perhaps get them a livable settlement. All Arab states refused to recognise Israel, or formally to make peace. They regarded the cessation of war as an armistice, until the next round, not as "peace"; they proclaimed, some more loudly and insistently than others, the goal of destroying Israel.

Between 1949 and 1954 there were negotiations, on and off, about taking maybe 100,000 refugees back into Israel and integrating others into neighbouring Arab countries; but obduracy on both sides meant that none of the offers or agreements came to anything.

About 600,000 Jews fled or were driven out from the Arab or Muslim states and into Israel over the following years - about 330,000 in 1948-51, and further numbers, mainly from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, up to the 1960s. The Arabs remaining in Israel after the 1948 war were harassed and deprived of their land, though they were not driven out.

It was an enormous tragedy for the Palestinian Arabs. Socialists must condemn and did condemn much in what the Jewish forces did. But the conflict and the tragedy can be blamed on the Jews alone only if you deny them the right to defend themselves against armed attack - and only if you blame one side, the materially weaker side, and the one marked down by the British Empire and its half-puppet Arab armies for subjugation, for the conflict - that is, for the way the world was organised. In other words, only if you blame the Israeli Jews for not letting themselves be victims again. The Trotskyists in 1948 did not do that. They did not support the Arab armies! None of them, as far as can be told, did - in Palestine, or anywhere else. That sort of stuff came later.


Whether the Palestinian Arabs were, before this point in their history, a distinct nation, clearly different from other Arabs, from Syrians for example, is highly debatable. However, they became a nation, shaped by "1948" and subsequent experiences.

The 1947 United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine had stipulated that there should be a Palestinian Arab state side-by-side with Israel. That promised state was a victim of the turmoil unleashed by the invasion of Israel by Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan (then called Transjordan). Most of the Palestinian Arabs' allotted territory was incorporated into Jordan in 1949. The Palestinians would be tightly-controlled dependents of Arab governments for almost 20 years, until after the defeat of those governments by Israel in the Six Day war of 1967. The Arab states tantalised the Palestinian refugees with promises that they, the Arab states, would soon "drive the Jews into the sea" and "return" the Palestinians to their land. From those promises came only further catastrophes.

In 1952, in Egypt, and 1958, in Iraq, military coups overthrew pro-British monarchies. The new Egyptian regime pursued radical land reforms. In 1956 it nationalised the country's major economic asset, the Suez Canal.

Britain and France went to war against Egypt over the Canal, and Israel helped them. The attack failed; the USA - wanting a world open to its big corporations, rather than a continuation of the old European colonial and semi-colonial empires - objected, and put sufficient economic pressure on Britain and France to force them to withdraw. Egypt's president Nasser received a tremendous boost in prestige, and "Nasserist" pan-Arab nationalism swept the Arab world.

It pursued land reforms, nationalisation of industry, Arab unity, hostility to feudal states like Saudi Arabia - and vehement agitation against the very existence of "the Zionist entity".

In 1967 Egypt blockaded the important Israeli port of Eilat and expelled a UN peacekeeping force from Sinai, where it had been since 1956, at the end of the Suez war. It seemed to be preparing for actual war to go with the perennial war rhetoric, which was stepped up. Whether or not Egypt and other Arab states would in fact have started a war like the "Yom Kippur" war they launched in October 1973 can not be known. Israel struck first, destroying the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on the ground and, within six days, occupying the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights. Between 200,000 and 300,000 West Bank Arabs became refugees, fleeing from the Israeli advance into Jordan.

In the period after the 1967 war, the Israeli government favoured trading "land for peace" - withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for recognition of Israel by the Arab states. Nothing like that was forthcoming. The Arab states continued to proclaim their goal to be the destruction of Israel.

Israel eventually handed back the sparsely populated Sinai, in return for recognition by Egypt, but its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza became long-term. Over time, it acquired a colonial-settler dimension. Jewish settlements were established, implying a move towards permanent Israeli annexation of at least part of the territories.

Until then the Palestine Liberation Organisation had been a puppet of the Arab governments. The defeat of the Arab states spurred it to become relatively independent. From 1969 it launched a guerrilla and terrorist campaign against Israel, and simultaneously tried to present itself to the world in a more reasonable political guise. Where his predecessor Ahmed Shukhairi had baldly repeated the slogan of the 1948 war and advocated "driving the Jews into the sea", the new PLO leader Yasser Arafat called for pre-1948 Palestine to become a "secular democratic state" in which Jews would have the rights of a religious minority.

The "Six Day War" of June 1967 was a disaster for Nasser and the other Arab regimes. Their secular nationalism suffered a blow from which it never recovered. A second war, in October 1973, ended more evenly, but without the Arabs winning back lost territory. A third war followed in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, which had become the main base for Palestinian guerrillas attacking Israel. That war ended in a long, costly and bloody occupation of southern Lebanon by Israeli forces.

These political blows to secular Arab nationalism, together with the disruptions and disappointments of the capitalist development spurred on by the oil industry, helped create the conditions for the rise of reactionary Islamic-fundamentalist politics in the Middle East. The Islamicists gained ground in Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Algeria, and elsewhere before they won strength among the Palestinians, but the infection would eventually spread to the Palestinians, too.

In 1988, the secular nationalists launched an uprising in the territories which Israel had seized in 1967. The Palestine Liberation Organisation formally abandoned the policy of looking to the Arab states to overwhelm Israel, and accepted for the first time the programme of establishing a Palestinian state side by side with Israel on the territory where Palestinians are the majority. In other words - two states for the two nations, Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. Israel had long refused to recognise the PLO, but finally negotiated an ambiguous deal with it in 1993.

Since 1967, Israel has had heavy support from the USA. However, the idea that American imperialism depends on Israel for "control of the Arabs" is false. The USA has friendly links with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

In fact the USA's relationship to Israel owes more to the power of the pro-Israeli lobby in the USA than to anything else. That lobby consists of American Jews, in a political world where "ethnic politics" - Irish, Italian, etc. - predominate, but also, and perhaps more importantly (and in the light of history, ironically) of the powerful fundamentalist Christian churches for which the resurrection of Israel has "Bible-based" significance. Arguably, it has hindered US capital in pursuing its real interests in the area - centred around its oil wealth - more than it has helped it.

Equally, Israel has pursued its own interests, playing states off against each other.

History is a messy business. Isaac Deutscher's image for Jewish-Arab relations of the Jews as a man jumping out of the window of a burning building and accidentally injuring an innocent civilian down below, captures it, I think.


After 1993, Israel ceded patches of the West Bank and Gaza to autonomous Palestinian control, while keeping a firm overall grip on the occupied territories and continuing to establish more Jewish settlements there. In September 2000, peace talks on extending the area of Palestinian control broke down. After a probably deliberate provocative visit by Ariel Sharon, with a large armed escort, to Muslim sites in East Jerusalem, a new, tragic and savage war erupted in the half-independent territory of Israeli-occupied Palestine and inside Israel. The peace-seeking Israeli government fell victim to the fact that its efforts had ended in war, not peace, and a right-wing Israeli government came to power, led by Ariel Sharon. A general political regression followed.

The advances towards a Palestinian state made during the 1990s were one by one cancelled and reversed; so were the advances in the direction of rational politics.

The breakdown of the "peace process" has discredited the Israeli advocates of peace and of conciliating the Palestinians, and swung Israeli public opinion sharply to the right. The Islamic-fundamentalist Hamas, which has never accepted the PLO policy of building a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, was able to set the pace among the Palestinians.

Disappointment on the part of the Palestinian people with what was achieved in the way of independence between the Oslo Agreement of 1993 and the intifada of 2000; no less bitter disappointment with the realities of the Palestinian semi-state ruled by Yasser Arafat, a poor and squalid Palestinian police state; and continued Israeli control and harassment of autonomous Palestine, have fuelled a new explosion of conflict.

Hamas denies the right of Israel to exist, and advocates a Muslim holy war to destroy it. Its bombs, set off by suicidal young men who believe that their death will transport them instantly to a lubricious Playboy-magazine version of Paradise where they will be granted the ministrations of troupes of virgins, are understood to be part of that war. Hamas does not make war to liberate the Palestinian-majority areas from Israeli occupation, but to destroy Israel. Others have followed Hamas into suicide bombing.

Before 1988, the worst victims of the attitude that "Israel must be destroyed before there can be any progress" were the Palestinians themselves. That attitude strengthened the position of the Israeli right; and now the new political regression, since 2000, has strengthened the Israeli chauvinists again.

As part of the regression on both sides, the Arab demand for the "right of return" became central again. This means a collective right to "return" to what is now Israel by nearly four million Palestinians classified as refugees. Implicitly the PLO decision of 1988 meant abandoning the "right of return", and replacing it by negotiations for an agreed programme to resettle some refugees and descendants, over time, in Israel.

"Refugee" here is a primarily political concept, although some 1.2 million Palestinians still live in refugee camps administered by the United Nations. Very few of the people involved are refugees. Most are the descendants of the 700,000 Arabs who were driven out, or fled, during the Israeli war of independence in 1948. The Palestinian refugees remain "refugees" primarily because Arab governments have needed them as a political argument against Israel's right to exist.

Large numbers of Israeli Jews are descendants of the 600,000 Jews who fled or were driven out from the Arab countries in the aftermath of that 1948 war. They are as much "refugees" as the Arabs are. Their fate has been better than that of their Arab counterparts, thanks to Israeli policy; for the sufferings of the Arab refugees, both Israel and the Arab states are responsible.

Many such population exchanges as that of the 700,000 Arabs and 600,000 Jews took place after World War 2. In Europe, thirteen million ethnic Germans were driven west in 1945. A sizeable part of what is now western and north-eastern Poland was formerly German. A question already asked about the pre-1948 Jewish national minority in Palestine needs to be repeated in relation to the 600,000 Israeli Jews who fled or were driven out from Arab countries, and their descendants: why do they not have national rights - the right, together with the other Israeli Jews, to form a nation-state?

The "right of return" in its straightforward and traditional sense is the demand that the events of the 20th century in Palestine which led to the creation of Israel be undone, that the film of history be rolled backwards. It is inconceivable that the Israelis would voluntarily agree to this. The demand that it should is at best the demand that the Jewish state should cease to conceive of itself as a Jewish state - not just get out of the West Bank and Gaza, and cease discriminatory or chauvinist practices, but cease to be a state of the distinct Israeli-Jewish nation.

It is no more realistic than the call that the British, French, German, or Irish states should cease to be British, French, German or Irish, a call quite distinct from the justified one that they should let in far more refugees and migrants. The "right of return" therefore, in practice, comes down to the "demand" for the conquest and destruction of Israel. Its straightforward advocates, like Abu Ali Mustafa of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was assassinated by the Israeli armed forces on 27 August 2001, have been candid about that: "he acknowledged to the Al Ahram paper that the return of four million refugees… would presage the disappearance of Israel" (Guardian, 28 August 2001). The "right of return" never made any sense except when coupled - as in the past it was - with Ahmed Shukhairi's call to drive the Jews into the sea.

Socialists and democrats cannot want that to happen; and in any case it is not going to happen in the definable future. The consequence of raising this "demand" is therefore to push back a solution to the conflict based on Jewish-Arab mutual recognition and the creation of a Palestinian state.

The bitter truth is that the Palestinians are trapped in a horrible series of conflicts and contradictions. Even the best official Israeli attitude to them is shot through with predatory hostility. Through all the years of the "peace process" settlements by Jewish chauvinists continued to be built on Palestinian territory. Even the most conciliatory Israeli governments encouraged and defended the settlements.

And the Palestinians live in Third World conditions, side by side with a Jewish society that is prosperous, modern, and "Western". Israel's repeated closures of the border, in the fighting since September 2000, have cut many Palestinians off from their jobs in Israel, and greatly increased their pauperisation. This is not unconnected with indefensible suicide-bomb slaughter perpetrated by Palestinian Arabs against Israeli civilians, but it is a vicious circle in which Israeli action creates and recreates the social conditions in which Hamas thrives.

Even the most favourable immediate outcome, a politically independent Palestinian state, would do no more than remove the immediate source of conflict, Israeli control. Even with substantial foreign aid to that Palestinian state, it would not abolish the material inequality between the Palestinians and the "Western" society of Israel.

Hamas, with its mystical belief in an afterlife paradise combined with Islamic-fundamentalist bigotry and rejection of the modern world of which Israeli society is seen as a representative, grew up on the terrain prepared by the political impasse. It is now a factor in its own right: no political solution can remove its grievances.

In this tragic conflict, socialists and consistent democrats stand for the immediate solution that will achieve the minimum of justice for both Arabs and Jews. They advocate Jewish and Arab mutual recognition and conciliation. That advocacy can lay the basis for working-class unity; and working-class unity can bring the fundamental solution to the dilemma of the Palestinians - a transformation of the whole region, including the Arab countries which have huge natural wealth and large working classes, by way of a socialist revolution, and the creation of a Middle East federation which guarantees the national self-determination of minorities in the region such as the Kurds and the Israeli Jews.


In response to the tragic fate of the Palestinian Arabs, too many socialists in effect propose that we abandon a class interpretation of history in favour of an account in terms of good and bad peoples and the malignity of demonic forces like "Zionism". They abandon any attempt at an objective overall Marxist assessment of the history of the Arab-Jewish conflict, including factual accounts of what really happens and why. They settle uncritically into repeating the hurt account of the losers in a national conflict in which, had their side won in the past, they would have done to the other side everything that was done to them or worse.

Because they are indignant at Israeli treatment of those they defeated, they demonise the Jews, or "Zionists", backwards in time for generations, and forwards in time to the hoped-for day when the forces of progress, enlightenment, justice and righteousness - which just happen to include Saddam Hussein, the King of Saudi Arabia and Osama bin Laden! - will triumph and conquer Israel.

They stigmatise Israel, surrounded by enemies, for its collaboration with "imperialism", and ignore the connections of the Arab states with imperialism - now, and right back to British-Arab collaboration during World War 2 to stop the Jewish national minority opening the gates of Palestine to Jews who otherwise faced annihilation.

They pardon with a benign shrug of complacent shoulders the 1940s collaboration of Palestinian Arabs and, in the first place their leader, Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, with the Nazis for the specific purposes of a common programme of wiping out the Jews. They demonise the Jewish leaders and forgive the Mufti, who tried to organise a Muslim brigade to fight for Hitler and whose supporters organised a sizeable anti-Jewish pogrom in Baghdad in 1941 during the anti-British, pro-Nazi Iraq coup of Rashid Ali.

This viewpoint is shaped and determined mechanically and comprehensively by the taking of sides with the defeated side - the "oppressed". Its incoherent "anti-imperialism" becomes an entirely negative anti-capitalism of such blindness that it loses sight of the positive, liberating socialist alternative, and sees allies in people such as Osama bin Laden, who counterpose to modern capitalism the social, political and religious outlook of an imagined centuries-old past.

But suppose the other side had won: suppose, to tell the shortest version of the story, that the Nazis and their despised Arab clients had won - even temporarily, as they might have in the Middle East in 1941-2 - and that the half million Palestinian Jews had gone the way of the six million in Europe? Why then, our sympathy would now be on the other side - with "the poor, poor Jews."

The Jews are on the other side of the Zionophobes' good people/bad people divide because they did not let themselves be crushed - because, in a limited sphere, they prevailed, in a world where two-thirds of Europe's Jews, six million people, failed even to survive.

The standpoint which bases itself on identifying "good" and "bad" peoples has no point of contact with Marxism or even with the old-fashioned liberal belief in the equality of peoples. For us, there are no bad peoples. We look to working-class unity and reconciliation. In national/communal conflicts like those of the Middle East (or Northern Ireland), we look for rational, democratic compromise.

Socialists support the Palestinian Arab demand for liberation and justice - that is, for self-determination in an independent state on the territory where they now constitute a majority. But we do not demonise one people, or erect Zionism into a demon-ex-machina force above history. We see it within history. We look at the real history. That is the only basis on which to prepare the minds of the working class, in the first place of Arab and Jewish workers, for the fundamental solution to the conflict: consistent democracy and socialism.

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