Support Israeli army refuseniks

The heroic rebellion by Israeli Defence Force reservists has strengthened the fight for Palestinian national rights. It is a second front. They are refusing to be drafted into the occupied territories and become involved in fighting what they call a "war of the settlements". This war, they rightly state, is fought "in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people". Initially their numbers were small - around 50 - but the signatures on their petition have now reached nearly 300. Though still prepared to "continue serving in the Israel Defence Forces in any mission that serves Israel's defence", the reservists recognise that "missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose". This is an excellent rebuttal to the argument that the Israeli people are irredeemably reactionary and in the thrall of chauvinistic Zionism. True, the petition is couched in some places in patriotic terms. However, what we have here is a clear break from the social-chauvinism peddled by the likes of Arial Sharon. A clear recognition that it is not in Israel's interest to oppress the Palestinians. Something that should be welcomed by all communists, socialists and democrats. Marx famously argued that, while Britain's oppression of Ireland continued, its own working class could never be free. The same holds true for the Israeli working class - they cannot be free while the oppression of the Palestinians continues. Unsurprisingly the stand taken by the reservists has sent shock waves through Israeli politics. A demonstration called to support the 'refuseniks', as the Israeli justice minister, Meir Sheetrit, branded them, attracted some 10,000 Israelis onto the streets. A significant increase on the handful usually expected to attend such protests. No wonder the military authorities stepped in, jailing three reservists for 28 days in an effort to stem the tide. However, it would be a mistake to assume, as some do, that the 'dovish' left will automatically gain at the expense of the Sharon government. An example of which was provided by Uri Avnery of the Israeli peace group, Gush Shalom: "Now I perceive the approach of a great wave of opposition to the bloody war against the Palestinians" ('Something is moving', Gush Shalom website, February 16). The paradox was summed up by the daily Ha'aretz: "The killings still feed the rage, vengeance and tank-barrel policies. And even if there is mounting criticism of Sharon, it could yet bring back Benjamin Netanyahu" (February 20). The events of the last week are an example. Maysoun Hayek, a pregnant Palestinian woman, was being driven by her husband to the Rafidia hospital in Nablus after she went into labour in their village of Zeita, 20 kilometres away. Their car approached an Israeli checkpoint. Israeli soldiers opened fire, critically injuring her father and herself and shooting her husband dead. The consistent pattern of strike and counterstrike was reinforced later on the same day by a Palestinian attack on a group of Israelis at a bus stop north of Jerusalem, injuring about 10 people. After the most violent week of the second intifada the weekend was, comparatively, the calm in the eye of the storm. Six Israeli soldiers were killed last Tuesday and that led to the inevitable reprisals. Gaza, Ramallah and Nablus were all bombarded, as were the sleeping quarters of Yasser Arafat's guards. Eighteen Palestinians were left dead and several more pieces of the Palestinian Authority's already decrepit infrastructure were reduced to a smoking pile of rubble. On the surface there appeared to be little change to an all too familiar pattern. As Sheetrit put it, "They escalate and we escalate harder" (The Economist February 23). In the midst of this maelstrom, Sharon used his 'address to the nation' to promise a continuation of his government's hard-line stance. The usual chauvinist appeals for 'national unity' against the 'terrorist' aggressor, combined with his call the previous day for "many more [armed] initiatives, all the time, that will give a deeper and more intensive continuum of actions". 'New' proposals (in fact, pretty similar to those made in January) for the establishment of 'buffer zones' between Israel and the bantustan Palestinian 'state' were unveiled. Thus Israel would withdraw from some areas supposedly under Palestinian control, while the spreading settlements would remain under its wing. Unilateral separation, an option favoured by some peace groups and sections of the Labor Party, would mean the effective dismantling of all the settlements, politically unthinkable for Sharon, Likud and its rightist coalition partners. Tellingly Sharon also felt the need to question why "raucous voices and despair are rising from the public" - an allusion to growing opposition to his government within Israel itself and a growing polarisation between the Israeli left and right. Radicalisation of the type demonstrated by the reservists is matched by intensified chauvinism on the right. Likud is finding an increasingly vocal champion in Netanyahu. He, along with others outside of Likud like Avigdor Liberman, the infrastructure minister, advocate the overthrow of Arafat and the reoccupation of Palestinian lands on the grounds that it "would make clear to any future Palestinian leadership that if you resort to terrorism, your fate will be like that of the Taliban and Arafat". If Likud fears for its survival, then it is possible Sharon will be offered up to the electorate as a sacrifice. Netanyahu will then be his most likely successor. That is why Sharon has been forced to rein in the hard right of his own party, dismissing Netanyahu's "fool's advice", and is now paradoxically heavily reliant on the Labor Party to provide a counterweight within the coalition. From the standpoint of Israeli capitalism, the programme of the hard right is proving costly. The Israeli economy is currently enduring a biting recession: it actually contracted by 0.5% last year and unemployment his risen over the 10% mark - a record high. The Labor Party 'doves' represent in reality a more far-sighted section of the Israeli bourgeoisie and establishment who hark back to the 'glory days' of 1994 and1995, when the Israeli economy grew by 7% and 6.8% respectively. Yitzhak Rabin had just signed the Oslo accords and foreign investments reached the level of several billion dollars a year. Now of course things are different - war is not necessarily good for business. Opposition to the government has few outlets. Under 'normal' circumstances, that role would officially be taken by the Labor Party, but today it is an integral part of the coalition, and the 'centre-left' Meretz, the largest grouping outside it, only has a handful of Knesset members. Though its programme is virtually indistinguishable from that of the Labor doves, it is nonetheless in a useful position to capitalise on discontent - being outside the government allows it leader, Yossi Sarid, to criticise "too little democracy and too much consensus" with a degree of impunity (Financial Times February 18). If Sharon is metaphorically under siege, then the bête noire of the Israelis, Yasser Arafat, remains literally so. While he will no longer be imprisoned in his compound, he is still confined to the city limits of Ramallah. His 'rock and a hard place' position was epitomised by the circumstances under which the Israeli 'concessions' were gained. They were a 'reward' for his arrest of three activists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who are held responsible by Israel for the murder of the chauvinist bigot, Rehavam Zeevi, the former tourist minister. The PFLP warns that Arafat's policy "constitutes a grave danger to the unity of our people and the unity in the field" (press release, February 21). In arresting militants whose target was hated by every Palestinian (ie, Zeevi), Arafat is risking a crisis of legitimacy. How far his writ runs is already questionable. Despite the fact that he has repeatedly called for a ceasefire, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is linked to Fatah, continues to carry out attacks against Israelis. This calls into question his control over even his own organisation, not to mention the likes of Hamas. As within Israel, there are grave contradictions within the Palestinian camp. A similar polarisation is taking place, with rising support for Hamas on the one hand and a growing recognition that the current situation is an impasse on the other. Some commentators have seen the turn in Israeli opinion as an opportunity to halt the violence and launch a campaign to win over the Israeli public. Dr James Zogby, writing in the Jerusalem Times, states that suicide bombings "have resulted in increased suffering and done great damage to the Palestinian cause" (February 22). He advocates a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience. While we condemn the murderous attacks on civilians committed by reactionary fundamentalists, which are aimed at perpetrating the maximum number of deaths, we defend the right of the Palestinian people to resist the Israeli occupation and fight to advance their national rights using violent means. However, more than ever the overriding need is a fight for the politics of consistent democracy on both sides of what is a national struggle. The excellent rebellion by Israeli reservists shows how unity between the Palestinian people and Israeli people who oppose Sharon's warmongering can be built. For Israeli workers a programme of class independence is essential. This needs to go much farther than what is envisaged by most Israeli doves, which stops short of militantly fighting for the national rights of the Palestinians. While obviously such a programme would advocate the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops, it would have to avoid echoing the rightwing Labor call for "separation" - ie, the erection of barbed wire fences between Israel and the present Palestinian Authority entity. Israel must accept a negotiated settlement which includes the right to return of all exiled Palestinians and the ceding of territory, where Palestinians form the majority of the population, to a fully independent, democratic Palestinian state. In addition the Israeli regime has a responsibility to compensate the Palestinian people for decades of occupation, death and destruction and provide aid for the reconstruction of villages, towns and cities reduced to rubble by the IDF. While the Palestinian intifada has been heroic, that does not mean that communists and revolutionary socialists should be uncritical cheerleaders. It is our duty to help map out the way forward. Anybody who argues that the intifada on its own will be able to triumph without assistance from the Israeli working class is ignoring all the evidence available to us daily on television screens. Progressives on both sides must recognise and champion the other's national rights. The Palestinians are a nation without a state. The demand for a Palestinian state is right and just. But the Israeli jewish people are no longer mere settlers and immigrants. Through history they now constitute a fully fledged nation - a nation which has the right to exist. Only by starting from these democratic foundations can unity and trust between Palestinian and Israeli jewish workers be cemented and antagonism be overcome. James Mallory * The IDF reservists' petition can be found at their website: http://www.seruv.org.il/defaultEng.asp