Alarm bells ring for Palestine

Bush's March 17 declaration of war against Iraq was preceded by renewed mutterings about the Palestinian question. Bush and Blair are promising to publish the long-floated "road map to peace" in tandem with their 'shock and awe' invasion of Iraq. This vaunted plan is a corollary of Bush's Palestine speech last summer, where he demanded the ousting of Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat (denounced as "tainted by terrorism") as a precondition for American backing for any semblance of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian response to Bush's suggestion last year was entirely justified contempt for its imperial arrogance. Now, however, Arafat has sought to alter the appearance of his administration by appointing a prime minister to take over, at least formally, many of the functions that he himself has wielded ever since the Palestinian Authority was formed in the aftermath of the Oslo accords in the early 1990s - the haggling over the role and powers of the prime minister is still going on. Of course Arafat has very little real power in any case, particularly since Sharon's bloody re-occupation of much of the occupied territories over the past couple of years or so as a response to the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada. However, over the whole preceding period, Arafat's regime had become discredited in view of its extreme corruption and its collaboration with Israeli repression of Palestinian dissent - in particular any effective protest against the continuing Israeli settlement of Palestinian land. Palestinian dissidents such as Edward W Said have pointed out that the seizing of land by settlers has actually speeded up under the supposedly autonomous Palestinian authority. The American hammering on about 'democracy' under Arafat is a cynical attempt to exploit something that the Clinton administration, and American ruling circles in a more general sense, were themselves instrumental in creating. Just as Saddam Hussein's regime, now the bête noire of the Anglo-American imperialists, was in fact sustained and encouraged - particularly in its torture and killing of communists and other fighters against oppression - when it was considered a useful ally by those now moving to overthrow it, so the dictatorial, corrupt nature of Arafat's regime was a function of its role as a collaborator with the US and Israel against its own people. One thing is for sure: any Palestinian state promoted by Bush, in the event that he was actually prepared to see it become a reality, would be equally corrupt and repressive. Any new arrangement would be determined not by the interests of the Palestinians, but rather those of US imperialism and its strategic alliance with Israel. In the context of the now-declared war against Iraq, however, it is not the manoeuvring around the 'road map' that it foremost in the minds of the Palestinians, whose territory and very lives have been ravaged by Sharon's murderous army and arrogant settlers. Rather, it is a very obvious fear of what Sharon may do under the cover of war itself. Everyone knows that decisive sections of the Israeli establishment, including Sharon himself and leading elements of the ruling Likud bloc, are fervent devotees of the idea of Eretz Yisrael - greater Israel. This concept, in fact, is inherent in the idea of Zionism itself: the whole of the territory of historic Palestine is claimed for the Jewish people. This ideological commitment is the driving force of the settlers, who for the entire period of the so-called peace process have continued to seize more and more Palestinian land - it is this, above anything else, that has fuelled the growth of despair, and thereby islamic fundamentalism and suicide bombings, among the Palestinians. The war against Iraq now provides this most openly racist and militarist Israeli government with the ideal opportunity, under cover of the nearby battle, to engage in mass expulsions of the Palestinian population, particularly from the West Bank. Indeed, as the war drums have beaten louder and louder over the past months, Israeli forces in the territories have engaged in bloodier and bloodier acts, and there has been an upsurge of shootings of demonstrators, assassinations, beatings, house demolitions - you name it. It is not clear, at this point, what the outcome of this situation will be, and whether the Israelis will take advantage - or rather be politically able to take advantage - of the situation engendered by Bush and Blair's war. It is public knowledge that at least some elements within or close to the Bush administration are actively in favour of the mass expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza. What is also known is that Bush - or rather the imperialist strategists that surround him - have plans to use the invasion and occupation of Iraq to engage in a major redrawing of the political map of the Middle East. Exactly where this leaves the Palestinians is an open question. From the point of view of the Blair government, however, any mass expulsion by Israel would be seen as the direct result of the deployment of British troops against Iraq: given the current mass sympathy for the Palestinians that is partly fuelling the anti-war movement, such a move could well, coming on top of the current massive government crisis over the war, be the final nail in Blair's coffin and the trigger for a decisive split in Labour. On the other hand, given the current Bush administration's antipathy for the recalcitrant French imperialists and more generally for 'old Europe', it is questionable how much weight such considerations would carry with Bush and co. In Israel and in the occupied territories, the possibility of a massive act of expulsion has given rise to great alarm, including among those Israeli individuals and organisations who stand for Palestinian rights. An 'Appeal to world public opinion from Palestinians under siege' has been issued by the Palestine Emergency Committees - a "coalition of NGOs, national organisations, charitable societies, professional unions, political parties, ministries and public figures operating through a coordinating office in Ramallah". It ominously warns: "Statements made over the last two months by both Israeli officials and media indicate what they are proposing, planning and preparing to do in the Palestinian occupied territories in case of war against Iraq. These statements could be meant as intimidation, deterrent or real threats. In view of our past and present experience we, the Palestinians, tend to see these as a threat endangering our very existence in this land of ours." Their appeal was issued in conjunction with a 'Statement of support' from a parallel Israeli Emergency Committee, noting that "the dangers posed to the Palestinian people in case of an American attack on Iraq are real and severe. Extreme rightwing elements in our political and military leaderships try to exploit the war situation in order to commit acts of 'transfer'." These appeals underline the possibilities and the dangers. As the most consistent democrats, socialists and communists should be a warning about this dreadful possibility. There is a threat of further catastrophe, a further 1948, for the Arab people of the territories - indeed some might say that this is the best chance that Sharon and the extreme right in Israel are likely to get - a barbaric prospect. We, on the other hand, stand for the right of self-determination of both peoples in the territory of historic Palestine, and concretely for the existence of two democratic and secular states. The anti-war movement must build whatever solidarity it is possible to deliver with the Palestinian people in these dark and dangerous days, as an integral part of our own struggle against imperialist war. Ian Donovan