Hell for Palestinians

Despite the humanitarian disaster in Gaza and pleas for a ceasefire, the Israeli government seems determined to continue its offensive against Hamas. Mark Fischer talked to veteran Israeli socialist Moshé Machover

Why this conflict in the Gaza Strip, and why has it broken out now?

As usual in such things, there is more than simply one reason.

First, there are the coming Israeli elections - but this is really the most superficial reason. The parties in the coalition - Kadima and Labour - are competing with the main opposition party, Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. But this is one reason amongst others.

As for the timing, there are a couple things to consider. First of all, it was convenient for Israel to do the deed during the Christmas season when much of world - particularly the west - is distracted. Then there is the hiatus between the two American presidents.

We have a lame duck president and a man who is not yet in command. This is one of several reasons that have converged and led the Israelis to the action they have taken at this time.

However, it is important to contextualise these reasons. The competition I mention above between the main establishment parties would not make sense if they did not all share the same overall strategy for dealing with the Palestinians and Hamas. If the government had important strategic differences with Likud, it would do something different.

The long-term strategy that is shared by all the major Israeli parties is - if possible - to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from where they can be found in any concentrations. Short of that, the medium-term intention is to fragment them into disconnected ghettos. The worst of these is the Gaza Strip - it has been described as the biggest open prison in the world. It is one and a half million people with very little economic infrastructure. What exists is regularly targeted by Israeli military action and Israel controls and often blocks all access to the area. It is hell for the Palestinians there.

And it is important to remember that Israel is aided in all of this by Egypt. There is one stretch of the Gaza border that it shares with Egypt - and that is closed and heavily guarded by Egyptian troops.

As part of its more immediate to medium-term plan, Israel is determined to destroy any Palestinian leadership. They have two methods. One, they deploy massive military force to simply physically annihilate it. Two, if cowed rather than destroyed, it becomes like the Palestinian Authority leadership. Quislings. A leadership that has capitulated to Israel and the US. Thus it is morally destroyed.

This is what it is trying to do to Hamas. The easiest route to destroy the leadership of the Palestinians is to use physical force. Of course, they cannot hope to get rid of Hamas as a movement. They cannot finally defeat Hamas, but they can make it difficult if not impossible for Hamas to exercise political power in Gaza.

In this sense, it is significant that their military onslaught has specifically targeted instruments of simple political power that Hamas utilises to rule. Hamas is a sort of quasi-state in Gaza. Thus, the very first act of the Israelis was the deliberate slaughter of policemen. (Who are civilians according to international law, by the way.) They targeted graduating policemen and killed 40 of them with one bomb.

Then, they targeted various buildings with some political significance. Offices, schools, the university and mosques. The mosques are particularly significant. Hamas is a political-religious movement. It organises its mass base through the mosques. Israel used the excuse that weapons were being stored in the mosques - I think this is spin. Their political significance is different from being a simple arsenal.

The mosque is where Hamas interacts and organises its mass base support. This is why Israel has targeted them. Ditto the schools and Islamic university. These are actions calculated to make it impossible for Hamas to exercise political power except through the good offices of Israel once it has capitulated.

The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah underwent the same process. The Israelis deployed great force against them. They capitulated, but not enough for the Israelis. Arafat resisted jumping the last hurdle, as it were. He baulked at the final capitulation. Then they assassinated him - a view that is pretty much accepted as fact now, despite the absence of hard evidence.

So, Israel’s plan is to make it impossible for a non-compliant Palestinian leadership to exercise any power.

And, of course, it makes no difference to Israeli thinking that Hamas is in power as a result of an election.

That’s right. Elections were held three years ago in the whole of the Palestinian territory and according to all observers were legitimate and fair in format. And Hamas won. Then in June of 2007, there was a plot to actually oust Hamas. The PA did not accept the result of the elections and Hamas’s democratic victory. It planned a coup in Gaza, Hamas’s main base.

Hamas discovered these plans and pre-empted it with a counter-coup. This is why today there are two Palestinian territories controlled by two different governments. People forget this. There is a tendency to speak about Hamas as some sort of illegitimate power, a dictatorial regime. But whatever you think about the politics of Hamas, this is not true. They won.

Precisely because of that, they have to have a close relationship and interaction with that mass base. The ongoing rocket campaign is presumably a gesture to this mass base - to show resistance to Israel, even if it is largely token and ineffectual.

To be honest, Hamas has very few military options. Also, it is quite strategically inept. The rockets are morally very hard to defend, being indiscriminate. They fall haphazardly and thus are a mirror image of Israel’s tactic of collective punishment, albeit on a far, far smaller scale.

But, despite their ineffectual nature, they give Israel a big propaganda advantage. The world is made to believe that these rockets are somehow the military equivalent of Israel’s bombardment. Which is a travesty; it is a difference of five orders of magnitude. This is confirmed by simply looking at the relative number of casualties.

What kind of strategy is this? What political advantage is obtained by Hamas and the people they lead by doing this? It is very difficult to see what they hope to gain. It is more or less an expression of frustration and desperation. It is just an attempt at blind revenge.

Of course, Hamas do have very few options. The Israeli military are outside, surrounding them - until recently, that is. They are also heavily infiltrated by agents of Israel. This is a result of Israel’s enormous resources compared to the desperately poor Palestinians and their political organisations. They can put huge pressure on people to collaborate.

It is important to remember the sequence of events to understand the real balance of power. It was not Hamas that broke the ceasefire that was in place for six months. In fact, it was an Israeli initiative - again on a convenient date when the world’s attention was elsewhere. November 4-5, the date of the American elections.

On that date, there was an Israeli incursion into Gaza. They killed a group of Hamas men, justifying it by claiming that they were digging a tunnel that could have been used for attacks inside Israel. In addition, during the whole six-month truce, Israel did not lift its siege - it continued with the blockade, in itself an act of war. So Hamas had very little motivation to continue what was a very one-sided ceasefire.

The Israeli authorities knew that Hamas would do the only thing it could do. That is, to fire off a few dozen indiscriminate rockets. Israel was thus preparing for this incursion some six months ago, from the very beginning of the ceasefire. It is not an ad hoc reaction to provocations - it was very carefully organised.

You mentioned that previously the Israeli armed forces were surrounding Gaza: that Hamas fired off rockets more in hope than expectation. Obviously the situation has now changed with the land invasion. Is it possible that Israel gets bogged down and is given a bloody nose: a Lebanon 2006 scenario, in other words?

In Lebanon Israel was in some sense defeated and its army performed very badly. Such an outcome is not at all likely in Gaza. Conditions are very different on the ground.

But the ‘least worst’ that one can hope for is that Israel will not succeed in its aim of pulverising every manifestation of Palestinian resistance.

I presume that Hamas’s popularity has grown?

Yes, all the reports confirm that, which is a direct contradiction of the way the Israelis conceptualise the process. They have attempted this tactic many times and it has always failed. They believe that if they make the lives of the civilian population unbearably miserable, they will blame their own leaders and overthrow them.

They tried it in Lebanon against various Shi’ite organisations including Hezbollah. They tried it in the Palestinian occupied territories. It failed every time. People are not that stupid.

The Palestinian Authority is certainly discredited - but that is because of its relationship with Israel and the US, the source of the people’s misery. Its whole armed wing, the various militias and police units, are all effectively controlled by the CIA. Politically, the PA has capitulated so much - and got next to nothing to show for it - that people have incredible contempt for it. Clearly, so does Israel, given how cheaply it has been able to buy this organisation.

The only thing that has been conceded is some petty privileges for the top leaders of the PA. They have special permits to travel on roads that are otherwise reserved for Israelis. They have some economic advantages, permits for some business enterprises, etc. But politically, the Israelis give them nothing.

Where is the left?

I know more about Israel. In Gaza, there are certainly some groups, but they will not be active openly. They work to a certain extent underground.

In Israel, encouragingly there have been some big anti-war demontrations. Some organisers claim numbers of the order of 10,000 people in Tel-Aviv. And, of course, in the Palestinian towns within Israel there have been some even bigger demos, mainly of Palestinians, but also including some Israeli Jews joining them. I saw reports of 30,000 in one such town.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of the population support what their government is doing. But it is encouraging that there is some opposition, even if currently it is on the fringe.

What about Obama? How have people reacted to his silence on the Israeli actions?

Perhaps small changes in American policy are possible: we don’t know yet. But I want to draw your attention to an important fact.

People have been debating whether Israel and the pro-Israeli lobby in the US actually control the policy of that country on the region and actually force on it policies that are ‘against its interests’. Or is the support for Israel a function of the fact that it is actually performing services that advance US interests?

If the pro-Israel lobby was running things, the present lame-duck administration - which is not under any obligations, given that it has finished its mandate and is not due for re-election - it would be free to speak out if they perceived Israel’s actions to be detrimental to the US. There would be no sanction that could be exercised against it.

And yet, the US administration is actually repeating word for word the Israeli mantra. This is proof that the complete US support for Israel’s action flows from the fact that it is serving American interests, as the dominant part of the US elite perceives them (although there are different views within this group.)

There is, of course, a price to pay for this. It increases the hostility to the US amongst Arabs and beyond that - but it is a price the elite considers worth paying.

But Israel fans such levels of hatred that this becomes a disruptive factor in the region. How does that serve US interests?

Those who frame US policy care more about having a local subservient regime than that sort of fallout. The client state can deal with the wrath of the masses, not the US. This is what the US is doing in Pakistan, for example.

The role of Israel - the US’s close ally - will enrage the Egyptian masses both against Israel and their own government. But this is a price the US rulers consider worth paying in order to have a subservient regime in power that has - so far - been able to suppress the anger of the working people.

Of course, you can see nuanced differences within the American regime. The US state department is more aware of the price that the American support for Israel entails than other parts of the government. In much the same way that - when Britain was dominant in the Middle East after World War I - it was said that the foreign office was more attuned to mass resentment in the Arab region.

So the US administration is not monolithic, but it does seem to believe that the Arab regimes can keep the lid on revolt from below.

The silence of the leaders of the Arab states has been deafening. Will this destabilise these states or are the Americans right - will the lid stay on?

The main culprit in this has been the leaders of Egypt, of course. They have not only been silent: they have actively colluded with the Israeli siege of Gaza.

I hope the US is wrong in its calculation. The existence of some of these regimes is threatened. It would be foolish not to expect some kind of revolutionary change in Egypt. The working class there has plenty of reasons to be restless and we saw enormous demonstrations during 2008. And the issue of Palestine was always mentioned - it is an added issue on the agenda of a working class that is already stirring, an extra grievance against their government.

Looking over the region, I don’t think any Arab regime is entirely secure.

In this lies the solution, surely. If we simply take the dynamics of the relationship between Israel and Gaza or the West Bank, abstracted from the broader struggle across that region as a whole, then there is no hope. It appears intractable. But when you factor in the prospect of working class struggle across the region, that offers a way forward.

I absolutely agree. I think this is why all the debates over one or two states - when it is within the Palestinian ‘box’ and ignoring the regional dimension - are a waste of breath. Within the Israel-Palestine ‘box’ there is no short or long-term solution - the relation of forces simply does not admit it. You can paint a beautifully abstract solution, whether in one or two states, but it is meaningless. In the present balance between the two no equitable solution can emerge.

The only possibility that is credible must take place in the context of a profound social transformation of the whole region. This can offer both the carrot and the stick that will persuade the Israeli masses to accept - and to actively want - an equitable solution.

Unfortunately, that means that in the short to medium term we are confined to defensive actions. It does not mean that we must be simply passive before an Arab socialist revolution appears on the horizon, but what we can do is mobilise solidarity to prevent the worst happening to the Palestinians.

And the worst is ethnic cleansing - something that is always an impending danger.