Socialism or Barbarism: What Future now for Israel and Palestine

“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”

Rosa Luxemburg, the Junius Pamphlet (The Crisis in German Social Democracy), 1915.

On October 7th, 2500 Hamas fighters streamed across gaps in the fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel and headed in the direction of military installations, kibbutz, villages, and small towns. Within hours, over 1400 Israelis had been killed. How many of the dead were soldiers in uniform and how many civilians is unclear. Claim and counterclaim have swirled in the media and on social media. It is alleged that whole families were wiped out, that gruesome methods were used to kill babies and children, and that women were raped. The Israeli state has reasons to exaggerate events, and Hamas reasons to diminish, but whatever the exact numbers,it’s beyond doubt that there was deliberate targeting of civilians, and that some were killed by extremely brutal methods. Also, beyond doubt is that of the over 240people taken back to Gaza as captives most are non-combatants.

“They make a desert and call it peace”.

The Israeli state has previously engaged in collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of Gaza and needed no excuse to do so again. Within hours of the Hamas attacks 2.3 million people were trapped in conditions of mediaeval siege. Water and electricity have been cut off and food supplies cannot enter the strip except through the Rafah crossing, and only in totally inadequate quantities. The Israeli air force has launched wave after wave of attacks, and at the time of writing has killed nearly 10,000 Palestinians, almost all non-combatants. The feared ground offensive began on October 28th and the death toll is rising by the hour. There has been conflict onthe West Bank where armed Jewish settlers have been attacking Palestinian residents. On the Israel-Lebanon border Hezbollah and the Israeli army have exchanged fire. Even the Houthi rebels in Yemen have become involved, sending missiles and dronesup the Red Sea to Israeli controlled territory. An escalation of conflict across the region in the coming days and weeks is not excluded.

The Israeli state has declared its intention to obliterate Hamas as a coherent organised force in the Gaza Strip. Such a “victory” will only be achieved by the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents and the destruction of virtually every building:  In the words of the Roman historian Tacitus, “they make a desert, and call it peace”. Even if this is the outcome, Hamas will survive as an underground movement in Gaza and will maintain its structures elsewhere. A new generation of recruits will flock into its ranks or into other Islamist groups. More than 1000 Hamas militants died in firefights with the Israeli army on October 7th and would have expected this fate as they woke that morning. They were young men who had known only poverty and repression and could see no way forward other than meeting brutal violence with equal violence. The next generation will follow their path unless an alternative is built.

Hamas cannot defeat the Israeli state in direct conflict, but it hopes to inflict significant military casualties in its well-prepared network of tunnels and fortifications. The sheer scale of the air bombardment, utilising the most advanced weaponson the planet supplied by the USA and other Western powers, will already have decreased its ability to do so, but the Israeli army will struggle in street-to-street fighting.Hamas, however, has already scored a major victory, both militarily, and especially in propaganda terms. It was able to hit the fourth largest army in the world with well-planned, well-executed, and ruthless force and to gain the upper hand for the best part of a day.  Hundreds of Israeli soldiers were killed. The elite “Golani Brigade” suffered more casualties in one day than in the 1967 and 1973 wars combined.

After decades of defeats Hamas can claim to have bloodied the nose of the Israeli army but the leadership appears to understand that military success has been overshadowed by its callous treatment of civilians. Some reports suggest that Hamas expected a solid line of Israeli defence, and was surprised by how far its fighters penetrated Israel. In recent days it has both denied that civilians were killed, andat other times accepted there were massacres,but blamed civilians from Gaza who crossed through the fence behind its fighters and attacked Israeli civilians without authority. A prominent spokesman for Hamas in Lebanon cut an interview short when he was pressed on civilian casualties.

The reality is that Hamas coldly and deliberately killed non-combatants. Socialists do not support or condone or defend the deliberate targeting of civilians.  This does not mean that we echo the hypocritical words of the leading capitalist powers such as the United States, Britain and France. Socialists understand that that thecapitalist class will act ruthlessly in defence of its interests, defending brutal military tactics as “necessary” and dismissing the suffering of civilians as “collateral damage”. George Bush boasted of the “shock and awe” wave of missile strikes and bombing in the first hours of the second Iraq war. Electricity and water were deliberately cut off to the millions who lived in Baghdad, one of the greatest and oldest cities in the world. When water is cut there is no sewage system and disease spreads. With no water and no power food becomes hard to source. This onslaught only differed from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in its greater efficiency and the United States attempts to avoid scrutiny. Putin’s armies are both less effective and less concerned about hiding their actions. The Western media also play a key role, exposing and condemning the actions of the Russian army whilst the actions of the Israeli army are explained and justified.

Is there a Solution Under Capitalism?

Around the world millions have come onto the streets in support of the Palestinian people, shocked and outraged by the horror unfolding before their eyes. The mobilisation will continue in the coming days and weeks as the ground fighting intensifies but if the anti-war movement is to succeed, numbers alone are not enough. The movement needs a leadership which can both explain the reasons behind this seemingly intractable conflict and put forward a credible alternative. Otherwise, a sense of despair and nihilism will take hold.

When young people and workers are asking questions, the revolutionary left has a duty to provide answers and leadership. Unfortunately, much of the left is putting forward confused or one-sided positions. There are some on the demonstrations, and on speakers’ platforms, who turn a blind eye to the suffering of the Israeli civilians who were attacked on October 7th. There is no explanation as to how endless war and conflict can be ended and how peace and justice for all in the Middle East will be achieved. 

Once the embers of war are extinguished, a new “peace process”, led by the United States, may develop. The possibility of a two-state solution will once again be on the table. The shock of events might mean that progress is made for a time, especially if new leaders emerge to replace the aging head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and corrupt and discredited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We can state in advance that a solution within the confines of the capitalist system is excluded.

The evidence that capitalism cannot solve the unresolved national question is all around us. In the 1990s, a series of accords and agreements seemed to suggest that solutions were possible. The Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995 held out to the possibility of lasting peace in the Middle East and the creation of a Palestinian state. The Dayton Accords brought an end to the devastating wars in what was once the unitary state of Yugoslavia. The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland marked the end of 30 years of conflict and ushered in an era of power-sharing. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh was fought to a standstill and was frozen in the mid-1990s.

In 2023 all these agreements are under stress. There has been no functioning administration in Northern Ireland for nearly two years as tensions over Brexit have led to the largest party of the Protestant community (the Democratic Unionist Party) withdrawing from government. Increased tensions in the Balkans saw the Serbian government send troops to the Kosovo region over the summer and Serbian paramilitary units engage in firefights with the Bosnian Army.  The Azerbaijani army moved into Nagorno Karabakh with little resistance just weeks ago and almost the entire population of the Armenian enclave fled. The tragedy of Nagorno Karabakh demonstrates in practice one “solution” which is possible under capitalism- the forced movement of an entire people under threat of annihilation.

To say that there is no solution to intractable national questions under capitalism does not mean that we simply observe and wait for the success of the socialist revolution. The solution will be found in the struggle for socialism and will be fully realised in a socialist future. The way forward now is for the workers movement to give take its place at the head of all struggles for the liberation of humankind, including the right of all communities, peoples and nations to determine their own future and to live in peace.

In all arenas where national identities clash, periods of conflict are followed by periods of temporary re-stabilisation, but with no genuine resolution to deep-seated problems. Under capitalism, the national question is not just a question of identity, but also of competition over scarce resources. This is nowhere more evident than in Israel-Palestine where neighbouring communities compete over scarce fertile land and in particular water resources. The Israeli state has grown rich, not just through American subvention but also by stealing water and resources from Palestinian areas. Whereas the Israeli working class remain an oppressed class they have benefited from these developments.

Solving the National Question through the Struggle for Socialism

There is a way forward and the first step is to analyse, to understand, and for the working-class on both sides to reject their own “leaders” and to begin to build a class alternative. The tactics of Hamas will not bring freedom for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian masses cannot rely on Hamas or the Palestinian Authority to deliver either a viable independent state, or relief from deprivation and hopelessness. Nor can the Israeli working-class cannot rely on its rulers to deliver peace and security.

To state that this is the reality is not a counsel of despair, but an echo of Rosa Luxemburg’s declaration from her 1915 prison cell that only socialism will bring peace and a decent life for all. She was in jail because of her opposition to the First World War when she wrote the famous “Junius Pamphlet” (Junuis was her nom-de-plum). She saw that humanity faced a choice between the victory of socialism or the end of civilization. She drew optimistic conclusions despite the horrors of trench warfare and the betrayal of the leaderships of the Social-democratic parties (of the Second International), who had sided with “their” own national ruling class in August 1914. By 1915 millions of men were engaged in a titanic struggle in the mud of Flanders and Galicia and few could see a way out. Luxemburg in contrast never lost her belief in the ability of working-class people to throw off their overlords and make a new world. A Marxist worldview allowed her to see beyond the smoke of the battlefields to the future socialist revolution.

Seeing beyond the immediate crisis requires an analysis of concrete circumstances in Palestine and Israel. Fifteen million people live inside the borders of the 1940s Palestinian mandate today. Ten million live in Israel, 7.5 million of whom are Israeli Jews, alongside over 2 million Palestinians. Three million Palestinians live in the West Bank, alongside over half a million Israeli Jewish settlers. There are 2.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The total population within the pre-1947 boundaries is now almost exactly split 50-50 between Jews and Arab Palestinians but the latter have a much higher birthrate.

In the 75 years since Israel was created an Israeli-Jewish national consciousness has developed and consolidated. Today 80% of Israeli Jews were born in the Israeli state and have known no other home. The collective experience of wars with in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 have left its mark. Other more recent conflicts, with Hezbollah and Hamas, add to a sense of being embattled and under threat from the much greater number of Arabs in the region.

The Arab Palestinian experience has been one of absolute catastrophe, beginning with the seizure of much of their land in 1948. Since then, hundreds of thousands have lived out their lives in refugee camps, and in every war they have suffered disproportionately. Whatever hope there was following the Oslo Accords has long-since disappeared. Today the Gaza Strip is an open-air prison camp, ruled over by Hamas, a reactionary organisation which had the support of less than half the population (43%) in opinion polls before October 7th. The West Bank is ruled over by the corrupt clique which controls the Palestinian Authority, and which has even less support (26%) than Hamas.

Two Socialist States

The Palestinian masses yearn for their own state as a concrete expression of their right to self-determination. Israeli Jews wish to decide on their own future and will settle for nothing else than the existence of a state in which they feel secure. This is the reality of 2023, a reality we must face up to. As Trotsky explained “the national struggle cannot be suspended by bare reference to the future world revolution”. We have a duty to understand, to explain, and to seek to mobilise the international workers movement behind the struggle for justice for Palestinians, and for peace and security for Israelis, in mutually agreed structures in a shared socialist future.

The only way in which the aspirations of both can be realised, and their fears overcome, is through the struggle for a socialist transformation of society. The struggle for socialism grows from material conditions. Poverty, uncertainty, and hopelessness are endemic, and are being accentuated every day by the crisis of the system.

In the context of a movement towards a socialist revolution it will become easier to argue for unity across all boundaries and borders and for the coming together of all peoples, communities and nations. Now, however, divisions that have hardened over many decades, are being further hardened in blood. For most the idea that it is possible to live in peace and share resources seems to deny reality.

The way to begin a discussion with an Israeli or Palestinian worker, or a protestor anywhere, is to situate a solution in the context of the goal of a socialist future. The struggle for socialism is, by definition, a united struggle and that fact points a way to a solution. It brings working class people together. When workers and young people engage in united struggles on class issues, they come to realise that they have more in common with their fellows across artificial boundaries than divides them. This applies within communities, across fences and borders, and across regions. In the struggle for socialism the breaking down of barriers is to be expected, not the opposite.

All political boundaries have a temporary character, not least in the Middle East where modern states were created by British and French imperialism in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Boundaries that are seemingly immutable and timeless at one point in history will become meaningless and irrelevant at others. As the process of coming together under socialism unfolds relationships across the region will change from antagonism and competition to respect and cooperation. But the idea that borders can be removed will appear entirely utopian unless socialists argue forcefully that it is necessary to guarantee the rights of all communities, peoples, and nations both now, and under socialism. All must be guaranteed the right to determine their own future separately before they will decide to do so together.

The workingclass comes into conflict with its own ruling class in both its day-to-day struggles on immediate issues and in its striving for a better world. The Israeli working-class must challenge its own ruling class if it is to achieve peace and security. The recent mass movements against the proposed changes in the proposed changes in the powers of the Israeli Supreme court showed what is possible.

When a new mass movement arises, it must move quickly to encompass not just Arab Palestinians living within Israel borders but reach out to those living in the Occupied Territories. If it remains within the confines of one community only –the Israeli Jewish population– it will not succeed.            

The working class and rural poor of the Arab world, including the West Bank and Gaza, must throw off the reactionary and undemocratic ruling cliques which deliver only misery. The Arab Spring demonstrated that this is possible. The absence of developed organisations, with the necessary programme to solve the problems facing the masses, meant that there was no class-based leadership anywhere. The result was either revolutions drowned in blood, most notably in Syria, or which ended in chaos and the disintegration of society as in Libya, or in a return to autarky when the ruling classes regained their balance, as in the case of Tunisia and Egypt.

As mass movements develop, under conditions of crisis, the idea of linking across borders and fences becomes tangible, desirable and necessary. Socialists are in favour of the maximum unity of working people, breaking down all boundaries when and where possible. We are in favour of large unitary socialist states everywhere, with maximum guarantees for minorities, as both the efficient means by which to build socialism and end want and scarcity, and to bring peoples together in growing unity. Whilst this is our preferred option, it will not always be realisable, both at the point of the socialist transformation of society, or for some time afterwards.

If we are to achieve a single unitary state –the preference under socialism– we must start by allowing the possibility of two separate socialist states. The idea of two socialist states allows us to gain a hearing among both the Israeli and the Palestinian workers. It opens a pathway to discussion and to winning the masses to the idea of a socialist solution. When we raise the idea of two socialist states, we suggest that it may be a stepping stone to a future single socialist state within the borders of the Palestinian mandate. However, we must accept in advance the democratic will of the masses and, if clearly expressed, the wish for the existence of separate socialist states indefinitely would have to be allowed.

Raising the idea of two socialist states means that we must address all of complications which this brings. If it is to work, it can only be through the withdrawal of hundreds of thousands of settlers from the occupied West Bank, or some or all the settlers must agree to live as a minority within a Palestinian state. It will also be necessary to create a geographically continuous Palestinian state and open a corridor linking the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. The question of the “right of return” of Palestinians to their pre-1948 homes and land will require agreement and compromise.  

The Role of the Revolutionary Left and the International Workers Movement

More Palestinians support Hamas now than before October 7th. More Israelis have come behind the Netanyahu-led government and the extremist position of a “greater Israel”. 300,000 Israeli Jews have been mobilized in the state forces and stand ready for action. Hamas and Hezbollah have tens of thousands of armed fighters who are willing to die for their cause. But we know that there are many in Israel who are opposed to the bombing and invasion of Gaza and there must be many in Gaza who oppose the tactics of Hamas, even if they are less visible. On both sides of the fences and walls workers and young people are seeking an alternative way forward. The revolutionary left has a duty to provide an alternative, through both its words and its actions.

Some on the revolutionary left argue that it is not for activists in other places to offer advice to those in struggle but not to do so bolsters the existing “leadership”, in this case Hamas. It is vital that the workers movement intervenes in the anti-war movement in its own country or region. It is also important that the workers’ movement, and the revolutionary left, supports the development of class politics and class organisations everywhere.

We call for an immediate end of the onslaught on Gaza, an end to the blockade, and the immediate withdrawal of the Israeli military from the occupied territories.

The Palestinian masses have the right to organise and to struggle for a better future. The struggle must be under democratic control and lead by class-based organisations- trade unions and left parties.

Workers have the right to defend themselves, but the only sure defence is through democratically organised armed defence committees in local communities. The tactics of indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel and the targeting of non-combatants do not contribute to the defence of the Palestinian people and must end.

The international workers movement and the revolutionary left must support the building of independent workers’ parties in Palestine and Israel. Such parties should link together in struggle, and with other emerging parties in the region. It is an absolute imperative of the workers’ movement that we build unity across all national boundaries, including between the working classes of a historically oppressed nation and the oppressor nation.

The workers movement should advocate for an independent, socialist Palestinian state, alongside a socialist Israel. Both Jews and Palestinians have a strong cultural affinity with Jerusalem, and it must either be a shared capital, or two capitals must sit side by side in one city.

The democratic rights of all minorities must be guaranteed. In the transition to socialism, it is inevitable that Palestinians will live within the boundaries of a socialist Israel, and Jews inside a socialist Palestine. Other minorities will live in both states.

Our goal is a world free from economic exploitation and all forms of oppression, including the oppression of all nations and communities. We are in favour of a voluntary and equal Socialist Confederation of independent Palestinian and Israeli socialist states, and in time a Socialist United States of the Middle East in a World Socialist Federation.

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