Crisis in the Middle East
By Daniel Hugo
(Originally published in Inqaba Ya Basebenzi No. 8, November 1982)
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon has resulted in a shattering military defeat for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Leaving 50,000 dead – mostly Lebanese civilians – and hundreds of thousands homeless, it has added a savage new twist to the spiral of crisis, repression and mass upheaval in the Middle East.
A direct result of the invasion has been the brutal murder of 2,000 men, women and children in the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut on 16-18 September. Nothing could have brought out more starkly the bitter divisions and sectarian hatred stoked up among the peoples of the region under the domination of capitalism and imperialism.
The Israeli government has admitted responsibility for sending the right-wing Christian (‘Phalangist’) butchers into the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila to ‘flush out’ any remaining PLO guerrillas. Under the eyes of the Israeli forces on the edges of the camps, the Phalangists set about slaughtering the helpless inhabitants.
After two days the orgy of killing reached a gruesome climax:
“Camp residents were gunned down wherever they were found. Men were chained together and dragged behind a jeep. Throats were slit, genitals and breasts sliced off. Doctors were killed in hospitals and patients in their beds.”
A journalist of the London Times, entering Chatila the next day, described the aftermath:
“Down every alley-way there were corpses—women, young men, babies and grandparents—lying together…where they had been knifed or machine-gunned to death (20 September).
As these revelations filtered through to the outside world, fury and revulsion spread among the masses of the Arab countries and working people throughout the world.
On the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan, spontaneous demonstrations by thousands of Palestinians broke out in many areas. In Israel itself, unprecedented anger erupted among the Jewish population, leading to violent protests against the right-wing government of Menachim Begin and culminating in a rally of 400,000 people—one in seven of the total population of Israel, Jews and Arabs combined.
Abroad, the US and other Western governments arming and propping up Israel were forced to express “shock” at these atrocities. A ‘peace-keeping’ force of US, French and Italian troops was sent to Beirut—in reality to back up the newly installed Phalangist regime of the Gemayels.
The Arab regimes have looked on passively, denouncing Israel from the sidelines. The Syrian forces in the east of Lebanon made no serious attempt to halt the Israeli invasion.
In Morocco, the Arab League (of Arab states) held a special meeting on 22 September—but could agree on no action except a protest by Arab ambassadors in Washington.
The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon now find themselves in an even more desperate position than before. Disarmed and helpless, they are at the mercy of their bloodthirsty enemies.
Terrible though the setbacks of the past months have been however, the national struggle of the Palestinian people will continue. Workers in South Africa and the world over will support their Palestinian brothers and sisters as they seek a way out of their impasse.
How can the problems of the Palestinians and all the oppressed people of the Middle East be resolved? This question can only be answered by carefully examining the developments which gave rise to the present situation.
Armed with a scientific understanding of events, the workers of the Middle East will be able to develop policies for achieving national and social liberation: and workers internationally, learning the lessons of the struggle, will be able to give them effective support.
During this century the Middle East has become increasingly vital to the imperialist powers on account of its strategic position but above all its enormous oil reserves.
Up to 1918 most of the area had formed part of the Turkish empire, which sided with Germany in the First World War and was defeated by British and Arab armies. In a secret agreement in 1916, the region was carved up between Britain, France and Tsarist Russia.
During the 1920s, British and French imperialism further split up the Middle East by handing over pieces of land to puppet rulers. In the French zone, Lebanon was set up as a separate state dominated by the Christian bourgeoisie on the basis of compromise with the leaders of the Druze and Moslem peasantry.
The British zone was split into three parts—Palestine, Jordan (originally called Transjordan) and Iraq (Mesopotamia)—with Arab princes tied to Britain being installed in Jordan and Iraq.
As in the rest of the colonial world mass poverty was perpetuated and worsened under imperialist domination.
In Palestine (the present-day Israel) as in other Arab countries, a small Jewish minority—about 11% of the population in 1920—lived side by side with the Arab majority. However, the class struggle internationally was to produce dire consequences for the territory.
In Europe—and Eastern Europe in particular, where the majority of the world’s Jewish population were living at the time—anti-Semitism had been cultivated by the ruling classes as a means of splitting the working masses and fighting against the social revolution. In reaction to this persecution the Zionist movement developed, led by the Jewish bourgeoisie, calling for an independent homeland for the Jews.
Palestine, where the Jews had lived in ancient times, was chosen as the site for this homeland. The Zionist leaders, with considerable finance available, systematically bought land there from Arab landowners for the purpose of creating Jewish settlements.
Initially, Zionism had no echo among Jewish workers even in Tsarist Russia. While hundreds of thousands fled to the USA, only a handful went to Palestine.
But in the 1920s British imperialism, practising its classical policies of divide-and-rule, began to encourage Jewish immigration. Increasingly, Palestinian peasants were squeezed from the land while the Jewish settlers, highly organised, began laying the foundations for the future Israeli state.
The Arab ruling class connived at this whole process, profiting from the cheap labour of the dispossessed peasants. At the same time, the creeping occupation or Palestine laid the basis for explosive national divisions between the Jewish and Arab masses.
Stubborn resistance against dispossession, building up among the Palestinian masses, led to violent upheavals in 1920 and 1929. With the general strike of 1936, the Palestinian working class paralysed the country and confronted the rulers of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan with the threat of spreading revolt.
Thus, as in other colonial countries, the working class emerged at an early stage as a force that could spearhead the struggle for national and social liberation.
But the Arab regimes, acting on British instructions, succeeded in pressurising the Palestinian leadership to call off the general strike.
Without a revolutionary leadership, the stage was set for middle-class nationalist leaders to derail the movement onto lines of class-collaboration.
The independence demanded by these leaders had nothing in common with the national and social aspirations of the masses. The Palestinian leaders looked for support to an unstable alliance of Arab kings and rulers paying lip service only to the struggle of the Palestinian people.
False perspectives lead to false policies. Diplomatic wheeling and dealing developed in place of a revolutionary campaign for support by the workers’ movement internationally: guerilla action involving an armed minority took the place of mass mobilisation.
It was the lack of a revolutionary leadership, more than any other factor, which paralysed the Palestinian workers and peasants and made possible the establishment of the Zionist state in their country.
The Jewish state
The main concern of the imperialist powers has always been to suppress the threat of revolution from the exploited Arab masses. While British and later US imperialism have maintained their alliances with reactionary Arab rulers, the cornerstone of their policy has been to build up the Jewish state as a bastion of capitalist power in the region.
The decisive impulse for the creation of Israel was given by the barbarous persecution of the Jews in Europe by the German Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. Six million Jews were massacred during this period and millions more fled for their lives.
In Palestine, Jewish immigration rose sharply in the 1930s. This was followed after the war by a flood of destitute Jewish refugees. By 1948 the Jewish population had risen to 600,000 out of a total of two million people.
In 1947 the British authorities handed over the Palestinian question to the United Nations. The UN resolved on partition, dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors. The ‘solution’, in reality, set the seal on the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Arabs.
With partition, the simmering national conflict—at root a class conflict between expropriators and expropriated—erupted into war. Mass pressure forced the regimes in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon to move against Israel.
But the Arab armies were crushingly defeated. The war of 1948-9 ended with big territorial gains for Israel, while the remnants of the Palestinian sector—the West Bank and the Gaza strip—were occupied by Jordan and Egypt.
Before 1948, 250,000 Palestinians had been pushed from their land by Jewish occupation. The war of partition was used by the Zionist leadership to expel a further 800,000 – the vast majority of the Arab population.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced into ‘temporary’ camps in the Arab countries, where the regimes have confined them ever since. Many found work in the Gulf states as the oil industry developed. A small bourgeois minority were able to go into comfortable ‘exile’ in the USA and Europe.
The ruthless dispersal of the Palestinian people has led to acute new contradictions inflaming the already crisis-ridden Middle East. Among the Arab masses, hatred of the Israeli regime and its imperialist backers was sharpened. This, above all, forced the decrepit Arab rulers into conflict with Israel.
Thus the struggle over Palestine took on the dimensions of a conflict between nations. War, once begun, develops a momentum of its own. Since 1948, full-scale wars have been fought in 1956, 1967 and 1973, apart from numerous border clashes.
Each new trial of strength has confirmed again Israel’s overwhelming military superiority. This superiority has stemmed not so much from technical factors as from the make-up of Israeli society compared with the Arab states.
From the beginning, the Israeli state was geared to sustain the maximum productive and military effort. A Zionist militia had been formed as early as 1920, together with an administrative network and a trade union apparatus, to consolidate the Jewish settlement of Palestine.
Today, every Israeli citizen is regarded as a soldier with eleven months annual leave.
Immigration from the West brought the most advanced skills and technical knowledge to Israel. Though economically bankrupt, the new state was kept afloat by massive doses of foreign aid (mainly from the US) totalling $31,500 million between 1948 and 1977. The dispossession of the peasantry gave scope for the development of advanced agriculture.
These factors enabled the Israeli economy to be developed far more quickly than the Arab states.
The essence of Israeli military power, however, has been the political force of Jewish nationalism tying the working people to the ruling class and the state.
The message of ‘national unity’ plus ‘military preparedness’ has been preached by the labour leaders as well as religious and capitalist leaders. For as long as an expanding economy made possible improvements in living standards, militant nationalism seemed the only way forward in the face of the bankrupt Arab regimes.
The result has been the most highly motivated conscript army in the world.
The Arab revolution
The Arab states, not enjoying the special conditions on which Israel’s growth and strength have been based, have remained sunk in the poverty and backwardness which capitalism has imposed on the colonial world in general. Even their oil wealth, during this period, was largely siphoned off by the Western oil companies. What remained has been hoarded or squandered by the sheiks and reactionary ruling classes.
Presiding over mass destitution and centuries-old repression, the Arab rulers have been much less successful than their Israeli counterparts at papering over divisions between the classes. In contrast to Israel, the Arab countries have constantly seethed with revolutionary tensions.
In Egypt the rotten monarchy was overthrown in 1952 by an officers’ coup which set out (in the words of its leader, Colonel Nasser) to “establish a clean, fair government which would work sincerely for the good of the people”. The utter bankruptcy of Egyptian capitalism, however, combined with the stranglehold of foreign imperialism, made it impossible to carry through the reforms so desperately needed by the masses.
Some land was divided among the peasantry; but Nasser’s regime had no programme for abolishing capitalism and landlordism. Thus it was trapped between the conflicting pressures of the capitalists, landowners, workers and peasants—none of which it was able to satisfy.
Its reaction, like every regime in crisis, was to concentrate power more and more into its own hands, in an attempt to impose stability on society from above. But the limitations of Nasser’s Bonapartist regime only gradually made themselves felt in the consciousness of the masses. For a period, Nasser’s message of social reform and Pan-Arab nationalism seemed to offer a new way forward to the downtrodden people of the Arab world.
Following the revolutionary tremors in Egypt, social unrest convulsed Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in turn. In Syria, these struggles resulted in the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Syria was in a state of intense instability. One pro-capitalist regime was toppled by another, only to be toppled in turn.
With every possible method of capitalist rule exhausted, the Ba’ath Socialist regime that took power in 1963 resorted to radical measures against the monopolies. The capitalists, landlords and merchants resisted. Following a further coup in 1966 by more left-wing junior officers, a full-scale revolutionary confrontation developed.
Faced with an imperialist-backed military counter-revolution, the regime appealed to the masses for support. In their hundreds of thousands, peasants and workers were armed. Capitalism and landlordism were crushed, with 85% of the land and 95% of industry being nationalised by the Ba’ath regime.
But power remained with the military leadership; the workers and peasants were disarmed again. The regime transformed the economic basis of the country into that of a workers’ state, resting on state ownership and central planning. But the regime itself was Bonapartist—in Marxist terms, “proletarian Bonapartist” as opposed to the “bourgeois Bonapartist” regimes in the capitalist states like Egypt—with a narrow, nationalist perspective, becoming increasingly privileged and remote from the people.
Freed from capitalist fetters, the Syrian economy could take some strides ahead. A third of the landless peasants were given land, and industry expanded. But within the confines of a backward country, under the rule of a military-bureaucratic elite, the development of society was inevitably limited and distorted.
Inequality, the oppression of national minorities and women, and all the other problems of poverty and dictatorship can only he eliminated in Syria through a further, political revolution.
Power must be conquered by the working people in the context of a revolution leading to the overthrow at capitalism in Israel, Turkey and internationally. This alone can create the conditions for workers’ democracy and harmonious social development in a backward country like Syria.
Compared with a capitalist country like Egypt, therefore, the immediate results of the Syrian revolution could not be measured in terms of spectacular economic advance. The fundamental difference is rather that in Syria, with capitalism and landlordism decisively defeated, the reforms could no longer be turned back without a full-scale counter-revolution.
In Egypt, on the other hand, Nasser moved to the brink of over-throwing capitalism—but then turned back. The power of the ruling class, based on private property, remained essentially intact. As would be seen in the 1970s, a shift in policy by the regime could restore them to their former position, while destroying the gains of the peasants and workers.
These examples show that the Arab states have remained shot through with national contradictions and bitter social conflict. The revolutionary pressure of the working people, lacking a socialist leadership, has failed to resolve the fundamental crisis in any of those countries.
Class rule and class divisions have inevitably spilled over into the armed forces. Even in Syria, as in the capitalist states, the downtrodden workers and peasants in uniform have remained under the command of an officer elite drawn from the upper strata of society.
War against Israel, for the Arab soldiers, is not a struggle for survival. Hatred of the enemy in front is off-set by hostility towards the oppressor in the rear. Victory over Israel, without social revolution, promises no improvement of their conditions—indeed it would consolidate the power of their present rulers.
Poorly trained, badly led and politically unmotivated in comparison with the Israeli forces, the Arab soldiers could not fight with the elan of a revolutionary army of liberation. This has been the fundamental reason for their impotence in the face of the Israelis.
The expulsion of the Palestinians from their country was followed by reprisals against Jewish communities that had lived for centuries in the Arab states. Hundreds of thousands fled to Israel, filled with fear and hatred of Arab rule.
The Jewish population of Israel swelled to 1,300,000 between 1948 and 1951. Overnight, the former Palestinian majority had become an oppressed minority in Israel. Formally they were allowed democratic rights; in reality they were impotent and discriminated against.
The Palestinian nationalist leadership, however, remained wedded to the seemingly ‘practical’ policy of relying on the Arab regimes for support. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), formed in 1964 as an umbrella body of various political and military groups, was accepted by the Arab heads of state in 1974 as “sole legal representative of the Palestinian people”.
This “legal” status, while providing the PLO leadership with diplomatic credentials, at the same time shackled them to all the contradictions, bankruptcy and impotence of the most reactionary Arab rulers.
Caught in this impasse of leadership, the Palestinian struggle has been agonised and prolonged.
From the 1950s Palestinian militancy, denied the avenue of revolutionary mass struggle, has spilled over into sporadic guerilla attacks on Israeli settlements along the borders of Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. The Israeli regime, systematically developing its military machine, has hit back with increasing viciousness.
The Arab ‘front-line’ states, while compelled to give refuge to the Palestinians, could not afford protracted border wars against a vastly superior enemy. Unable to beat back Israel, they attempted to curb the Palestinian guerillas.
The greatest menace to the Arab rulers, however, was the possibility of a revolutionary alliance between the Palestinian refugees and the workers and peasants in the Arab countries. Highly politicised and with access to arms, the Palestinians faced much the same intolerable conditions as the masses in the Arab states themselves.
Nothing but the policy of the PLO leadership headed them off from taking their place immediately in the vanguard of the Arab revolution.
In Lebanon and Jordan, however, even these policies could not prevent revolutionary crises from throwing the armed Palestinians into conflict with the Arab regimes.
In Jordan, the reactionary Bonapartist regime of King Hussein was despised and isolated. The Palestinians, with close ties to the Arab population, actually formed a majority of the people in Jordan.
By 1969, a state of dual power had developed between the Palestinian forces and the forces of the King. Even the Jordanian army was divided between the regime and the pull of the mass movement.
Objectively, all the conditions existed for the overthrow of Hussein and the taking of power by the working people, which could have paved the way for revolution throughout the Middle East.
But the PLO leaders had no intention of following this road. In January 1970 Hussein attempted to clamp down on the guerillas. In the struggles that followed, the guerillas won control of half the capital, Amman—but Hussein was allowed to remain in control of the state.
By September Hussein, encouraged by the weakness of the PLO leadership, was ready for a showdown. Demonstrations and uprisings in most Jordanian towns showed the depth of revolutionary ferment. In the north, the Palestinians took over towns and territory; the town of Irbid was declared the “First Arab Soviet”.
Yet no programme was put forward by the PLO leadership, and no country-wide lead was given, to draw in the Jordanian soldiers and guide the working class towards the capture or power. On 17 September Hussein (with Israeli and US troops ready to support him) threw his elite Beduin troops against the guerillas. PLO leader Arafat signed a ceasefire agreement on 23 September—and publicly reconciled himself with Hussein.
But sporadic fighting continued until July 1971, when the Jordanian army could finally be sent in to crush Palestinian resistance. Over 10,000 were killed, including many refugees; thousands of guerillas were captured or fled to Lebanon—their last base for across-the-border raids on Israel.
The Jordanian regime, an Israeli officer summed up, had “killed more guerillas in one year than we did in ten.”
The dead end of terrorism
The PLO’s policy of guerilla attacks on Israel has proved equally futile and disastrous.
Militarily these raids were mere pinpricks; but they served the Israeli regime as a pretext for massive retaliation against Palestinians in exile, and for tightening the screws on those in Israel. Politically, guerilla struggle could neither mobilise nor show a way forward to the masses in the West Bank and Gaza, the refugees, or the Palestinian workers in the Arab states.
Nor could it lead to the political isolation and defeat of the Israeli regime. The PLO leadership failed to understand that the victories of guerilla armies in some third-world countries—notably in China and Cuba—had only been possible under radically different social conditions.
With capitalism very feeble, with power held by weak, unstable regimes of capitalists and landlords, and with imperialism on the defensive, peasant armies were able to defeat these regimes. Later, in Vietnam, even the support of big US forces could not save the Thieu regime.
The result in each case was the collapse of capitalism and landlordism and the transfer of power to the guerilla leadership. This gave rise to deformed workers’ states modelled on that in the Soviet Union, on which the guerilla leaders depended for support.
Fighting to overthrow a developed capitalist state, however, there was no prospect of victory for the PLO’s guerilla strategy. Substituting for the social struggle a series or armed clashes between Palestinian guerillas and the Israeli military, it ensured the polarisation of Israeli society along national lines—thus swinging the Jewish majority overwhelmingly behind the regime.
The only road out of this impasse lay in developing a programme, strategy and tactics that could link the Palestinian struggle to the one force capable of defeating the Israeli regime and carrying through the revolutionary transformation of the Middle East—the working class inside and outside Israel, mobilised and armed.
In the absence of a socialist leadership, however, the ideas and traditions of guerillaism tended to push Palestinian activists further down the same dead-end street. Driven to despair by the ineffectiveness of the leadership, some resorted to what they saw as ‘more revolutionary’ tactics—known, in the language of Marxism, as individual terrorism.
A series of aeroplane hijackings were launched by the ‘Marxist’ Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (one of the groups in the PLO) during the late 1960s. This provoked merciless Israeli retaliation, and sparked off a new spiral of terror.
A climax was reached with the massacre of civilians at Lod airport (near Tel Aviv) by pro-Palestinian Japanese terrorists in 1972, and the murder of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games by Palestinian terrorists during the same year. These were followed by savage Israeli raids into Syria arid Lebanon, sowing death and destruction among the refugees.
In these and later events, the impotence of the terrorist groups was exposed. Random and bloody attacks on civilians could never take the place of an armed, revolutionary mass movement. The PLO leadership has itself admitted that terrorism has been counter-productive.
While reducing the Palestinian workers to mere onlookers at the ‘armed struggle’, it has pushed Jewish workers more solidly than ever behind the regime. It is the terrorist atrocities of the early 1970s, and not the ‘fine print’ in the PLO constitution about a democratic state in Palestine, that has left a lasting impression in the minds of Jewish workers as to what the PLO leadership stand for.
This bitter climate prepared the way for the coming to power of the reactionary Begin government in 1977.
Crisis of leadership
The spiral of terror, once begun, can be cut across only by great events. Bombings and assassinations by Palestinians, met with Israeli counter-terror, have continued. Political or military setbacks for the Palestinian struggle have been followed by futile acts of ‘revenge’ – and even more savage Israeli reaction.
This reflects the crisis of Palestinian leadership. The bankrupt policies of the PLO have left a seething hotbed of anger and frustration in the refugee camps. In the absence of a clear revolutionary lead, linking the national liberation of the Palestinian people to the socialist transformation of the Middle East, a basis will remain for new waves of terrorism.
This danger is especially great in the present situation, following the humiliating defeat of the PLO in Lebanon.
What is the alternative to a dismal future of continued oppression, slaughter and counter-slaughter? How can the Palestinian workers, and all the working people of the Middle East – including the Israeli workers – achieve a genuine solution to their problems?