By Anne Alexander
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Revolutionary struggle—lessons from the Palestinian revolt

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Anne Alexander examines what the recent revolt means for imperialism and resistance in Palestine and the Middle East

A protest in London stands in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The last few months have shown the brutality and racism of the Israeli occupation in Palestine. But they have also seen a dramatic upsurge of popular struggle across historic Palestine, raising hopes of reforging unity from below. On 18 May Gaza and the West Bank joined Haifa, Yaffa and al-Lydd in a general strike on a scale not witnessed for decades. This welcome evolution in the tactics of the Palestinian resistance raises questions as well as hopes. What are the prospects for this revived popular movement to make gains against the apartheid system which oppresses Palestinians and fragments their struggles? And what is the relationship between resistance in Palestine and the prospects for popular uprisings elsewhere? What role could the working class in Palestine and in the wider region play in this process?

Zionism and imperialism

Crucial to answering these questions is an understanding of the forms of uneven and combined development which underpin the political and social system across the whole of historic Palestine. This racist, militaristic system is used by the Israeli ruling class to sustain itself in power, despite courageous Palestinian resistance, and to bind other classes is Israeli society to its goals.

The relative success of this project over the past century cannot be separated from the role the Zionist state’s leaders carved out for themselves. They made Israel an outpost of US imperialism in the region.. The most important drivers of the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians are located in Washington, not Tel Aviv.

The first element in the specific combination of social and political forms underpinning Israel’s apartheid system today is the persistence of settler-colonialism. Historically and today it is the key element in the ideology and practices of the state. As Rob Ferguson argues in a recent Long Read, Israeli Jewish society has been formed through waves of new settlers arriving in Palestine. These settlers are bound to the Zionist project of dispossessing the Palestinians through both ideological and material ties. The unequal treatment of new Jewish immigrants to Israel by the founding Zionist elite did not soften the impact of the racism directed at the Palestinians. Rather, we have seen the intensification of racism and nationalism among Israeli Jews. In many cases this has been led by parties representing the new waves of settlers to demonstrate their commitment to continue the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland.

Economics of settler-colonialism

Central to this form of settler-colonialism is the desire to exclude, rather than exploit the Palestinians. The concept of “Hebrew Labour” as a foundational principle of Zionist economic strategy still has powerful ideological resonance, and its legacy remains important today. However, it exists in a sometimes contradictory combination with a second element in the political economy of the Israeli occupation. This is a reliance on a particularly repressive and racist regime of “migrant” labour control. This labour control system does not extend to Jewish immigrants who, despite sometimes experiencing marginalisation and oppression, have the privileges of citizenship.

It depends on the exploitation of non-citizens who are systematically denied both social and political rights. It has a lot in common with the migrant labour regime of the Gulf States, even down to the details of the “binding” system which resembles the “kafala” system of the Gulf. In this system, work permits for foreigners are allocated to employers, not individual workers. The “migrants” who have been subjected to this system are not just Palestinians, who are only “migrants” because they or their families were forced to leave their homes through ethnic cleansing. It also includes non-Palestinian workers from countries such as Thailand and Bangladesh whose migration to work in Israel was driven by political and economic changes in the 1990s.

There are some settler-colonial societies which evolved similar “internal” labour regimes. South Africa’s “pass laws” were comparable to a degree, although the achilles heel of the South African ruling class was that the exploitation of black workers was central to the South African economy. By contrast, the Israeli ruling class has managed to restrict Palestinian labour to sectors which are important, but not central, to the economy in terms of capital accumulation.

Moreover, it has been licensed by the US and the other Western powers to deploy the full panoply of repression against rebellions in which the Palestinian working class has played a key role. The first Intifada after 1987 is an important example. This repression was followed by a massive contraction in the importation of Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories, and their partial replacement by non-Jewish workers from elsewhere during the 1990s.

Significantly, however, there remain long term pressures on some Israeli bosses to employ Palestinians which cut against this policy of exclusion of Palestinian workers. This was underscored by the clear economic damage inflicted on the Israeli construction industry by the general strike on 18 May. Recent increases in the quota of Palestinians permitted to work for Israeli construction firms have left many businesses in this sector heavily reliant on Palestinian labour. Moreover, migrant workers from other countries have also found themselves subject to increasingly intense campaigns of deportations and state racism over the last decade.

Therefore the Zionist project includes maintenance of a fully-fledged settler-colonial state, with its apparatus of laws and practices enforcing a racial hierarchy across the whole of its territory. This is combined with the kind of indentured, unfree labour which harks back to the early period of capitalist development, and could be thought of attempts to “cheat history”. The goal is to prevent the emergence of a working class strong and united enough to force the creation of a democratic republic with equal rights for all.

Watchdog state

In order to understand why this has succeeded for so long, we need to examine the third element in Palestine’s combined development. This is the military economy of Israel and the way in which this is integrated into the imperial architecture of US domination of the whole region. The spectacular coup the Zionist leadership pulled off was to build a partnership with the US ruling class which gives Israeli military power a central role in the region-wide imperialist system. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz pinpointed the specific nature of this military role as long ago as 1951 when it wrote,

“Israel is to become the watchdog. There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive Policy towards the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the US and Britain. But if for any reasons the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighbouring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.”

Five years later the first major test of this approach took place. Israel played a role in the attack on Egypt with Britain and France to “punish” nationalist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser for nationalising the Suez Canal. However, it was victory over Egyptian and Syrian forces in 1967 which set the “watchdog state” definitively on a higher path. It went from aspiring “hired muscle” into a fully-fledged junior partner of the major Western imperial power.

Source: Jewish Virtual Library

US military and economic aid to Israel is central to the political economy of the Zionist project. It massively accelerated during the 1970s, and has stayed at incredibly high levels ever since. These huge subsidies turned the “burden” of military spending into a means to attract further external sources of funding. They also played a critical role in laying the basis for the boom in hi-tech and research-intensive manufacturing and services. These sectors have been central to the growth of the Israeli economy since the 1990s. Palestinians were excluded for reasons of “national security” from what would become the most strategically important centres of capital accumulation.

The maturing of Israel’s military-industrial-services complex took time. For much of the 1970s and 1980s the country would have collapsed without these massive cash injections from the US. However, the development of this sector of the economy provided an essential mechanism in the 1990s for the Israeli ruling class to extricate itself from the crisis created by the First Intifada in 1987.

Militarised economy

Israel’s military economy is integral to the wider imperialist system which the US ruling class has sustained in the region during its period of global dominance. Israel’s “Qualitative Military Edge” over the other regional powers, including other US allies, is deeply embedded in this structure. The importance of Israel’s role is illustrated by the unwillingness of the US to rein in the Israeli ruling class, or force it to allow even a weak Palestinian state.

This is underscored by the failure of the “Peace Process” of the 1990s to bring any kind of “peace dividend” in the reduction of US military aid to Israel. In fact, by the end of the 1990s, the US had initiated the first of three 10-year long Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs). These have bound successive US administrations—whether Republican or Democrat—to continue transferring astronomical amounts of funding, weapons and technology to Israel. A key clause in the MoUs has been to allow Israel, uniquely among recipients of US military aid worldwide, the ability to spend this aid in its own currency. This effectively underwrites the Israeli military industries with US taxpayers’ money.

There are of course mirror images of the militarised Israeli economy to be found all over the Middle East in the other states. This is true not just in the Arab-majority areas, but also in Turkey and Iran. Whether they oppose or are allied with the US, almost all of them have been deeply scarred by the long shadows cast by the overbearing role of the armed forces in their state institutions. In many cases, we see a web of military officers penetrating both the “civilian” and “military” sectors of industry and services.

They are not exact copies of the Israeli model. The US has not sought to create a level playing field between the second and third rank powers it offers roles as junior partners in this system. Take the comparison between the Israeli and Egyptian armed forces, for example. US military subsidies have allowed Israeli generals to oversee the production of F35 fighter jets and advanced cyber-warfare products. In contrast their Egyptian counterparts run factories turning out broiler chickens, manage petrol stations and engage in property speculation. Egyptian dictator Abdelfattah el-Sisi certainly has pretensions towards a regional role for the Egyptian army. But the fact remains that the billions in US funding received by the Egyptian military have largely underwritten the army’s role as internal gendarme keeping the Egyptian people in their place. And it has kept Egypt acting as Israel’s sub-contracted border guard to enforce the siege of Gaza.

Revolutionary struggle

So what is the alternative? Where are the forces with the social power which can begin to sap the foundations of both the Israeli settler garrison, and the regional imperialist system which empowers it? The first part of the answer involves exploring the role of the Palestinian working class. As outlined above, the efforts to “cheat history” and prevent Palestinians from turning the tables on their oppressors through collective action as workers has only been partially successful. The general strike on May 18 this year illustrated this. The role of Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as Palestinian “migrant” workers from the Occupied Territories, in the strike renders it even more important. It demonstrated the powerful possibilities of joint action between Palestinians on both sides of Israel’s apartheid walls.

Moreover, the Palestinian working class has not just formed inside historic Palestine. Due to the catastrophe of the Nakba, it is distributed across other states in the region. Palestinians form the majority of the population in Jordan, and at least 200,000 live in Lebanon and around half a million in Syria. The refugees from Israeli ethnic cleansing in 1948 and their descendants have in many cases now had to deal with further devastating conflicts. These include the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990, and the Syrian counter-revolution and civil war after 2011. Palestinian workers played a key role in the economies of the Gulf. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the US-led Operation Desert Storm which expelled Iraqi forces in 1991.

This experience of class formation in exile has been double-edged. On the one hand, it underscores the fact that Palestinian dispossession and resistance has been internalised as a feature of the class structure of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and several of the Gulf states. Just like their Israeli counterparts, some of the ruling classes of these states have put up barriers between Palestinians and their “own” citizens. They have denied Palestinians equal rights to work, access public services and own property, trapping them in dependency and poverty. At the same time they have exploited them as a disposable labour force when it suited them. These conditions are not uniform. Palestinians are able to become Jordanian citizens for example. Not all the Palestinians who migrated to the Gulf were workers, as these states were also the cradle of a Palestinian bourgeoisie-in-exile.

Nevertheless, the question of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle gains a revolutionary dimension when it becomes fused with the struggles of the working class and the poor in these societies. It was precisely in order to forestall such a development that King Hussein of Jordan went to war on the Palestinian armed movements in Jordan in 1970. And the same reasons apply when the Maronite Christian militias of Lebanon launched the Lebanese civil war in 1975.

Palestinian struggles have also already acted as an inspiration to, and in some cases a direct accelerant of, class struggles elsewhere in the region. This was clearly on view in Algeria in 1988. The example of the Palestinian Intifada played into an uprising by poor and working class Algerians against the decaying authoritarian regime of the National Liberation Front, or FLN. And the pre-history of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in 2011 are shot through with the transformative political impact of the solidarity movement with Palestine.

A struggle beyond Palestine

However, there remain major objective and subjective barriers which obstruct the struggles of the Palestinian working class becoming the motor of the Palestinian national revolution against Israel. For Palestinian workers under Israeli rule, whether inside the Green Line or in the Occupied Territories, there is the whole prison architecture of Israeli’s militarised surveillance state to overcome. This includes its walls, checkpoints detention centres and drone assassins, not to mention its vigilante gangs of armed “civilians”. In Lebanon and Syria the conditions of sectarianism and war have conspired to keep Palestinians relatively isolated from broader popular struggles, despite the eruption of revolution in Syria in 2011 and the huge popular mobilisations in Lebanon since 2018.

Part of the reason for this is related to the forces—both nationalist and Islamist—who dominate the Palestinian national movement. These parties and currents have consistently suppressed the class dimensions of the Palestinian struggle for justice. This leadership has instead attempted to prise open the imperialist hierarchy of states in the region just enough to insert a Palestinian state into it, led by a Palestinian bourgeoisie. This leadership in its nationalist, Stalinist and Islamist incarnations has often been under pressure from below. So it has at times engaged with popular modes of struggle, sometimes rushing to lead strikes and mobilise for civil disobedience. But what unites all its different political currents is that all these forms of popular struggle are really just bargaining chips. They use these mobilisations at the negotiating table with the great powers, rather than as a route to liberation from below.

The other thing which unites all of these political currents is their embrace of the principle of “non-interference” in the class struggles in the wider region. These currents need the patronage and protection of “friendly” states who might supply them with arms, provide them bases, offer their leaders sanctuary in exile or give them diplomatic backing. In return they are required to actively work against the “growing over’” from solidarity to common struggle between Palestinians and Lebanese or Syrians or Jordanians.

The fragmented nature of the Palestinian working class, despite its impressive traditions of struggle, means that the battles of workers elsewhere in the region are crucial. The battles against both their “own” states and against imperialism—including against Israel’s role in the region and its oppression of the Palestinians—assume a pivotal role in the process of liberating Palestine. This brings us to a key question. Why did the revolutions and popular uprisings which have shaken the region since late 2010 not undermine Israel’s capacity for repression, or enable bigger gains for the Palestinian movement?

The experience of many of these revolutions confirms that the question Palestine continues to play a major role in deepening the “internal” struggles for democracy and social. In Tunisia, one of the turning points in the pre-revolutionary period was opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s invitation to the Information Society summit in Tunisia in 2005. Significantly this involved coordination between activists from opposition currents and the left in the trade unions. Similarly Egypt saw a wave of protests in solidarity with the Second Intifada in 2000. This fed into a building the political confidence of a new generation of activists which a decade later would be leading a revolution.

However, there are also negative lessons to draw out from the experience of these revolutions. They confirm the analysis that the question of Palestine is bound up with the structures of these states, and in particular with their military institutions. There was a way in which the Egyptian revolution could have started to unlock the chains which shackle the Palestinians and fragment their movement. If it had gone deeper into the core of the Egyptian state and shattered the coherence of the military, it could have forced open a breach in the regional imperial system propping up the occupation. Yet it turned out that the Egyptian revolution went wide but not deep. It mobilised tens of millions of ordinary people, many for the first time in their lives, to start shaping their political destinies through collective action from below. But it was not able to target in a concentrated way the structures of coercive power in the iron heart of the state.

One sign of this was how Palestinian liberation remained at the surface of the struggles during 2011, rather than becoming a vector of the revolutionary crisis itself. Revolutionary activists did their best to push forward solidarity with the Palestinians. There were significant protests, such as the demonstration in September 2011 which marched from Tahrir Square to besiege and storm the Israeli embassy in Giza. This forced the ambassador withdraw to Tel Aviv in a panic. And in November 2012 as Israeli missiles pounded Gaza, solidarity convoys organised by activists rushed across Sinai to take a stand alongside Palestinians.

The Prime Minister in the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government was one of those who made the journey to Gaza. The Islamist party, which had also won the presidential elections in June that year, slightly eased the Egyptian side of the siege. Yet the pressure of this revived solidarity movement was not enough on its own to force the Islamists towards a real confrontation with the military over the matter. All the major Islamist parties standing in the parliamentary elections in 2011-2 had fallen over themselves to declare that they would not challenge the peace treaty with Israel. Nor did the question of the massive subsidies from the US, which pay for the Egyptian armed forces’ role as Gaza’s prison guards, barely enter public debate.

The missing link in the Egyptian revolution was a revolutionary party rooted in the working class, capable of mobilising the concentrated social power of that class in the workplaces, not just the streets. Such an organisation could have played a role in directing this power towards breaking the repressive core of the Egyptian state. Building such a party in the future will depend not just on a rise in the level of strikes and self-organised collective action by Egyptian workers. It will also require the creation of a cadre of working class activists who are committed to a politics of liberation from oppression in the wider sense. This is one way that the question of Palestine becomes embedded in the process of building popular revolutionary movements across the Middle East.

The defeat of the revolutionary wave of 2011 shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that Palestinians are back to square one. Nor should we just be waiting for mass revolutionary parties to somehow spontaneously form in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan or Algeria in order to rescue Palestinians from their predicament. On the contrary, the reawakening of united struggles across historic Palestine can play a crucial role in providing inspiration for rebuilding popular movements around the region after the disasters of counter-revolution and war. The imperialist system in the region traps both the Palestinians and the mass of ordinary people across the region in a nightmare of poverty, oppression and war. It remains the case that the weakest points of this system do not lie in Palestine itself. Exposing those weak points and building revolutionary organisation which connects resistance in Palestine to the class struggle in the wider region has never been more urgent.

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