Palestine flags in Tahrir Square, Egypt Palestine flags in Tahrir Square, Egypt. Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy / CC BY 2.0

This piece by Kevin Ovenden is the latest in our series Nakba75: the roots of Israeli apartheid. Here Kevin looks and the central role the Arab working class can play in the liberation of Palestine

The old will die – the young will forget. 

That was the hope of the founders of the state of Israel in 1948 as it expanded to seize as much territory with as few Palestinians left within as possible. The Nakba. 

We are 75 years on and not only have the surviving young of 1948 not forgotten, nor have their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

It is only thanks to three generations and more of Palestinian resistance to the continuing process of Israeli land grabs and expulsion that we can talk of Palestinian rights, let alone liberation. 

Any prospect of securing that freedom has to have at its centre the resistance of Palestinian society and solidarity with its struggles. 

That means facing up to the overwhelming might of the Israeli state compared with the Palestinian people. Every day brings more atrocities: military and settler killings, house demolitions, the ongoing siege of Gaza, with the frequent bombing, and all the daily humiliations. 

Those are escalating. The response of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government to the political crisis that has cleaved Jewish Israeli society in recent months is to placate the even more extreme right by turning the screw ever tighter on the West Bank and on Palestinians within the Green Line.

Peter Beinart, an editor of the liberal Jewish Currents magazine, warned last month that Israeli sentiment to drive out hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in coming years is far from confined to the ultra-right.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard warned last week of Israel’s extension of surveillance technology “to supercharge segregation and automate apartheid.” We should consider the implications of that. 

How can the Palestinians hope to beat such an onslaught let alone begin to recover their rights and land? The truth: no one can expect them to do so alone. 

Indeed, a key reason behind British sponsorship for the creation of the Israeli state, and US support for it from the 1960s on, was to disrupt the potential for revolutionary and united struggles across the Arab region, thus leaving the Palestinians isolated. 

Britain’s military governor of Palestine in 1917, Sir Ronald Storrs, later said of the creation of an exclusively Jewish entity which would become Israel that England would acquire ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism’.

That was less apparent in the inter-war years when the Middle East was parcelled out between British and French “mandates”.

But the end of the Second World War brought a new division of the world. The US supplanted Britain and demanded the dissolution of its and France’s empires, veiling its own less direct imperialist role behind platitudes of opposing colonialism. 

Yet it was Israel, a colonial-settler state, that was born in this period, in the same year as apartheid was formalised in South Africa – 1948. Both events took place against a backdrop of decolonisation, which in some cases took a radical turn.. 

The logic of strong US and Western backing was similar in each case. It was the creation of garrison states that became integrated into the West’s bloc in the Cold War and could be relied upon in a way that other allies in the respective regions could not.  

That was especially the case with Israel. The 1950s into the 1960s saw one after another the ramshackle monarchical states and feeble governments the departing colonial powers had left behind succumb to radical left-national movements. 

The nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 electrified the region. It brought an attempted invasion by Israel, Britain, and France. 

The US opposed this attempt by the two ex-colonial powers to usurp its post-war position and threatened to sink Britain’s currency if it did not withdraw. 

Nasser’s triumph led to a ‘heroic period’ of Arab left-nationalism. Domestically, it meant considerable initial reform aimed at rapid, state-led national development in alliance with select ruling families. 

It also meant a sharp authoritarian turn: parties banned and socialist and Islamist rivals jailed. The trade-off for the mass of people was improving basic living standards – though still with immense poverty and exploitation – and hope that centuries of Arab decline might now be reversed. Not only in Egypt but across the region through pan-Arab unity. 

That too was the hope for many Palestinian refugees who had then only been away from their homes for a decade.

The prospect of a radical transformation from Morocco to Iraq answered the strategic dilemma that distinguished the black majority in South Africa from the Palestinian minority inside the borders of Israel. 

It was not only numbers. It was that South African apartheid relied upon the super-exploited labour of black workers at the heart of the country’s core mining industry. 

Israel’s version of apartheid separation was and remains to exclude Palestinians from the Jewish economy and progressively push them off the land. 

To find concentrations of workers and urban poor of the kind who would shake Apartheid South Africa to its core you had to look to Egypt and a few parts of other Arab countries. 

The problem was that even at its best, Nasser, the radicalisation of the post-colonial turmoil was limited. It brought to power the middle strata of society, often army officers, whose vision was not revolutionary transformation but industrialising on conventional lines. 

Efforts at actually unifying three states into a single one foundered as state-builders in each preferred their own local control forged in alliance with old elite interests (as well as new wealth) who were opposed to fundamental social upheaval. 

When Israel launched a lightning attack in 1967, seizing the whole of the West Bank, it swiftly defeated the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian conventional armies of states that were either semi-feudal or lacking any sense of popular mobilisation.

The end of a heroic period gave way from the 1970s on to one state after another accommodating to the imperialist ordering of the Middle East while masking their own interests and rivalries with support for the Palestinians that was increasingly rhetorical. Punctuated by wars and invasions to deal with recalcitrants. 

Egypt under Nasser’s successor led the way in 1978 in shifting into the US system of alliances. That process has culminated with the Abraham Accords today in which a succession of Arab states have normalised relations with Israel. 

But these 40 years have also seen repeated waves of struggle in the Middle East as well as the defeat of the US’s plan to reorder the region through the Iraq war and occupation, as well as Libya and Syria. 

The uprisings of 2011 beginning in Tunisia brought again the prospect of revolutionary transformation from below. 

Established activists in Egypt traced the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak back to the solidarity with the Second Palestinian Intifada of 2000 that broke the state ban on protests. 

And Israel’s three-week bombing of Gaza in 2008-9 brought mass anger and also a sense of shame across the Arab world – shame at the government’s abandonment of Palestine. 

The call for “dignity” ran through the Egyptian revolution of 2011: dignity for the mass of people, for the nation, for the Arab people, and for the Palestinians. 

The combination of imperialist domination and thin elites throwing back efforts at serious reform has distorted development and brought one faultline over another. 

The lack of democracy, extreme differences between rich and poor, exclusion of even professional people from positions if they lack the “right connections”… 

Tunisia was held up as an example of a modern democratic transition after the 2011 revolution. 

But for the last two years, it has been going through a ‘slow coup’ that has overturned the remnants of democracy, arrested oppositionists, and concentrated power in a reactionary presidency. 

The block on even a guided parliamentary democracy means grievances find no safety valve. 

In the mix of grievances – as post-2008 combined with astronomical food prices and economic dislocation – is popular anger at Israel’s ever-intensifying assault on the Palestinians. 

Whatever the immediate outcome of the split in Israel between the state and business elite, and the ultra-right, each drawing on popular mobilisation, that assault is going to get worse. 

That’s because Israel is committed both to a Jewish majority state that privileges Jews and to expansion and annexation that bring more Palestinians under its direct control. 

The reality is, as the director of Human Rights Watch said recently, that there is not the state of Israel and the shoestring Palestinian Authority. There is a single entity from the river to the sea with a system of apartheid and its varying effects across the whole territory. 

The ultra-right and Netanyahu’s government are the products of attempts by successive governments to deal with that reality without acknowledging it. 

Instead, they pretended to the world that they were for something called a two-state solution. Whatever the chances of that 30 years ago, it is now dead. 

But so is the idea that Israel can be increasingly normalised. We do not know when popular solidarity with the Palestinians again explodes alongside domestic discontent in the Arab region. The counter-revolutions to the events of 2011 have solved none of the contradictions that led to the uprisings. 

We do know that the extremism of this Israeli government is already shredding bases of support internationally. 

Israeli socialist Ilan Pappe wrote three weeks ago of the political schism in Israel that the old Israeli elite are defending a form of ‘Zionism with a human face’ that the far-right government is prepared to abandon. 

He concluded:  ‘During the recent history of Israel–Palestine, world opinion has often been diverted by other developments: first the Arab Spring, now the war in Ukraine. But the cause of the Palestinians has endured despite this wavering attention. Can it exploit the present moment to turn Israel into an international pariah?’

That could accelerate the Israeli political crisis. It would strengthen the Palestinian struggle within Israel and the diaspora, the prospects of radical eruptions in neighbouring countries, and the international solidarity movement. 

Taken together, they are the hope we can look to and aim to learn from the setbacks and defeats of the past.

And for this reason, the liberation of Palestine is intimately tied to the struggle for the liberation of the Arab peoples across the region: the road to freedom goes through Cairo and the immense power of the Arab working class.

The Nakba75: the Roots of Israeli Apartheid series:
  1. Downward spiral: Settlers and state violence
  2. Palestine and the carve-up of the Middle East
  3. The origins of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration
  4. Palestinian resistance to Mandate rule
  5. What is settler colonialism?
  6. Al-Nakba: The ethnic cleansing of Palestine
  7. Israel: Watchdog for US imperialism
  8. Palestine: the key to freedom in the Middle East rests with the Arab working class
  9. Palestine and international solidarity

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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