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The history of the Palestinian resistance and its defeats points to their being only one path to liberation: through the struggles of the Arab working class, argues Michael Lavalette

The barbarity of what the Israelis are doing in Gaza is almost beyond words. The images of dead children, destroyed districts and attacked schools and hospitals are horrifying.

As socialists what is distinctive about our take on events? As socialists what is our vision for how we achieve a free Palestine? The first thing to point out is that it is not our job to sit on the side lines and preach to Palestinians about what they should be doing. Our starting point is the destruction wreaked upon the world by imperialism and colonialism. And on this we must be clear: our main enemy is at home. And the reason that is relevant is because Israel has always acted as a ‘watchdog state’ for Western interests in the region. Its function is to protect Western economic and political interests across the Middle East.

Palestine is a colonised land and the Palestinians a subjugated people. As socialists we defend their right to self-determination and to national liberation, and their right to fight against colonial occupation. Over the decades, as they have fought for their rights, the Palestinians have been labelled as ‘terrorists’. But in the history of anti-colonial struggles, those who fight for freedom are regularly labelled as ‘terrorists’ by the colonial power. This has been the case from Ireland to India, from Algeria to Vietnam.

One refrain we have heard this week from sections of the media or liberal left is that the Palestinians should have followed ‘other’ strategies: they should have marched, protested, struck or used international law to assert their case. A quick glimpse into the history of the Palestinian liberation movement shows that Palestinians have done all of this. And when they do, they get little support from the media or the political centre!

No matter what strategies Palestinians adopt, the Israeli colonial power reacts with brutality and vengeance. The Israeli destruction of Gaza this week is inhumane, violent and brutal, but it is just a more extreme version of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that they have been practising for decades.

So, as socialists, our starting point is support for the national liberation struggle of Palestinians rooted in our opposition to imperialism and the reality of colonial occupation. But whilst we defend Palestinians’ rights to fight in whatever way they chose, we also want to engage in fraternal debate about the best strategy to achieve liberation. We are part of an international socialist tradition that exists across the world and has a clear strategic vision of how we can win. To refuse to engage in that friendly debate is a dereliction of duty.

History of resistance

The Palestine liberation movement has followed various strategic paths throughout its history. In the early years after the Nakba, the dominant politics was one of Pan-Arab nationalism. You can understand it’s appeal. The Nakba had destroyed Palestinian society. Palestinian leaders were killed or exiled. The diaspora was scattered in refugee camps across the region. The idea that Palestine could be liberated by a strong Arab leader or the military forces of Egypt, Syria, or Jordan seemed attractive. It was encapsulated in the slogan of the Arab Nationalist Movement that the road to liberation was through Damascus, Beirut and Cairo.

However, this dream was destroyed by defeat in the 1967 Arab Israeli war. Israel, armed to the teeth by its backers, was too strong for the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In the aftermath, we saw the growth of the fedayeen movement. After the battle of Karameh, in Jordan in 1968, when the fighters of Fatah and the PFLP inflicted a significant defeat against a full Israeli invasion, young people flooded into the brigades, emboldened by the belief that the armed struggle could liberate their lands. This strategy dominated from 1968 to 1982. But in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and imposed a significant defeat on the fedayeen.

Israel is a very well-armed, militarised society backed by all the major imperial powers; defeating it in any armed struggle would be a Herculean task. The outcome of these earlier phases of the freedom struggle emphasises this.

The revival of Palestinian resistance after Beirut came in the form of the First Intifada in 1987. This was a mass movement of Palestinians – young and old, men and women – who took to the streets, went on strike and created alternative forms of education and welfare, challenging the Israelis across the whole of ‘Palestine48’. The Israeli response was, as usual, brutal. However, the movement did force the Israelis to the negotiating table and was a key factor in pushing the Oslo Accords and the creation of the Occupied Territories in their present form.

One point worth noting is that during the First Intifada, very few Israelis broke with Zionism to adopt an anti-imperialist position. The Israeli Labour Party and the Israeli trade-union movement didn’t come over to the side of Palestinian liberation. Instead they remained, as they always have, wedded to the Zionist state and the notions of an ethnocentric Israel, a home for Jews, to the exclusion of Palestinians.

The Oslo agreements were quickly exposed as a failure, leaving the Palestinian Authority as a weak, subservient administration to Israeli rule. This, in part, led to the Second Intifada, a much more militarised encounter between the brigades and the occupying forces. And it led to Israel pursuing two strategies simultaneously: legal separation and apartheid, on the one hand, and intensifying ethnic cleansing on the other.

These policies have created a pressure cooker which exploded last Saturday. So what now? If we look at this brief history of struggle, we can suggest several conclusions.

First, Israel is a brutal, heavily armed colonial state. It will always have more weaponry and munitions than the resistance forces. They have repeatedly shown that they are more than happy to bomb, injure and slaughter Palestinian men, women and children. The armed struggle is a conflict between hugely unequal sides.

Second, the Arab leaders are not the friends of the Palestinian struggle. The have mainly been silent this week. They have no intention of engaging in a war of liberation with Israel. One after the other, they have made ‘normalisation agreements’ with Israel, and the Palestinians remain an awkward presence they would rather ignore. At the same time, they brutalise people in their own states, denying them political and social rights.

The Arab working class

The Palestinian people have fought heroically for their liberation for decades. They are not going away. But it is hard to see them winning their liberation on their own or in isolation. So how can Palestine be free? There is a social force in the region that does have the power fundamentally to reshape the Middle East. The Arab working class is now an immense, powerful force.

Across the region, workers are employed in manufacturing, services, docks, textiles, oil production, food production and a range of other sectors. It is a working class with a proud history of struggle and, in recent months, the working class in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon has been flexing its muscles and fighting over pay, working conditions and for political rights.

There is no necessary separation between ‘economic’ demands and ‘political’ demands when strikers face repression from corrupt states and brutal political elites. In 2010-11, the Arab Spring emphasised the huge potential the Arab working class has to transform the region. The revolutions of 2011 were defeated, but they emphasised what was a very real cross-region possibility. To turn this into a reality, we need to link the struggle for improved economic conditions of workers in the workplace, with the struggle against Arab bosses and corrupt leaders in each of the Arab states, with the anti-imperial struggle that has Palestine at its heart.

Over the last twenty years the US, Britain and their friends have destroyed vast swathes of the Middle East in terrible imperial wars. The Arab working class across the region has suffered at the hands of imperial intervention and from the corrupt regimes that rule in their countries. And across the Arab world, the cause of Palestine is deeply popular. Right across the region, people have come out in their hundreds of thousands against the Israeli destruction of Gaza, often in the face of opposition from the local state.

It emphasises the importance of Palestinian solidarity and anti-imperialism in the region and a socialist solution to the crisis there is one that harnesses the social and political power of the Arab working class in a struggle against local bosses, corrupt local leaders and imperial intervention in the Arab world. Today we can say that the road to the liberation of Palestine comes through Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Yemen and Egypt through a broad, united working-class movement that will deal with their local corrupt leaders and, in the process, the colonial entity in its midst.

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