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The Israeli War on the Palestinian People

The U.S. and European allies have lined up behind the Israeli assault on Gaza. But uncertainty remains around Prime Minister Netanyahu’s future, “normalization” with Arab states, and the fate of apartheid.

Claudia Cinatti

October 17, 2023
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A Palestinian man in a white tanktop stands in front of a burnt-out apartment building in Gaza during the Israeli assault in October 2023.

Read article in Arabic.

Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to flee northern Gaza, in dilapidated cars and trucks overflowing with makeshift packages, children, and families, even on foot or in donkey carts. The rubble of buildings destroyed by bombing can be seen all around, buildings that were once hospitals, shelters, and housing. The Dantesque image replicated by the media is of the northern Gaza Strip on October 14, when the 24-hour deadline given by the Israeli military for the evacuation of more than 1 million Palestinians expired. Such a task is considered impossible even by the United Nations, which warned of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. The Gaza Strip is an open-air prison of only about 140 square miles, with a higher population density than London, from which it is practically impossible to leave, even if Egypt agreed to open the Rafah border crossing.

As Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy writes, the forced evacuation in Gaza brings up memories of the “trauma of the Nakba” (catastrophe), when Palestinians were expelled from their villages and lands when the state of Israel was founded in 1948.

Under the impact and shock caused by the brutal Hamas attack (which, according to Israeli authorities, left more than 1,000 civilians dead and a hundred hostages), the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has once again implemented the method of collective punishment against the Gaza Strip. Gaza has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt, by air, land, and sea since 2007. Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Galant, said he was imposing a total siege on Gaza, “no fuel, no electricity, no water, no food. Nothing.” He justified this by saying that the Israelis are fighting “human animals.” So far, this siege and the constant bombardment have claimed the lives of some 2,700 Palestinian civilians, a figure that will only increase in the coming days and weeks.

The fact that 360,000 Israeli reservists have been called up, along with the concentration of troops and tanks near Gaza, indicates that this offensive could lead to a ground invasion by the Israeli army into Palestinian territory, an option that most analysts consider highly risky. In addition, hostages, including American, French and British citizens, could be killed in the massive bombardment and military ground assault. As Lawrence Freedman points out in the Financial Times, the problem is not a lack of military strategy but that Israel lacks a viable political strategy.

Despite the differences that Biden and the liberal European governments may have with the “Trumpist” Netanyahu, Israel’s historical and strategic allies, starting with the U.S. and the European Union, have come out to vindicate Israel’s “unrestricted right to defense,” as always happens in these cases. The double standards of the “international community,” that is, of “Western” public opinion shaped by the values of U.S. imperialism, is an obscenity. When Israel commits war crimes, including colonial siege, for the imperialist powers it is simply exercising its right of defense, but when Palestinians resist the occupation, they are “terrorists.”

Once again, the indulgence of his powerful allies was exploited by Netanyahu to cloak his next war against the Palestinian people in legitimacy. But as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already pointed out, it would be a mistake for Netanyahu to believe that he has received a blank check.

The situation is still open. It remains to be seen what the internal consequences will be, as well as the regional and international impact of this Israeli war on the Palestinian people of Gaza — the sixth since the army withdrew from the strip in 2005.

Will Netanyahu Survive?

On the domestic front, Netanyahu’s problems are not minor. Under his administration, Israel has just suffered an unprecedented attack on its own territory. Not coincidentally, this has been compared with the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel was surprised by the combined action of Egypt and Syria. Its impregnable security was breached by the action of Hamas, a militia with completely asymmetrical firepower, the attack perpetrated with a combination of artisanal methods, such as gliders and backhoes. The operation included not only military targets but also attacks on hundreds of young people who were at a rave, families living in kibbutzim and other nonmilitary targets. The attack on military posts and civilians alike was easily instrumentalized by Netanyahu and the imperialist states in an attempt to legitimize their declaration of war. In turn, this demonstrates that Hamas lacks any strategy to succeed in the struggle for the liberation of the Palestinian people.

In the immediate term, Netanyahu succeeded in welding a reactionary national unity. The establishment of a new unity government, however, does not mean that the Israeli state has overcome the deep social, political, and state fractures that led to the massive mobilizations against Netanyahu’s judicial reform (an “unrepublican” reform that took away powers from the judiciary to reconcentrate them in the executive branch). So far this year, every Saturday, tens of thousands of Israelis — mainly from the secular middle classes, the technology sector, reservists, and even pilots of the armed forces — have been rallying in major cities against Netanyahu’s coalition government and the settler and extreme religious right-wing parties, which among other privileges do not perform military service and receive millions in subsidies from the state. These same sectors, together with relatives of the hostages, began to take to the streets and hold Netanyahu responsible for the disaster in the south of the country, arguing that the army was concentrating on protecting settlers in the West Bank.

Their political differences, however, do not result from how Israel treats Palestinians. As the Israeli-born historian Ilan Pappé correctly explains, the opposition to the judicial reform is not, as the Western press claims, a movement in “defense of democracy,” for the simple reason that it does not question the oppression of the Palestinians. In Israel, there is a basic consensus on the Zionist state’s colonial policy, even if some people reject extreme solutions, such as the expulsion of Palestinians and the outright annexation of the West Bank, as openly proposed by Netanyahu’s ministers.

The configuration of Israeli power after the Hamas attack expresses both the moment of unity achieved by Netanyahu and its strategic weaknesses. With the approval of the Knesset (Israeli parliament), the prime minister formed a “war cabinet” and an “emergency unity government,” which was joined by Benny Gantz of the opposition center-right National Unity Party, and possible replacement candidate whom Joe Biden is trying to court. So far, Yair Lapid of the main opposition party (Yesh Atid) has rejected the invitation, perhaps saving himself for a major crisis. In exchange for this “national salvation,” Netanyahu accepted the condition of excluding his right-wing ministers from the decision-making table. Strategically, perhaps this attack will mean the end of his political career, as happened with Golda Meir, who resigned two years after the Yom Kippur War.

The Uncertain Future of “Normalization”

Externally, the question is whether Israel’s military response could trigger a regional war involving not just Lebanon but above all Iran — regional power and the enemy of the Zionist state — which supports and maintains a tactical alliance with Hamas.

This possibility cannot be ruled out, although Israel’s imperialist allies are frantically trying to avoid it. In a world convulsed by the Russian and Ukraine/NATO war and the return of great power rivalry with the Western bloc under U.S. leadership, along with an emerging alliance between Russia and China (which is projected to the Global South), it is in the US’s interest not to open the Pandora’s box of a regional war in the Middle East. Such a war would force the U.S. to return to a region where it invested significant military resources over the last two decades in the “war on terror,” which ended in defeat.

The Hamas attack shook the regional geopolitical map. The United States, whose strategic interests are focused on its dispute with China, has been promoting the policy of “normalization” of relations between the Arab states and the state of Israel, with the goal of isolating Iran. This policy was initiated by Donald Trump in 2020 with the Abraham Accords, initially signed by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The “normalization,” and with it their business promises, implied normalizing the colonial situation of the Palestinian people.

The policy of “appeasement” continued under the Biden administration, which in the days before the Hamas attack had been moving forward with the “normalization” of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Pragmatically, Biden did not challenge China’s  push for the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and took advantage of the climate that this created to negotiate a prisoner exchange to free American spies held by the Iranian regime.

But these plans have been put on hold by the Hamas attack and Israel’s declaration of war. Saudi Arabia has restated its formal demand that any agreement be contingent on a resolution of the “Palestinian issue,” a cause with popular support in the Arab and Muslim world. In this framework of heightened tensions, these state interests are likely to help moderate more extreme tendencies.

Ending Apartheid

In recent days the overwhelming majority of “Western” governments and the mainstream corporate media have repeated ad nauseam the narrative that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East,” a sort of oasis of “civilization” in the face of “Eastern-Arab-Islamic barbarism.” This narrative seeks to silence any criticism of the state of Israel and its colonial policy with the usual accusation of “anti-Semitism,” exploiting, as historian Norman Finkelstein denounces, the memory of the Holocaust.

We revolutionary socialists reject the targeting of civilians. We share neither the tactics nor the strategy of Hamas, whose aim is to establish a theocratic state. But like tens of thousands in London, Paris, and the United States who express their solidarity with the Palestinian people, we do not confuse Hamas’s actions with support for the Palestinian resistance against colonial occupation.

As has been demonstrated by organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, what exists in Israel is an apartheid regime, which subjects the Palestinian people to various types of oppression in Gaza, the West Bank, and in the state of Israel, where the so-called Israeli Arabs make up about 20 percent of the population. Therefore, Israel cannot be considered a “democracy” for some and a regime of colonial oppression for others.

The Israeli regime resembles the South African regime of apartheid in several ways. For example, the Palestinian people are deprived of their basic democratic rights, starting with national self-determination; they live under military occupation, and within Israel they have citizenship but no nationality. The state of Israel has declared by law its exclusively Jewish character, which discriminates against Arabs and other minorities. It would be the equivalent of postulating, for example, that the United States is an exclusively white Christian state.

One only needs to compare maps of the region to see the colonial advance of the Israeli state, which currently occupies 45 percent of the West Bank with colonies and illegal settlements. In recent years, this colonial advance and, along with it, the oppression of the Palestinian people, has deepened qualitatively. And even if the difference is just of degree, it is not of minor significance that the government headed by Netanyahu is the most right-wing on record.

Faced with this reality of oppression, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), headed by Mahmoud Abbas, is at a point of no return. During the Oslo Accords, the PNA assumed the role of policing the Palestinian liberation movement, collaborating with Zionist state oppression. Confined to the West Bank, the offensive of the last few years has made the PNA even more irrelevant. This crisis is giving rise to an interesting phenomenon reported by several analysts: the emergence of a new generation of young Palestinian activists, who are also rejecting Hamas’s tight religious control.

With the failure of the Oslo Accords and the end of illusions in a two-state solution, along with Israel’s escalation of its colonial policies, the voices of Jewish intellectuals, activists, and others have grown to denounce the colonial, racist, and oppressive character of the Zionist state. They raise an alternative of a “single, binational, and democratic state” founded on the basis of dismantling the apartheid regime.

In his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Pappé demonstrates with carefully documented research that the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 was based on the expulsion of the Arab population by methods of ethnic cleansing. This policy of systematic expulsion constitutes what he defines as “incremental genocide. According to Pappé, the only way to avoid taking ethnic cleansing to its end is to dismantle the apartheid regime and establish “a de-zionised, liberated and democratic Palestine from the river to the sea; a Palestine that will welcome back the refugees and build a society that does not discriminate on the basis of culture, religion or ethnicity.”

Many of these anti-Zionist activists are active in joint campaigns with Palestinians, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which for years has been using various methods to expose the racist and segregationist nature of the state of Israel. Or the One Democratic State Campaign, which brings together people of Jewish origin and Palestinians with a similar goal of putting an end to the imperialism-backed colonial regime.

To tear down the apartheid regime and the oppression against the Palestinian people, it is necessary to dismantle its material bases. That is why we believe that the only truly progressive solution is to fight for a workers’ and socialist Palestine: only a state that aims to put an end to all oppression and exploitation can guarantee democratic and peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews, as a first step toward a socialist federation in the Middle East.

Originally published in Spanish on October 15 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by Molly Rosenzweig

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Claudia Cinatti

Claudia is an editor of our sister site La Izquierda Diario and a leading member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) in Argentina.

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