This is not the first time that Hamas or other Islamic jihadists have rained rocket fire on civilian targets in Israeli cities, killing without discrimination: among the first victims were an Israeli Arab father and daughter in Lod, blown up in their car. Nor is the first time that Israeli armed forces have responded with devastating air raids and artillery fire, targeting Hamas leaders and weapons but also inflicting a civilian death toll in Gaza’s crowded buildings and streets dozens of times higher than anything “achieved” by Hamas rockets. Nor is it the first time that Israel has been on the verge of a military invasion of the Gaza strip, which cannot fail to result in further death, homelessness and trauma for Palestinian families. We saw all this before in 2009 and 2014.
But it is the first time that such a major military effort has been accompanied in a number of Israeli cities by a wave of violent clashes between Israeli Jews and Arabs. These are essentially pogroms: right wing gangs brandishing the Star of David and screaming “Death to the Arabs”, hunting for Arabs to beat up and murder; and at the same time attacks on Jews and synagogues set alight by crowds “inspired” by Islamism and Palestinian nationalism. Sinister and ironic memories of the Black Hundreds in Tsarist Russia or Kristallnacht in the Germany of 1938!
Provoking war and pogroms
The Israeli government under Netanyahu has to a large extent sown the seeds of this noxious development: through new laws reinforcing the definition of Israel as a Jewish state, and through the policy of annexing the whole of Jerusalem as its capital. This latter is essentially a declaration that the “Two State Solution” for the Israel/Palestine conflict is dead and buried, and that the military occupation of the West Bank is now a permanent fact of life. The immediate spark for the riots by Palestinian Arabs in Jerusalem – the threat to expel Arab residents from East Jerusalem and replace them by Jewish settlers - flowed from this whole strategy of military occupation and ethnic cleansing.
The “democracies” of Europe and the US weep their usual crocodile tears at the escalation of military conflict and civil disorder (and even Netanyahu has called for an end to the street violence by Jews and Arabs alike). But the US under Trump had already sanctioned Israel’s openly annexationist policies, part of a wider imperialist project of bringing together Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in an alliance against Iran (but also against great powers like Russia and China). And if Biden has taken some distance from Trump’s uncritical embrace of the Saudi regime, for example, his first concern in the current crisis has been to insist that “Israel has the right to defend itself”, because the Zionist state, for all its aspirations to playing its own game in the Middle East, remains a key component of US strategy in the region.
But the Israeli state is not alone in acting as a provocateur. Hamas responded to the repression of the Jerusalem riots by launching a continuous salvo of rockets against civilian targets in Israel, knowing full well that this would bring fire from the skies on the unprotected population of Gaza. It has also been doing its utmost to encourage the ethnic violence inside Israel.
It is a characteristic of war in the epoch of capitalist decline that the first victims are the civil populations, above all the working class and the oppressed. Both Israel and Hamas are acting in the barbaric logic of imperialist war.
Faced with imperialist war, revolutionaries have always called for the international solidarity of the exploited against all capitalist states and proto-states. This remains the only possible barrier to a descent into war and barbarism.
But the ruling classes in the Middle East have, along with their more powerful imperialist backers, long stoked the flames of division and hatred. There were pogroms against Jewish settlers in Palestine in 1936, stirred up by a Palestinian political leadership that was seeking to ally itself with Nazi Germany against the dominant power in the region, Great Britain. But these were dwarfed by the massive ethnic cleansing of the Arab population that accompanied the 1948 “War of Independence”, creating the intractable Palestinian refugee problem which has been systematically instrumentalised by the Arab regimes. A succession of wars between Israel and the surrounding Arab states, Israeli incursions against Hamas and Hezbollah, the transformation Gaza into a vast prison – all this has deepened hatred between Arab and Jew to the point where it appears as nothing more than “common sense” on both sides of the divide. Against all this, examples of solidarity between Arab and Jewish workers in struggle are extremely rare, while organised political expressions of internationalism on both sides have been more or less non-existent.
The danger of an uncontrolled spiral of violence
There are further contingent elements in the provocative actions of the Israeli state. Netanyahu, the acting Prime Minister, has been unable to form a government after a series of inconclusive general elections, and still faces a number of corruption charges. He could certainly benefit from playing the strong man in this new national crisis. But there are deeper tendencies at work which could escape the control of those trying to benefit from the current mess.
The big Arab-Israeli wars of the 60s and 70s were fought in the context of the two imperialist blocs that dominated the planet: Israel backed by the USA, the Arab states supported by the USSR. But since the break-up of the bloc system at the end of the 80s, the innate drive towards imperialist war in decadent capitalism has taken a much more chaotic and potentially uncontrolled form. The Middle East in particular has become the stamping ground of a number of regional powers whose interests do not necessarily coincide with the schemes of the world powers: Israel, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia…These powers are already heavily involved in the bloody conflicts ravaging the region: Iran uses its pawn Hizbollah in the multi-sided conflict in Syria, and Saudi Arabia has been deeply enmeshed in the war in Yemen against Iran’s Houthi allies. Turkey has carried its war against the Kurdish peshmergas into Syria and Iraq (while also sustaining a military intervention in war-torn Libya) As well as reducing whole countries to ruin and starvation, these wars contain a real risk of spiralling out of control and spreading the destruction across the Middle East.
This mounting chaos at the military level is one expression of the global decomposition of the capitalist system. Another and closely related element is played out at the social and political level, through the intensification of confrontations between bourgeois political factions, of tensions between ethnic and religious groups, of pogroms against minorities. This is a global trend, typified, for example, in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and China, the sharpening of the racial divide in the USA. As we have seen, the ethnic divisions in Israel/Palestine have a long history, but they are being aggravated by the whole atmosphere of despair and hopelessness generated by the seemingly irresolvable “Palestinian problem”. And while pogroms are often unleashed as instruments of state policy, in today’s conditions they can escalate beyond the aims of state agencies and accelerate a general slide into social breakdown. The fact that this is beginning to happen in a highly militarised state like Israel is a sign that the attempts of totalitarian state capitalism to hold back the process of social disintegration can end up aggravating it even more.
Wars and pogroms are the future that capitalism offers us everywhere if the international working class does not rediscover its own interests and its own future, which is the communist revolution. If the proletarians of the Middle East are, for now, too overwhelmed by massacres and ethnic divisions, it is up to the central fractions of the world proletariat to return to the path of struggle, the only path that leads out of the nightmare of this putrefying social order.
Amos, May 14, 2021