Notes on the history of imperialist conflict in the Middle East

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The first two articles in this series on the imperialist conflicts in the Middle East highlighted the manipulation of Arab and Zionist nationalism by the great powers, and especially by Britain, in order to dominate the region. They were also used as a weapon against the threat from the working class in the period immediately following the Russian revolution. In this article, we continue the study of imperialist rivalries in the region during the lead-up to World War II and the war itself, to reveal the utter cynicism of the imperialist policy of every faction of the bourgeoisie.

Zionists and Arab nationalists chose their camp in the imperialist war

Both Palestinian peasants and workers, as well as Jewish workers were confronted with the false alternative of taking sides for one wing or the other of the bourgeoisie (Palestinian or Jewish). This false alternative meant that the workers were pulled onto the terrain of military confrontations for purely bourgeois demands. During the 1920s a series of violent clashes between Jews and Arabs and between Arabs and the British occupying forces occurred.

These clashes intensified after the world economic crisis of 1929. One of the factors responsible for their intensification was the increased immigration of Jewish refugees, who had fled from the effects of the world economic crisis and the repression the Nazis had started to unleash against Jews and the repression exercised by Stalinism. Between 1920 and 1930 the number of immigrants doubled, between 1933-39 some 200,000 new immigrants reached Palestine so that by 1939 the Jews made up 30% of the population.

The broader historical and international framework was the general, world wide sharpening of imperialist conflicts. Palestine and the Middle East as a whole were profoundly affected by the realignment of forces on the world arena during the 1930s.

On the one hand, the catastrophic defeat of the proletariat (victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia, of fascism and nazism in Italy and Germany, enrolment of the workers under the banner of "anti-fascism" and the united front in France and Spain in 1936) made it almost impossible for either Jewish or Arab workers to oppose an internationalist class front to the increasingly bloody struggles between the Jewish and Palestinian bourgeoisies. The world wide defeat of the working class had left the bourgeoisie's hands free to open the road to a new generalised world war. At the same time, increasing numbers of Jews were fleeing repression and pogroms in Europe, sharpening the conflicts between Arabs and Jews in Palestine.

On the other hand, the traditional imperialist rivalries in the area (between the French and the British) were fading as new and more dangerous rivals to those old bandits entered the area. Italy, already present in Libya after a war with Turkey in 1911, invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1936, threatening to encircle Egypt and the strategic Suez Canal. Germany, the most powerful member of the fascist Axis, worked in the background to extend its influence by offering support for local nationalist and imperialist ambitions, especially in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.[1]

The historical course towards generalised war was going to engulf the Middle East.

Since the end of World War I the Zionists had demanded the general arming of Jews. In fact, this armament had already begun in secret. The Zionist "self-defence" organisation, Hagan, which was founded during World War I, was turned into a proper military unit. In 1935 a separate terrorist group Irgun Zwai Leumi – known as Ezel – with some 3,000-5,000 fighters was founded. General "conscription" in the Jewish community was introduced; all young men and women between the ages of 17 and 18 had to take part in this underground military service.

The Palestinian bourgeoisie for its part received armed backing from neighbouring countries.

In 1936 there was another escalation of clashes between Zionists and Arab nationalists. In April 1936 the Palestinian bourgeoisie called for a general strike against the British rulers, whom they wanted to force to abandon their pro-Zionist stand. The Arab nationalists with Amin Hussein at their head, called upon the workers and peasants to support their struggle against the Jews and British. The general strike lasted until October 1936 – and was only called off after an appeal by neighbouring countries such as Transjordan, Saudi-Arabia and Iraq, which had started to arm a Palestinian guerrilla.

The violent clashes continued until 1938. The British "protectors" mobilised 25,000 troops to defend their strategic Palestinian outpost.

In view of the general destabilisation of the situation, in 1937 the British bourgeoisie proposed a division of Palestine into two parts (report of the Peel Commission).

The Jews were to receive the fertile northern part of Palestine, the Palestinians should receive the less fertile south-east, Jerusalem should be put under an international mandate and be linked to the Mediterranean through a corridor.

Both Zionists and Palestinians nationalists rejected the Peel Commission plan. One wing of the Zionists insisted on total independence from Britain, they continued to arm themselves and intensified guerrilla action against the British occupying forces.

By presenting a plan of dividing Palestine into two parts, Britain was hoping to maintain its domination over Palestine in this strategically vital part of the world, which also saw a sharp increase of imperialist tensions – especially with Germany and Italy trying to penetrate into the region.

While the French Popular front granted Syria independence in 1936, which, however was only to become effective 3 years later, in 1939 France once again declared Syria to be a French ‘protectorate’.

This new alignment of imperialist forces was a real source of difficulty for the British bourgeoisie, which now had every interest in calming the situation in Palestine, and in preventing any of the parties to the conflict from seeking support from one of Britain's imperialist rivals. But as the conflict between Jewish immigrants and Arabs grew increasingly bitter, the pigeons of the old "divide and rule" policy came home to roost.

Britain had to try to ‘neutralise’ the Arab nationalists and force the Zionists to restrain themselves in their demand for a ‘national home’ for Jews.

Britain adopted a White book, which declared the territories occupied by the Jews constituted a “national home” for the Jews, that after a period of 5 years, during which annual immigration of Jews should not exceed 75,000, Jewish immigration should cease altogether – at a time when the massacres of Jewish people in Europe went into millions... At the same time the purchase of land by Jews should be limited.

These announcements were meant to curb rising Arab protests and were aimed at preventing the Arabs from turning against the British.

In view of the increasing violence between Zionists and Arab nationalists the further escalation of this conflict was only thwarted because an ‘overriding’ conflict – the confrontation between Germany and Italy and its enemies, i.e. the formation of the axis in Europe  - pushed this conflict into the background for another 10 years.

And the looming world war once again forced the nationalists on both sides – the Arab bourgeoisie and the Zionists – to choose their imperialist camp.

With the outbreak of World War II, the Zionists decided to take sides with Britain and take position against German imperialism. They suspended their demand for a Jewish state proper as long as Britain was under threat by German attacks.

Within the Arab bourgeoisie the war led to a split – some of its fractions took sides with the British, others sided with Germany.

The Middle East and its role in World War II

Even if the major battlefields during the Second World War were Europe and the Far East, the Middle East played a vital role for Britain and for Germany’s long-term strategic planning.

For Britain the defence of its positions in the Middle East continued to be a matter of life and death for the maintenance of its colonial empire, because once Egypt was lost, India would run the risk of falling into German and Japanese hands. Even as the Germans seemed about to invade Britain in 1940, Britain mobilised some 250,000 troops for the defence of the Suez-canal.

German military planning concerning the Middle East saw several about-turns.

At the beginning of the war, for some time at least, Germany’s strategy was to strike a secret deal with Russia over Eastern Anatolia. Similar as the secret deal between Stalin and Hitler over Poland (Russia and Germany settled to divide Poland amongst themselves), the German Foreign Secretary Ribbentrop suggested in November 1940 to Stalin that Russia and Germany divide up their zones of interests at the Iranian border and along the northern and south-eastern Anatolian flank. (The Palestine Question 1917-1948, Palestine and the Middle East policy of European Powers and the USA, 1918-48, p.193). But the German invasion into Russia in summer 1941 finally put an end to such plans.

One of Germany’s long-term military goal was, as elaborated in the Reichswehr headquarters in 1941, that once Russia was successfully defeated, Germany would kick Britain out of the Middle East and India. Immediately after the expected defeat of Russia, the Reichswehr planned a global offensive to occupy Iraq, find access to the Iraqi oil resources and threaten British positions in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

However, Germany alone was unable to launch such an offensive.

In order to be able to ‘reach’ Iraq, Germany still had to remove some obstacles: It had to pull Turkey on its side – which was wavering between Britain and Germany. German troops had to march through Syria (which was still under French occupation) and Lebanon. This meant that Germany had to ask the Vichy regime for permission before the Reichswehr could cross Syria and Lebanon.

And it had to count on the help of the weaker parts of its alliance – namely Italy, which had insufficient military resources to attack Britain.

As long as German military planning had to focus on the priority of mobilising its troops against Russia, it was unable to dedicate more forces in the Mediterranean.

Much against its will, after Italian troops were defeated by the British in Libya in 1940-41, in 1942 the German Afrika-Korps under Rommel intervened and tried to drive out the British army of Egypt and conquer the Suez Canal. But Germany did not have the means to sustain another front in Africa and the Middle East, all the more so since its offensive against Russia had come to a halt.

At the same time German capital confronted its own insurmountable contradictions. On the one hand it aimed at the “Endlösung” (Holocaust, the displacement and annihilation of all Jews), which meant that German capital was forcing the Jews to flee, hence driving many of them to Palestine. Thus Nazi policy was to a large extent responsible for the increase of the number of Jewish refugees arriving in Palestine – a situation which brought German capital into contradiction with the interests of the Palestine and Arab bourgeoisie.

On the other hand German imperialism had to look for allies amongst the Arab bourgeoisies to fight against the British. This is why the Nazis propagated the call of the Arab bourgeoisie for national unity and supported their rejection of a national home for the Jews.[2]

In several countries, German imperialism managed to pull towards its side some factions of the Arab bourgeoisie.

In April 1941 parts of the army overthrew the government in Iraq and formed a government of national defence under Rachid Ali al-Kailani. This government deported all those who were considered to be pro-British. The Palestinian nationalists who had gone into exile in Iraq, formed volunteer brigades under the leadership of al-Hussein and these units participated in the struggle against the British.

When the British army intervened against the pro-German government in Iraq, Germany sent two air craft squadrons. However, the German army did not have adequate logistics at its disposal to support its troops at such a distance. To the great disappointment of the pro-German Iraqi government, Germany had to withdraw its squadrons. The British army in turn did not only mobilise its own troops, they also used a Zionist special unit against Germany. Britain released the Zionist terrorist David Raziel, a leader of the Zionist organisation Irgun Zvai Leumi from British internment and entrusted him with a special mission. His unit was to blow up oil fields in Iraq and assassinate members of the pro-German government.

However, at that stage the German bomber squadron managed to shoot down the Zionist terrorist flying in a British plane. This incident – despite its limited military significance – reveals, however, which fundamental interests Britain as the declining “superpower” at the time and Germany as the “challenger” were fighting for, which limits they were confronted with and which allies they relied upon in the region.

The mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Hussein, who had fled to Iraq and the leader of the pro-German Iraqi government Ali al-Keilani had to flee from Iraq. Via Turkey and Italy they managed to escape to Berlin, where they stayed in exile. Palestinian and Iraqi nationalists enjoying protection and exile offered by the Nazis!

At the same time the pro-German parts of the Arabic bourgeoisie only tended to take sides with Germany, as long as German imperialism was on the advance. Following its defeat at el-Alamein in 1942 and at Stalingrad in 1943, as soon as the tide turned against German imperialism, the pro-German parts of the Arabic bourgeoisie changed sides or were ousted by the pro-British parts of the local bourgeoisie.

The defeat of the Germans also forced the Zionists to change their tactics. While they had supported Britain as long as the colonial power was under Nazi threat, they now resumed their terror campaign against the British in Palestine, which was to last until 1948. A leading figure amongst the Zionist terrorists was Menachem Begin (who later became Prime Minister of Israel and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with Yasser Arafat). Amongst others, the Zionists assassinated the English Minister Lord Moyne in Cairo.

In order to win Arab sympathy and prevent the Arab nationalists from moving closer to its German imperialist rival, Britain established a naval blockade around Palestine to curb the influx of Jewish refugees. Western democracy was willing to regulate the influx of refugees for the sake of its imperialist interests. The Jews may have felt thankful to have escaped death in the Nazi concentration camps, but the British bourgeoisie was unwilling to let the Jews settle in Palestine – because the arrival of the Jews at that moment did not fit into their imperialist plans.[3]

The similarity between the situation of World War I and World War II is striking.

All the local contending imperialist factions had to choose between one imperialist camp or other. The dominant imperialist camp, Britain, challenged by Germany, defended its power tooth and nail.

However, Germany was faced with insurmountable obstacles in this region: its weaker military capabilities (having to intervene at such large distances overstrained its military and logistic resources) and its lack of strong and reliable allies. Germany was not in the position to offer any reward to any of its allies, nor did it have the military means to coerce a country into its bloc or offer any protection against the other bloc.

Thus it could only play a ‘challenging’ role vis-à-vis the still dominant power at the time – Britain. It could never do more than undermine British positions and it was unable to establish a firm strategic outpost of its own or keep a country firmly in its orbit.

Global imperialist reshuffling in the Middle East

At the same time, the balance of forces between the “Allied Forces” changed during World War II.

The USA strengthened their position at the expense of Britain. Britain, which was bled white by the war and on the verge of bankruptcy, became indebted to the USA. Thus as with any war, the imperialist pecking order was transformed.

As a result, from 1942 on the Zionist organisations turned towards the USA in order to win their support for the setting up of a Jewish home in Palestine. In November the Jewish Emergency Council met in New York and rejected the British White book of 1939. The key demand was the transformation of Palestine into an independent Zionist state – a demand directed against British interests.

Until World War II it was above all the western European powers that clashed over the Middle East (Britain, France, Italy, Germany). And while France and Britain were the main beneficiaries of the Ottoman empire's collapse after World War I, these two countries were now to be “toppled” by American and Russian imperialism, which both aimed was to curb British and French colonial influence.

Russia undertook everything to support any power which was aiming at a weakening of the position of the British. Via Czechoslovakia it supplied arms to the Zionist guerrilla forces. The USA also delivered arms and money to the Zionists – although the latter fought against their British war allies.

After the Far East became a second centre of war in World War II, the Middle East remained in the periphery of the worldwide imperialist confrontations. However, the beginning of the Cold War was to pull the Middle East into the centre of imperialist rivalries. While the Korean War (1950-53) was one of the first major confrontations between the Eastern and Western block, the formation of the State of Israel on May 15th 1948 was to open another theatre of war, which was to remain in the centre of East-West confrontations for decades.

The first half of the 20th century in the Middle East showed that national liberation had become impossible, and that all local bourgeois factions were sucked up in the global imperialist conflicts between the bigger imperialist rivals. More than ever the proletariat had no imperialist side to choose.

The formation of the state of Israel in 1948 marked the opening of another round of 50 years of bloody confrontation. More than 100 years of conflicts in the Middle East have illustrated irrefutably that the declining capitalist system has nothing else to offer but war and annihilation.


[1] The Shah of Iran (father of the Shah deposed by Khomeini) was removed by the British in 1941 because of his supposed pro-Nazi sympathies.

[2] Already in World War I for strategic reasons German imperialism had fostered the idea of an Arabian “jihad” against Britain, because it could hope to weaken British domination in the Middle East – even if the contradiction could not be overcome – because any Arabian ‚jihad‘ would also necessarily have to be turned against Turkish imperialism, Germany’s ally in the Middle East.

[3] Britain for example prevented a ship with more than 5,000 Jewish refugees on board from entering Palestinian ports, because this would have been against British imperialist interests. In its odysee the boat was sent back to the Black sea, where it was sunk by the Russian army – more than 5,000 Jews drowned. In Mai 1939 930 Jewish refugees on board of the Hapag-Lloyd steamer ‘St-Louis’ sailed for Cuba. Having reached Cuban waters, they were refused entry. The ship was prevented from entering Miami harbour by the US-coast guard – despite of repeated appeals by many ‘personalities’. Finally the ship was sent back to Europe – where most of the Jewish refugees were massacred in the holocaust. Even after World War II, at the time of the blockade of the Palestine coast by British ships, 4.500 refugees on board of the ship “Exodus” tried to break the blockade. The British occupying forces didn’t want to let the ship enter Haifa, the Jewish terrorist organisation Haganah wanted to use the ship with all the refugees on board as a means to break the British blockade. The passengers were deported by the British to Hamburg.

The cynicism of the western bourgeoisie in relation to the fate of the Jews has been exposed by the PCI Le Prolétaire in its text Auschwitzthe great alibi).