Socialist Worker answers key questions on the role of imperialism in creating Israeli-Arab wars
What are the roots of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?
The origins of the conflict go back to the foundation of Israel in 1948. The state was built upon the dispossession of the Palestinians after a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Zionist gangs. It has been followed by 60 years of continual Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.
Zionism – the demand for a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine – emerged as a movement in Europe in the late 19th century as a response to growing antisemitism there. At first only a small minority of Jews backed this movement.
The Zionists claimed that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without land”. But that land did have a people. “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man,” as two rabbis visiting Palestine in 1897 put it.
The Zionist movement was slow to start. At the end of the First World War there were only 56,000 Jewish settlers living in Palestine compared to around one million Arabs.
Zionist leaders looked to the major imperial powers to help them take over the land from the outset. At first that meant working with Britain, which ran Palestine as its colony after the First World War. After the Second World War, it meant a turn to the US.
In 1947 the United Nations (UN) drew up a partition plan for Palestine that gave Zionist settlers 55 percent of the country – even though they made up just a third of the population and owned only 6 percent of the land.
But even this was not enough. In March 1948 Zionist militias launched a campaign of terror to grab as much of the country as they could. They murdered hundreds of Arab villagers and ethnically cleansed 750,000 people.
The Palestinians fled to poverty and oppression in Gaza, the West Bank and other countries, while Israel claimed around 80 percent of historic Palestine.
Today Israel’s “law of return” allows anyone of Jewish descent to emigrate to Israel – but denies the Palestinians their right to go home.
Israel seized the rest of historic Palestine in 1967. It has since plundered Gaza and the West Bank, brutally cracking down on any form of Palestinian resistance or organisation.
Why is Israel involved in so many wars?
Israel has been constantly at war ever since its inception. It is a heavily militarised state, supplied with the most advanced weaponry by the West, including nuclear warheads. It has one of the most modern armies in the world, despite having a population of only 7.3 million.
The country has built up its military might for two reasons – to keep the Palestinian people down and to act as the “watchdog” for Western interests in the region. It has used its power to humble Arab movements that have threatened imperial dominance in the Middle East.
Israel teamed up with Britain and France to launch a war against Egypt in 1956. The country went to war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967.
It was involved in another war with Egypt and Syria in 1973. Israel has invaded Lebanon three times – in 1978, 1982 and 2006.
The country has also carried out numerous incursions into Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. It bombed Iraq’s nuclear power plant in 1981. Its army occupied parts of south Lebanon from 1978 to 2000, when resistance led by Hizbollah forced it to withdraw.
The current onslaught on Gaza will not be Israel’s last war. The state’s colonial and imperial nature will inevitably lead to more conflicts, more bombs and more deaths.
Why does the West back Israel?
In the late 19th century Britain occupied Egypt and controlled the Suez Canal. This link between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean was a crucial artery for the military and economic power of the British Empire.
Britain feared that growing national resistance movements in the Arab world could threaten its control over the canal. But the First World War provided Britain with an opportunity to secure Egypt’s northern border and the Suez Canal.
As British troops marched in Jerusalem in 1917, foreign secretary Arthur Balfour made a deal with the Zionist movement to turn Palestine into a colonial outpost of the empire.
As the British governor of Jerusalem declared, the new Zionist state would serve as “a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”.
This relationship between Israel and Western imperialism was summed up in a famous article published by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper in 1951. “Israel is to become the watchdog,” it declared.
“There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy towards the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the US and Britain. But if for any reasons the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighbouring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.”
When the US replaced Britain as the dominant power in the Middle East, Israel duly switched allegiance.
Israel proved itself again when it crushed the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six-Day War. This victory convinced the US that Israel could solve its problems in the Middle East at a time when it was struggling to maintain control over Vietnam.
The interests of the US and Israel have remained interlocked ever since. Every Israeli action has had US interests in mind. And this relationship has become more important since the 1979 revolution in Iran and the current US disaster in Iraq.
As the anger wells up once again in the streets of Arab capitals, the US needs Israel more than ever to be its “watchdog” in the Middle East.
Isn’t there a history of hatred between Jews and Arabs?
Many people argue that Arabs and Jews can never live together, and claim there is a long tradition of enmity between the two people. But this is not borne out by history.
The roots of the current hostility are very modern, stemming from the Zionist colonial movement that seized Palestine. But prior to that every Arab capital had a community of Jews living alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbours.
Jews have been an important part of life in Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Rabat and Baghdad and other Arab cities since the beginning of recorded history.
There are hundreds of Jewish names on the memorial to Iraqis who died fighting British colonialism in the 1920s. They were an important part of the nationalist and left-wing Arab movements that grew in the 1920s and 1930s in the struggle against imperialism.
This all changed after the establishment of Israel. Arab Jews were forced out of their homes by the Arab dictators and kings put in place by the West. This process was encouraged by Israel.
These Arab Jews became second class citizens within Israel. They have never been welcome at the top of Israeli society. Many have clung to their Arab culture – and to the dream of returning home one day.
As in so many other regions of the world, the divisions, discord and hatred between people in the Middle East are a bitter legacy of Western imperialism.
Isn’t a “two state solution” the best we can hope for?
Many people advocate a “two state solution” to the conflict – partitioning historic Palestine into two states, one for the Israelis and another for the Palestinians.
And on the surface this may seem to be the most realistic solution. But what would these two states look like?
Most plans involve two small Palestinian mini-states in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank separated from each other by Israel.
The Palestinians would be crammed into these tiny plots of land, while the lion’s share of historic Palestine would remain under Israeli control.
At no point would the millions of Palestinian refugees be able to return to their villages. But the question of the “right of return” is central to any just and lasting solution of the conflict.
Those who advocate a two state solution cannot square the circle of how to reconcile land and people. In contrast, the one state solution – a unified multi-ethnic state encompassing all of historic Palestine – can deal with these seemingly intractable problems.
The majority of Palestinian villages lie empty – many are simply piles of ruins. They could easily be rebuilt and handed back to their original inhabitants.
Those wishing to return to cities could easily be accommodated. Israel has opened its borders to millions of immigrants without any problems. Can the same not be done for Palestinians?
The main barrier to a one state solution is not practical considerations, but the nature of Zionism itself. This is a movement that seeks to create a Jewish-only state – and a one state solution is fundamentally incompatible with such a racist ideology.
Haven’t the Palestinians been offered their own state in the “peace process”?
Western politicians and the media like to claim that the US-backed peace process is the only way to bring about justice for the Palestinians and peace in the Middle East.
The Oslo accords, signed in 1993, were supposed to give Palestinians autonomy in 17 percent of the West Bank and 60 percent of the Gaza Strip. Eventually this was meant to lead to the creation of a fullblown Palestinian state.
The 1987 Palestinian uprising known as the Intifada put great pressure on Israel to come to an agreement. But Israel still saw Palestine as belonging solely to it and wanted to retain control over as much as the country as possible.
Israel allowed Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, to become the leader of the new Palestinian Authority. He made huge concessions to Israel, which then allowed him to police his own people on its behalf.
Israel remained in control of the roads, resources, and huge areas of land that it had seized in 1967. The number of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories doubled between the signing of the peace deal and 2000.
The Palestinian areas resemble “bantustans” – the supposedly autonomous black states within apartheid South Africa, which were in reality controlled by the racist regime.
The “peace process” did nothing to improve the lives of Palestinians. Anger at this led to the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000.
Israel withdrew its settlements and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, but retained its dominance over its airspace, sea and borders. It has tried to destroy resistance by targeting the Hamas organisation, which won the Palestinian Authority elections in 2006.
What is the role of the Arab masses?
Every question on the Middle East has to return to that of imperialism. It is imperialism that created Israel and imperialism that sustains it today.
The priority of imperialism might have shifted from the Suez Canal to the oil fields, but the world’s major powers still consider the Middle East region the “greatest material prize in world history”, as the US state department declared in 1945.
Imperialism needs Israel as its “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, because the Arab regimes are in constant danger of being toppled by popular rebellions.
This anger among ordinary people in the Arab world is also about how oil revenues have been squandered by a tiny Western-backed elite. It is about land, jobs, poverty and hunger.
On recent demonstrations in Egypt protesters have chanted against both Israel and the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak. Similar slogans can be heard in every Arab capital.
Most of the Arab regimes are also dependent on imperialism for survival. They fear that popular anger over the Palestinians could trigger a wave of rebellions like those that swept away many corrupt regimes in the 1950s and 1960s.
The mass protests in Egypt today are a result of anger against both imperialism and the Egyptian regime. The strikes against privatisation and for a minimum wage are feeding into the anger over Palestine. This anger is in turn raising the prospect of more strikes and demonstrations.
That is why they fear and loath resistance organisations such as Hamas in Palestine or Hizbollah in Lebanon. Any resistance is a challenge to Israel, the West – and to the Arab regimes.