24 November 2012
It is far too early to provide a comprehensive account of the impact of the latest Gaza war on the prospects for the Palestinian struggle, Israel and the region as a whole.
But it is clear that the seven-day war demonstrated both Israel’s continuing preparedness to seek to solve its ongoing crisis and internal political impasse through war, and at the same time the tighter constraints that exist on account of the Arab revolutionary process and continued resistance to imperialism and Israeli aggression.
In response to questions from and out of conversations with many friends, however, here are some schematic observations and opinions that may stimulate a wider discussion.
Friends in Gaza, from across the spectrum, report a great sense of relief. And grief. At least one close friend lost his mother when a bomb hit their apartment block. There is also defiance from withstanding the Israeli assault and from the prevention (whatever people ascribe that to) of a ground invasion. Hamas has been boosted internally. People in Gaza do have a genuine sense of “victory”. There is hope that the siege will fall – quickly and totally.
Hamas is also boosted externally and is in the spotlight of diplomacy in the region, despite its continuing proscription in the US, Britain and much of Europe. The political siege imposed since Hamas won the 2006 election is already ended, and the West is having to adjust to that. In reality, and through back channels and intermediaries, it already has.
Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and his leadership in the Muslim Brotherhood are also lifted. As every correspondent reported, he received warm praise from Washington, London and even Tel Aviv for his role in the ceasefire. He was able to continue to balance deftly the groundswell of support for the Palestinians in Egypt and maintaining relations with the West and the Camp David accord with Israel. There were, however, significant demonstrations in Egypt from those who rightly feel that Morsi should go much further.
There were further, rival, demonstrations both against and for Morsi on Friday in response to his move to use presidential decree to copper-fasten a number of measures. The Financial Times reported on Thursday:
“Mr Morsi ordered the reopening of all cases relating to attacks on demonstrators – a move aimed at absorbing anger on the streets, which has led to a fresh eruption of unrest and fighting between protesters and police this week.
“But he combined this decision with far more controversial measures, including forbidding the courts from disbanding both the controversial panel drafting the constitution and the Shura council or upper chamber of parliament elected last year [both] … dominated by Islamists from Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood”.
The courts are stuffed with hangovers of the Mubarak era. But, the measures Morsi took also lock out left and progressive elements from drafting the constitution. Christian and liberal members of the committee have walked out. The left has argued for something like a constitutional assembly to draw up the basic law. Hamdeen Sabahi, the left Nasserist presidential candidate who topped the first round poll in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities, took to the streets on Friday.
So Morsi’s is a move against both wings, as friends in Egypt put it, with an instrument – presidential decree – which arrogates power to the post of president, without any new constitution in place defining legally what those powers are. It’s neither simply a popular plebeian sally to forestall the old Mubarak elements (good), nor simply a Sadat-style prelude to presidential dictatorship (bad). In one sense it has elements of both.
That makes it very important for the left – secular and Islamist – to have an independent position and to find ways in which it can win to itself forces both from the secular, liberal wing and from Islamists who were disappointed with Morsi’s performance during the Gaza war and with other policies.
The right, the considerable remnants of the Mubarak state and party, and pro-Western liberals have their own, different reasons for opposing Morsi. It would be a big mistake for the left to be seen to fuse with them. It is equally a big mistake to imagine Morsi’s move is a “shift left”, or that greater confidence has allowed a more radical Morsi to break out of a vacillating shell.
There is caution and vacillation still. But there is also a clear political objective in the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the left should reject the Islamophobia and the pro-imperialist sentiment wrapped up in liberal talk of “secularism”, it should not mistake the political objectives of the Brotherhood with its own.
How to respond in these circumstances for the radical left is very hard and very concrete. The experiences of Peronism in Argentina and Khomeiniism in Iran show that in different ways, and also illustrate the great dangers.
On account of the perceived success of Hamas, there is now enormous pressure on the Palestinian Authority president Abu Mazen [aka Mahmoud Abbas] to see through his gambit, the bid for recognition of a 1967 Palestinian state at the UN General Assembly next week.
There is massive counter pressure from the US, Israel, Britain and the EU to drop the UN bid. One reason why they take the move seriously is that it would give a UN-recognised Palestinian state access to various international legal avenues that non-state actors do not have. The British government’s changing of war crimes law in order to lift the possibility of arrest of Tzipi Livni and others shows how mindful they are of the consequences.
Incidentally, I entirely understand why many good friends on the Palestinian left opposed Abu Mazen’s move last year. I agree with much of their analysis of his motivation. I also agree that there is a great danger – perhaps even intention – of eclipsing the Palestinian National Council (PNC) as the representative body of the Palestinian people. The PNC comprises representatives of all the Palestinian factions and, crucially, representatives of Palestinians not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but also in 1948 Israel, and in refugee camps and exile.
Changing the voice of the Palestinians from the PNC to the Palestinian Authority with a seat at the UN could threaten the Right of Return and other fundamentals, and even 1967 borders.
But I do think, particularly in the West, that it is right to make those arguments from the standpoint of backing the Palestinians at the UN and opposing the US and its allies. When virtually the whole of Latin America, the global south, the Middle East and China backed the UN bid at the Security Council last year, and the US, Britain, and the worst of the EU states opposed it – I think I know where I want to stand.
The above points are fairly obvious. But there are other less remarked upon factors as well.
First, there has been for some years now a rising trend of radicalisation among particularly young Palestinians – on the West Bank, in the camps, in exile and under difficult circumstances in Gaza. They have been raising the Right of Return and the historic Palestinian claim.
It is born out of frustration with Oslo and with “all the old leaders”, though almost all the people I know have no difficulty in distinguishing the abject surrender of someone like Salam Fayyad of Fatah from the continued preparedness to resist of Ismail Haniya or Khaled Mashaal of Hamas, Ramaden Shalah of Islamic Jihad or Ahmed Saadat of the PFLP, who is in an Israeli prison. One aspect of the generational break is that this sentiment finds only a limited reflection in attraction to the more militant Palestinian factions, such as Islamic Jihad and the PFLP (though both of those have been gaining in support).
It is fuelled by disgust at corruption in the West Bank and, naturally in the last two years, by identification with the same generation in revolt in Egypt and elsewhere.
There is an ongoing major battle in Jerusalem, for example, which is subterranean for all corporate media in the West. There is a sense in the West Bank, and in Jerusalem above all, that the clock is ticking – if there is no breakthrough, the city and much of the West Bank will be lost. That is the sense. I’m not saying that is what will happen. One reflection of that reality on the ground is the increased talk – sometimes in ways and from quarters that are not of the left – of a “one state” solution.
But among the young people and the fresh Palestinian forces this talk and more importantly action are certainly of the left. People will remember the tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians, mainly young, who peacefully marched to the border at Maroun al Ras on Nakba Day last year. Six of them were shot dead by the Israelis and dozens were wounded. The Palestinians were from families of all the factions and across the spectrum of Palestinian society – a large number from traditionally Fatah families. All six who were killed were in their teens or twenties. Three were from Ain al Hilwe camp.
It is this sentiment and generation that powered and leads the global call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – and sets its programme of demands, which is incompatible with a Zionist-exclusivist state, apartheid, in historic Palestine as a whole. That is why Norman Finkelstein, for example, who believes in two states on principle and not as a tactical demand, chose to oppose it, unfortunately with his acerbic, sharp intelligence lashing a part of the movement and not Israel and its friends, which he does so well, defending the right and actuality of resistance in Lebanon and Palestine.
This relatively new factor is also growing – as anyone who speaks to the many young Palestinians and young Arabs on demonstrations in London or elsewhere in the West knows.
Secondly, the historic factions are not monolithic. I don’t for obvious reasons want to get into too much detail or to identify people, but there are different trends and currents within the major organisations.
Hamas is of course united in the face of Israeli aggression. But there is an ongoing strategic debate in Hamas – expressed in many ways, including over the succession to Khaled Mashaal. Is Hamas, which was founded as a Palestinian expression of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (the different Brotherhoods in the Middle East are tightly connected ideologically and theologically, but unsurprisingly reflect their own national political realities) essentially just that? Or is it an Islamically-inflected inheritor of the wider Palestinian national revolutionary struggle, which goes back more than 60 years to the general strike of 1936 and the agitation under the British mandate?
Remember: the position of Hamas in that struggle has changed enormously since the first intifada in 1988 and its founding. Until the fall of Mubarak, it didn’t really matter how you answered that existential question. With the advent of a tightrope-walking Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt, it does. And so the debate continues. It informs tactical differences. Should Hamas pursue reconciliation and unity (of government administration) with Fatah? There is a groundswell for unity. Unity would certainly be a step forward. But many friends caution that it can also be a path to unnecessary trimming of the sails. The question people ask is – what is the unity for?
Conversely, a go-it-alone strategy by Hamas does not necessarily entail a more principled and militant stance. Friends also caution against the idea of running Gaza as a de facto confederal province of Egypt, sundering the connection with the West Bank – as a stage, of course, on the path to the recovery of Palestine as a whole. But we know that every proposition must be described by every Palestinian leader as a stage and not the end goal. And look where Oslo ended up.
While the break of the diplomatic isolation of Hamas in the region – it was formerly welcome only in Damascus, Khartoum, Tehran, Beirut, etc – is a big gain, everyone knows that to become dependent on Riyadh or Doha brings a very high price. Saudi Arabia and Qatar don’t simply meddle. Others have done that down the decades. The issue is, in whose interests do these allies of the US – which have relations with Israel – meddle?
None of these questions has an easy answer. That’s why debate will intensify. The actual debate should inform all friends of Palestine. There are some in the West who, in my view, have insufficiently followed the whole picture and are in danger of making errors by viewing only a part of it.
So – absolutely Cairo and Ankara were far, far better than Washington or London (how could it be otherwise?) during the Gaza war. More importantly they were better than Egypt under Mubarak or Turkey under Evren and the military. But they were not good enough; not good enough for the needs and possibilities of the hour, and not good enough for the serious radical left – religious and secular – in both countries and in the region.
It is a mistake simply to cheerlead from Britain. And it is worse if you single out for praise certain trends – the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s AKP (which is very similar) – without even acknowledging that Iranian weapons are what Israel recognises as tilting an important military balance between it and Gaza, it and Lebanon. The words of most of us have little effect. But that doesn’t mean that we should not seriously try to make them as precise as possible and be aware of all signals they send.
There is also debate in Fatah. Though I understand why people who support the resistance of the Palestinians praise Hamas and castigate Fatah in toto, it is far too crude. There is an historic left in Fatah, led by the incarcerated Marwan Barghouti, who has appeal across the Palestinian political and social spectrum.
There are also differing trends in the Fatah leadership. The very worst and most corrupt elements broke with Abu Mazen. Mohammed Dahlan, the Fatah commander in Gaza who was armed by the West and Israel to destroy the elected Hamas government in 2007 through a coup, has gone. He has gone with around three quarters of a billion dollars and now owns a large strip of the coast of Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea.
Just as in Hamas, the political and ideological trends animate the tactical decisions of Abu Mazen and others in Fatah. To imagine that Fatah as a whole is just a tool of Israel, or that its support will just evaporate, is simplistic in the extreme.
Thirdly, there is the regional balance. That depends not only on the immediate fallout from the Gaza war but also on internal developments in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and indeed across the region. It also depends on how Israel and the US decide to act on what is an absolutely central and fixed policy objective – weakening Iran and preventing even the possibility of a fundamental shift in the military balance. That is also an obsession of the Saudis, Qataris and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is now both the regional hub of capital accumulation (not simply oil exports) and of counter-revolution as a serious force in the US-organised imperialist hierarchy.
Time will tell how all of that plays out, as it will in Egypt, which is pivotal. But time is moving quickly.
We will all need to follow events very carefully. But that is from the vantage point I tried to set out in an earlier article: in the West our argumentation and action need to be bent around both the responsibility of our own states and also around the political necessity of our movement – the labour/left/progressive/working class movement – taking up these questions in a manner that weakens our opponents here and, in that way and others, strengthens our friends abroad and us here.
Kevin Ovenden is a UK socialist who played a leading role in Viva Palestina aid convoys to Gaza.