March 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip is “home” to 60,000 people. They live in corrugated iron hovels — on average 16 people to every two rooms. The camp has no proper sewage system; dysentery and malnutrition are rife. Thousands of Palestinians are also treated each year for psychological problems caused by the stress of life in a refugee camp.
On the other side of the razor wire that keeps the Palestinians in, is an Israeli settlement — Gush Katiff — surrounded by look-out towers and machine guns. In the centre of the settlement is a luxury hotel and conference complex, no more intended for the Israeli settlers than it is for the Palestinians in the refugee camp. They live in small, heavily guarded farming communities along the twenty-eight miles of sandy Mediterranean coast that is the Gaza Strip. Their living conditions are undoubtedly better than those endured by their Palestinian neighbours. But a further difference of greater significance is that they have chosen to live there, mostly out of a misguided belief in the policy of Jewish settlement of the occupied territories, while the Palestinian refugees in the camps did not choose their fate.
The Gaza Strip and the West Bank were occupied by Israel during the 1967 war but the origins of the Palestinians’ grievance go back beyond this to the days of British rule in Palestine. Until the end of the First World War both Jews and Arabs lived side by side in Palestine. The end of the war saw the beginnings of large-scale Jewish immigration spurred on by the Balfour Declaration promising a “Jewish homeland” and Zionist ideas which played on justifiable fears of Jewish persecution and presented a “return” to Israel as the only secure solution to their continual oppression. With the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s those fears were more than ever before justified and Jewish immigration to Palestine increased rapidly as a consequence.
Arab leaders in Palestine feared that an influx of jews would lead to the British reneging on their promise of Palestinian self-government. As a result Arab turned on Jew and groups of Jewish terrorists — the Irgun Zvi Leumi and the Stern Gang — were organised to respond to Arab attacks, engage in guerrilla warfare against the British and to intimidate non-Zionist Jews into supporting them.
The mass immigration to Palestine of Jews seeking to flee from Nazi extermination camps and the indifference of the “Allies” was welcomed by neither Arabs nor the British administration in Palestine. Ships carrying Jewish refugees were refused permission to land at Haifa and their passengers were treated as illegal immigrants by the British authorities. Finally, unable to cope with the difficulties of placating both Arab and Jewish leaders, who had both been promised the right to govern, the British withdrew leaving a bloodbath in their wake as Jews and Arabs battled it out for control of the new state. The Jews emerged victorious; the state of Israel was established in 1948; 1,750,000 Palestinians left or were driven out.
Since that time the dream of a “homeland” free from oppression and insecurity that led so many Jews to rally round their leaders in the name of Zionism, has been bitterly disappointed. The state of Israel has been at war with its Arab neighbours in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and, most recently, the euphemistically entitled “Campaign for Peace in Galilee” — the invasion of Lebanon. The expropriation of land from the Arabs and the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have resulted in a legacy of frustration and bitterness among many of the 750,000 Arabs who stayed in Israel after the 1948 exodus and continue to endure discrimination in employment and welfare and among the one and a half million refugees in camps in the occupied territories. That bitterness and frustration finally erupted into angry protest in December last year and has since then been further inflamed by the brutal attempt by the Israeli state to crush the protest.
The current outburst was, apparently, triggered by a road accident in which four Palestinians were killed by an Israeli vehicle. Since that initial seemingly spontaneous outburst, various organisations which trade in the same kinds of religious and nationalistic sentiment that underpins many Zionist organisations, have tried to hijack the Palestinians’ protests for their own political ends — Yasser Arafat’s PLO, its youth wing, Shabiba and the fundamentalist Islamic Jihad.
It is easy to see why the oppressed people in the refugee camps might view the promise of Palestinian self-government as an answer. It is not surprising that settlement of the occupied territories by orthodox Jewish zealots who subscribe to the racist religious nationalism of Rabbi Meir Kahane and his Kach movement, which advocates the expulsion of all Arabs from “Greater Israel”, has resulted in an equally vicious hatred of Jews by many Palestinians. But to strive for the replacement of an oppressive Israeli state by a Palestinian one cannot be an answer. It can only result in continued oppression — class oppression — by a Palestinian ruling class that would replace the Israeli ruling class. The dreams of Jewish workers of a life free from persecution and oppression finds its echo today in the dreams of Palestinian workers. Jewish dreams have not been answered by the setting up of the state of Israel and Palestinian dreams will not be answered by the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In the refugee camps Palestinians are vociferously questioning a regime that takes away their land, herds them into camps and then beats them when they step out of line. But some Israelis are also questioning why young conscripts should be sent into the refugee camps to carry out the beatings. Was this the kind of society that they have, on so many occasions, fought to defend and that their parents and grandparents dreamed about and struggled so hard to bring into existence? Israeli workers and Palestinians are asking essentially similar questions. Let’s hope that the answers that they come up with recognise their common interests and reject the nationalism and religious bigotry that engender false divisions, violence and racial hatred.