#17 - Palestine: will the Intifada be stifled by a Palestinian state?

Jun 1994


When the last Israeli troops left the Gaza strip in May this year, they were accompanied by stones hurled by thousands of young Palestinian protestors and rifle volleys were shot in the air as a sign of victory. Indeed the young demonstrators had every reason to feel a sense of victory. It was them, their friends, their brothers and their sisters, whose resilient defiance against the Israeli authority, through on-going rioting and stone throwing at Israeli troops, forced the Israeli state into making concessions. Since 1987, it was their Intifada - which means both the "awakening" and the "uprising" in Arabic - and their "war of the stones", as it came to be known, which maintained a state of ungovernability over much of the Israeli-occupied territories, particularly in the refugee camps in which the poorest layers of the Palestinian people are impounded by the Israeli state.

Over nearly seven years, hundreds of Palestinian youth were shot, thousands were arrested and jailed. Yet day in and day out, they went back onto the streets, constantly pulling more youth into the fight. Their mobilisation made it impossible for the Israeli state to consolidate its rule over the occupied territories. Even more worrying for the Israeli state was the increasingly demoralising effect of the "war of the stones" on its own soldiers. They could no longer be described as carrying out the "noble" task of defending the very existence of the Israeli state against terrorist groups and hostile Arab dictators. The only "enemies" that Israeli soldiers ever confronted now were 15-year old Palestinians hurling stones at them, against whom they were ordered to use their heavy automatic weaponry. They were constantly surrounded by the hostility of an empoverished population. This was leading more and more Israeli soldiers, and even officers to question the whole policy behind the dirty job they were ordered to do.

Without the "war of the stones", the so-called "historical" handshake between Yasir Arafat - Israel's most wanted public enemy - and Itzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister and former Israeli army chief of staff during the Six-Day War, would not have taken place in Washington on 13 September 1993. Nor would a series of subsequent discussions have led to the final agreement signed in Cairo on 4 May this year, paving the way for the handing over of power by Israel to Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in newly-created "autonomous areas". So, yes, seeing the backs of the Israeli troops in the Gaza strip, in mid-May, was the achievement of the Intafada youth, and theirs alone.

Today's concessions by the Israeli state may be limited. They may well be loaded with all kinds of hidden schemes which have nothing to do with the aspirations of the Palestinian people. But the mere fact that the Israeli state was forced, eventually, into agreeing to these political concessions, amounts to a recognition that the policy followed for decades by all successive Israeli regimes - a policy which involved turning the Palestinians into refugees imprisoned in their own country, with the Israeli population as their wardens - has been a failure.

Zionism and its roots

The Israeli state and its policies cannot be dissociated from two primary factors - on the one hand the zionist movement and on the other hand, the complex operation of imperialist rivalries in the Middle-East.

The zionist movement emerged a long way from the Middle-East, in Eastern Europe where relatively numerous Jewish communities were to be found in the latter part of the 19th century. Before that time, a balance had been established over the centuries between the mostly urban Jewish communities and indigenous populations which were still overwhelmingly tied to the land. In the countryside the Jewish communities provided many of the craftsmen and traders that were indispensible for a farming economy, while in the towns they often provided the skills needed in administration.

This balance was disrupted by the late emergence of capitalism in Poland and Russia. Being late-comers, compared to the rest of Europe, the bourgeoisies of these countries were born crippled and degenerate even before they had time to develop their grip over society. To the weak Russian and Polish aspiring bourgeois, whose future looked already so bleak, the long-established Jewish petty-bourgeois were not only potential rivals, they also made easy scapegoats. Thus anti-semitism grew out of the impotence of aspiring bourgeoisies who were looking for someone to blame for their own incapacity.

The dictatorial regimes of Eastern Europe, particularly the tsarist regime, were also quick to see the use they could make of anti-semitism to split and stifle any opposition - whether the liberal opposition of the bourgeoisie or the more radical opposition of the emerging working class. Pogroms, in which rioters went on the rampage, killing and looting Jewish houses, while the authorities were looking the other way - when they were not leading the rioters - became part of urban life in the last two decades of the century. This wave of pogroms led to a massive emigration of East European Jews towards Western Europe and, above all, to America. Although in fact the anti-semitic disease even spread to Western Europe during that period, where it became one of the distinctive propagandistic weapons used by the most reactionary political currents.

Zionism emerged against this background, as a reaction against both anti-semitism and the emigration wave it had triggered. Theodor Herzl was its most famous promoter. His "State of the Jews", published in 1896, argued that the only way out of persecutions and disintegration through emigration across the world, was for the Jews to build their own state somewhere. Herzl, an admirer of Cecil Rhodes, thought in terms of Western colonial interests. If a Jewish colony were set up in, say, Palestine, though Cyprus, Uganda and even China were mentioned as possibilities, the Jewish people would form "a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism ".

Socially, zionism was the expression of a Jewish middle-class who aspired to a share of the social cake and were prevented from getting it by their non-Jewish rivals' useage of anti-semitism. It contrasted sharply, for instance, with the socialist movement that was then emerging among Jewish workers and craftsmen in Poland, who saw anti-semitism as the ultimate weapon used by the property-owning classes to divide and oppress those who had nothing.

Like all nationalisms, Herzl's zionism set itself the task to forge an ideology and a set of values with which people from very different social and geographical backgrounds could identify, thereby putting their "national" identity first and forgetting all social differences. To this end, all sorts of justifications had to be dug up from ancient history, as well as a common language, Hebrew, which had long since ceased to be used except for religious purposes. Indeed, there was absolutely nothing natural, let alone rational, in the idea that all these Jewish communities which had been scattered across Eastern Europe and separated for so long, often for centuries, had something specific in common. Such a bizarre concept would probably have never won much credit just on the strength of the half-baked so-called historical justifications produced by zionist propaganda, if it had not been for anti-semitism itself which proved the most effective propaganda tool for zionism.

Zionism was a utopia, but a fundamentally reactionary one since it advocated turning the clock back to ancient times in a certain sense. In addition it was an absurd utopia in that it purported to create a state which would have been a shelter for all persecuted Jews and would have protected them from the violent conflicts which had generated anti-semitism - as if any part of the world could have been left untouched by the spasms of the capitalist system. And like all nationalist ideologies, it eventually became a justification for, and an instrument of, oppression.

A weapon in the hands of British imperialism

For a long time zionism remained a minority idea among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. True, there was a steady trickle of Jewish settlers moving to Palestine, so that by 1914 they represented about 14% of the half-a-million strong population. But there was no question of a Jewish state or anything of the sort. While there were the odd clashes with the Arab feudal landlords, there was plenty of space for the Jewish settlers to coexist with the Arab farmers. Even in Palestine, zionism was having a hard and unsuccessful time gaining credibility. But World War I and the games played by imperialist powers in the Middle-East offered the zionist leaders a new opportunity.

Among the war aims pursued by the British and French governments was the break up of the Ottoman empire which was allied to Germany and controlled most of the Middle-East. Having defeated Germany, and therefore the Ottoman empire as well, the British and French split the spoils between them, with France taking Lebanon and Syria, while Britain took Palestine, and today's Iraq and Jordan, in addition to Egypt.

During the war, however, the British had encouraged Arab nationalism as a means of weakening the Ottoman empire. They knew, however, that once the Ottoman Empire was defeated, the Arab nationalists would inevitably turn against the British Empire. So even before the end of the war, the British government sought to use zionism as a counterweight to Arab nationalism. They encouraged the zionist leaders who were canvassing support for large-scale Jewish emigration to Palestine. And, in 1917, the Balfour Declaration publicised British support for "a national home for the Jewish people ". This, it must be said, did not prevent the British government from promising at the very same time a "great Arab kingdom " to the Arab nationalist leaders as a reward for their fight against the Ottoman empire.

Not that the Balfour declaration led to an immediate flow towards Palestine. In fact, it took no less than the Great Depression and Hitler's seizure of power in Germany for the previous trickle of settlers to turn into a significant flow.

Obviously the British government's support for the zionist cause had nothing to do with any humanitarian concern for persecuted Jews. In fact Balfour himself had campaigned vocally some years before against allowing East European Jewish refugees into Britain. No, the Declaration was only part of Britain's traditional "divide and rule" colonial policy. It was meant to play off Jew against Arab in the same way as in India, for instance, Muslims and Hindus were set at each other's throats.

Thus the hope created by Britain's promises of an Arab federation which would span the entire Arab world was shattered by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Instead, it created a network of small states which were almost completely artificial as a glance at a map of the Middle East shows - the borders between Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia being mostly by straight lines. In these states, Britain and France installed semi-feudal monarchs in power who were little more than puppets of their imperialist masters. These regimes were hated by their populations, both by the Muslim Arab majority and by the various minorities - Jewish, Christian Arabs, etc.. But they fulfilled their purpose, which was to split the Arab population so as to deprive it of any sense of strength.

There were signs, however, that a common consciousness could have developed across cultural and ethnic boundaries around the general hostility to imperialist rule over the Middle East. In 1918, for instance, the Jerusalem Arab community signed a petition stressing their desire to live peacably, as they said, "with our brothers the Israelites ". The following year a Syrian Congress claimed to represent Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Above all there was the development of Communist parties, some of them quite prominent, as in Syria, which were inspired by the class-based alliance of all nationalities that had been so successful in the Russian revolution. British imperialism, however, made no mistake on that account and took no chances. All through their thirty-year rule over Palestine, until 1947, every political force which diverged from a narrow nationalist perspective and aimed at unifying the poor classes of the region against imperialism and its local agents, was ruthlessly supressed.

It was thus Britain's policy which sowed the seeds of the future conflict between Arabs and Jewish settlers over Palestine and, eventually, of the process which resulted in the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs.

The Balkanisation of the Middle East

By the end of World War II, the extent of the genocide against the Jewish population by the Nazis emerged brutally. For most of Europe's population, this was a stunning and frightening discovery. Of course the rulers of the Western victorious powers had known it all along. But they had chosen to keep it quiet. They had ignored numerous calls to rescue the Jewish victims and refused help to the many Jewish resistance movements which had sprang into existence throughout Eastern Europe - like for instance the ghetto uprisings in Warsaw and Lodz.

The Western imperialist powers remained consistent in their policy after the end of the war. It is estimated that, by 1947, there were 450,000 Jewish refugees scattered across Eastern Europe, who had nowhere to go back to. Between them, the USA and the richer West European countries could easily have welcomed and assimilated such numbers. Instead, the imperialist governments only allowed entry to a selected handful. Predictably, this policy led to a revival of the zionist utopia, with large numbers of Jewish refugees turning to Palestine for the protection and support that was refused to them by the imperialist powers.

The new immigrants to Palestine had to bypass Britain's refusal to allow them in by resorting to clandestine methods. Those who got caught were jailed in another kind of concentration camps, British this time, set up in Cyprus. Many others became the forerunners of today's Third World boat-people, as the ships on which they were trying to reach Palestine were turned away by all ports on the Mediterranean coast.

By then the Jewish minority had risen to one-third of the 1.8 million population of Palestine. It had become a highly structured community, complete with political parties ranging from the far-right to the far-left. And it was now strong enough to feel confident of its ability to take on the British rulers of Palestine. It had several armed organisations. The most important of these was Haganah - "defence" in hebrew - a militia organised by the social-democratic Mapai party (or Labour party) whose policy was, until very late, to seek Britain's support. In reaction to Haganah's accomodation to British imperialism, more radical armed organisations had developed on the zionist far-right. The best-known among them was Irgun, which made extensive use of terrorist methods and trained many of Israel's future leaders, like for instance Menahem Begin and Itzhak Shamir who were to become prominent, years later, for their vocal attacks against terrorism - that of the Arab nationalists, of course.

The struggle of the Jewish settlers against imperialist rule in Palestine could have been aimed at freeing the Palestinian population as a whole from the grip of imperialism. The leading role played by the zionist organisations in this struggle ensured that this was not the case, however. Instead, its aim was from the very beginning the setting up of a separate Jewish state - which amounted to pointing to the Arab population as enemies since there was to be no space for them in the future state. Thus even the social-democrat Mapai leaders, as early as 1940, posed the question in the following terms: "... the only solution is Palestine, or at least Western Palestine without Arabs... and there is no other way but to transfer all the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries... Not one village, not one tribe should be left behind ". And yet Mapai was probably the most "moderate" wing of the zionist movement...

Having failed to contain the growth of Jewish nationalism and being frightened of a possible Arab nationalist backlash as a result, the British government resorted to a trick which has become all too common by now - they ditched the responsibility onto the United Nations, or to put it another way, they got the UN to formulate and endorse the compromise that British ministers were too scared to suggest themselves. This involved the setting up of two separate states in Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab. The deadline for their independence was to be 15 May 1948, by which time Britain's rule over Palestine would be brought to an end.

The official rationale for giving in to the zionist leaders was to stop the looming civil war carried out by the zionist far-right. Predictably however, the announcement that a Jewish state was to be set up only resulted in the raising of the stakes. Instead of a looming civil war, outright warfare broke out as the zionist militia proceeded to shift the balance of forces as much as possible in their favour before the deadline. Irgun was most prominent in this respect. They would go into an Arab village and give a few hours for the population to collect their belongings and leave. Recalcitrants were given the "Mauser treatment" from the name of the German guns, which Irgun had a large supply of: they were just shot on the spot, sometimes by the dozen, sometimes the whole village as was the case of the 254 inhabitants of Deir Yassin in April 1948. Irgun's aim was to terrorise the Arab farmers into abandoning their villages and their lands and they stopped at nothing to achieve it. In the name of the right of the Jewish victims to compensation, the zionist far-right just used against the Palestian Arabs the very same methods that the Nazis had used against the Jewish population in Germany.

Meanwhile, the Arab states had mobilised their troops. But their intervention to defend the Palestinian Arabs was, to say the least, lukewarm. None of these reactionary regimes cared in the least for the Palestinian Arabs of course. If they intervened at all, it was for fear of being accused by their own public opinion of having agreed to the setting up of a Jewish state on what they still considered officially as Arab land. By the same token, by declaring a "Holy War" against the Jewish state, the Arab rulers diverted the deep frustration in the population away from their imperialist masters. The corruption and lack of resolve shown by the Arab regimes allowed the comparatively weaker Jewish militia to hold their ground. Eventually this first Israeli-Arab war came to an end through a series of armistices signed between Israel and each Arab states during the year 1949.

In fact, long before the end of the war, a secret agreement had already been reached between the zionist leaders and king Abdallah of Jordan. This came to light when, following the end of the fighting, Abdallah occupied most of the land set aside by the United Nations for the planned Palestinian Arab state, without Israel having anything to say against it. Two years later, Abdallah was to declare this land - more or less today's West Bank - as part of Jordan. Meanwhile Egypt had taken over another part, the Gaza strip.

Thus, despite the UN partition plan of Palestine, no Arab Palestinian state ever came to existence. What Israel had left of Palestine was shared between Egypt and Jordan. The new state of Israel occupied a territory nearly 50% larger than in the UN's plans. Only 133,000 of the 850,000 Arabs who had lived there before remained in Israel. The rest, over 600,000 people, had become landless and resourceless refugees who were scattered between the West Bank, the Gaza strip and the neighbouring countries.

The Zionist nightmare

The policy of the zionist leaders in setting up the state of Israel had been blatantly criminal. Nonetheless the support for this policy among the Israeli population was the distorted expression of aspirations which were not reactionary by themselves. The old Jewish settlers aspired to escape at last from the grip of imperialism, but they failed to realise that their best allies to achieve this end would have been the Arab masses. Likewise the newer generation of Jewish refugees aspired to having a land of their own far from the scene of the mass genocide engineered by Hitler's regime. But, while three years after the end of World War II this aspiration was unquestionably legitimate, it did not have to be satisfied at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs. There was enough space in Palestine for the Jewish and Arab populations to coexist on the same land, without having to set up separate states, let alone a state built openly against the Arabs, as Israel was.

Despite the deeply reactionary character of the new state, its initial structure reflected somehow the legitimate aspirations that existed in its population. It also reflected the widespread illusion that Israel offered at last a chance to implement ideals of peace, freedom, generosity and social justice. For instance, the "kibbutzin", the collective farms set up after the model of the Russian kolkhoz, and the industrial co-operatives which mushroomed over the first decade of Israel's existence, reflected the socialist ideas which were dominant among zionist supporters. It was even common in those days to refer to an "Israeli socialism", all the more so as for nearly thirty years, the social-democratic Mapai remained continuously in power.

Yet at the same time, Israeli society was also shaped by the process that had led to its formation and the siege mentality which was its main expression. Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, ensured that Israel would remain a state for the Jews only, where Arabs would always feel alien. Thus, while the "law of the Return" allowed every Jew from any part of the world to "ascend", i.e. to return, to Israel, all Palestinian Arabs who had fled the country in 1948 for fear of their lives had to apply for naturalisation and take an oath of loyalty to the zionist state. Besides, the very fact that Israel was set up as a Jewish state gave a paramount importance to the Jewish religion, far more than what it actually represented for the population as a whole. No-one ever dared to fight religious prejudices openly, not even those parties which were supposed to be atheist, for fear of being accused of betraying the besieged Jewish state. As a result Israeli society became increasingly plagued by the most reactionary obscurantism, to the point of fuelling the growth of sizeable Jewish fundamentalist parties. And likewise the implicit anti-Arab racism which had been the very foundation of Israel soon gave birth to other deep-rooted racisms within the population - for instance against the Jewish immigrants who came from Mediterranean countries in the 50s.

In the end, the Israeli state and the zionist organisations were able to channel and divert the generous enthusiasm and the aspirations of the initial Israeli population to serve interests alien to them. The collective characteristics of Israel's early days gradually disappeared to be replaced by a fully-fledged capitalist society, similar in many ways to that which the early Jewish settlers had wanted to escape from. At the same time, the state of Israel had developed into a monster of its own kind - a sort of imperialist micro-state, which acts right at the heart of the Middle-East, as a permanent military auxiliary for imperialism in general, and US imperialism in particular, in charge of maintaining law and order and political stability in the unstable but oil-rich countries of the region. And because playing this role can only increase even further its isolation in the region, it effectively makes Israel a mere hostage of imperialism.

The Six-Day War

By 1967 Israel had developed into a fully-fledged, militarised state heavily funded by the USA. The Six-Day war which took place that year is a graphic example of, on the one hand, the role of imperialist policeman played by Israel in the region, and on the other hand, the permanent threat that the zionist logic represents for the population.

The war was preceded by a long period of tension arising from rival Israeli and Syrian schemes for diverting the waters of the river Jordan, and increasing border confrontations between Syrian forces, units of Palestinian guerillas and Israeli troops. In themselves these were not reasons for all-out war. What was crucial was the increasingly bellicose war-mongering of the zionist hardliners and the willingness of the USA to use the opportunity to smash the relative independence displayed by the Syrian regime towards imperialism.

The previous period from 1963 to 1966 had seen a waning of the militant zionism of the founding period. Ben Gurion had been forced to resign and government passed into the hands of a younger generation of politicians who made some gestures towards the Israeli Arabs and talked about settling the Palestinian issue. This corresponded with the wishes of the broad mass of the Jewish population who no longer felt under constant Arab threat and wanted peace. It was the tentative steps made in this direction which propelled the zionist right into overdrive. General Moshe Dayan, for instance, fulminated against "levantinisation " and old Ben Gurion thundered "We do not want the Israelis to turn into Arabs ". He drew closer to Menahem Begin, the ex-Irgun terrorist leader. The government buckled under the pressure, despatched a punitive raid which destroyed 125 buildings, including a school and a dispensary, in a Jordanian border village. The stage was set for a new major confrontation.

All of the Arab countries declared war on Israel. In the case of the King of Jordan he was a reluctant combatant but had no option as over half of Jordan's population were Palestinian. As to Israel, its main target was the same as that of imperialism - Syria.

The victory of the Israelis was assured from the moment they launched a pre-emptive airstrike against the Arabs states on 5 June 1967 and destroyed their airforces on the ground. Israel's armies were successful on every battle front. Within 6 days the defeat of the Arab states was total. Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank - both part of Jordan - the Gaza strip and the Sinai desert - which were part of Egypt - and the Syrian Golan Heights.

UN Resolution 242 called on Israel to return the Occupied Territories in exchange for the Arab states' recognition of Israel. But as it made no mention of a Palestinian state it was unacceptable to the Arab regimes. Israel stuck to its guns and the USA stood aside.

Israel's occupation of Arab territories had two objectives. One was probably to set an example and to show the Arab states as well as their populations that any provocation against Israel, any opposition to its diktats, would be met with drastic retribution. The other objective was to start implementing the zionist demand for a "Greater Israel" while providing the Israeli capitalists, who found the limits of the Israeli market too tight, with a bit more elbow room.

But by occupying these territories, the Israeli state created a series of potential sources of explosion. First because, like in 1948, they forced 280,000 Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank to flee to Jordan, thereby creating in Jordan an explosive situation which was soon to come to a head. And second because even after this massive emigration, Israel now included on its own territory nearly half-a-million of the Palestinian Arabs who had been dispossessed by the setting up of the Israeli state and who, therefore, had accounts to settle with this state.

The rise of the PLO

Predictably the Six-Day War was a major recruiting agent for the still small Palestinian nationalist groups.

One of these groups, al-Fatah, had been created in 1959 by Yassir Arafat, a young building engineer who had set up a very profitable business in the building trade in Kuwait. As opposed to other leading Palestinian figures like Georges Habache and Nayef Hawatmeh, who saw themselves as Arab nationalists, Arafat's ambitions were strictly limited to Palestine. In fact the name, "al-Fatah" was simply the acronym of "Palestinian National Liberation Movement" written in reverse order. In other words, Arafat's aim was the establishment of a Palestinian state under Palestinian rule, no more, no less. And to begin with, Arafat aimed at establishing al-Fatah as a recognised nationalist organisation among the Palestinians themselves and, above all, among the Arab rulers whose financial and political backing would be vital in the future.

Soon the Arab regimes became conscious and wary of the increasing nationalist agitation among Palestinian refugees. In order to keep this agitation under their control and to counter the various small radical nationalist groups such as al-Fatah, the leaders of the Arab League launched the Palestinion Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964. Shukairy, who they nominated to run it, was a notoriously corrupt reactionary who had been a functionary of the Arab League for a long time. And of course, they ensured that the new PLO would enjoy the funding and the facilities required to achieve the high profile which the small radical groups could not afford to have.

The defeat of the Arab states in 1967 was a turning point because it discredited the Arab rulers in the eyes of the vast majority of the Palestinian refugees. All of a sudden there was a space to fill. And Arafat who had organised al-Fatah's first armed commando only two years before, jumped in to fill the vacuum. The weakening of the Jordanian regime allowed al-Fatah to organise new commandos inside the Jordanian refugee camps from where attacks could be launched into Israel. The first, although very modest military success was achieved in March 1968, when one of Arafat's commandos fought a twelve-hour battle with an Israeli unit. Overnight, recruits started to flow towards al-Fatah whose troop numbers sprang suddenly from 700 to 3000. Less than a year later, this allowed Arafat to take over control of the PLO during its fifth congress held in Cairo in February 1969.

Drawing on the examples of Vietnam and Algeria, Arafat promised a long guerrilla war in which the Arab states would play a supporting role. Although, unlike his predecessor at the head of the PLO, Arafat was always careful to retain his independence towards the Arab rulers, occasionally playing one against the other, but never tying his political future to any one leader in particular.

The potential strength of the Palestinian refugees, and what worried the Arab rulers so much, was their overwhelming proletarian status, their militancy and radicalism, and the fact that they were concentrated in large numbers within the refugee camps which provided them with a form of natural organisation. Above all, the fact that they were scattered across the Middle-East, from Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to Iraq and Kuwait, as well as within the Israeli-occupied territories themselves, made a powerful ferment possible on the scale of the whole region which could have drawn into action entire sections of the Arab population in all these countries. But of course, for this to happen, the Palestinian refugees had to be equipped with a perspective that was meaningful for the Arab masses right across the Middle-East, a policy that had therefore to address the destitution of these masses as well as their hatred for the Arab rulers.

But to offer such a policy was not at all what the PLO leaders intended, including Arafat himself. Their narrow-minded Palestinian-only nationalism whose sole aim was the setting up of a Palestinian micro-state, and their respect for, and reliance on the Arab regimes meant they had nothing to offer the Arab masses as a whole. In that respect the PLO marked a step backward from bourgeois nationalists like Nasser in Egypt who, at least, inspired popular mass movements which transcended national borders and threatened the semi-feudal monarchies. In so doing, despite their stubborn Palestinian nationalism, Arafat and the PLO were actually undermining the Palestinian cause itself, by preventing the Palestinian refugees from gaining potential active allies in the Arab masses.

The PLO from Jordan to Lebanon

Nevertheless the radical actions of the PLO brought it into headlong conflict with King Hussein of Jordan. The Palestinian refugee camps in and around Jordan's capital, Amman, had been swollen by many thousands in the aftermath of 1967. The camps were a ferment of rebellion and posed a deadly threat to Hussein's feudal regime, all the more so as the slum-dwellers of Amman looked on them as their ally in their own struggle against the regime. Hussein feared the possibility of Palestinian and Jordanian masses jointly overthrowing the Hashemite monarchy. And though the PLO had no intention of kicking out Hussein, they could not afford not to be part of this movement, if they wanted to build their credibility.

In September 1970 a left faction in the PLO under the leadership of Georges Habache hijacked four Western airliners and blew three of them up in Jordan. It was a spectacular move and was greeted enthusiastically by refugees and slum-dwellers alike. This provided Hussein with the pretext he had been waiting for. With the tacit understanding that the US would intervene, if necessary, "to tip the military balance " as President Nixon remarked, Hussein demanded that the PLO surrender its weapons. When they refused to hand them over, heavy fighting broke out between the PLO and Jordanian troops. A small contingent of Syrian tanks invaded in support of the PLO but without air cover. The Syrian air force chief, Assad, refused to order in his planes and the Syrians withdrew. For Assad it was the first move in a coup d'etat after which he would establish one of the Middle East's longest-lived dictatorships - and certainly no friend to the Palestinian masses.

The stage was set for the massacre which followed. Despite the assurances of the PLO's leadership that their militias existed only to combat Israel, more than 3,500 Palestinian refugees, including many PLO fighters, were killed on Hussein's orders during what the Palestinians came to call "Black September". When Hussein's soldiers rampaged through Amman looking for PLO fighters often hidden in the slums, the slum-dwellers fought alongside the PLO. Many were murdered in their own homes. This was a serious defeat for the PLO and the organisation was forced to flee to Syria and later Lebanon. But in the confrontation, Arafat had managed to prove his responsibility and respect for the established order: first by refusing to call the Jordanian population to join ranks with the Palestinian refugees in an uprising to overthrow the regime; and second by taking part in a "reconciliation" meeting with Hussein the day after the massacre. This demonstration of respect for the existing institutions and order was, undoubtedly, the starting point of Arafat's long career as a trustworthy politician from the point of view of the Arab rulers as well as of imperialism.

In Lebanon the PLO joined 150,000 Palestinian refugees living near Beirut and in parts of South Lebanon. This "Switzerland of the Middle East" - so-called because of its banks and wealthy bourgeoisie - was a former French protectorate and the French bourgeoisie still retained close links with the ruling feudal Christian families who dominated a largely Muslim population.

In fact Lebanon was a fine balance of different ethnic and religious groupings. With Arabs already in a big majority, the arrival of more Palestinians, in great numbers - and prepared to fight - was bound to tilt the balance. It led to an upsurge of support for the left in the elections of 1972. On the ground it was reflected in strikes and demonstrations in solidarity with the PLO. By 1975 South Lebanon was known to journalists as "Fatahland ", such was the extent of the PLO's influence.

In Spring 1975 the far-right Falange, which grouped together Christians and was modelled on Mussolini's fascism, started attacking the PLO. Worried by the restlessness of these troublesome intruders, and with the blessing of the French and leading Christian families, the Falange sought to put paid to the PLO as Hussein had done previously. The gunning down of a busload of Lebanese and Palestinian Muslims who were travelling through a Christian suburb of the capital, Beirut, sparked off a civil war that was to rage for 19 months.

Christian massacres of Palestinian and Lebanese slumdwellers forced the PLO out of its policy of semi-isolationism into siding with the self-styled "progressist" Lebanese National Movement which was under attack. This alliance of the Lebanese and the Palestinians proved too strong for the Falangists. It unleashed a tremendous popular movement resulting in the ransacking of government offices, the occupation of empty flats and houses in West Beirut by the poor and attacks on prisons leading to the freeing of prisoners. Genuine "liberated" zones were created where the only authority recognised was that of the progressist/PLO alliance.

In January 1976 the Lebanese army broke up. The Muslim elements had a unified leadership and took charge of the garrisons in the Muslim-dominated part of the country. By March they controlled two-thirds of the country. It was at this point that Syria intervened - not on the side of the Muslims but to assist the Christian elements who were in danger of total defeat. For a second time Assad showed his treachery to the Palestinians and, in this instance, the Lebanese poor. The Syrian regime had introduced various reforms to bolster its image at home. But in the region they intended to preserve the status quo even if it meant in reality, as in Lebanon, working hand in glove with the Israelis.

But with elements of the PLO also intervening to "restore order", the PLO leadership showed their own hostility to the actions of the masses. The PLO were stepping into the shoes of the Falange, one of whose aims had been to have them expelled from Lebanon! It was a drastic revelation of the intentions of the moderate PLO leadership who were prepared to use their own militants in a counter-revolutionary role in order to impress Arab and Western bourgeoisie alike of their "responsibility" in the social sphere.

When the civil war finally ended, between 60-80,000 people had lost their lives, 130,000 had been injured and, in a population of 3.25m, 1.35m had lost their homes. Meanwhile Syrian troops remained to ensure the "peace".

The PLO confronts Israel in Lebanon

The entrenchment of the PLO in South Lebanon in the so-called "Fatahland" enabled PLO commandos to carry out regular raids into Northern Israel. After one such raid, in March 1978, 32 Israelis were killed. Four days later the Israeli military retaliated and carried out a punitive raid, the first time that PLO and Israeli armies had confronted each other on battlefield. 20,000 Israelis troops were supported by planes dropping cluster bombs. In the process the Israelis killed 700 people and a further 160,000 were made homeless. The grip of the PLO had been broken along the frontier. The Israelis now set up an enclave to be policed by an Israeli-armed Christian militia.

In 1979 the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt gave back to Egypt the land she had lost in 1967. By returning the Sinai Desert to Egypt and with Egypt signing separate economic agreements with the USA, Israel virtually removed the danger of attack from the Arab states and was therefore free to reinforce its grip on the Occupied Territories and even to embark on an expansionist policy, as in Lebanon in 1982.

In 1981 the Israeli airforce made an unsuccessful attempt to kill Arafat by bombarding the PLO's headquarters in Beirut. Then, in June 1982, Israel undertook a full-scale invasion of Lebanon, although its scale was initially hidden from the Israeli population by referring to it as an "operation". Under this onslaught the PLO was forced to retreat. The Israelis also took on the Syrian troops stationed in the Bekaa Valley and used the opportunity to destroy the Syrian airforce and defences around Damascus.

The PLO fighters withdrew to West Beirut offering stiff resistance in the process. Unwilling to sustain the high casualties which street by street fighting would have entailed, the Israeli army resorted to Dresden-style bombing to try and flush out PLO. Thousands of Lebanese civilians were killed in process.

With international indignation at Israeli aggression mounting, the USA intervened and had talks with Arafat to organise the evacuation of the PLO to Damascus. The widespread anger amongst the Palestinians and their supporters at what was seen as desertion by the leadership was only compounded by what followed.

The assassination of the Falange president, Bashir Gemayel, by a Syrian secret service agent was the excuse for Israel and their Christian allies to carry out atrocities against the local population. This culminated in the massacres of the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps carried out by the Israeli-armed South Lebanese militias. 1300 defenceless women and children were murdered cold-bloodedly with the blessing of the Israeli invasion forces commander.

In the wake of these massacres, protests erupted in Israel and a full investigation was carried out. But although Israeli Defence minister Sharon was forced to resign and the consensus on Israeli war aims was broken for the first time since 1948, the Israeli state had succeeded in its main aim of forcing the PLO out of Beirut. The eradication of the PLO as a serious military threat had been accomplished.

Yet the Israeli army stayed on, thereby showing that Israel was determined to consolidate its hold on Lebanon and to keep it. And the civil war carried on, this time between the Falange, supported by the Israeli army, and the poor Muslims led by pro-Syrian and fundamentalist groups.

The Israelis losses were also increasing, even if they were negligible by comparison with those of the other side. Still by the autumn of 1983 more than 500 Israelis were dead and inside Israel opposition to the war was growing. The military commanders were forced to begin what amounted to a retreat. By 1985 the Israelis had completed their withdrawal. But with more than 750 killed in a country where even a handful dead was considered grounds for national mourning, the whole enterprise was considered by many to have been a criminal folly. All the more so as the decline of PLO influence had apparently only paved the way for the much more radical Hezbollah backed by the Iranian fundamentalist regime. And although Israel retained their Christian mercenaries in the buffer zone of South Lebanon, they proved unable to stop attacks on border settlements or the regroupment of PLO sections. As a result an intermittent war in South Lebanon has gone on ever since.

Thus for all their military triumphs, the Israeli adventure was a failure: if Israeli stubborness had contributed to the collapse of pan-Arabism, Israeli terror in the Lebanon had assisted the growth of a potentially more radical replacement. The role of Iran and the rising tide of fundamentalism, in addition to the ending of the dominant position of the pro-Israeli Christians, were ominous developments. Moreover, Iran's ally Syria, another inveterate foe of Israel as long as she retained the Golan Heights, had confirmed her dominant role in Lebanon. But for the tiny population of the former "Switzerland of the Middle East" the war has been a catastrophe with more than 200,000 dead and 800,000 forced into exile between 1975 and 1988.

From the Intifada to the compromise

With the bulk of the PLO removed as far away as Tunis, the influence of the PLO in the Occupied Territories, and the refugee settlements generally, appeared to wane. But as the Palestinian people's opposition to Israel stemmed from loss of homeland, lack of freedom and the intolerable conditions of the refugee camps, the opposition itself did not go away. In fact as the Arab populations of the Gaza strip and the West Bank steadily grew, so the problems which the Israeli occupation forces confronted grew steadily worse.

The daily humiliations by army patrols; high unemployment, total poverty and restrictions on those who could work in Israel but were not allowed to live there, made life in the Occupied Territories unbearable for a new generation of young Palestinians. An initial confrontation in Gaza in December 1987 quickly spread out to include all the Occupied Territories. Confrontations then spread to include those Arabs living in Israel, by then numbering some three-quarters of a million.

As what came to be known as the Intifada developed the image of young Palestinian Arabs, some as young as 12 or 13, battling it out with armed Israeli soldiers became a regular occurrence on TV screens across the world. Stones against bullets and scarves to protect against tear gas made for a one-sided contest. Except that in the densely-packed shanty towns with their maze of alleys and escape routes, the youngsters had numerous ways of ambushing their foe and making good their escape.

In the Occupied Territories frequent general strikes and boycotts had a thoroughly disrupting effect on the Israeli economy. In Gaza in particular with its vast population numbering around a million crowded into 136 square miles, there was a large working class which poured over the border at 4am every morning to do much of the work in the factories and the sweatshops in the greater Tel Aviv region.

In such an uncontrollable situation the PLO saw its chance. King Hussein of Jordan, probably acting under American pressure, abandoned any claims to the West Bank (which he had held between 1948 and 1967) to pave the way for the creation of a Palestinian mini-state. In November 1988 the PLO recognised those UN resolutions implying recognition of the state of Israel. A landless state of Palestine was proclaimed by the PLO and followed by a world-wide diplomatic offensive to have it recognised. In May 1989 Arafat declared "void" the PLO's charter which had declared Palestine "indivisible". The stage was being set for a deal but the USA and Israel had still to be persuaded to be part of it.

The Gulf War, and Arafat's propagandistic support for Saddam Hussein, suspended the process. But it did not change the situation in the Occupied Territories, while the mood of the majority of the Israeli population became ever more disenchanted. The widespread opposition of Israeli youths to serving in the Occupied Territories affected army morale. The Israeli elections in 1992 brought back Labour to office after a campaign in which the party leader Rabin had indicated a willingness to negotiate with the PLO. And clearly this was one factor in Labour's victory.

But Labour was not just talking about negotiation for electoral reasons. They obviously had the backing of the Israeli bourgeoisie as well as that of imperialism. There were a number of reasons for this. One was economic: the Intifada was weighing more and more heavily on an economy which was already close to bankruptcy.

The other reasons were political. In fact the PLO was in a position of weakness, partly discredited among the population. Its leadership was far from being recognised amongst the new generations thrown up by the Intifada. At the same time, the PLO still had a local apparatus, they controlled most of the Palestinian town councils, directly or through allies, which gave them a certain leverage in the Occupied Territories, if not among the youth. It also had a long-established apparatus of cadres - the 5,000 or so who staffed the PLO's headquarters in Tunis and its extensive diplomatic representation across the world - which was used to operate as a state machinery, away from the pressure of the masses.

On the other hand, the radical wing of the Intifada was increasingly turning towards the fundamentalist groups. And while Arafat's respect towards the established order was known and tested, it was not the case with the fundamentalist leaders who, in addition, had loyalties which went far beyond the framework of Palestine - to Syria or Iran. And there was no guarantee as to their future attitude, especially if the support they enjoyed kept increasing.

Eventually the Israeli rulers chose to negotiate with a partner they knew rather than to take the risk of an untested partner being forced on them by the balance of forces in the future. At the same time, by offering a deal to Arafat and the PLO, Rabin was rescuing them from their relative discredit, boosting their popularity among the Palestinian population and limiting, for a while at least, the the rise of the fundamentalists. On the other hand, Arafat's weakness meant that he was in no position to impose his own conditions on the Israeli government and the PLO's lower credit with the most radical elements of the Intifada meant that the deal would not encourage them to step up their action - which is always a possibility when a fight is taking place.

Will the Palestinian masses go along with the deal?

The content of the deal which was reached, at least for the immediate future, is well-known. A Palestinian authority has taken over control of slightly over half of the Gaza strip - the rest remaining under Israeli control for the sake of the 3000 Israeli settlers established there, while 850,000 Palestinians must make do with the rest - and of the immediate surroundings of the town of Jericho, in the West Bank. This temporary set up should last "no more than five years ". This is how blurred the agreement remains for the time being.

On the other hand this agreement does show the immediate preoccupations of the Israeli government. It provides for the establishment of a Palestinian police force under PLO responsibility, while the overall responsibility for military security and the safety of the Israeli population remains in the hands of the Israeli army. In other words, it amounts to inviting Arafat to show what he can deliver in terms of restoring law and order. The fact that the Gaza strip, with its 600,000 refugees leaving in squalid camps, was included in the deal is not a coincidence - it is in the Gaza strip that the frustration of the Palestinian poor is the highest. As to Jericho, a quiet town which has been left largely untouched by the Intifada, it will provide a cosy head office for the embryonic Palestinian state machinery and a safe one, as it well away from the direct pressures of the Palestinian masses.

Who will benefit from the deal in the short term? First of all the PLO cadres who have been waiting for so long in exile for some crumbs of power. There will be jobs and positions for them. The Palestinian middle-class will gain also the possibility of using its money freely in Israel, if they wish to do so. So will, by the way, the Arab millionaires who were so far banned from having any business dealings with Israel and the Israeli capitalists themselves who will gain access to all Arab markets.

But there will be no benefit whatsoever for the Palestinian poor, despite the fact that they have provided the bulk of the PLO fighters for nearly three decades and all the Intifada demonstrators. The refugee camps will remain what they were, only the police watching them will be Palestinian instead of being Israeli. Their poverty will not change. The lucky 23,000 Gaza Palestinian workers who have the privilege to have a pass allowing them to go and work in Israel, will not be offered better jobs than those they have already - the lowest among the low in the Israeli economy. And when entering Israeli territory they will still have to endure the harrassment of the Israeli soldiers, who have the authority to decide ultimately who is allowed through and who is not. As to the overwhelming majority of those who have no legal right to work in Israel, they will carry on trying their luck by looking for illegal underpaid jobs in the black economy. For in Gaza itself, deal or not, there will be no more jobs than there are now. In fact there may be even fewer, as some Israeli administrations have decided to stop paying those they employed in Gaza - 7,000 public service employees for instance have been told that Israel will not pay them, while the PLO has not yet got the financial resources to take over.

Both the Israeli and PLO leaders seem to expect that a quick improvement of the economic situation will defuse the present explosive situation. Maybe. But not without large subsidies from the West which, so far, are not forthcoming, not even on paper. Definite foreign assistance seems limited, so far, to such things as the training of senior police officers by Britain and lawyers by France! But even if the money did come, it would still leave the Palestinian people with a ridiculously minute country, totally unworkable economically, even to cater for the needs of its present population, let alone to accommodate the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered all over the Middle-East.

This gives a measure of what this Palestinian nationalism really amounts to, of how narrow and derisory it is, and how appallingly costly in terms of human lives, compared to the possibilities which would have been opened had the struggle of the Palestinian poor been led by a revolutionary leadership.

In such a struggle for national liberation, the masses can gain nothing merely through winning political independence. They can only make gains by taking on the domination of imperialism, that is by shifting their struggle firmly onto a class basis, that of the international proletariat, and by fighting for a communist programme.