#74 -Palestine-Israel - A prison for two peoples caught between Islamic and Zionist reaction

February 2006


The victory of the Islamic Hamas movement in the January election to the Palestinian Legislative Assembly (PLA) generated a flood of hypocritical statements, both in Western capitals and in Israel.

The same political leaders who, for years, had put all their efforts in trying to paralyse and discredit the late Arafat and his secular Fatah movement, are now throwing up their hands in horror at the consequences of their own strategy. Ironically, some of Bush's advisers have even gone on record, to recommend a re-run of this election. Clearly, for these self-proclaimed champions of "democracy" in the Middle East, the only "genuine democracy" is one that serves their own immediate designs!

Having refused to have any dealings with Fatah and the previous Palestinian authority, on the grounds that they were proving unwilling, but in fact they were unable, to crush terrorist groups, the Israeli state and its western mentors are now faced with the prospect of having the terrorists themselves as their only possible partners - something which they had apparently not expected to happen, at least not at this stage.

In and of itself, this is more a minor inconvenience than a major problem for the imperialist powers. The demagogic hot air of their "war on terrorism" is one thing, but the "pragmatism" they have always been prepared to deploy in order to protect their world order is quite another.

There is no shortage of examples of terrorist organisations which were allowed by imperialism to take power and build state machineries, which eventually won western recognition. Israel itself, in particular, is such an example. After all, it was as a terrorist that the man considered so far as Bush's best friend in the Middle East, Ariel Sharon, started his military career - with the Haganah militia, back in the 1940s. And this did not stop Bush from having Sharon as a guest at his Texas ranch!

Moreover, for imperialism, the fact that Hamas has always chosen to use individual terrorism rather than collective action, is a guarantee that its leaders share their own fear of the masses. Besides, unlike Fatah, Hamas is a disciplined and homogeneous organisation, which is more likely to be able to impose its rule over the rival Palestinian factions than Fatah has ever been - as well as its dictatorship over the Palestinian population.

As to the Israeli government, Hamas' victory could well be a godsend, as it provides the present ruling majority with both a scarecrow to frighten the Israeli electorate in the run-up to the March general elections and an ideal cover to carry on with the unilateral policy of containment, which was inaugurated by Sharon under the pretext of implementing the western-backed "roadmap".

This "roadmap" was never designed to give the Palestinians a say in shaping their future. Rather it was a gimmick designed to placate western public opinion and Arab regimes in the aftermath of the US-British invasion of Iraq. But once reinterpreted by Sharon, with Bush's and Blair's full support, the "roadmap" became merely another instrument of coercion against the Palestinians. While it allowed Sharon to posture as a "dove" willing to "give peace a chance", the evacuation of the Gaza Strip is nothing but a thin veil over a policy designed to consolidate Israel's stranglehold over the Palestinian Occupied Territories and eradicate any form of militant opposition among the Palestinian masses.

And in fact, Hamas' election victory is already being used as a justification for even more coercion against the Palestinians in general. Ehud Olbert, Sharon's successor as Israeli Prime Minister has jumped on this pretext, with Washington's approval, to stop paying the Palestinian Authority its share of income from export and import duties. For good measure Olbert has threatened to stop the flow of western aid which has been channelled so far to Palestinian charities via Israel. But while the first measure only affects the depleted finances of the Palestinian Authority, the second would have a drastic impact on the day-to-day lives of poor Palestinians, many of whom depend on western aid for their daily food rations.

The truth is that the Israeli and western governments are far less concerned with Hamas and its victory than with the unknown factors and consequences which lie behind it. Among these are the possible destabilising effect this victory may have on Palestinian politics, especially as Fatah is still in control of the Palestinian Authority's machinery and, particularly, its security forces. But above all, no-one can be sure of how this victory will affect the mood of the Palestinian masses and their radicalism. No doubt the Israeli and western leaders will watch closely how "responsibly", from the point of view of western interests and regional stability, the new Hamas-dominated Assembly responds to events.

From the point of view of the interests of the Palestinian masses, Hamas' election victory is far more ominous. It is too early to tell whether it represents the final nail in the coffin of the secular nationalist Palestinian movement which, for three decades, had been a major thorn in the flesh of imperialism. If so, that is, if the meteoric rise of Hamas' Islamic fundamentalism over the past decade has really succeeded in pulling behind it a majority of the Palestinian masses, this would be a drastic setback, not just for the Palestinians themselves, but for the poor masses in the whole of the Middle East.

In fact, it would be, potentially, an even more damaging setback than the rise of fundamentalism in countries like Iran and Iraq. Because one should not forget that for two generations at least, Palestinian refugees and the prestige of the Palestinian struggle constituted a powerful ferment of rebellion and radicalisation across the whole region. Under the iron heel of Islamic fundamentalism and its backward and parochial outlook, this spirit of resistance would be reduced to nothing. Meanwhile, in the Palestinian Territories, the population would be subjected to the reactionary religious rule of clerics. No doubt the Israeli and Western states would watch with relish how the Palestinian people that they locked up physically in refugee camps, were now locked up socially in the name of God!

How and why did the rise of Hamas take place, what was the role played by the Israeli state in this process? And what is in store, as a result, for Palestine and Israel? These are the issues that we intend to discuss in the present forum.

A dead end - the only choice on offer

It may be difficult to comprehend the events of the last five years, during which an endless queue of young Palestinians have seemed willing to blow themselves up, in order to kill Israeli soldiers, settlers or urban civilians. They were undeterred by the fact that there would always be more retaliations by the Israeli army as a result, causing yet more destruction and casualties in the Palestinian enclaves. The death toll is testament to this. Over 4,000 Palestinians have been killed, over the past five years, and 1,000 Israelis.

It is not even the case that these suicide bombers are all fanatical converts to fundamentalist Islam, acting under the flag of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. A substantial number of them have carried out their suicide attacks in the name of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade which is allied to the nominally secular Fatah.

Broadly speaking, in fact, there are only two visible choices on the ground for those who are determined to fight against the regime of oppression imposed by the Israeli state. One is the degenerate nationalism of the Fatah leadership of the PLO, now held responsible by the population for its impotence and increasing corruption over the 12 years during which it has run the Palestinian Authority.

The other choice is the even more narrow and backward religious nationalism of Hamas and its off-shoots, whose appeal is partly due to its being untainted by corruption, since it has never been in power, and partly to the fact that, unlike Fatah, Hamas has always (so far at least) opposed negotiations with Israel.

However, both options represent dead ends. And if they can still find some support among the population and recruit suicide bombers it has little or nothing to do with the ideas they represent. On the contrary, it has everything to do with the policy of successive Israeli governments, denying Palestinians any rights and reducing them to poverty, often to the point of utter destitution.

These were already the factors which triggered the first Intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1993, and was brought to an end by the Oslo Peace Accords. Then, after 7 years of a so-called "peace process" the Palestinian population found itself even worse off than before. Yet these Accords had promised them their own, self-governing state by the end of the process! Instead of their own state, what the Palestinians got was internment camps, governed by an unaccountable PLO leadership, and still the same destitution. This was the real reason behind the second Intifada, which broke out in September 2000, sparked by Ariel Sharon's provocation, when he paid a visit to Temple Mount in east Jerusalem, with a heavily armed military escort.

Today, after five years during which Israeli prime minister Sharon launched tanks, bulldozers and helicopter gunships into Palestinian camps and into Gaza, under his "Operation Defensive Shield", many of the Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps have been reduced to rubble. Punitive incursions into Palestinian areas, house to house searches, hundreds of arrests and targeted assassinations of activists, and known leaders of the militant organisations are still the order of the day.

The so-called "Road Map" which was supposed to re-start the peace process never got off the ground, initially due to Sharon's refusal to talk to Arafat, although again, the real reason is Israel's intention to follow its own plans for dealing with the Palestinians regardless, just as it always has.

Gaza - barely surviving, not living

Today's Palestinian economy has much in common with sub-Saharan Africa. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are reliant on donor rations for survival.

Gaza is the smaller of the two Palestinian territories. It is a tiny strip of land about 140 square miles in area, where 1.3m Palestinians live in refugee camps or in derelict housing which is regularly subject to Israeli shelling.

Here three quarters of the population is living under the poverty line. Food consumption per inhabitant has fallen by 30% in the last five years. As a result, 22% of children under 5yrs are malnourished, a threefold increase since 2000.

By 2000, the Israelis had already replaced the cheap labour the Palestinian poor previously provided in construction and factory work, by importing tens of thousands of foreign workers from China, the Philippines and elsewhere. For workers in Gaza the only new jobs on offer have been those provided by the Palestinian Authority itself - which amount to around 41,000 including the West Bank. But the PA too, relies wholly on donor funds for survival.

Today unemployment in Gaza is estimated at 68%. Only two industrial parks still function outside Palestinian areas despite the fact that Israeli labour laws do not apply and despite the attraction of paying only one third of the average Israeli wage. The Erez industrial zone just to the north of Gaza provides work for some 4,500 Palestinians in 200 factories. But since 9/11, all Arabs have been banned from working in any high-tech industry for "security reasons" and of course it is this industry which has come to dominate the Israeli economy.

Despite the evacuation of Israeli settlers from the Gaza seaboard, last August (with the mindless demolition of their homes, greenhouses and facilities), Gaza remains a sealed off entity. Once the settlers were gone, there was meant to be an opening of the border with Egypt. However, in preparation the Israeli army transformed this zone into a no-man's land and intends to continue to control this border as well as the coastline. Palestinians will remain totally dependent on Israel for their relations with the outside world.

So there is still only one way out and one way in to Gaza - the Erez checkpoint which connects it to Israel. This allows the Israeli army to control all Palestinian access to the West Bank and the rest of the world. What is it like to get through this checkpoint? To quote one graphic description: "on a hot spring afternoon a family waits into its fifth hour to pass through. A Palestinian security officer finally receives instructions from the other side ushering them into a lengthy tunnel that eventually terminates in a screen of steel bars, wire mesh and remote controlled turnstiles. On the other side is a containment zone, then another set of bars, wire mesh and a gate. Beyond the gate are two concrete towers with sniper slits covered by sandbags. There are about a dozen other Palestinians there leaning on their suitcases, squatting on the floor. "I've been here for an hour", says a businessman. Two middle-aged men wearing orange vests say they work as helpers at the checkpoint. The soldiers cannot be seen; no-one is sure they are actually there and as time passes the doubt grows. (..) Finally a disembodied voice crackles through an intercom. The Palestinians get in line; the turnstiles buzz and instructions are barked; one by one they squeeze through. The intercom instructs the Palestinians in orange vests; they pat down the other Palestinians, collect all the passports, ID cards and pre-issued permits. Finally two Israeli soldiers appear on the other side and papers are passed through the bars. After some time, the Palestinians are let out."

In fact the Israelis have plans to turn such checkpoints into high tech terminals. $50m of a $350m US aid package earmarked for the Palestinian Authority will be diverted to build these, on the pretext that this will be a help to the Palestinian economy by facilitating the movement of people and goods "after disengagement"!

The West Bank - the "Swiss cheese" model

On the West Bank, 2.5m Palestinians live in a patchwork of unconnected and scattered enclaves. Despite the many commitments made by Israeli governments to halt the development of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, this has never stopped. So that today, there are 187,000 settlers in the West Bank, to whom should be added another 177,000 in East Jerusalem (the Western part of Jerusalem being included in Israel).

What has recently happened in Hebron illustrates the attitude of the settlers who Israeli regimes have encouraged to take over Palestinian homes and land.

Hebron was meant to have been handed over to the Palestinian Authority and Israel was supposed to withdraw in 1997. This never happened because of around 500 hard-line Jewish settler families who had established themselves in the city. As a result the city was divided into PA and Israeli segments. 35, 000 Palestinians were locked into the Israeli part of the city as a result, cut off by an electrified fence. They cannot walk on main thoroughfares, at any time of the night or day. They cannot move goods from one part of the city to another, use their cars, visit relatives or open their shops. They are subject to regular searches and are constantly harassed by young Jewish gangs who are protected by the police.

At the end of January this year, the settlers in Hebron decided to stage a riot against a High Court decision that the young Jewish squatters who occupied Palestinian homes in Hebron's market four years ago had to vacate these homes. They went on the rampage razing Palestinian homes and businesses to the ground, pelting the Israeli police with eggs, sticks, paint and rocks, and called them Nazis. It remains to be seen what Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli prime minister will do about it, if anything.

The Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line, which marks the 1967 border of the West Bank Occupied Territory, effectively erased this border and further confiscated Palestinian dwellings and land. Palestinians are not allowed to occupy any land within 50km of any of the "Israeli" bypass roads, connecting these settlements. And now the same applies to the "separation wall" which has begun to wind its way tortuously like a snake from north to south along the West Bank, from Jenin to Bethlehem. It was erected under the pretext of protecting Israel from "terrorist infiltration" but, in fact, by cutting out huge swathes of formerly Palestinian lands, it mainly separates Palestinian enclaves from territory claimed by Israel.

For instance it has completely sealed off the Palestinian town of Qalqilya which had a population of 42,000. This town is now surrounded on all sides by 25 feet of concrete. Exit and entry is regulated by one Israeli checkpoint. The town's residents have been cut off from their agricultural lands and 32 surrounding Palestinian villages for which Qalqilya was a commercial centre. By mid-2003, 600 of the town's 1,800 shops had closed due to lack of business and the unemployment rate reached 80%. Now residents are quietly leaving because they see no future if they stay.

The wall slices right through Abu Dis, a Palestinian town immediately south east of Jerusalem, without any opening. In fact Israel's western part of Jerusalem is growing apace further and further eastwards. A new Israeli settlement is under construction in Abu Dis which will be west of the growing wall. But already workers who have to pass this way to their jobs in Jerusalem are being harassed and fired on by Israeli soldiers - and Abu Dis residents who have lived there their whole lives are being told that they are now illegal.

Outside the wall, isolated pockets of Palestinians are encircled with purpose-made fences. Apparently six such enclaves already have or will have these fences. The separation wall will confine the majority of West Bank Palestinians to 2 or 3 large cantons (or bantustans, apartheid style?) comprising around 45% of the West Bank's territory. If they are not part of the major cantons, Palestinians will be isolated from each other by "depth barriers". Tunnels or fenced roads will link these cantons with Israeli checkpoints regulating all entry and exit points from cantons and enclaves. Israel will have annexed over 50% of the West Bank with the help of its separation wall.

Combined with existing Israeli settlements and the network of settler-only bypass roads, the wall will ensure that geographically disconnected Palestinian population centres are cut off from one another and cut off from their livelihoods under the full control of Israel. 97 medical care centres and 11 hospitals will be separated from the people they currently serve.

The wall will also annex to Israel access to the West Bank aquifer, which supplies most of the West Bank's water needs. Already water shortages for are a major concern for the West Bank's Palestinians. Water trucks are blocked by the army and areas deprived of water for days on end. One village near Nablus had no water for 9 consecutive days because trucks were prevented from getting there. 280 rural areas have no wells, nor connections to a drinking water system and depend entirely on truck-delivered water. But since September 2000 there has been an 80% increase in the price of delivered water on the pretext of increased transport costs.

How Oslo paved the way for Hamas

The Oslo Accord, it should be remembered, was always portrayed as aiming at a "two state solution" to the Palestine-Israel problem. What was different about Oslo, compared to previous plans, was that this time, the Palestinians were to have a self-governing authority under the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. In fact the PLO was officially recognised under this agreement by Israel, as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Yitzak Rabin and Simon Peres were seen on TV shaking hands with their arch enemy, Yasser Arafat and they were all three awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for this charade. The understanding was that Israel was supposed, eventually, to withdraw from the territories it had occupied in 1967 - that is, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which were to become part of a new Palestine, ruled by its people.

The exiled PLO, dominated by Yasser Arafat's Fatah, all too willingly accepted the role which Oslo designated for it. They returned from exile with what amounted to a ready-made "state" made up of around 5,000 functionaries and the core of the former militias. This state was simply imposed over the Palestinian masses. The new Palestinian Authority was to police its own people, to prevent any new uprisings, thus relieving the Israeli army from this task, but leaving the PA to do all the dirty work. This soon created a lot of ill-feeling among the Palestinians, particularly among the generation of young leaders who had emerged during the Intifada, since they were now marginalised by the returning exiles.

By 1995, however, the promised Palestinian statelet included only six Palestinian enclaves on the West Bank, in addition to Gaza. Finally Hebron was included in 1997, even if part of it was still occupied by several hundred hard-line Jewish settler families, meaning that Israeli troops never left and a permanent flashpoint between the PA's police and the Israeli army was thus created. These derisory gains were more than overshadowed by the incarceration of the Palestinians inside their enclaves and their ever-increasing destitution.

Besides, there was growing discontent over the operation of the Palestinian institutions. The many rival factions forming the PLO seemed more concerned with grabbing positions for themselves than with alleviating the plight of the population or defending its interests against the Israeli state.

Most of the finances of the new Palestinian authority came from donor funds mainly from the Arab and imperialist countries, as well as custom taxes collected by the Israelis. But apart from funding the Authority itself and providing employment to around 41,000 people, these funds never seemed to trickle down to ordinary Palestinians almost all of whom were in desperate need. The rumours about Arafat's personal "treasure" hidden in Switzerland, which were floated by the western media, are not very credible. But the flashy Mercedes cars used by PA dignitaries were there for everyone to see and they certainly smelt of corruption.

All in all, the set-up inherited from the Oslo peace process only succeeded in eroding the credit built by the PLO's nationalist leadership over more than three decades of struggle, thereby opening a political vacuum waiting to be filled.

Hamas steps in to fill the vacuum

The absence of any other new forces, since the PLO umbrella brought together the entire political spectrum of the Palestinian resistance, allowed the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas to step in.

Hamas is the acronym for Harakarat al Muqawima al-Islamiyya, Arabic for Islamic Resistance Movement. It was created in Gaza after the outbreak of the 1987 Intifada, as an armed wing of Gaza's Muslim Brotherhood so as to allow it take advantage of this huge mobilisation led by the Palestinian youth.

The Muslim Brotherhood had already established itself in Gaza as long ago as 1946, as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. But prior to 1987, it had never participated openly in the Palestinian struggle against Israel, even if individual members had played a role at times, for instance by smuggling weapons during the 1947/48 war. In fact all its efforts were focussed on reorienting the Palestinians to what it considered to be the true Islam. So the secular forces which so far had dominated the Palestinian Liberation Organisation were considered its first obstacle and therefore its main opponent.

As a way of dividing and undermining the struggles of the Middle Eastern poor, the Muslim Brotherhood had proved a useful tool of imperialism in the past, particularly in Egypt, first against the threat of emerging trade unions and then as a counterweight to the pan-Arab nationalism represented by Nasser. So in Gaza, despite the Brotherhood's overt anti-Semitism, the Israeli civil administration actually encouraged its development and even funded it indirectly. This was considered unproblematic because its front organisation, known as Mujama, founded in 1973 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin among others, was set up primarily to provide welfare services to the population including clinics and schools - and in 1978 the Israelis pressured Mujama to apply for registration as a legitimate charity. Its main source of initial funding was, however the Gulf Islamic organisations including those in Saudi Arabia, as well as expatriate Palestinians.

Mujama proved its worth to the Israelis in 1980, when it launched an attack on Fatah's welfare organisation, the Red Crescent Society. By 1981, it had entrenched itself in the Gaza Islamic University where it instituted Islamisation - forcing female students to use separate entrances and wear the hijab - but only after it had got the Israeli authority's help to expel its opponents in the university administration. Mujama activists at the university were also allowed to keep an arms cache for use against the secularists.

Outside of the university, however, Mujama had limited support. By 1985, its membership was only 2,000. But throughout the 1980s it increasingly used violence against what it considered un-Islamic institutions, including cinemas and places selling or serving alcohol. And it became increasingly assertive and politically ambitious, which eventually did bring it into conflict with the Israeli authorities. In 1984, Sheik Yassin and 13 other Mujama leaders were arrested and their arms were seized. Although military actions were originally declared incompatible with Islam, this was a line which was difficult to maintain in the context of a besieged Gaza, especially after the first Intifada broke out. Differences over this question led to a major split when Islamic Jihad was formed by those who advocated the Islamic liberation of Palestine as an initial priority, before "Islamization" could be implemented.

When the first Intifada began, the Muslim Brotherhood seized the opportunity of this popular mobilisation, and in 1988 it launched Hamas, with its own military wing, even if this was the smallest part of the initial organisation. It brought out a new Charter for the occasion which declared all of Palestine Islamic Trust land, belonging exclusively to Muslims and it also declared conferences and negotiations to be a waste of time. It promoted the forged and blatantly absurd Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a legitimate document and claimed that the French and Russian revolutions were both the result of Zionist conspiracies.

But even after this, the Israel authorities did not interfere with its activities, continuing to treat it as if it was a social welfare organisation and meeting with its leaders, including Sheik Yassin, in their attempt to marginalise the PLO. However, when Hamas' Izz al-Din al Qassam brigades kidnapped and killed some Israeli soldiers, the Israeli government decided to ban Hamas and Sheik Yassin was re-arrested together with some of his fellow leaders.

After the Al-Aqsa mosque massacre in 1990, perpetrated by a fanatical Jewish settler, Hamas opportunistically turned its primary opposition against Israel, declaring every Israeli soldier and settler a legitimate target. At the same time, it began to challenge Fatah's leadership and policies, demanding that the Palestinian National Council should be an elected body.

Unlike Arafat's PLO, Hamas did not support Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war. They instead called for a US and Iraqi withdrawal. It was a very clever move, since as a result, the Gulf states which were behind the US, shifted the funding usually earmarked for the PLO to Hamas - funding which was said to be as much as $28m a month! This allowed Hamas to completely eclipse the welfare role of the PLO, thus increasing its support among the population.

Opposing the Oslo process

Hamas' rejection of the Oslo peace process allowed it to capitalise on the increasing number of Palestinians who were becoming more and more disillusioned with Arafat and Fatah who, as the PA, were presiding over the severe aggravation of their conditions under the so-called "peace process". In fact the first suicide bombing by Hamas was carried out against the Oslo accords in 1993.

The PLO in its guise as the Palestinian Authority initially refrained from acting against Hamas, while trying to restore its own welfare organisations using the donor funds which began to flow to it after Oslo. In Gaza, it followed a strategy of co-opting Hamas onto the PA bodies, causing various splits in the organisation. One of these splits opposed further military activities and even decided to recognise the existence of Israel inside the 1948 borders.

By 1997, a tacit agreement had been reached between Hamas and the PA, that Hamas' opposition to the Oslo process would be aimed not at the PA but at the Israelis - in other words, the PA would leave Hamas alone as long as it did not oppose the authority of the PA inside the Occupied Territories.

This modus vivendi carried on until the second intifada broke out in 2000. In fact this uprising was largely under the infuence of Tanzim, the Fatah youth organisation led by the now imprisoned Marwan Barghouti. Hamas only got involved fully, after the election of Ariel Sharon in February 2001, in response to his vow to restore order "within 100 days". It was after this that Hamas took a qualitative turn to suicide bombings in Israel.

While it joined Fatah's al Aqsa Martyr brigades in several suicide attacks, Hamas quietly worked at taking over control of the PA from the PLO. The support for both Islamic Jihad and Hamas among the population of the Occupied Territories grew to 30%. Hamas owed its rise in popularity not only to its refusal to give up the struggle against Israel. Nor was it merely due to the concomitant degeneracy of the PA machinery, although this helped. As important were the extensive charitable and welfare services which Hamas provided, in stark contrast to the inefficiency and collapse of the PA ministries. The result, by late 2002, was "a political, social and military alternative to the existing Palestinian order" in the words of the Authority's culture minister.

By now, however, Hamas was blacklisted by the US as a terrorist organisation and Saudi Arabia had withdrawn funding. It relied for most of its finances on the Iranian regime and the support of the Iranian backed Hizbollah. It therefore chose to seek accommodation with the PLO rather than contest for power at this point.

Hamas' increasing popularity meant that the PA was also increasingly reluctant to move against it, even if the PA now faced huge pressure to show its opposition to all terrorism and particularly to Hamas, which, along with Islamic Jihad, was responsible for most of the continuing tit-for-tat attacks. Co-opting Hamas was seen as a viable strategy to curtail its popular support. The PLO began intense negotiations with Hamas to persuade it to join the PA government and join with the PLO. This did not work. And the targeted assassinations by Israeli forces of Hamas leaders - first Sheik Yassin in March 2004 and Abdel Aziz Rantisi the following month, probably only served to increase Hamas' support even more.

The victory of Hamas

However just before his death, Sheik Yassin had presented a new platform for Hamas which constituted a strategic turn. Along with pledging a cessation of attacks on Israel, while Israel withdrew from Gaza and 4 West Bank settlements, Hamas planned to escalate resistance in Gaza, to give the impression that Israeli forces were leaving under its pressure. But most significantly, Yassin said that Hamas would strive to reach a power-sharing agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

In March 2005, after the election of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) as president of the Palestinian National Authority, and chairman of the PLO, a conference was held in Cairo of all the Palestinian groups. This conference declared that there should now be a "lull" or "calm" in the fight against Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad agreed to join the PLO. Hamas also decided to participate in the Palestine Legislative Elections. It had already scored well in the first two rounds of the local government elections.

Its final score in these elections, which were completed in December 2005 gave it 60% of all seats and clear majorities in 30% of councils. It swept to victory in all the major towns on the West Bank except Ramallah. The greatest prize was the town of Qalqilya where Hamas' "Change and Reform" slate took all 15 positions, which was seen as a protest against Fatah's mismanagement and its failure to prevent the encirclement of the town by Israel's wall.

These local elections were the first real ballot which Hamas had participated in and confirmed that Hamas was ready to vie for political power and that it was capable of winning it. That said, some of Fatah members stood against each other here an there, divided Fatah's vote and probably lost some seats as a result. This situation however, far from being just due tactical error, was an unavoidable consequence of the existing divisions within Fatah.

This situation escalated even further in the Legislative elections. A rebel Fatah group led by the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti decided to present its own list although it later withdrew this. The former PA finance minister, Salam Fayyad and Hanan Ashrawi formed a list called Third Way.

It shouldn't have been too hard to predict that Hamas could win the elections, but even so, the results were greeted with some surprise. Hamas itself was said to have been taken aback by its score. In fact Hamas gained 42.2% of the vote and 74 seats, compared to Fatah's 39.3% and 45 seats. Ex-Fatah independents took 4 seats.

Some commentators pointed out that Fatah could probably have had another 27 seats if its own candidates had not actually stood against each other in the districts. Maybe. But the fact was that Fatah had proved unable to inspire discipline within its own ranks and this was a reflection of its weakness.

Thus, this victory of Hamas should probably be seen less as reflecting support for everything Hamas stands for, than as a protest against Fatah. Significantly, Hamas' campaign did not focus on religious sloganising, but concentrated on its stalwart resistance against "Israel" and the fight for the national rights of the Palestinians, betrayed by Oslo and the Road Map.

In any case, now that Hamas is in the driving seat, the odds are that it will accept its role as chief negotiator for the Palestinians if the offer is on the table. It remains to be seen what concessions it will be willing to make, despite its past rhetorical radicalism, in return for western and Israeli recognition.

Israeli politics and the Palestinian question

Right from the inception of the state of Israel, it was inevitable that the Palestinian question would cause a permanent distortion of Israeli politics. As Marx argued about the consequences of the occupation of Ireland for the British working class, "a people oppressing another people, cannot be free." Since the very existence of the state of Israel was based on despoiling and oppressing the native Palestinian population, every aspect of Israeli politics was bound to be corrupted by this fact, especially the freedom enjoyed by the Israeli population.

This was inevitable, the minute a distinct state of Israel was established as a Jewish fortress against the neighbouring Arab populations. What was not inevitable, however, was the setting up of such a state in the first place. After all, most of the dynamic elements among the Jewish immigrants had a trade-unionist, socialist, or communist background. More than anyone else in Europe, they had a long experience in fighting oppressive regimes and a tradition of internationalism. Ironically, they also had a long tradition of fighting the specific form of nationalism which existed among European Jews, represented by the then relatively small Zionist movement.

What these Jewish immigrants did not have was a political leadership which was prepared to make the most of their collective experience and abilities, by undertaking the task of fighting for the social interests of the oppressed masses, Jewish or not, in Palestine and beyond. Instead, their leaders, most of whom called themselves "socialists", conceded more and more ground to the Zionist right, in the name of "national unity". This spinelessness was neither coincidental nor disinterested, however. Being reformists, these leaders needed some sort of state machinery in which to play the role of managers of capitalist society. So they undertook to build such a state.

However, these self-proclaimed "socialist" leaders faced a problem: how were they to create a sense of identity strong enough to justify building a separate state, when they were dealing with immigrants who came from all over Europe, who had very little in common, not even a language, except their aspiration to build a new life together. This was like trying to square a circle. But these leaders did square the circle in the end, by turning their backs on the very ideas they had represented. They endorsed the religious justification for the Jews' alleged historical right over Palestine and then religion itself. At the same time they brought back to life biblical Hebrew, the long-disused language of the old religious texts, which became a compulsory subject in all settlers' schools. Thus, half-a-century of struggle by the Jewish socialist movement against religious obscurantism and nationalism was squandered in just a few years by this reformist leadership.

The Israeli population has paid a heavy price for this suicidal policy, and in many different ways. Israel is one of the very few overtly religious states in the world, where access to certain rights is conditional on religious identity. Even a fundamentalist Islamic state like Iran does not have such legal discrimination. And, of course, Israel has lived in a permanent state of war, ever since its inception - a situation which has been used to justify curtailing human rights and political freedoms again and again.

As to Israeli politics, it is and has always been defined with reference to the Palestinian question. Class interests are swept under the carpet by the main political currents in order to promote a "national consensus" over one "solution" or another of the Palestinian question. And since the common denominator of all these "solutions" is the contention that the state of Israel must defend its integrity against Palestinian and Arab "aggressors" and, therefore, remain militarised, differences between the main political currents are wafer thin.

The consensual character of Israeli politics is further reinforced by a political system which insulates the main parties from the pressure of their membership, and in fact even from the need to have one. Indeed any "party" which includes at least 14 of the 120 members of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, gets 100% funding from the state. This has prompted the mushrooming of small sectarian parties, which "sell" themselves to join coalitions with the bigger parties. To make themselves more "marketable", they resort to vocal demagogy aimed at attracting the support of one particular section of the electorate. For instance, there is a specific party claiming to represent Russian-speaking immigrants and, of course, one for each Jewish religious sect. In return for participating in coalitions these parties get a share of the state's funding and even portfolios, if they happen to have chosen the winning coalition ticket.

In their continuous search for partners to form the largest coalition, the two main parties, Labour and Likud, have had the most bizarre bedfellows. So that, since Labour's credit began to wane, after the Yom Kippur war, in 1973, there has been virtually no government without representatives from one or several ultra-religious parties.

This system gives the ultra-religious and far-right parties a political weight which is totally disproportionate to their real influence. But it is a system which is also quite convenient for the leaders of both Likud and Labour, in particular whenever they want to renege on promises they have made to the Palestinians. They simply blame their religious or far-right bedfellows and invoke the need to preserve the integrity of the ruling coalition! Either way, the end result is to pull Israel's policy towards the crassest nationalism, thereby erasing any significant difference between the two main parties.

Sharon's five years in office

Nothing illustrates better the built-in logic of Israeli politics than the developments which took place after Ariel Sharon came to power, in February 2001.

When Sharon and his Likud-led coalition first swept the poll, following the outbreak of the second Intifada, his programme was wrapped in one single slogan - "Peace and security". Of course, talking about "peace" was ironical coming from the man whose provocations had been the trigger of this second Intifada! But in fact, what it really meant was security first - i.e. repression against the Palestinians - and the "peace" of cemeteries for the victims. Sharon's policy was to present himself to the Israeli electorate as the last remaining bulwark against the so-called Palestinian "threat".

Within a year of coming to office, Sharon had launched operation "Defensive Shield" on the West Bank, the largest military operation undertaken by the Israeli army since the invasion of Lebanon. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority were besieged by Sharon's tanks and reduced to paralysis. The official line, now, was that Arafat was ultimately responsible for the wave of suicide attacks against Israel and, as such, the main obstacle to the "peace" promised by Sharon in his election campaign.

Right from the beginning of Sharon's reign, the Labour party gave him its support, in the name of "national unity" against the threat of the Intifada. As if the state of Israel had been threatened by the legions of stone throwing youth who rioted in the Occupied Territories! Nevertheless, it took almost two years before the leadership of the Labour party finally decided to pull out of Sharon's government, in November 2002.

In the subsequent election, Sharon won a second mandate, this time heading a rather strange Likud-led coalition involving Shinui, a secular middle-class party known for its opposition to religious privileges and its campaigns against corruption, and a motley crowd of far-right and ultra-religious parties. In this election the Labour party campaigned on a platform advocating unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Occupied Territories and the building of a defensive barrier separating completely these areas from Israel - in other words, total separation at gunpoint, more or less along the borders defined by the Oslo agreement. Sharon, on the contrary, stuck to his "peace and security" platform, which implied that the Israeli army would remain in full control of the Occupied Territories and no territorial concessions would be made to the Palestinians.

During the subsequent months, the Israeli army stepped up its so-called "targeted" attacks against Palestinian groups - a strategy which was primarily designed to spread terror among the population and discredit the Palestinian groups, which were blamed for these retaliatory attacks. The problem, however, was that despite Sharon's triumphant announcements that terrorism was being eradicated, despite the growing number of Palestinian casualties caused by Israeli missiles, there was no sign of the wave of terrorist attacks slowing down.

The actual failure of Sharon's strategy was the backdrop of his about turn, in December 2003, when he announced his intention to prepare for a possible unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli Army from the Occupied Territories. Of course, this move was not meant to be a concession to the Palestinians, but rather an offensive strategy against them. Its aim was to concentrate all military resources on isolating completely the Palestinian territories from Israel, while integrating the largest settler colonies into Israel. To all intents and purposes, Sharon had hijacked the platform on which the Labour party had stood in the previous election. In fact, the separation wall which was to be built between Israel and the Occupied Territories had already been started under Ehud Barak's Labour administration.

Implementing such a plan was another question. Sharon could not count on the support of his ruling coalition partners. In particular, the smaller ultra-religious and far-right parties, some of which claimed to represent the interests of particular sections of settlers, were vocally opposed to it. Even Sharon's own party was against it, as was shown by the rejection of his plan by Likud's leading body, in May 2004.

This should have left Sharon completely isolated. But it did not. The Israeli left stepped into the vacuum. Not only the Labour party, which joined Sharon's government to replace his former far-right allies, but also Yahad-Meretz, the only significant force to the left of the Labour party in the Knesset. And when Sharon finally submitted his plan to the Knesset for endorsement, in November 2004, he only won the vote thanks to the support of left-wing representatives, while nearly half of his own parliamentary party voted against it.

In the long term, however, Sharon's position as leader of the Likud party was unsustainable, even if he finally managed to win a narrow majority for his plan in a referendum organised among the party's membership. Paradoxically, it was an unexpected change in the Labour party leadership which offered Sharon a way out. In November 2005, the old right-wing leadership of the Labour party was ousted by Amir Peretz, a former general secretary of the trade-union confederation Histadrut and long-term leading figure of the Peace Now movement. Immediately the new Labour leadership instructed all Labour ministers to withdraw from Sharon's government. By the end of the month, Sharon and Shimon Peres had resigned from their respective parties to launch a new party, Kadima (Forward) with a host of politicians, most of whom came from Likud, Labour and Shinui.

But what was most significant about the new party was the fact that its political platform contained absolutely nothing except an endorsement of Sharon's plan. Kadima was the ultimate product of the distorted character of israeli politics.

Dove or butcher?

When, in the summer of 2005, the evacuation of the Gaza Strip began, Sharon became, unquestionably, the first Israeli leader to display enough political will to take on the far-right and even use the army against it. In and of itself, however, this did not change the real nature of his objectives. But it was enough for a large section of the Peace Movement to be lured into supporting Sharon's policy. The launching of Kadima was met with a similar enthusiasm. So, for instance, the main leader of Yahad-Meretz was quoted hailing the new party as a "great victory for those who support the sharing out of the land and a real opportunity for the setting up of a coalition led by the peace movement, involving former Likud members who have understood that for the past 38 years they have deceived the nation and themselves."

Such short-sightedness says a great deal about the culpability of the Israeli left, including those who stand to the left of Labour, in the criminal policies of the Israeli state. Indeed, how can one ever forget who Sharon really is?

It would take far too long to recall all of Sharon's crimes during his long career. Some among them stand out, though. In the 1950s, for instance, Sharon set up the so-called "101 commando", an undercover unit which, for several years, carried out terrorist attacks inside and outside Israel's borders. In Israel, it staged bloody attacks against Palestinian refugees who had taken seriously their alleged right to return to their previous villages. Outside Israel, the commando murdered Palestinian nationalists based in Egypt, in particular. Later, the "101 commando" became the core of Israel's paratroop regiment, with Sharon as its commanding officer.

By the late 1960s, when Sharon was head of southern command, he undertook the systematic physical elimination of known Palestinian nationalist figures, drawing up a list of over 100 names of activists in the Gaza Strip, who were murdered one after the other. In the same period he took the initiative of expelling thousands of Bedouins from the Rafah region at gun point, destroying their villages to ensure that they would never return.

After Sharon finally left the army, in 1973, he was elected to the Knesset as part of a right-wing coalition - which did not prevent Labour prime minister Rabin from appointing him as his security adviser. Finally, in 1977, Sharon was among the initiators of the right-wing coalition which overthrew Labour for the first time in Israel's history and later became the Likud party. As minister of Agriculture in the new government, Sharon became the main artisan of the development of settlements across the Palestinian Occupied Territories - in other words the systematic theft of Palestinian lands as a means to ensure the expansion of Israel.

After being appointed defence minister, in 1981, Sharon was the promoter and organiser of the invasion of Lebanon - including the bloodbath resulting from the siege of Beirut by the Israeli army, which claimed 15,000 lives among Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. In September the same year, after the Palestinian militia had withdrawn from the Lebanese capital, Sharon's soldiers were given the order to allow the far-right Lebanese Phalangist militias into Palestinian refugee camps. This resulted in the infamous massacre of the Sabra and Shatila camps, where 3,000 were killed, mostly women and children, during an orgy of violence, while the officers in the neighbouring Israeli headquarters looked the other way. This latest bloodbath generated such outrage, even in Israel, that an official enquiry had to be set up, forcing Sharon to resign from government the following year.

The war waged by Sharon against the Palestinians since he came back to power, in 2001, has been less spectacular than the invasion of Lebanon, but no less terrible for the Palestinians. Heavy weapons, including tanks and airborne ammunition, were used for the first time against high-density urban concentrations of people in the Occupied Territories. Entire areas were reduced to rubble by Sharon's bombings, killing many families who had nothing to do with terrorism and destroying what little water, sewage and electricity infrastructure there was, in a country where access to water is a matter of life or death.

Meanwhile, new Jewish settlements were emerging everywhere while existing ones where spreading even further, by absorbing neighbouring Palestinian land. Of the hundreds of so-called "outposts", scattered all over the West Bank, which were supposed to be dismantled according to the "Road Map" endorsed by Sharon, not one was actually dismantled.

With such a record, it should have been clear to anyone that any idea that Sharon had turned into a dove who was prepared to concede the Palestinians' right to have their own land, let alone their own state, was pure self-deception!

Behind the evacuation of Gaza

So what are the reasons and objectives behind the evacuation of the Gaza Strip?

To begin with, there is one reason that can definitely be discarded. This evacuation does not reflect the Israeli army's inability to handle the situation. Of course, Hamas has argued that the evacuation of Gaza was, like in the Lebanon, the direct consequence of the armed resistance.

But Gaza is not Lebanon. Israel needed to occupy southern Lebanon to prevent the Palestinian resistance from using this country as a logistical base. If the Israeli army was forced to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000, following the Hizbollah offensive, it was because it would have been untenable for the government to send in more troops when Israeli public opinion was against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the first place. And without sending more troops, the Israeli government did not stand a chance of reducing the fighting power of Hizbollah.

Compared to the Lebanon, the Gaza Strip is a tiny territory with no strategic importance. It can be easily and completely sealed off from Israel without having to deploy more resources. The electrified fence that surrounds the Strip has proved effective enough to stop any circulation in and out of Gaza and if need be, the buffer zone surrounding this fence can be enlarged in order to protect Israel from rocket attacks launched from Gaza.

The only obstacle to the evacuation was the presence of 7,000 or so Jewish settlers. And, as we saw last August, despite the vociferous threats of the Israeli religious and far-right parties, it took less than a month for the Israeli army to remove the settlers, without this resulting in more than a few bruises.

The extraordinary cost of guaranteeing the security of the settlers has been often quoted as one of the reasons for the evacuation. There is probably some truth in this. It was estimated that guaranteeing the protection of each settler in the Gaza Strip required the permanent presence of 3 to 4 Israeli soldiers. Factoring in the cost of the maintenance and equipment of these 20-30,000 soldiers, plus the cost of the system of protected roads linking the settlements between them, the Gaza Strip must have represented a disproportionate burden on the Israeli military budget - although the actual figure has never been disclosed. In any case it was certainly not for nothing that the option of withdrawing from Gaza had been examined by a number of Israeli governments long before Sharon finally acted upon it.

But the main reason for this evacuation was political. It was designed to buy time and make it easier for the Israeli state to integrate larger parts of the West Bank into Israel, while shelving indefinitely the issue of an independent Palestinian state.

Sharon made no secret of it when he promised that Israel's "vital interests East of Jerusalem will not be affected" - which was coded language for saying that the evacuation was a means of perpetuating the status quo to the advantage of Israel. One of his main advisers, Dov Weisglass, was even more explicit when he said in a newspaper interview: "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda." And Weisglass concluded: "The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."

And in fact, these objectives are the building blocks on which Sharon's legacy, the new Kadima party, is built. The main point of its "national agenda" first reaffirms its Zionist stance. Then it goes on to develop its views on how Israel can retain its identity: "However, in order to maintain a Jewish majority, part of the land of Israel must be given up to maintain a Jewish and democratic state. Israel shall remain a Jewish state and homeland. A Jewish majority in Israel will be preserved by territorial concessions to Palestinians." But, adds, Kadima, "Jerusalem and large settlement blocks in the West Bank will be kept under Israeli control." Finally, as a sop to the Israeli state's western sponsors, Kadima reaffirms its endorsement of the "road map", "carried out in stages", adding that "at the end of the process, a demilitarised Palestinian state, devoid of terror will be established."

The first part of this agenda could not be clearer: not only will the Swiss Cheese model of the Oslo agreement be preserved, but the part of the cheese left to the Palestinians will be even smaller and it will not include Jerusalem, regardless of its 200,000 Palestinian inhabitants. It also indicates clearly that there is no question of recognising the right of Palestinians to live on their own land, let alone their right of return (which only applies to religious Jews).

As to the final objective of a Palestinian state, it is postponed to a distant future as a "demilitarised Palestinian state". But, of course, there is no question of a demilitarisation of the Israeli state! So that this Palestinian state, if it is ever formed, will only be allowed to play second or third fiddle, without the right to have its own army, in the shadow of its Israeli master! Or, to put it another way, it will be at best a reserve of manpower for Israeli capitalists, where they will be able to find workers or send them back at will, without any risk of social conflict in Israel itself. And all this under the pretext of preserving the ethnic or religious purity of Israel. Once again, we are back to an Israeli version of the old apartheid model.

What about the Israeli population?

As was said earlier, Israeli politics have always been distorted by the Palestinian question, leaving little or no space for the class interests of the exploited to be expressed. This does not mean, however, that these class interests do not exist, nor that they cannot find a voice.

Opinion poll after opinion poll shows that Israeli public opinion supports some form of political settlement with the Palestinians. How could it be otherwise? Who would want to live in a permanent state of war forever? Who would not wish for an end to the compulsory military service which is imposed on all Jewish Israelis - 3 years for men and 2 years for women? Who would not prefer an end to the horror in which these young people are made to take part? Not to mention the constant threat of terrorist attacks on Israeli territory.

It is not for nothing if there is a significant opposition to the state's aggressive policy - ranging from purely pacifist groups which advocate refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories, to groups supporting the Palestinians' demands. However, the fact is that this opposition remains largely the preserve of a petty-bourgeoisie which is more concerned with abstract moral principles than living realities, let alone class interests. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Israeli working class, which would have the collective strength to change the course of events, remains neutral, seeing no choice but to follow politicians who promise them "peace and security", in one shape another.

And yet, after the Palestinians, Israeli workers pay the largest share of the cost of this militarised society, with their blood and their low standard of living. The cost of the war to the state has reached enormous proportions, despite the considerable military aid it gets from its American mentor. This has weighed heavily on the economy and, already, by the early 1980s, the welfare system which was always taken for granted in Israel started being slowly eroded. In fact the same process of transfer of income from the poor to the rich, which took place under Thatcher in Britain and in other industrialised countries in the 1980s-90s, also took place in Israel. But given the additional burden of the military mobilisation, it had a far more drastic effect. By 1999, Israel had become one of the most unequal societies among the industrialised countries.

Sharon's era, which opened shortly after the stock market crash of the "high-tech" economy, in 2000, accelerated this process. For all his populist demagogy, Sharon remained the far-right general he was and his allies were mostly prominent members of business circles. Soon, drastic wage, pension and job cuts were announced among public employees - which account for over 40% of employment - together with similar cuts in welfare payments. As a result, since 2002, the Histadrut union confederation, which is not normally noted for its militancy, has felt obliged to call general strikes at least once a year in the state sector over such cuts.

One example provides a graphic illustration of what the financial choices of the Sharon government have meant for many workers in public services. In 2004, dozens of local councils found themselves faced with bankruptcy when the government decided suddenly on a huge cut in their grants. By September that year, 57 councils employing 18,000 workers had not paid them any wages for many months, while another 17 councils were already two months in arrears.

In fact, poverty has spread rapidly. And while Arab workers are certainly far worse off, on average, than their Jewish counterparts, poverty and unemployment does not respect religious or ethnic barriers. It is estimated today that almost 25% of the Israeli population (not counting immigrant workers) live below the poverty line and homelessness is on the increase. From 2003, when Sharon introduced his most drastic series of cuts, there have been regular protests against the rise of poverty, in the form of permanent tent villages set up in main avenues in the centres of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, near government agency buildings.

In fact, there is a link between the falling standard of living of the majority of the population and the development of settlements in the Occupied Territories. As a survey of settlements published by the Israeli daily Haaretz pointed out, "the ultra-Orthodox make up a third of the (settlers) population of the Territories. But most of them are living there for one reason only, which has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with the severe shortage of affordable housing within the Green Line (ie in Israel)." And what is true of the ultra-religious must be even more true of other settlers!

This poverty does not only affect the large number of unemployed. In a recent interview, the new Labour leader Amir Peretz admitted that "30% of the workers today earn less than 2000 shekels per month (£225). As a result we have seen the creation of a new class of the working poor, who work full-time, usually in difficult conditions, and earn a salary which would not suffice to support even a single person for a month, let alone to support a family." Meanwhile there are regular protests staged by pensioners to demand that their right to free health insurance, which was cut in the last round of austerity measures, be restored.

The Israeli working class has clearly nothing to do with the privileged parasites that Islamic fundamentalists and Palestinian nationalists often describe. It has a sense of its class interests and every reason to want to shake the instrument of oppression into which history has turned Israeli society. What it does not have is a political voice to express its class interests and a policy of its own to join ranks with the Palestinian masses in order to resolve the Palestinian question once and for all.

Breaking out of the Middle East prison

Judging from the opinion polls carried out in Israel, Kadima looks set to come into office in the coming March election. Whether Kadima will carry on with Sharon's policy remains to be seen. Its leaders lack the populist credit that Sharon had and they may not have the political will to confront the far-right and ultra-religious when necessary. But, assuming they do carry on with Sharon's policy, there will be no let up in the on-going war against the Palestinian groups.

Sharon's policy implied two preconditions in order to be successful. One was a weak Palestinian leadership - which was what he achieved, with Bush's help, when Mahmoud Abbbas replaced Arafat at the head of the Palestinian Authority. The other precondition was to cow the Palestinian Authority into keeping its house in order, ie policing the order imposed by the Israeli state on its behalf - something that Abbas was willing to do, but incapable of delivering.

The victory of Hamas in the recent elections changed the way the problem is posed. Whereas Hamas is probably capable of and will do its best to police the Palestinian population, it is not weak enough to abide by Israel's diktat, in any case not without substantial concessions in return. The odds are, therefore, that the future Israeli government will increase the pressure on Hamas at gun point and isolate it physically as much as possible from the rest of the world.

This means that, once again, the populations, both in Israel and in Palestine, will remain hostages of the tit-for-tat between the military apparatuses on both sides.

None of the main Israeli or Palestinian political forces has ever displayed the political will to act in order to break open the gates of the prison in which the two populations are jailed. And to a large extent this lack of political will only reflects the fact that these forces are first and foremost respectful of the imperialist world order which has given birth to the present situation in the Middle East. The mainstream Israeli parties have, for a long time, accepted the role of policing the Middle East on behalf of imperialism. While on their part, the Palestinian nationalists and their Islamic rivals are bidding to be recognised as the warden of the Palestinian masses.

Yet, the population of Israel has nothing to gain from the despoiling of the Palestinians - there is more than enough space for both populations to coexist and make a decent life in Palestine. Nor can the Israeli masses gain anything from the state terrorism of Israeli governments - if only because it will backfire on them, the day they decide to defend their social interests in earnest.

As to the Palestinian masses, they have nothing to gain from individual terrorism, which alienates their potential allies in Israel and only serves to justify the terrorism of the Israeli state. They have already experienced in a dramatic way the dead end of a nationalism which was dressed in secular and progressive clothes. Nationalism dressed in Islamic clothes can only be worse, if only because, by definition, it leaves the masses with no rights, except those of abiding by the diktats of reactionary clerics.

In Israel as well as in Palestine, the future will belong to those who look towards it, not to those who look back to the past. Among both populations there must be men and women who realise that the growing poverty in Israel and the permanent poverty among the Palestinians can and should provide a link between the two populations. And that this link could pave the way for an understanding between the two populations, on equal terms, and with the working classes and poor of the whole region. These people may be only a small minority today, but they hold in their hands the future of this region.