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What hope for Gaza?

Destruction in Gaza after Israeli bombardment, part of Operation Pillar of Defense Date	by Scott BobIn 1993 the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat shook hands on the lawn of the White House to seal the deal of the Oslo Accords (Oslo I). The terms of the accord were vague but gave rise to hope and received support from both Palestinians and Israelis. The accord envisaged an agreement leading to a “final status” solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict within five years.

In 1995 negotiations in Egypt (Taba) tried to put flesh on the bones of Oslo I (the result being referred to as Oslo II). This divided Palestinian territories into a series of regions most of which were controlled by Israel. It also set up the Palestinian Authority for which Yassar Arafat was elected as the President.

A series of minor accords were agreed in the following years while the main issues still remained unresolved. This led to the Camp David II talks in 2000 which resulted in a failure to agree and was the effective end of attempts to reach a negotiated settlement. Fourteen years on Gaza and the West Bank are still blockaded and  the Palestinians have been left high and dry and with no serious pressure on Israel to end its occupation.

The Government of Israel rejects the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations for a Palestinian state. But it doesn’t want a single state solution either. This rejection of Palestinian rights is all of a piece with the continuous extensions of illegal settlements on the West Bank and setting up new ones.

On top of all this the Palestinians have not been well-blessed in terms of political leadership. The Palestinian leader from 1967 to 2004 was Yasser Arafat who, in the words of the late Fred Halliday

…proved to be a disastrous political and military strategist, leading his people into catastrophic wars in Jordan (1970-1) and Lebanon (1975-82), while at the same time building his organisational base around cronyism, corruption, intimidation and manipulation of popular feeling. … After his return from exile in 1994 he built a ramshackle factional, kleptocratic and oppressive state, a pale replica of the worst of Arab nationalism of the 1950s. (100 Myths About the Middle East, Saqi, 2005)

Given the above it was all but inevitable that there would at some point be an Islamist protest against the secular Fatah party lead by Arafat. This finally expressed itself in support for Hamas which won the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 2005 taking 76 of the 132 seats. In 2006 Fatah/Hamas rivalry led to the battle of Gaza in which Hamas took control of the area. Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president declared a national emergency, dismissed the Hamas. No elections to the PLC have been held since then.

Gaza now

The Oslo accords foundered because they were undermined by a combination of uncompromising opposition on both sides and international (Western) opposition to a Hamas government. Now, more than a decade later, Israeli troops have been withdrawn from Gaza as have Jewish settlements. However, Israel controls the Gazan borders and shoreline and maintains constant surveillance with drones. Gaza is under a strict blockade. The tunnels from Gaza to Egypt have either been destroyed by the Israelis or flooded by the Egyptian military (keen to prevent Islamists from Gaza from entering Egypt).

The net result is that the 1.8 million inhabitants of Gaza live in a gigantic prison with ever diminishing hope of an end to their misery. A detailed description of the psychological and political impacts of the Israeli blockade is given by Sara Helm in an article entitled Isis in Gaza in the current (14th January) edition of the New York Review of Books. Sara Helm was the Middle East Correspondent of The Independent and has based her article on her most recent visit to Gaza.

Sara Helm tells of the growing influence of ISIS in Gaza which is in open conflict with Hamas.

In recent months, Hamas has tried to crush groups of Salafi jihadists in Gaza, some of whom declare open support for ISIS and are in touch with its networks in Syria.

The ISIS backed groups condemn Hamas members as infidels because they place the battle for a Palestinian state before the campaign for a caliphate. They point to

Hamas’s willingness to negotiate with Israel and to agree to a cease-fire last summer was seen by ISIS as the latest demonstration of its collaboration. ISIS supporters inside Gaza have shown their opposition and tried to break the cease-fire by firing rockets into Israel, thereby angering Hamas and risking heavy Israeli retaliation.

The beginnings of what was to become ISIS in Gaza go back to the 1970s when small numbers of Gazans adopted the ultra-conservative Salafist interpretation of Islam. Salafist fortunes fell to a low ebb by 1999 but then experienced a revival across the Muslim world, including Gaza. Its focal point in Gaza is the the Ibn Baz Institute (named after the chief Saudi Cleric 1993-1999). It is kept going by Saudi donations.

Over the years the hopeless situation of the Gazans has moved many of them from support for the secular but corrupt Fatah to the Islamist but often pragmatic Hamas. Now, as hopes for a decent settlement with Israel on a final settlement have disappeared from view the plight of the young is pushing many into the arms of ISIS.

Sara Helm spoke to young people who spoke to her of a life with no prospect, no work, no glamour and no hope. She described the sight of a boy in a motorized wheelchair moving across a wasteland

He was paralysed from the waist down, shot in the back by an Israeli sniper. His wheelchair had been bought by the Salafists at the Ibn Baz Institute …

A Palestinian child psychologist explained the terrible trauma of the experience encirclement and occupation by Israeli from one generation to the next. The current generation which had grown up under the collapse of the Oslo accords and then the violent Hamas-Israeli wars was, he said, suffering more than any other:

They have a feeling of helplessness. They can’t trust anyone to help—not the politicians, not their own parents who couldn’t even protect them in the wars or stop the destruction of their homes. And they see in the foreign media that everyone here in Gaza—themselves included—is lumped together as terrorists. We have no answer for them. This creates a sense of helplessness. In these circumstances the young may regress to more primitive levels.

On reading Sara Helm’s account of conditions in Gaza and the growth of support for ISIS, I was struck with how little this looked like the picture of Western success in defeating it claimed by Hilary Benn in his absurdly vaunted House of Commons speech calling for the British support for bombing in Syria. Benn said:

It has been argued in the debate that air strikes achieve nothing. Not so. Look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq. The House will remember that, 14 months ago, people were saying: ‘they are almost at the gates of Baghdad’. And that is why we voted to respond to the Iraqi government’s request for help to defeat them. Look at how their military capacity and their freedom of movement has been put under pressure.

Just how wrong-headed this estimate is can be easily established by looking at time sequenced maps of ISIS’s territorial control and areas of free movement. But beyond that is the equally important question of what doesn’t show up on such maps: the way in which the violence and lack of hope for peaceful solutions is driving large numbers of people to opt for the false promises of the most extreme groups. The politics of diplomacy and negotiation is seen to have failed. The failure of Europe and the US to put sufficient pressure on the Israelis to negotiate meaningfully with the Palestinians is driving young people into the arms of ISIS.

How should Labour react?

It is well known that Jeremy Corbyn takes the line of opening dialogues with all major players in the Middle East conflict. He has also been proved right repeatedly on major issues concerning the region. Labour is officially opposed to the illegal Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank but has not so far adopted policies that make this more than a pious wish (even the US officially opposes the settlements). During the campaign for Labour leadership Corbyn questioned the appropriateness of selling arms to Israel and buying Israeli goods from occupied territories (the other three candidates, by contrast, declared their solidarity with Israel).

Labour’s official position is as declared in the 2015 Election Manifesto (support for a two-state solution, a secure Israel alongside a viable and independent state of Palestine plus a call for a return to meaningful negotiations). Worthy though this is it is abundantly clear that the current Israeli government has no intention of reaching a settlement, preferring the constant incremental change of ‘facts on the ground’ by increasing the number of Israeli settlers on Palestinian land. This will not change without strong pressure from Europe and above all the US. Labour should condemn Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza in much more forthright terms. It should argue for an arms embargo on Israel while the occupation continues as well as considering ways of blocking Israeli goods from the occupied territories.

Image credit: Destruction in Gaza after Israeli bombardment, part of Operation Pillar of Defense Date by Scott Bob

15 Comments

  1. Bazza says:

    I once went to an adult education conference in Tunisia many years ago and to our surprise the guest speaker was Yasser Arafat, and all the elite male leadership of Fatah and their wives turned up and took the first few rows, and it was embarrassing.
    The wives were dripping in diamonds, as thousands of Palestinians lived in squalor in refugee camps.
    But Right Wing Hamas was clever; they got in amongst the poor, offering succour, and slowly winning hearts and minds.
    On the Fatah side you also probably had the negative influence of the top down undemocratic Stalinist USSR inculcating them with bad practice.
    And of course Israel wouldn’t last 5 minutes (who supplied the drones?) without US economic and particularly military support, but perhaps they do their job for Westen capital as a buffer zone, dividing Arab nations.
    We perhaps with others in the World need to put pressure on the US and Israel but I have come round to a one state solution; as an elderly Palestinian man recently said (and he had seen it all), “We need to learn how to share the land.”
    So yes pressure from progressive forces from without.
    But what hope for Gaza?
    From within perhaps from left wing democratic forces (including trade unions) on both sides and a small Arab progressive party did gain some representation in the Knesset which is a sign of hope against a right wing ruling coalition – although sadly right wing Israeli Labour aren’t much better.
    The US unquestioning support for Israel needs challenging or perhaps they may still suffer from collective guilt.
    I highly recommend a brilliant article on Israel in the latest New Left Review and there is some revealing stuff on how some right wing Zionists staggeringly actually agreed with the Nazi’s over racial purity and some of the stuff on right wing Zionists by a Jewish writer is a must read and is quite shocking.
    But I have always belived that Zionism is dillusional; putting it into a modern context they are perhaps almost like some Millwall fans who think everyone hates us but we believe we are special; when of course there will be many good Jewish people and some bad (like all populations in all countries) and Jewish people are equal and similar – no better and no worse.
    So the hope for me is left wing democratic socialist (peaceful) forces – pressure from without to counter the powerful but perhaps most fundamentally – pressure from within.
    Yours in peace, hope, and equality!

  2. Bazza says:

    Footnote and don’t forget the anti-semetic American Henry Ford let the Nazi’s keep all of the profits from Ford’s in Germany to fund rallies (as other capitalists funded planes and gave money) to the Nazi’s to give the Nazi thugs and murderers spectaculars as part of the propaganda to con the German middle class, rich (and some of the working class) as well as many from rural areas who were frightened of communism.
    The same capitalists all achieved record profits out of the war.
    Left wing democratic socialist forces are needed indeed! Peace & Solidarity!

  3. Chris says:

    No hope, ever. We all know that.

    1. Bazza says:

      And you speak for all.
      I have faith in working class/working people.

  4. Zenobia van Dongen says:

    A Leitmotiv of this article is the claim that Gazans prefer Islamism (Hamas, ISIS) to Arab nationalism (PLO) because the latter is corrupt, etc. I consider this claim fatuous in the extreme, because Islamism is a political current that has prospered throughout the Moslem world regardless of local political and economic conditions.
    Some 20 years ago, NATO, led by the USA, backed Bosnian Mohammedans against Russophile Bosnian Serbs. Since then many Bosnian terrorists have been arrested in the US. Were they Bosnian Serbs who resented American intervention? No, they were Bosnian Mohammedans who utterly ignored US intervention. Their motives were religious, not nationalistic.
    This instinctive urge to read nation-based and rational Western thought patterns into Moslem minds is a veritable scourge of Western commentators on islam, and utterly lacks any scientific basis. It is a purely ideological schema, a Procrustean bed compulsively imposed, willy-nilly, on whatever events the author happens to be discussing.
    Similarly, not long ago Thomas Piketty triumphantly proclaimed the bromide that Moslem terrorism is caused by unemployment and inequality.
    The stubborn refusal by Western intellectuals to acknowledge that Moslem religious ideology is itself the root cause of most Moslem extremism and terrorism is a truly dismal instance of wilful ignorance of history, which condemns us to repeat same ad nauseam.
    Stephen Coughlin, an American expert on Islamic law, wrote an erudite treatise stuffed with quotations from dozens of Moslem thinkers from different epochs, called “To our great detriment: Ignoring what extremists say about jihad” (available online), in which he persuasively argues that the root cause of Moslem terrorism is purely religious in nature. Saying so cost him his job at the Pentagon, because such thoughts are ruthlessly suppressed by the Islamophile Western establishment.

    1. David Pavett says:

      (1) It is not a “leitmotiv” of this article that “Gazans prefer Islamism”. It is not even a momentary theme. I simply say no such thing. What I did say is that the oppressive conditions under which Gazans live is forcing some of them into the arms of ISIS.

      (2) I did not say Arab nationalism is corrupt. I am not even sure what that would mean. I said that Fatah was corrupt.

      (3) You claim that “Islamism has prospered throughout the Moslem world regardless of local political and economic conditions” is without foundation. We have seen a rise in Islamist fortunes as a result of both the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the US/UK intervention in Iraq, Lybia, Syria. The idea that any ideology, let alone Islamism, can flourish irrespective of local political and economic conditions is not one that will bear much examination.

      (4) I have no “instinctive urge to read nation-based and rational Western thought patterns into Moslem minds”. I am even doubtful that their is such a thing as a “Moslem mind”. I know many Muslims and their minds are far from working in the same way. That’s anecdotal but one can make the same claim from reading the views of Muslims around the world.

      (5) Terrorism is clearly given fertile grounds for development by oppressive regimes as we know from Northern Ireland. The same thing can be observed around the world. This has nothing specifically to do with Muslims but Muslims are subject to the same reality that oppression and hopelessness ultimately breed violence.

      (6) I have no “stubborn refusal” to acknowledge that the some forms of the Muslim religion can contribute to extremism and terrorism. On the other hand I do not believe that it is the “root cause” of those phenomena. If explosive material is allowed to accumulate then it can be set off by all sorts of incidental things including nutty religious views. The influence of the latter is, however, a reflex rather than a root cause.

      I am no friend of Islam. As a non-believer I think that all religions are a drag on social development and clear thinking. However, it seems to me clear that your anti-Islam stance is so strong that it is making you take extreme positions in oppositions to Islamic extremists. I readily agree that world in which Islam is dominant as its own problems whatever the West does. I accept too that Islam is a part of those problems. On the other hand millions of so-called Muslims like millions of so-called Christians don’t take their religious all that seriously. They do so when they feel their backs are against the wall, that they are in the line of fire, that their conditions are oppressive and when they are made to feel that they are being picked on because of their (vague) adherence to Islam.

      Islam, like any other religion, has plenty of completely nutty beliefs which in certain circumstances will rise to the surface. It is those circumstances which are the root cause and which allow the nutty beliefs to become active.

    2. James Martin says:

      You are laughably wrong on a number of counts. First, is there a basis of political reaction in a religious ideology? Yes, of course, but don’t stop at Muslims, also look at the Jewish racist/fascist right in Israel, look at the racist/fascist groups using Christianity as their justification (from the KKK to Breivik), look at the racist/fascist tendencies at work in extreme Hindu nationalism in India, look at the far-right racist Buddhist monks who led pogroms against Muslims in Burma recently. But then where does that leave you? That any religious ideology and religious text (even Buddhist ones) can be turned to violent political ends. And so for your anti-Islam argument to have any legs you need to explain why out of 1.6 billion Muslims world-wide only a very tiny percentage have been attracted to political jihadism, because if you ask that question you will get the same answer as you do for all the millions of Jews and Christians who do not follow the extreme racist violence advocated in the Old Testament/Torah. And once you have done that and cast off your own reactionary outlook you can then begin to work out why it is that there was a political vacuum in the first place for millions of poor and working class Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East as a result of betrayals and oppression from middle class secular movements like Pan-Arab Ba-athism (founded by a Fabian incidentally but that’s another story!) and from an out of touch middle class Fatah leadership in the secular PLO and also betrayal by the Stalinist Communist parties whose policies often disarmed independent working class organisation and who left the door open to groups like Hamas and worse. In other words these are political questions not religious ones.

  5. David Ellis says:

    Zionism is little more than a Nazi tribute act with its endless search for lebensraum at the expense of the already existent population and its use of settler shock troops to achieve its expansionary aims. It may appear opposed to Islamism but it is in actual fact identical using terror and piggy-backing on a religion to push its violent sectarian message. What it has done to the people of Gaza and the Palestinians in general will go down in human history as one of the great crimes facilitated by the hypocritical Western liberal imperialists.

    But what is the solution. The neo-Stalinist left, the same left that supports Assad and Putin, supports collaboration with the Zionists via Fatah and its support for the bogus Zionist two state peace lie as if a ghetto and a bantustan could ever be regarded as a nation. In actual fact, absent Zionism and imperialism the Palestinian National Democratic Revolution would be aimed precisely against the hostile class forces gathered behind the Bantu bosses of Fatah and of course the Ghetto Gangsters of Hamas. The first precondition for Palestinian liberation and indeed the liberation of the Jewish working class from the Zionist yoke is for a Palestinian leadership that will break from the bogus peace process and reject the two state lie. It must stand for a unified (Israel, West Bank, Gaza) Palestine in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and those of no faith can live in harmony and to which the refugees can return to new jobs and homes. Only this prospect can create the unity of Palestinian and Jewish workers can than effect the overthrow of the Israeli Empire.

    1. David Pavett says:

      For David Ellis we have on the one side Zionist Nazi tirbute act and other side the Puttin-Assad supporting neo-Stalinists. He thinks that a two-state solution is a bogus Zionist plan. If you kick off with this sort of political verbiage your mind is unlikely to be able to penetrate beyond the labels to the reality. And so it proves to be in David’s case.

      Instead he wants a unified state equally open to Jews, Muslims, Christians and those of no faith. Wouldn’t we all? But in the meantime back in the real world the likelihood of this is zero and the Palestinians continue to suffer Israeli occupation. Maybe one day a unified state will be formed. Maybe one day Ireland will be united. Maybe one day in very different conditions to those existing Europe will become a federal state. All these things are possible. But while discussing such far-off possibilities immediate problems have to be solved and for the Palestinians this means having their own viable state free from Israeli control.

      1. David Ellis says:

        In the meantime you’ll keep propping up the disgusting Fatah regime in the West Bank Bantustan and the disgusting Hamas regime in the Gaza Ghetto because there really is no alternative. The situation demands treachery.

        1. David Pavett says:

          What?

  6. swatantra says:

    It’ll remain a bombsite because both Arabs and Israelis want to keep it that way. In which case Aid from the UN and NGOs and Charities will continue to flood in. And the Jewish Lobby will keep topping up Israel’s war chest.
    Doesn’t it make you sick.

    1. David Pavett says:

      I had hoped that we might move beyond “Doesn’t it make you sick”? (yes it does) to the political position that we think Labour could and should take.

      1. swatantra says:

        Dave, there is no solution other than International Community dismantle Israeli brick by brick and admit that the idea was a collossal mistake. Until they are man enough to do it, there is no solution, and we are stuck with another 100 years War.

        1. David Pavett says:

          Your proposal is that Labour Policy should call for dismantling Israel brick by brick because the original idea was a big mistake.

          I somehow think that is not going to make it through any conceivable policy process. To be frank this is sounding off which does not relate to real politics i.e. dealing with existing realities.

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