Gaza: a politics of carnage and chaos

Issue: 182

Joseph Choonara

The next stage in Israel’s brutal war on Gaza hung in the balance as International Socialism went to press.1 Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had approved plans for a ground offensive against the southernmost Gazan city of Rafah, where 1.5 million displaced Palestinians have sought refuge.

Meanwhile, the United States appeared to have lost patience with its ally over its failure to agree a ceasefire. It is easy to point out the hypocrisy of US president Joe Biden, and his counterparts in Britain and elsewhere in Europe who have armed and encouraged Netanyahu. Describing the Israeli campaign as “over the top”, as Biden did in February, begs the question of how many thousands of Palestinian children it would have been appropriate to butcher.

Some of the shift in his rhetoric, like that of Labour leader, Keir Starmer, appears to reflect electoral considerations, with general elections approaching on both sides of the Atlantic. Most Democratic voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of the conflict. In the battleground state of Michigan, over 100,000 Democrats voted “uncommitted” in primaries to choose the party’s candidate, refusing to back Biden’s re-election bid. Anger is especially concentrated among Arab Americans, Muslims, the young and black people.2

Growing global discontent over Palestine is hardly surprising. This is, after all, a genocide being conducted in plain sight. Alongside those already dead, currently estimated at over 30,000, starvation and disease now run rife. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), which classifies food insecurity for governments and NGOs, reported that in projections for early February:

The entire population of the Gaza Strip…is classified…Phase 3 or above (“Crisis or worse”). This is the highest share…of acute food insecurity that the IPC initiative has ever classified for any given area or country.

Half of this population was in Phase 4 (“Emergency”); a quarter of households in Phase 5 (“Catastrophe”).3 According to the World Health Organization, children in the north of the Gaza Strip have already begun starving to death, with a further 10-13 percent suffering acute malnutrition. Across Gaza, it reported 388,206 cases of respiratory infection, 218,358 cases of diarrhoea, and 75,864 cases of scabies and lice.4

Imperial tensions

The concerns belatedly expressed by the Biden administration reflect not simply electoral calculus but also the challenges of imperial governance. Here some perspective is needed. Despite the shifting rhetoric, the political establishment in the US remains staunchly pro-Israel.5

Nonetheless, there are real tensions expressed by both sides in this relationship, with Israeli leaders responding sharply to even muted criticisms from Biden and allies such as Democrat Senate leader Chuck Schumer, who warned that “the Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel”. A spokesperson for Netanyahu’s Likud party, cautioning the US not to interfere in the country’s domestic politics, replied, “Israel is not a banana republic”.6

Contrast the situation today with that during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.7 The US and its then president Ronald Reagan supported the invasion, including the months-long encirclement and bombardment of Beirut by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). However, on 12 August, when Israel began an intensified aerial bombing campaign of West Beirut, Reagan called Israel’s prime minister, Menachem Begin, demanding he end the assault. Reagan would, in a deliberate provocation, describe it as a “holocaust”. Begin later expressed anger at the intervention but complied; bombing ceased within hours. A few months later, Reagan reiterated the US’s “pledge to the security of Israel and…our friendship with Israel”.8

This “friendship” had been cemented in 1967, with the Six-Day War convincing Washington that balancing between Israel and various Arab regimes to maintain its hegemony could not continue. It now began funnelling aid towards its new ally. Israel, in return, became its “watchdog”: sometimes straining at the leash, but essentially protecting imperialist interests in the region, and usually accepting the broad contours of US policy.9 Both Reagan and his successor, George H W Bush, although supporting Israeli aggression, occasionally threatened to suspend military and economic aid or allow the UN to pass resolutions critical of Israel. In 1991, Bush withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees to pressure Israel to delay the building of settlements so he could secure peace talks with the Palestinian leaders.10 Biden’s predecessors operated from a position of strength, in a sometimes conflictual relationship that was nonetheless regarded as benefiting each party.

Compare this with the current occupant of the White House, who, asked if there were a “red line” with Netanyahu, replied, “The defence of Israel is still critical. So, there’s no red line [where] I’m going to cut off all weapons so they don’t have the Iron Dome [air defence system] to protect them”.11

Increasingly, Israel has come to assert its own interests even when they destabilise those of its more powerful ally. As Anne Alexander explores in her article in this issue of International Socialism, this reflects the extent to which Israel has, after decades of economic support from the US, increasingly established itself as an independent centre of capital accumulation. Moreover, Israel is one of a series of regional sub-imperialisms, alongside Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran, that are seeking to reorder the region in the context of the relative decline of US hegemony. Israel’s ever-more aggressive stance is intensified by its domestic politics, specifically the ascendancy of the far-right strand of Zionism within Israeli politics.12

Biden’s equivocations reflect US efforts to manage an increasingly chaotic global order. The latest Annual Threat Assessment by the US intelligence services cites the Gaza conflict as an example of the unfolding disorder, noting:

During the next year, the US faces an increasingly fragile global order strained by accelerating strategic competition among major powers, more intense and unpredictable transnational challenges, and multiple regional conflicts with far-reaching implications. An ambitious but anxious China, a confrontational Russia, some regional powers, such as Iran, and the more capable non-state actors are challenging longstanding rules of the international system as well as US primacy within it.13

There are few clearer expressions of the contradictions at work than the sight of the US airdropping token amounts of food for starving Palestinians, while its Israeli ally drops bombs made and funded by the US on the very same population. The same goes for US plans to construct a temporary pier to allow food aid to be shipped to Gaza. Why does the US not use its enormous leverage to pressure Israel, or for that matter Egypt, to allow aid through the land borders into Gaza?

This contradictory approach goes hand in hand with endless repetition of the fantasy of Palestinian statehood by US politicians, echoed by British foreign secretary David Cameron and his counterparts around Europe. Yet, it is clear that no basis for a two-state solution exists: Israel has never had any interest in granting Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu’s recent statement rejecting such an outcome simply confirms what most observers already knew.14

Resisting Israeli aggression

Netanyahu has described his goal in Gaza as “total victory”: eliminating the threat from Hamas.15 This is far from being achieved. Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into Israel has diminished, and much of its governance infrastructure is buried under the rubble, but relatively few of its leaders have been killed. Indeed, areas of northern Gaza, claimed to be under IDF control, have had to be recaptured recently as Hamas units have re-emerged.

Surviving, rather than repelling, the Israeli onslaught would constitute a victory for Hamas. As one former official in Israel’s Shin Bet security agency put it, “Let’s assume that all of Gaza lies in ruins, and someone will stand there left from Hamas, a wounded soldier, and will raise a Hamas flag—they’ve won the war”.16 Moreover, the carnage will likely provide a fertile ground from which Hamas can replenish its ranks in the longer term.

However, if Israel seeks to extend the conflict to try to achieve “total victory”, it risks a regional war drawing in states such as Lebanon and Iran, and further destabilising others such as Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen—precisely as feared by Washington, London and Brussels. A recent threat by Egypt to withdraw from its 1979 treaty with Israel is almost certainly bluster, given the regime’s reliance on US support, but it does demonstrate the impact the war is having on the only state other than Israel that borders Gaza. Egypt’s rulers fear new eruptions over the country’s deepening economic crisis fusing with anger over their inaction on Gaza. Hastily arranged aid, loan facilities and foreign investment from the European Union, International Monetary Fund and Emirati government appear to be a panicked attempt to buttress the regime.

In Yemen, the Houthis’ campaign to disrupt shipping through the Red Sea, a central artery of the global trade system, has already demonstrated that the war cannot be contained within Palestine. In response, half of the shipping passing through the Suez Canal has been re-routed around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.17 The Houthis have been met by US and British airstrikes, but the idea that a bombing campaign can quell their actions is belied by history. Yemenis survived almost a century of bombardment at the hands of the British, as well as a more recent assault by the Saudis and their allies.18 Indeed, the US and British attack has already led Houthi leaders to announce the extension of their campaign to attack Israeli-linked shipping in the Indian Ocean.

Resistance does not simply take the form of armed struggle. There is now an unprecedented wave of global solidarity with the Palestinians. According to one survey, by the end of 2023, the public in China, South Africa, Brazil and several other Latin American countries viewed Israel in a negative light. In Britain, Japan and South Korea, net favourability ratings dropped, respectively, from -17.1 to -29.8, -39.9 to -62.0, and -5.5 to -47.8.19

Britain has witnessed the largest protests of any Western country, involving an impressive series of mass demonstrations in London. A survey of the 450,000-strong protest on 9 March by Socialist Worker suggested that the movement was still drawing in new participants, with one in six of those asked saying they were attending their first demonstration. A similar number had been on all ten, representing a significant core of highly committed protesters.

It is likely that three or four million people in Britain have participated in some form of action over Gaza, with a few tens of thousands of activists consistently mobilising others around them. Activity involves not just mass demonstrations but also workplace protest, student occupations and other forms of direct action. Some operate through long-standing groups such as the Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Alongside these are newer organisations such as the Palestinian Youth Movement and Muslim groups such as Friends of Al-Aqsa. In some areas ad hoc groupings have sprung up, organising through social media, mosques, trade union branches and other networks. City-wide “Palestine assemblies” have often played an important role in helping to draw together these different forces and coordinating action.

Tory convulsions

A social movement on this scale, with these organisational sinews, is transformative. In the case of Britain, it has accelerated the degeneration of the Conservative Party administration headed by prime minister Rishi Sunak. As early as November, Suella Braverman, then home secretary, who encouraged far-right protesters to confront one of the early pro-Palestinian demonstrations, was sacked as a racist rabble clashed with police on the streets of London.20

Braverman was part of a more general push by the Tories to present solidarity with Palestine as an endorsement of Islamist terrorism and as inherently antisemitic. However, such claims are coming under increasing strain. As Pankaj Mishra explains, in a superb piece for London Review of Books, weaponisation of the memory of the Shoah, the genocide of six million Jews by the Nazis, to support Israeli policy has always been contested. Prominent Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, such as writers Jean Améry and Primo Levi and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, were among those criticising Israel on this score. In Mishra’s words, they “had known, in their own frail bodies, the monstrous terror visited on millions by a supposedly civilised European nation-state, and…resolved to be on perpetual guard against the deformation of the Shoah’s meaning and the abuse of its memory”.21

Such authors understood that labelling criticisms of Israel or Zionism as antisemitic undermines those seeking to challenge racism against Jewish people. As New York Times columnist Ezra Klein put it: “I’m a Jewish person… Do I feel like there’s less antisemitism in the world right now because of what is happening there [in Gaza], or does it seem to me that there’s a huge upsurge in antisemitism, and that even Jews in places that are not Israel are vulnerable to what happens in Israel?”22

It is especially sickening to see those claiming to act in opposition to antisemitism evoking the worst Islamophobic tropes. Braverman, continuing to pitch for the Conservative leadership from the back benches, recently wrote for The Telegraph, arguing: “The truth is that the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now. They have bullied the Labour Party, they have bullied our institutions, and now they have bullied our country into submission”.23 Another MP, Lee Anderson, had the Conservative whip withdrawn after claiming that London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, was controlled by Islamists. Anderson responded by becoming the first MP for Nigel Farage’s Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit Party, whose rise in the opinion polls is another factor dragging the Tories ever rightward.

The deepening crisis faced by Sunak—65 of whose MPs had, at the time of writing, said they were not interested in standing for re-election—is sharpening the “Trumpisation” of the Tories.24 The image of a party mired in racism was reinforced by the revelation that a high-profile Tory donor, Frank Hester, had, in 2019, said of Diane Abbott, the first black woman elected to Westminster: “It’s like trying not to be racist, but you see Diane Abbott on the television, and…you just want to hate all black women… I think she should be shot”.25

The degeneration of the government leaves it both weak and nasty. Sunak, stunned by the victory of the maverick pro-Palestinian politician George Galloway in the Rochdale by-election, responded with a rambling speech on the steps of Downing Street. In it, he painted a picture of Britain descending into “mob rule”, oscillating between acknowledgements of the right of protesters to march for Palestine and condemnation of “extremist disruption and criminality”, infuriating all shades of opinion in his own party.26

Two weeks later, his communities secretary, Michael Gove, announced a new definition of “extremism”, which threatened to criminalise pro-Palestinian groups. He named, alongside two neo-Nazi organisations, a number of Muslim organisations: the Muslim Association of Britain; Muslim Engagement and Development; and Cage, a group that campaigns against the government’s Prevent counter-extremism policy.27 However, it turned out the main sanction would be to bar such groups from public appointments, receiving honours, meeting ministers and obtaining public funding. Nasty, certainly, but Gove’s move is hardly likely to break the pro-Palestine movement.

Labour’s contortions

Given the chaos in government, one might expect Labour to be sailing towards Downing Street on a sea of enthusiasm. Labour retains a 20 percent poll lead over the Tories, drawing comparisons with the run-up to the landslide election in May 1997 that brought Tony Blair to power.

However, the mood among Labour voters differs sharply from that in 1997. Blair was always viewed with disdain on the far left, but nonetheless enjoyed a personal approval rating of +18 percent before he entered Downing Street. Starmer’s approval rating is currently -21 percent. The experience of Labour in power from 1997 to 2010, and the rise and fall of Corbynism, means that expectations among voters were low even before events in Gaza. Starmer will not enjoy much of a honeymoon if he does win office—and the crises that have rocked recent Tory administrations will continue to throw up challenges.

Starmer’s response to the IDF assault has been miserable. At one point he defended Israel’s right to withhold power and water from Gazans, before belatedly supporting a ceasefire to head off a revolt among his own MPs. All this has deepened the anger towards him.

This means, again in contrast to 1997, the space exists for challenges to Labour from outside mainstream politics even before Starmer has had a chance to disappoint Labour voters in office. Hence Galloway’s victory in Rochdale, after Labour suspended its own candidate following accusations of antisemitism. Yet, neither Galloway himself nor his Workers’ Party of Britain can provide a stable focus for a broader left challenge. Although his victory was, as he put it, “for Gaza”, Galloway combined pro-Palestinian messages with slogans such as “For the Workers not the Wokers!”, condemning those fighting for trans rights or against ecological destruction. His party also makes concessions to the idea that workers are right to worry about immigration or asylum seekers.28

The figure best-placed to lead a left-wing challenge to Starmer, Jeremy Corbyn, has, as yet, said little on the topic of political representation for workers as the debate rages. Nonetheless, it now seems inevitable that good numbers of candidates will challenge Labour on a pro-Gaza platform at the council elections in May and in the general election, likely to be held in October. This is particularly likely in areas, like Rochdale, with substantial numbers of Muslim voters.29

We should support breaks to the left of Labour, campaigning in favour of candidates who are not simply pro-Palestinian but also, unlike Galloway, represent an unequivocal left-wing alternative on social questions and issues of oppression. Elections remain important terrain for revolutionaries. That is true even if they are subordinated to our other activities—in particular, continuing to mobilise on the streets in support of the Palestinians and contesting the growing racist offensive through organisations such as Stand up to Racism.30

We must also recognise that, within the movement that has exploded on to the streets of Britain, there are many who desire more than simply a radicalised version of social democracy, in the form of a revived Corbynism. Some are beginning to question the whole logic of capitalism and imperialism. This is a moment in which the revolutionary socialist argument, presented in the context of a shared effort to build solidarity with Palestine, can gain its largest audience in many years.

Joseph Choonara is the editor of International Socialism. He is the author of A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital (Bookmarks, 2017) and Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (2nd edition: Bookmarks, 2017).


1 This analysis builds on our earlier coverage—see Alexander, 2024; Ferguson, 2024; and Choonara, 2024. Thanks to Charlie Kimber, Donny Gluckstein, Judy Cox, Sheila McGregor, Phil Marfleet, Camilla Royle, Anne Alexander and Richard Donnelly for feedback on earlier drafts.

2 Itkowitz and Abutaleb, 2024.

5 See Zevin, 2024. Current wrangling in Congress over further aid to Israel revolves around the package combining this with further support for Ukraine, now contentious among Republicans.

6 Schwartz and Shotter, 2024.

7 Simon Assaf’s article in this issue discusses Lebanon’s history in more detail.

8 Collins, 1982; Tal, 2023. Biden, then a young senator, met with Begin during a visit to Washington in 1982. Biden was angry that the settlement campaign in the West Bank was undermining US support for Israel but strongly supported the Lebanon offensive. According to Begin, Biden told him: “It was great. It had to be done. If attacks were launched from Canada into the US, everyone here would have said, ‘Attack all the cities of Canada! We don’t care if all the civilians get killed.’”—see Burgis, 2023.

9 Choonara, 2024, pp12-13; Rose, 2002.

10 Srivastava, 2024.

11 Jones and Zilber, 2024. At most, according to some sources, the US has shifted from supplying the 2,000-pound bombs being used to destroy whole neighbourhoods in favour of “precision” weapons—Srivastava, 2024.

12 Ferguson, 2024. According to one former US ambassador to Israel, the increasingly bellicose tone Netanyahu has taken towards Biden is aimed at keeping his far-right allies on board—see Srivastava, 2024.

14 See Lynch and Telhami, 2024.

15 ICJ, 2024.

16 Zilber and England, 2024.

17 See IMF Portwatch for data.

18 See Newsinger, 2024.

19 Gordon, 2024.

20 Choonara, 2024, pp23-24.

21 Mishra, 2024, p6.

22 Cited in Mishra, 2024, p7.

23 Braverman, 2024.

24 See Judith Orr’s article in this issue, which explores the mobilisation of racist myths such as the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory by supposedly mainstream politicians such as Braverman.

25 Seddon, 2024.

26 Walker, 2024.

27 Friends of al-Aqsa, 5Pillars and Palestine Action have also been mentioned in subsequent leaks—Siddique and Gecsoyler, 2024.

28 See Socialist Worker, 2024.

29 See the report from the recent “No Ceasefire, No Vote” conference in London—Kimber, 2024.

30 My article in response to Paul Murphy in this issue continues the ongoing debate about revolutionaries and electoral work.


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