A second Nakba?

Issue: 181

Joseph Choonara

The carnage wrought by Israeli forces on the Gaza Strip is a moment of unimaginable brutality.1 It is also a moment of intensification of the ­exclusion of and violence against Palestinians stretching back over ­three-quarters of a century.

At the time of writing, the start of December, one estimate put the death toll in Gaza at 20,031, of whom 8,176 were children.2 Aerial images display ­neighbourhoods flattened by bombardment.3 Around half of all houses have been damaged or destroyed.4 The munitions fired on Gaza have been estimated at the equivalent of 25,000 tonnes of TNT; for comparison, “Little Boy”, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was rated at 15,000 tonnes.5

Some 80 percent of the population have been displaced, many fleeing after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) told over a million Palestinians to ­evacuate the area north of the Wadi Gaza stream. Little good it did them: 3,676 had been killed in the “safe” south of the Gaza Strip by the 45th day of fighting. Overcrowded United Nations shelters saw outbreaks of “diarrhoea, acute ­respiratory ­infections, skin infections and hygiene-related conditions such as lice”.6 Giora Eiland, a retired IDF major-general and the former head of the Israeli National Security Council, was pleased, speculating that “severe ­epidemics in the ­southern Strip will bring ­victory closer and reduce fatalities among IDF soldiers”.7

Gaza had already suffered slow strangulation since the Israeli blockade of the territory began in 2007. Now, in retaliation for the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October, which killed around 1,200 Israelis, the IDF embarked on the collective punishment of Palestinians, seemingly aiming at ending altogether their presence in their homeland. “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba… That’s how it’ll end,” said Avi Dichter, a member of Israel’s war cabinet.8 The word Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) references the enormous campaign of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that accompanied the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. Although the original Nakba has been concealed or denied within official Israeli history, this one is being ­celebrated openly by Israeli political leaders.9

To the extent that Israel still engages in propaganda, it increasingly falls flat. One of its spokespeople, Eylon Levy, has given an extraordinary series of ­interviews to the BBC’s Today programme. In one, confronted regarding the bodies piling up in Gaza, he simply claimed the casualty figures were a lie. Anyway, he suggested, the IDF’s actions were a “proportionate” response to Hamas’s attack. He refused to answer questions about the hundreds killed in recent weeks in the West Bank, a territory governed by the Palestinian Authority, not by Hamas.10 Here, Palestinians face both the IDF and armed Israeli settlers enacting their own attempt at a Nakba:

The evening Israel declared war on Hamas in Gaza, armed Jewish settlers descended on the Palestinian village of Wadi al-Seeq in the occupied West Bank… The ­settlers dragged three men from their families, stripped them to their underwear, blindfolded them with their own T-shirts and took turns beating them.

When Abu Hassan, a 58 year old Bedouin goatherd, begged for mercy and pointed to a scar from recent heart surgery, one of the Israelis slammed a rifle butt into his chest. Then they urinated on him. “Leave! Go to Jordan, go wherever”, he remembered them shouting. “Or we will kill you”.11

“Proportionality”, anyway, is a strange concept here. Israel has repeatedly waged war on Gaza. A 2008-9 bombardment and invasion of the territory killed almost 1,400 Palestinians.12 A second wave of bombardment in 2012 killed 174. A third, in 2014, was deadlier still, with aerial and ground assaults killing 2,250. Do the Palestinian population not have the same right to mourn their dead, to desire justice and to retaliate—to respond through their own, necessarily asymmetric, resistance? Within the official Israeli logic of ­“proportionality”, only the coloniser can claim a legitimate right to revenge.

As ever in such logic, Palestinians are not simply killed but rendered less than human, unworthy of grief or pity. The racist language of the coloniser is openly expressed by Israeli politicians, celebrities and soldiers:

“I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals, and we act accordingly.”
—Yoav Gallant, Israeli defence minister.

“Total erasure of Gaza: total, and not a human life spared.”
—Eyan Golan, popular Israeli singer.

“We keep saying to flatten Gaza… I think that’s not enough. They should be ­captured and tortured one by one by pulling out their nails and skinning them alive. Save their tongues for last, so we can enjoy his screams, his ears so he can hear his own screams and his eyes so he can see us smiling.”
—Tzipi Navon, advisor to the Israeli prime minister’s wife.

“There is no population in Gaza; there are 2.5 million terrorists.”
—Eliyahu Yossian, former IDF intelligence officer.

“North Gaza is more beautiful than ever. Blowing up everything is amazing. When finished, we will hand over the lands of Gaza to soldiers and settlers who lived in Gush Katif [a group of former Israeli settlements in southern Gaza].”
—Amihai Eliyahu, Israeli heritage minister.

“We are the people of light; they are the people of darkness.”
—Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister.13

“Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water. There will only be destruction. You wanted hell; you will get hell.”
—Ghassan Alian, IDF officer and head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.14

This dehumanisation finds support in Israeli society. A survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute asked if the IDF offensive should consider the suffering of Palestinian civilians. Four out of five Jewish Israelis surveyed replied in the negative.15

Settler colonialism

Israel is now widely referred to as a settler-colonial state. In contrast with “franchise colonialism”, where rule is based on “military power, colonial ­administrators and the collaboration of local ruling classes”, settler ­colonialism involves the settlement of a new population with the intent of transforming the colony into a ­permanent home.16 Ideologically, this binds settlers to their state through a common ­interest in maintaining exclusion and dispossession of the ­indigenous population.

There are differing varieties of settler colonialism. The creation of what became Australia and the United States, for instance, involved the near ­annihilation of the indigenous population. Australia was inhabited by between 770,000 and 1.1 ­million Aboriginal people prior to European settlement. Yet, Britain would, after 1788, claim sovereignty over the entire territory, ­treating it as “terra nullius” (“a land belonging to nobody”, a legal conceit used to ­justify dispossession of colonised people). Colonial expansion continued over ­centuries, often meeting with fierce resistance from Aboriginal groups. As in the Americas, ­diseases imported from Europe combined with violence to reduce the ­indigenous population.17 Those who survived (today, a little over 3 percent of the Australian population identify as indigenous) were forcibly assimilated, as a racially oppressed minority, into an Australian society ­conceptualised as a ­community of white settlers. Though far from identical, the European ­settlement of North America bears a broad resemblance to this process. In such cases, although at various points ­indigenous people might be economically exploited, indigenous labour does not play a central role in the functioning of the capitalist economy that emerges.

A second variant can be seen in cases such as South Africa. Here initially both the Dutch and British settlers fought to establish their rule, clashing with ­indigenous resistance and with one another. When a Union of South Africa ­eventually emerged in 1910, this accelerated the development of a system of racist laws designed to exclude the black population from land ownership and ­regulate their movement and labour. The 1913 Native Land Act, which granted just 13 percent of land to the black majority, ensured that, to survive, black people would be ­compelled to seek work within white-owned mines and farms. The ­subsequent growth of industry created a ­substantial black working class within urban areas. As ­anti-colonial movements ­permeated through Africa after the Second World War, South Africa’s ruling National Party ­formalised racist segregation into the apartheid system. Although this was imposed by a party dominated by white capitalist farmers and traders, it also had the support of the white working class, whose ­relative privilege rested on racist exclusion of black people. Here, in contrast to Australia and North America, the black populace remained the majority, making up about 80 ­percent of the total population. Black workers were also central to the economy, and the struggles of the black working class underpinned repeated waves of mass resistance to white minority rule.18

Israel is a distinctive form of settler colonialism, combining elements of both variants. On the one hand, Zionism, the ideology underlying the ­creation of Israel, aspired to an ethnically exclusive Jewish economy, from which Palestinians would be forcibly excluded. This has given rise to a genocidal strand within Israeli politics, which, as Rob Ferguson’s article in this issue describes, has come to the fore in recent years. On the other hand, after 1948, the fact that large numbers of Palestinians stubbornly continued to exist—and resist—not only within the borders of the State of Israel but also in far larger numbers in the refugee camps on its borders, posed a problem for Israel that has haunted it since its foundation. This contradiction intensified when, in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Incorporating the Palestinians in these areas under Israeli control, while denying them a say in the politics of Israel, ­necessitated a system of apartheid. This system of racist domination now stretches across the entirety of historic Palestine, ­encompassing both the 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the 1.9 million within the pre-1967 borders of Israel.19 For this latter group, the Nation State Law, which was enacted by the Israeli parliament in 2018, simply gave a legal form to their already unequal status as non-Jewish citizens.20

The tensions between the drive to eradicate the Palestinians and to ­subordinate them under a system of apartheid has implications for both Israeli politics and Palestinian resistance. The Palestinian masses do not occupy the linchpin role within Israel’s economy that black South African workers did under apartheid, and thus they lack the potential class power that comes with it.21 Even though Palestinian resistance can hurt Israel, as demonstrated by Hamas’s attack on 7 October, it cannot overcome an Israeli state with a ­sophisticated and extremely expensive military apparatus as well as strong ­support from most of its population.

Conversely, because of its limited dependence on Palestinian labour—which has been negligible in the case of those receiving permits to cross from Gaza into Israel in recent years—the possibility of completing the Nakba persists within Israeli politics. Hence, a “concept paper”, drafted in October by the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence, envisaged the “transfer” of the entire Gazan population to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, with clear genocidal implications.22

Zionism and imperialism

Placing Israel in this framework allows us to identify its role in the wider imperialist order.

Zionism emerged in the late 1880s as one of many Jewish responses to antisemitism, which was by then hardening into a racist ideology in a process that would culminate in the barbarity of the Nazi Holocaust.23 In the early 20th century, Zionism competed against other ideologies for the political loyalties of Jewish people. These included Marxism, which Jewish activists played a considerable role in developing and which offered a more expansive vision of Jewish liberation as part of a broader project of working-class emancipation.24 Zionism, by contrast, offered a pessimistic response, treating antisemitism as an inevitability and proposing that Jews should withdraw from Europe and create their own homeland.25

After some debate, central figures within Zionism, such as Theodor Herzl—an Austro-Hungarian activist widely seen as the “father” of the movement—agreed on Palestine as a potential homeland. This allowed the movement to draw on Jewish biblical myths to build support among those Zionists who were more religiously inclined than most of Zionism’s leaders. The focus on forming a colony drew Herzl and his co-thinkers to seek allies among those dominant imperialist powers who might grant them the territory. From its outset, Zionism saw its putative colony as “a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism”.26

Herzl tried to court the rulers of the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Germany, before turning to Britain.27 The fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the defeat of Britain’s rivals in the First World War, gave the British Empire the ­opportunity to establish its dominion over Palestine. Although British policy was contested, with some politicians favouring an alliance with sections of the Arab elite, the development of a friendly settler community in the region offered clear ­attractions. This view was famously expressed in 1917 by the government minister Arthur Balfour in his historic declaration: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the ­establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.28 Ronald Storrs, the first military governor of Jerusalem under British rule, gave blunt ­expression to the British Empire’s interest in Zionism. According to Storrs, the Zionist colony would form “for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”.29

Between 1917 and 1947, the Jewish population within Palestine rose from less than 10 percent to 30 percent, with the flow accelerated by those escaping European fascism. By the 1920s, early experiments in buying land and hiring cheap Palestinian labour to produce cash crops were supplanted by a drive to create a racially exclusive Jewish economy. The institutions of “Labour Zionism”—the kibbutz movement, the Histadrut “trade union” and early militias such as the Haganah—were central to enforcing this.30 Indeed, the Histadrut was far from a conventional union; it and its associated organisations provided much of the infrastructure for the future state of Israel, with three future Israeli prime ministers emerging from its leadership.31

Palestinians resisting colonialism soon found themselves clashing not simply with their British rulers but also with Jewish settlers. This suited the British administration, who continued to support the Zionists, while also working with the most backward elements of Arab society to deflect anti-colonial sentiment towards the Jewish population.32 Then, in 1936, the Palestinian population exploded in revolt. A six-month general strike, along with a mass movement of non-cooperation with the settlers and the British, was broken by brutal repression. The techniques used would later find an echo in those of the IDF, including collective punishment, such as the demolition of villages and urban neighbourhoods, and internment without trial. Although the Palestinian leadership would surrender in autumn 1936, there was a subsequent wave of guerilla warfare, which was met with further destruction of villages, summary executions and aerial strafing.

The Palestinian revolt provided a colossal impetus to the exclusive Jewish ­settler economy. It also saw the British authorities integrate elements of the Zionist militias into the security apparatus, for instance, with the formation of “Special Night Squads”, joint Zionist-British patrols that attacked Palestinian guerillas and guarded ­strategic locations.33 This was essential preparation for what was to come. Planning for an assault on the Palestinians was already well under way, with a survey of ­villages—identifying the degree of “hostility” of each as determined by the level of participation in the 1936 revolt—was largely compete by the end of the 1930s.34 As David Ben Gurion, leader of the Zionist movement from the mid-1920s and later Israel’s first prime minister, wrote in a letter to his son in 1937, “The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war”.35

The Nakba

By the Second World War, the settlers had established through their relationship with British imperialism a largely exclusive Jewish economy, an efficient and ­well-armed military organisation (later to become the IDF), and the ­infrastructure for a future state. A British member of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry Regarding the Problems of European Jewry and Palestine, appointed in 1946 to seek a solution to the Palestine issue, described the Jewish Agency, which ­oversaw Zionist activities, as “really a state within a state, with its own budget, secret ­cabinet, army and, above all, intelligence service. It is the most efficient, dynamic and toughest organisation I have ever seen, and it is not afraid of us [the British]”.36

By then, Britain was an exhausted imperialism, increasingly unable to ­control its empire; the US was emerging as the major global power. The Zionists saw an opportunity to hasten the exit of the British and to create their new state through the expulsion of the Palestinian population, whose leadership had been fatally weakened by the repression of the 1936 revolt.37 When the Irgun, a radical split from the Haganah militia, blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in June 1946, killing 91 people, including members of the colonial administration headquartered there, it exposed the fragility of British rule. By the following February, the British had decided to withdraw, leaving the recently established UN to formulate a ­solution to the “Palestine question”. The resulting UN partition plan granted the Jewish settlers—now about a third of the population with ownership of 5.8 percent of cultivated land—a little over half of historic Palestine.38

When the proposed partition was—inevitably—rejected across the Arab world, Ben Gurion declared that Israel’s borders “will be determined by force and not by the partition resolution”.39 This would be a battle of unequal forces. The hastily mobilised Palestinian fighters, mostly poorly trained and armed, numbered a few thousand, eventually reinforced by about 15,000 troops from neighbouring Arab states. The Haganah alone outnumbered them, with most of its members well-armed and trained by the British before or during the Second World War. By December 1948, the newly formed IDF could mobilise a total of 96,441 troops.40

The most comprehensive study of the consequences of all this for the Palestinian population, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, draws on the painstaking efforts by Palestinian historians to ­disinter evidence of the Nakba.41 During the Zionist assault, whole Arab ­villages were wiped from the map. According to a plan issued by the Haganah’s intelligence unit:

These operations can be carried out in the following manner: either by destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up and by planting mines in the rubble) and especially those population centres that are difficult to control ­permanently; or by mounting combing and control operations… In case of ­resistance, the armed forces must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state.42

The massacre of Deir Yassin exemplifies the approach. This village had agreed a non-aggression pact with the Haganah, so instead the more extreme Irgun and Lehi militias were sent.43 As they entered, machine gun fire was directed towards the houses, killing many inhabitants. Then the Zionists ­gathered together the survivors. The villagers were “murdered in cold blood, their bodies abused while a number of the women were raped and then killed”. A 12 year old boy, Fahim Zaydan, recalled:

They took us out one after the other and shot an old man; when one of his daughters cried, she was shot too. Then they called my brother, Muhammad, and shot him in front of us, and when my mother yelled, bending over him—carrying my little sister Hudra in her hands, still breastfeeding her—they shot her too.

Zaydan was lined up in a row with other children, who were then sprayed with bullets before the soldiers left. He managed to survive his wounds.44 At another massacre, in the Arab village of Tantura, “men”—those aged between ten and 50 years old—were herded together while an intelligence officer, accompanied by a hooded informant, identified potential trouble-makers, using a ­pre-prepared list. Those selected were taken “out in small groups to a spot ­further away where they were executed”. “Trouble-makers” often meant participants in the 1936 anti-colonial revolt.45

The “watchdog state”

Israel was formed through such atrocities—and the terror they sparked. Around 750,000 Palestinians were driven out, with some ending up in the West Bank, which came under Jordanian control, and in Gaza, under Egyptian ­control. The borders of Israel now extended across over ­three-quarters of historic Palestine.

To sustain itself, Israel soon began courting a new imperial sponsor, the US. Initially, US policy was, like Britain’s had once been, equivocal. Its ­central preoccupation was control over the world’s largest proven oil reserves, which lay in the region, and preventing Soviet influence from growing. When a radical regime came to power in Iran in 1951, nationalising the country’s oil, it mainly threatened the residual British influence in the region, evicting the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. However, it also demonstrated a potential danger to US interests. As Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it in a 1951 article:

The West is none too happy about its relations with states in the Middle East. The feudal regimes there have to make such concessions to the nationalist movements, which sometimes have a pronounced socialist-leftist colouring… Therefore, strengthening Israel helps the Western powers maintain equilibrium and stability in the Middle East. Israel is to become the watchdog. There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy towards the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the US and Britain. Yet, if for any reason the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighbouring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.46

When Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in Egypt in 1952, it further underlined the threat. However, it was after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel humiliated neighbouring Arab states, including Egypt, that large-scale US economic and military support began to arrive. It further surged with each new perceived threat to Israel or to US interests.47 It is this coming together of imperialist interests, rather than some supposed “Jewish lobby”, that explains the continued backing for Israel from the US and its allies.

Palestinian resistance

The repression of the 1936 revolt and the Nakba in 1948 initially weakened Palestinians’ capacity to wage a struggle against Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was founded at the initiative of the Arab League in 1964, but it was only after the defeat of the 1967 war that a new Palestinian ­leadership emerged. Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist group that would come to dominate the PLO, was founded in 1959. Yasser Arafat, its best-known figure, was not atypical of its founders—a child of prosperous members of the diaspora and a university student in Cairo, who made large sums as the head of a contracting business in Kuwait.

In 1967, Fatah joined the PLO; a year later, it restored Palestinian pride by leading a series of guerilla attacks on Israel, attracting large numbers of young exiles to its ranks. The emergence of Fatah marked a shift away from the first generation of PLO leaders, who had been handpicked by Nasser and committed to Arab unity as a prerequisite for resolving the Palestinian question. Fatah nominally rejected this approach, focusing on engendering a struggle among Palestinians rather than simply relying on the Arab rulers. Nevertheless, the organisation never fully extricated itself from its reliance on these regimes. As the PLO established headquarters in Arab capitals, began to organise life within Palestinian refugee camps and achieved observer status at the UN, it had to navigate the tensions between expressing ­resistance and playing the role of a sort of “Arab state in waiting”. This created two ­interlinked problems.

First, the existing Arab states, even in their more radical nationalist form, remained capitalist societies. Nasserism in Egypt provides one example.48 Nasser came to power in an overthrow of the pro-British monarchy by nationalist army officers, inspired in part by disillusion at the chaotic Egyptian intervention in Palestine in 1948. The overthrow followed intense struggles by workers and students, and it was only when the leaders of these movements hesitated that Nasser’s Free Officers were able to step into the breach. They dispatched the old monarchy but also, in the years that followed, quelled strikes, persecuted the Communist Party opposition and clashed with other ­opponents of the old regime, notably the major Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood. Initially, the radicalism of the new regime was restricted to land reform measures and Nasser’s attempt to position Egypt as ­independent of either Cold War superpower. It was the efforts of the British and French, with Israeli support, to secure control over the Suez Canal in 1956 that forced Nasser to lean for support on the Egyptian left, whose help he needed to build mass resistance to the invasion. In the wake of this, an ­ambitious programme of state capitalist intervention in the economy and social reform was launched.

However, this was an attempt to use the state to develop capitalism from above. As a nationalist project, it preached the “peaceful coexistence” of classes. Yet, classes remained. Nasserism’s key social base was among ­sections of the middle class excluded from the power structures associated with either the old feudal order or with large capital. It was willing to challenge these power structures, but it opposed the workers using their own agency to go beyond capitalism. Indeed, it would readily use repression to prevent the ­development of independent struggles of workers.49 However, Egypt’s national path of development, pursued by a state with limited resources attempting to carve out a space within the global order, quickly ran up against its limits. From the 1970s, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, opened up Egypt to the global economy, forcing through a policy of economic liberalisation known as “infitah” (opening), to the ­enormous benefit of those with access to the levers of power.

The generation of Fatah leaders around Arafat realised such Arab regimes could not be relied on to liberate Palestine of their own volition. Yet, their strategy remained using Palestinian struggle as a “lever on the Arab regimes”.50 This led to the second problem. The notion that the existing Arab states could be forced to act informed Fatah’s policy of “non-interference”, which meant a refusal to disrupt the governance of countries where Palestinians were active—or indeed to upset the stake that a wealthy minority of Palestinians had in such societies.51

There was a possible alternative to this. Israel could be challenged by unlocking the power concentrated within the wider Arab working class in countries such as Egypt, beginning a revolutionary process that would reorder the whole region. Yet, Fatah was uninterested in waging class war to liberate Palestine.

The road to Oslo

The contradictions inherent in this approach fatally undermined Fatah and the PLO. The Arab regimes were, one by one, coming to terms with the imperial order and their place within it. In 1977, Sadat flew to Jerusalem to call for a peace deal. The Camp David Accords, signed the next year, made Egypt the first Arab state to recognise Israel, also helping lay the basis for a close relationship with the US. It is Egypt that controls the southern border of the Gaza Strip, long participating in the siege of the territory. Jordan recognised Israel in 1994, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morrocco in 2020. Saudi Arabia was involved in Washington-brokered talks to exchange ambassadors at the time of the Hamas attacks.

Meanwhile, the PLO faced repeated assaults from Israel—and from Arab regimes in which Palestinian refugees had settled. In 1970-1, the leadership of the PLO was forced out of Jordan following armed clashes with the forces of King Hussein, who believed the huge local Palestinian diaspora threatened his rule. The PLO relocated to Lebanon, where it became embroiled in the civil war that erupted in 1975 between the Christian right and the country’s left-wing forces. Fearful of the Palestinians combining with the left to destabilise the country, the neighbouring Syrian regime sent its troops across the border to aid the Lebanese forces. The PLO managed to survive—but then, in 1982, Israel invaded southern Lebanon, besieging Beirut. Palestinian fighters held out for two months before being forced to flee by sea; no Arab country offered any tangible support.52

The repression failed to break Palestinian resistance, instead having the unintended consequence of shifting the focus of struggle to historic Palestine itself. This was reflected in the outbreak of the First Intifada, a spontaneous mass uprising that began in December 1987 when an Israeli army vehicle killed four Palestinians in a collision in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza.53 The First Intifada continued for six years and was met with extreme repression from the Israeli military:

In January 1988, defence minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered the security forces to use “force, might and beatings”. His “iron fist” policy was carried out through the explicit practice of breaking the demonstrators’ arms and legs and cracking their skulls.54

Some 1,376 Palestinians would be killed over the course of the uprising.55

However, even as Palestinian children were hurling rocks at IDF tanks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Fatah was being drawn into a peace ­process based on the phantasm of an independent Palestinian state, the ­“two-state solution”. The Oslo peace process, negotiated in secret in the Norwegian capital, resulted in a set of peace accords, signed by Rabin, now Israeli prime minister, and Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993. The PLO recognised Israel and declared a unilateral ceasefire. In return, a Palestinian Authority (PA) was created to preside over the Occupied Territories. The PA fell far short of a genuine Palestinian state. Indeed, one of its main functions has been to police the Palestinians.56 Another has been to integrate the Occupied Territories as a subordinate element in the Israeli economy—an outlet for Israeli goods and a supplier of a reserve army of cheap labour. Israel retained control of the territories’ borders and can attack and kill Palestinians with impunity. Moreover, the creation of new settlements in the West Bank, armed enclaves that disrupt any sense of territorial integrity and project Israeli power into Palestinian areas, accelerated after Oslo, with the settler population doubling between 1992 and 2000.

The formation of the PA also exposed the class antagonisms among the Palestinian population. Powerful figures from the Palestinian diaspora, who had often enriched themselves in the Gulf States, established themselves within the economy under the PA. A credit-fuelled boom in areas such as construction allowed conspicuous consumption for a minority, and immense corruption within the PA itself, while leaving most Palestinians as excluded than ever.57 As one recent study argues:

The relations between Palestinian political and business/capitalist elites have always been close; indeed, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) maintains strong connections with diaspora capitalists… The Oslo process has transformed the political-business connection into a form of solid ­coalition, implicating the PLO/Fatah upper echelon, returnee capitalists, the PA ­technocrats and security leaders, whose interest lies in dominating the political and economic centres of power. Since 2007, the Palestinian capitalists developed an ­unprecedented influence over the PA decision-making circles…besides embarking on privileged relationships with their Israeli counterparts… The rising power of ­capitalists has inevitably led to the exacerbation of class divisions and ­socio-economic inequalities.58

In September 2000, anger at the failure of the Oslo process helped spark the Second Intifada, triggered by Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam. It was even deadlier than the first; eight years of further struggle would see 4,916 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces and settlers.59

The rise of Hamas

The failure of Fatah’s nationalist resistance created a space for an Islamist alternative, Hamas.60 Hamas was born within days of the eruption of the first intifada, but the roots of the organisation lie in an Islamist welfare organisation established in Gaza in the 1970s and inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These earlier organisations received a degree of support from Israel, which saw them as a counterweight to forces such as Fatah.61

Hamas would position itself as both an element within a broader ­transnational Islamism, linked to the Brotherhood, and a distinctively Palestinian force, with nationalism incorporated into its ideology. Although the PLO leaders took the opportunity of the First Intifada to signal their ­willingness to accept a Palestinian pseudo-state, comprising the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Hamas proclaimed that “jihad for the liberation of Palestine is obligatory”.62 It would engage in its own asymmetric warfare against Israel, for instance, through suicide bombings beyond the borders of the Occupied Territories. More broadly, Hamas engaged in military confrontation with Israel, in many ways returning to the tradition of guerilla struggle once embodied by Fatah and other groups within the PLO.

Hamas achieved considerable support among Palestinians through its willingness to confront Israel militarily and the social and charitable ­networks it sustained. In 2005, this was reinforced when Sharon announced a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, reducing the burden on the IDF of ­protecting its settlements there and allowing the state to redirect its efforts towards further encroachment into the West Bank. The move coincided with Hamas’s growing engagement with the politics of the PA. Hamas had ­previous ­contested student and professional elections but stood aloof from PA ­elections, consistent with its rejection of the Oslo Accords. Yet, high turnouts in elections among the population of Gaza convinced it that many of its ­supporter were participating.63 From 2005, Hamas sought representation within the PA under the banner “Change and Reform”, challenging Fatah’s ­corruption and its collaboration with Israel.

In the 2006 legislative elections, Hamas won 76 of 132 seats, easily ­beating Fatah, who took just 43.64 Hamas viewed the victory as an opportunity to refashion the Palestinian resistance movement, breaking with the logic of Oslo. It was met by a furious response from the Israelis, the US and European Union as well as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. The US and EU made commitments to non-violence, support for existing agreements and recognition of Israel prerequisites for its acceptance of the outcome of elections and continuing financial support for the PA. Meanwhile, Abbas began drawing the PA’s security forces into the presidential apparatus in preparation for a coup. The US applied pressure to its allies, Jordan and Egypt, to train Fatah fighters—with Egypt sending weapons into Gaza. Clashes between Hamas supporters and the PA began to erupt; money ­supplied via the PA, covering 37 percent of all wages in the hollowed-out economy of the Gaza Strip, dried up.65 Hamas responded by taking control of the Gaza Strip. By June 2007, it had gained commanding authority across the territory, over which it has since been the de facto administration.66 Abbas, who would today certainly lose any presidential election, continued to govern the PA in the West Bank, ­indefinitely postponing national elections.67

With Hamas in control, Gaza was subjected to its long siege by Israel and Egypt, with catastrophic results. From 2002 to 2018, the number of people within the Gaza Strip dependent on external aid increased from 10 percent to 80 percent. Even before the current assault, 62 percent suffered food insecurity and 53 ­percent endured poverty. In 2018, youth unemployment stood at a staggering 70 percent.68

Along with the death toll inflicted by the repeated IDF assaults on the territory comes the ongoing traumatisation of the population, ­particularly children. A study of 1,850 six to 15 year old children in the wake of the 2014 Israeli attacks on Gaza noted that “the majority of the children were exposed to ­bombardments and residential area destruction (83.51 percent), were ­confined at home and unable to go outside (72.92 percent), were witness to the ­profanation of mosques (70.38 percent), were exposed to combat situations (66.65 percent), and saw corpses (59.95 percent)”.69 One only has to pause a moment to consider the impact this might have on a population—of which around half are under 18 years old—that is corralled into this open-air prison, with little chance of leaving its confines or of reconstructing an economy ­devastated by ­bombardment and blockade.

Al-Aqsa Flood

The attacks launched on Israel on 7 October 2023 stunned the Israeli ­establishment. Something like 1,500 commandos from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Islamist group, breached the security cordon around the Gaza Strip, joined by residents of the territory, many leaving the Strip for the first time in their lives. As Adam Shatz writes:

The motives behind Al-Aqsa Flood, as Hamas called its offensive, were hardly mysterious: to reassert the primacy of the Palestinian struggle at a time when it seemed to be falling off the agenda of the international community; to secure the release of political prisoners; to scuttle an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement; to further humiliate the impotent PA; to protest against the wave of settler violence in the West Bank, as well as the provocative visits of religious Jews and Israeli officials to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; and, not least, to send a message to the Israelis that they are not invincible, that there is a price to pay for maintaining the status quo in Gaza.70

Brutal colonial occupation has always tended to breed a violent response. In the absence of the weaponry of the occupier—helicopter ­gunships, tanks and fighter jets—resistance mobilises the tools at its disposal. However, it was not as if the IDF had nurtured non-violent protest: “When Palestinians from Gaza protested at the border in 2018-19 during the Great March of Return, Israeli forces killed 223 demonstrators”.71 The current destruction of Gaza, whatever it does to weaken Hamas’s offensive capabilities in the short term, will likely push another generation of Palestinians towards desperate armed resistance.

Ronnie Kasrils, a founder of the armed wing of the African National Congress, which fought against South African apartheid, responded to the Hamas attacks by writing:

What happened to the civilians was tragic but, as we South Africans know, you can’t oppress people for decades and…think the pot won’t boil over sooner or later. When that happens, planned or otherwise, there’s no guarantee it will do so gently and to the satisfaction of the oppressors. This is something that any mature person, and anyone with a basic grasp of history, will understand.72

A similar point could be made about Algeria, which was subject to French settler-colonial rule between 1830 and 1962. Here, from 1954, in response to the French killing hundreds of thousands of Algerians, the National Liberation Front (FLN; Front de Libération Nationale) engaged in armed conflict against both the military and settlers.73 Shatz draws a parallel between Hamas’s attack and that by the FLN on the Algerian harbour town of Philippeville (now called Skikda) in August 1955:

Peasants armed with grenades, knives, clubs, axes and pitchforks killed—and in many cases disembowelled—123 people, mostly Europeans but also a number of Muslims. To the French, the violence seemed unprovoked, but the perpetrators believed they were avenging the killing of tens of thousands of Muslims by the French army, assisted by settler militias… In response to Philippeville, France’s liberal governor-general, Jacques Soustelle…carried out a campaign of repression in which more than ten thousand Algerians were killed… Soustelle fell into the FLN’s trap: the army’s brutality drove Algerians into the arms of the rebels… Soustelle himself admitted that he had helped dig “a moat through which flowed a river of blood”. A similar moat is being dug in Gaza today.74

Marxist philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who lived in Algeria at the time and supported the FLN, responded to those preaching restraint from afar. In a superb study of Fanon, Leo Zeilig recounts:

In the middle of October 1956, he witnessed the French reprisals [to FLN attacks]. In a small town close to Blida, a local European militia rounded up 20 men and shot them. “This is what the French do”, Fanon stammered to a friend in anger, “and to think that some of my intellectual friends, who claim to be humanists, criticise me for being totally involved in the struggle”.75

The limitations of Fanon and the FLN, identified by Zeilig, also apply here. Fanon became increasingly sceptical about the capacity of the working classes to play a decisive, dynamic role in the liberation of African countries such as Algeria, seeing them as largely integrated into the colonial order.76 This accurately reflected the FLN’s own base outside the Algerian working class. A brief, top-down attempt to involve the urban masses was broken by the French repression depicted in Gillo Pontecorvo’s magnificent work of realist cinema, The Battle of Algiers.77

An orientation on the working classes across the region as a force for ­revolutionary transformation is even more distant from the worldview of Hamas’s intellectuals, whose aspirations, like those of Fatah, reflect those of sections of the Palestinian capitalist and middle classes. However, in the absence of such an orientation, Hamas face a version of the same impasse as the PLO before it. Without a strategy capable of defeating Israel, it also combines attacks on Israel with pragmatic forays into politics and diplomacy. It has long since accepted that it should limit its ambition to pushing Israel back to its pre-1967 borders; it has repeatedly offered ceasefires in return for an end to Israeli presence in the Occupied Territories; and it has at times sought reconciliation with the PA.78 When it began to run in PA elections, it was also happy to embrace a version of neoliberalism, not dissimilar to Fatah’s.79 In power, historian Tareq Baconi argues:

The movement has repressed political plurality and has maintained a ­conservative social order while demonstrating an ability to adopt a ­modernist and pragmatic approach to governance, for instance, by maintaining open ­channels of communication with human rights organisations. To the ire of Salafist movements, Hamas has avoided implementing sharia law… Also ­central to the movement’s governance is the construction of an identity around ­resistance. The combination of populist politics and authoritarianism actually mirrors the manner in which the PLO approached its own institution-building during the 1960s and 1970s.80

As Chris Harman argued in his pathbreaking study, these tensions and vacillations—between terrorism and compromise; between imposing ­authoritarian rule and mounting a confrontation with imperialism; between utopian aspirations for a unified Islamic community and pragmatic acceptance of a class-divided capitalist system—tend to characterise Islamist movements.81

Palestine in the imperial order

As noted above, breaking this impasse requires a wider revolutionary ­reconfiguration of the region, driven by the power of the regional working classes, particularly in countries such as Egypt. Only this can hope to achieve a just outcome for Palestinians: a single, secular and democratic state, open to Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists alike, with the full right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Anne Alexander’s article in this issue explores how such a process can emerge. The Palestinian struggle and the IDF’s brutality are already ­destabilising the imperialist order in the Middle East. Indeed, this ­instability is part of a much wider crisis for imperialism. A long, slow decline of US hegemony, accompanied by the rising power of China, has spread disorder through the global system, which has been ­heightened by the disastrous Western interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001. In this context, a range of “sub-imperialist powers”, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, have sought to enhance their own influence, with ­horrifying results, as seen in Syria and Yemen in recent years. The efforts of China to increase its own influence in the region enlarge the space for these powers to act independently of the US. It is noteworthy that it was China, not the US, that brokered a deal to normalise relationships between Saudi Arabia and Iran in spring 2023.82

Israel stands among the group of sub-imperialisms seeking to assert themselves more aggressively in recent years. Its relationship with the US and other Western powers remains important, but these are relationships with growing tensions. Historically, US support was vital in creating a dynamic Israeli ­economy, but that economy is today less dependent on external aid. This, combined with the rightward shift of Israeli domestic politics, and the weakening hold of the US over the region, have seen Israel shift towards a more assertive, and violent, stance.

If there is any truth to reports emerging in early December that suggest Israel is planning a campaign lasting a year or more, then the US will face an increasingly difficult balancing act.83 Joe Biden has expressed the US’s strong and continued commitment to Israel. However, he knows that the images of the brutality in Gaza are fuelling rage globally—and that the IDF assault risks a wider regional conflagration, potentially drawing in Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps even Iran, as well as destabilising other regimes on whom the US relies to secure its interests.

Here in Britain, too, Rishi Sunak’s embattled Conservative Party ­government has rushed to back Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, only to see a mass movement push back against this. The protests have been on a historic scale—at one point, 800,000 marched in London. The movement also gained its first victory in November, toppling home secretary Suella Braverman. Braverman had sought to exploit the suffering of the Palestinians as part of efforts to escalate Britain’s “culture wars” and enhance her standing among the base of her party in preparation for a coming leadership battle. However, she overreached when she contrasted supposed police leniency towards the pro-Palestinian marchers with treatment of far-right activists, who took her comments as a call to mobilise. The resulting clash between the police and far-right demonstrators on the streets of London forced Sunak’s hand. She was swiftly sacked.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has been every bit as dismal as one might fear, refusing even to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. This follows efforts to smear his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, as an antisemite due to his support for Palestine. In contrast with Corbyn, Starmer is eager to demonstrate his reliability on international issues to the British capitalist class.

There have, as a result, been a slew of resignations from Labour’s front bench and among the party’s local councillors.84 Such developments are to be welcomed. More generally, the mass movements emerging in many countries are very important. They reflect the internationalisation of solidarity with Palestine, not least due to the efforts of a younger generation of Palestinian activists in the 2000s, operating outside the structures of the PA, who helped build the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.85

Palestine has become the touchstone for any on the left claiming to stand in the tradition of internationalism and genuine liberation.

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 Thanks to Anne Alexander, Richard Donnelly, Charlie Kimber and Phil Marfleet for comments on an earlier draft. I have greatly benefited over the years from discussions with John Rose, from whom I first learnt to articulate these arguments on Palestine.

3 BBC, 2023.

4 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2023a.

5 Duggal, Hussein and Asrar, 2023.

6 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2023b.

7 Levy, 2023.

8 Ruebner, 2023.

9 See Pappé, 2006, chapters 10 and 11.

10 Nicholson, 2023.

11 Srivastava, 2023.

12 B’Tselem data; Stead, 2018.

13 These quotations were taken from a collection compiled by Abu Bakr Hussain. The full package of quotes, with sources, is available at https://t.co/Q5tybQyghW

14 Pacchiani, 2023.

15 This encompasses those who said “not at all” (47.5 percent) and “not so much” (35.9 percent). For the full survey data, see Israel Democracy Institute, 2023.

16 Englert, 2022.

17 Edmonds and Carey, 2017, pp372 and 375.

18 See Callinicos, 1996.

19 On the development of this system, see Alexander, 2022.

20 The Adalah legal centre’s “Discriminatory Laws Database” catalogues legal discrimination within Israel—see www.adalah.org/en/law/index. This operates alongside economic and social discrimination. Amnesty International points out that Israel’s Palestinian population is subject to “deliberate policies…to segregate them…into enclaves”, with 90 percent living in “139 densely populated towns and villages in the Galilee and Triangle regions…and Negev…in the south”. By being administratively excluded from military service, Palestinians are denied access to important forms of employment, subsidised housing and other benefits. Average net income in the “Arab sector” is just two-thirds that in the “Jewish sector”—see Amnesty International, 2022, pp76, 83 and 167.

21 Alexander, 2022.

22 Teibel, 2023.

23 On the struggle against antisemitism, see Gluckstein, 2023.

24 Rose, 2004, chapter 6.

25 Rose, 2002, p38.

26 Herzl, 1917, p12.

27 Marshall, 1989, p32.

28 Cited in Khalidi, 2020, p27.

29 Storrs, 1937, p405.

30 Englert, 2020, pp1660-1661. The Hanagah (“Defence” in Modern Hebrew) was the main Zionist militia in British-ruled Palestine.

31 Rose, 2002, p43.

32 Marshall, 1989, pp38-40.

33 Mashall, 1989, pp41-42; Rose, 2004, pp127-131.

34 Pappé, 2006, p19.

35 Cited in Pappé, 2006, p23.

36 Richard Crossman, cited in Marshall, 1989, p49.

37 Pappé, 2006, pp17-28.

38 Pappé, 2006, pp29-32.

39 Cited in Pappé, 2006, pp36-37.

40 Alexander and Rose, 2008, p9.

41 See Pappé, 2006, chapters 6-8.

42 Pappé, 2006, p82.

43 Lehi, often referred to as the “Stern Gang”, was a hard-right militia that split from the Irgun in 1940.

44 Pappé, 2006, pp90-91.

45 Pappé, 2006, p134.

46 Marshall, 1989, pp76-77.

47 See Ferguson’s article in this issue.

48 See Alexander, 2005.

49 Cliff, 2001, pp46-47.

50 Marshall, 1989, p117.

51 Marshall, 1989, p103.

52 Marshall, 1989, p136. Marshall adds that the “Israeli army remained to supervise the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, in which the Lebanese far-right Christian Phalange militia murdered between 3,000 and 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese Shia camp dwellers in cold blood”. The Israeli defence minister overseeing the operation, Ariel Sharon, later became prime minister.

53 Khalidi, 2020, p164.

54 Khalidi, 2020, p165.

55 Data from B’tselem.

56 In the West Bank it is the PA, as well as the IDF and settlers, killing Palestinians who protest the Israeli attack on Gaza.

57 See Abunimah, 2014, chapter 4.

58 Dana, 2019.

59 Khalidi, 2020, p206.

60 The rise of Hamas should be seen as part of a wider revival of Islamism in the region in the context of the demise of radical nationalist currents. The failure of the left, in its Stalinist and Maoist forms, to occupy this space cannot be dealt with here, but it is discussed in Marshall, 1989.

61 Baconi, 2018, p17.

62 Baconi, 2018, pp22-23.

63 Filiu, 2014, pp281-282.

64 Baconi, 2018, p96.

65 Filiu, 2014, pp290-292; Goldenberg, 2008.

66 Milton-Edwards, 2008; Baconi, 2018, p132.

67 Robinson, 2023.

68 Hammad and Tribe, 2020.

69 Manzanero, Crespo and others, 2021.

70 Shatz, 2023, p5.

71 Shatz, 2023, p5.

72 Kasrils, 2023.

73 The number of Algerians killed from 1954 to 1962 alone has been estimated to be somewhere between 400,000 and 1.5 million. Like the IDF, the French did not count their victims.

74 Shatz, 2023, p6.

75 Zeilig, 2016, p97.

76 Zeilig, 2016, pp140, 180, 187-188 and 197-200.

77 Algerian activist Hamza Hamouchene cites a scene in Pontecorvo’s film, in which, during a press conference, a captured FLN leader is asked, “Don’t you think it is a bit cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many people?” He replies, “And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenceless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.” See Hamouchene, 2023.

78 See, for instance, Baconi, 2018, pp46, 51, 82, 142 and 179-180.

79 See the fascinating account in Burton, 2012.

80 Baconi, 2018, pp239-240.

81 Harman, 2002.

82 Davidson and Hawkins, 2023.

83 Zilber, 2023.

84 Ringrose and Kimber, 2023.

85 For an account of the BDS movement and the furious response to it from Israeli leaders, see Marfleet, 2019.


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