The Palestine Civil War

Editorial, Solidarity 3/114
The rulers of Israel are frequently accused, and justly so according to the evidence, of wanting a “settlement” with the Palestinians in which a “Palestinian state” is really a series of “Palestinistans”, what in South Africa were called bantustans.

Now the Palestinians are doing it for themselves. After a short civil war, “Palestine” has been split into two, Gaza ruled by Hamas and the West Bank (or, rather, pockets within the West Bank) ruled by Fatah. Thus the seemingly endless tragedy of the Palestinian people has taken a new turn.

On one level the civil war and partition is a product of outside pressure. When the clerical-fascist Hamas won the January 2006 general election, the Palestinians were instantly faced with a cutting-off of international aid, and were put in political quarantine by the USA and the EU. Israel withheld taxes which it, anomalously, collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

The pressure which the resultant seizing-up of the already battered and half-choked economy of the Palestinian territories put on the Palestinians were tremendous. Politically, it was pressure on Fatah to “deal with” Hamas.

The accusation that the EU, the USA, and Israel were fomenting Palestinian civil war came to be a common one. Essentially, it was true.

However, even if outside reactions to Hamas’s election victory accelerated developments, the Fatah-Hamas antagonism would probably have led to to open conflict anway, if not now then later. A religio-political totalitarian movement like Hamas has an inbuilt drive to expand its control and destroy all its more secular rivals. Appeals to Palestinian unity in facing Israel would have only a limited effect in inhibiting conflict. The Hamas-Fatah unity government formed in February 2007 was still-born.

Hamas’s immediate out-of-hand shooting of captured Fatah leaders in Gaza is an indication of the bitter antagonisms that existed long before the ragged clashes that led to full-scale civil war in Gaza in mid-June.

Fatah/ PLO seek an independent Palestinian state which would coexist with Israel, the so-called two states settlement. That is rejected by Hamas. The difference between Hamas and Fatah on policy towards Israel, which now shapes every aspect of Palestinian life, was radical and irreconcilable.

It seems Hamas’ victory in the January 2006 election had more to do with disgust at the corruption rampant in the old Fatah ruling circles, and the dependence of large numbers on Hamas’s welfare networks, than with Palestinian support for Hamas’s foreign policy.

But the Hamas victory was taken as a declaration of war by Israel and as a radical turn for the worse even by the EU which, though it has not stood up to the USA on the Middle East, does not merely reflect US policy.

The right of the Palestinians to their own genuinely independent state alongside Israel remains indefeasible. That right is not conditional on others approving of the governments they elect or which “emerge.” But winning that right is now much harder.

What will happen now? One of two things in Gaza. Either Hamas will carefully refrain from any attacks on Israel; or it won’t, and Israel will invade Gaza. The indefinite continuation of a Hamas mini-state in Gaza is improbable.

The case against the savage international reaction to Hamas’s victory is similar to that against boycotting Israel — it was an undifferentiating blow at all Palestinians. Immediately it strengthened rather than weakened Hamas. It positioned Fatah, by contrast, as the USA’s and Israel’s favourite Palestinians. It was a tremendous blow against a Palestinian people defenceless against such blows.

The more commonly-argued case, that Hamas won the election, and any hostile response was a violation of democracy, misses the point. Hamas is the Palestinian manifestation of the powerful clerical-fascist upsurge that is still a growing force in Arab and Muslim countries. Between that upsurge and the more secular Fatah, socialists and consistent democrats cannot be neutral. The spread and consolidation of clerical fascism is a sentence of death on the forces of progress and on the possibilities of a real labour movement. We take no positive political responsibility for Fatah — but for sure we are not on the side of the clerical fascists.

The argument from “democratic principles” is either disingenuous — as with the British kitsch-left it surely is — or thoughtless and emptily pious, but in either case it is a curiously right-wing social-democratic approach.

Lenin rightly condemned and scorned that approach in West European social democrats after the Russian Revolution, when those social-democrats criticised the Bolsheviks for counterposing working-class democracy, expressed in the Soviets (workers’, soldiers’ and farmers’ councils), to Parliamentarianism. He accused them of having a bourgeois conception of democracy, of “forgetting” the class struggle, and of substituting for the prosecution of the working-class cause a lifeless “arithmetical” juggling with numbers. He argued for working-class democracy, insisting justly that the Soviets were a higher form of democracy than any other so far discovered.

In recent British history this question played a very big part in securing the suicidal passivity of the labour movement when it was faced with the massive offensive on every front by the Thatcher government. The labour movement leaders argued successfully against mass working-class direct action when it was still feasible (before the crushing defeats that the labour movement later suffered) on the grounds that the mandate of the General Election was on the side of Thatcher’s Tories, and direct action was therefore undemocratic. Solidarity’s predecessor, Socialist Organiser, advocated working class direct action, an offensive against the government.

Essentially it was the same issue — on a different level — as that between Lenin and Karl Kautsky and the other supine social-democrats.

In the Palestinian territories, the ballot-box victory — no matter how transparent, fair, and democratic the election — of a force that will, if it has its way, destroy democratic procedures and impose a regime of subjugation on half the population, the women, raises the same sort of issue as that which Lenin confronted. The recent attacks on women for “immodest dress” by Hamas bigots are a mild indication of what Hamas is, and will do if it can.

The issue is the right to resist tyranny: the right to fight it, subvert it, defeat it, crush it. The secular, or more secular, or semi-secular, forces have every right to try to resist, defeat and crush clerical fascism. The argument that the ballot-box mandate for Hamas imposed on all Palestinians and on outsiders a democratic obligation to bow to Hamas is a reductio ad absurdum of the lifeless, pedantic, attitude which Lenin properly castigated.

There is an unanswerable democratic case against all such lifeless conceptions of democracy — the right to self-defence of those who will otherwise be crushed by the "democratically" annointed victors.

To argue that a Palestinian majority vote imposed a democratic obligation on Israel not to retaliate against a government which would use its power to make war as soon as it could mount it — that is to reduce the “democratic discourse” to political goobledygook.

Anyone who would accept a democratic verdict in favour of the enemies of democracy, of the working class, and of women, etc., thereby testifies that she or he takes neither democracy nor anything else seriously.

If the case against Israel’s reaction — and that of the USA and the EU — to Hamas’s victory is made not rationally, but in terms of an alleged democratic principle that guarantees the right of clerical fascists to the acquiescence of everyone in Palestine, in Israel, and beyond, it becomes an absurdity.

Can those who responded so brutally to the victory claim as justification the relegation of Hamas control to Gaza? Up to a point, yes; but that has been achieved at terrible cost to the Palestinian people; and the story isn’t finished yet, by any means.

The new inrush of money and aid to the Fatah government in the West Bank must strengthen Fatah with many Palestinians. The whole sequence of events since the 2006 election may however strengthen Hamas among the stiff-necked and the young intransigents.

The kitsch-left — the SWP in first place — who have turned themselves into allies and propagandists for clerical fascism all over the Arab and Muslim world, naturally sided with Hamas. Here they are logical and even principled: they share with Hamas a rejection of any resolution of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict that leaves Israel in being. Socialist Worker denounced Fatah in Hamas-like terms:

“Fatah has been transformed from an organisation that fought against Zionism and imperialism into an organisation that polices its own people in their service... There were growing fears that it was only a matter of time before Fatah launched a coup against Hamas”

Hamas had a right to do what it did, lest Fatah do it to them first! All this is consistent — consistently reactionary. Consistently reactionary in the service of an “anti-imperialism” of idiots.