As these lines are written, the death toll from Israel’s month-long siege of Gaza stands at more than 1,800 Palestinians and 67 Israelis, 64 of whom were soldiers. For the Palestinians, the figures skew in the opposite direction – over two thirds were civilians, including hundreds of children. 485,000 people have been displaced, fleeing the devastation of their homes only to find that even United Nations-sponsored schools and refugee camps are not safe from Israeli military strikes. Now that Israel has withdrawn its ground troops from Gaza, it appears likely that the current hostilities will come to an end – but what has really changed since July 8th saw the opening of Israel’s tragically misnamed ‘Operation Protective Edge’?
[Note: Since this article went to press, hostilities have resumed. The basic points of this article – examining the roots of the occupation and putting forward a class-based strategy for the anti-war movement – are still applicable. – Ed]
An Imperial Tragedy
The roots of the current war can be traced back to the formation of Israel as a settler-colonial state in 1948 when, with the backing of world imperialism (the U.K. and U.S. foremost), the new state was given 56 percent of Palestinian land, although the Jewish settlers made up only one third of the population at the time. Since then, Israel has expanded to engulf ninety percent of what used to be Palestine. Even with a diaspora of over five million people denied the right to return, further encroachments continue – particularly in the settlements on the West Bank.
Palestinians continue to be forced out at gunpoint to make room for Israeli colonists, in defiance of international law. Just days before Operation Protective Edge began, the Israeli government announced its intention to build 1,500 more Jewish-exclusive housing units in the West Bank / East Jerusalem.1 In general, Palestinians live under police tyranny, an elaborate separation wall (locally nicknamed the “apartheid wall”) and stifling economic restrictions including a near-total economic blockade of Gaza. Being in Israel proper as an Arab-Israeli citizen still means suffering under second-class citizenship – so much for the oft-repeated media claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.
Gaza itself is among the most densely populated polities in the world, with 1.8 million languishing in an open-air prison roughly the size of Detroit. Hamas was midwifed into existence by the Israeli government, promoted in the 1970s and ‘80s to squeeze out the secular left-nationalist Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which Israel deemed a terrorist organization. Nowadays the PLO’s wings are safely clipped as far as the Israeli state is concerned; it governs the West Bank as a comprador capitalist regime, subservient to Israeli capital. The decline of secular and left-wing resistance created a political vacuum that was filled by Hamas, whose leadership represents an aspiring national capitalist class.
All of this is to say that, without prettifying Hamas, this horrendous situation is an imperial creation. Hamas may well be a terrorist outfit – but if we define terrorism as attacking civilians to achieve political goals, they pale in comparison to the Israeli state’s indiscriminate slaughter and its political, diplomatic and military backing from the United States.
Problems of the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Campaign
Marxists support the struggles of the oppressed against their oppressors. Therefore socialists have been at the forefront of international Palestine solidarity, correctly predicting that ending the siege of Gaza in both its military and economic forms is a necessary prerequisite for the growth of a strong Palestinian left that can win the masses to its banner. Of course, the only lasting solution would be an international one, a revolutionary socialist movement spanning the Middle East that struggles against all oppressors and exploiters, be they Jewish or Arab elites. But in the immediate sense, active international solidarity has an important role to play in relieving the most acute manifestations of oppression. The breadth of solidarity displayed since July has been impressive: hundreds of thousands – perhaps over one million – demonstrators mobilized in every corner of the world, from up to 100,000 in London to around 7,000 in Israel itself. Those 7,000 anti-war Israelis are part of a bold albeit highly isolated development that includes some fifty IDF reservists who publicly refused to serve in the operation and a war crime whistleblower.2
Despite the protest ban by pro-American Egyptian military dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a hundred brave souls gathered in Cairo to demand that Egypt re-open its Gaza border, the closure of which has further intensified the economic and humanitarian crisis there. Even in the United States, where public opinion is shaped by a staunchly pro-Israel corporate media and politicians, 38 percent of Americans view Israel’s conduct during Operation Cast Lead as ‘unjustifiable’, while ten thousand people marched in Chicago and several thousand more have mobilized across the country to call for the end of the U.S.’s $3 billion annual aid to Israel.3
In the midst of this, the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel has gained a wider hearing, with several socialist groups – particularly the International Socialist Organization – placing it front and center. The ideas behind BDS, which began in 2005 in a call for action sent by numerous Palestinian labor and civil society groups, are straightforward: don’t buy Israeli goods, convince local government and academic institutions to divest from Israeli investments, and pressure governments to adopt sanctions against the Israeli state. It has been embraced by the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), the main anti-war alliance in the United States.4
The BDS campaign’s goals – ending the occupation and colonization of Arab lands, dismantle the apartheid wall, legal equality for Arab Israelis, and implementation of the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees – are all eminently supportable, but several aspects of the method should give socialists and anti-war activists pause.
For one thing, the consumer boycott is a relatively passive method of struggle and is difficult to enforce. While it has a place in the toolbox of working-class activism, elevating it to the front and center organizes people under ethical-consumerist rather than class lines. In any case, BDS per se is a blunt instrument. Taken to mean a total boycott of all things Israeli, it does not differentiate between the class relations among Israelis. It would, if adopted widely enough, most likely increase the siege mentality among the Israeli Jewish working class that is fostered by the capitalists.
As far as sanctions go, revolutionary socialists have no business calling on their own imperialist states to impose sanctions on another state – that would be a slip into the illusion of ‘democratic imperialism.’ We can see the results of this humanitarian form of imperialism in Iran and Baathist Iraq, where the burden of suffocating sanctions were passed down the ladder from the ruling class to the workers and the middle classes. In Israel, they would be passed down (to the greatest extent possible) to the Arab Israelis.
This is not to say that we should oppose BDS outright. The movement organizes broad numbers of people in a more consistent and ongoing way than street demonstrations alone are capable of doing. Rather, we should seek to emphasize boycott and divestment from Israeli military companies, non-Israeli companies whose business props up the Israeli military (such as HP), and companies operating in the occupied West Bank territories – SodaStream being a prominent example. This, along with active support for workers refusing to handle Israeli cargo5, highlights the international working class’s role as a class-for-itself acting in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Palestine, and incidentally also makes it more difficult for the right-wing media to label all pro-Palestinian organizers as anti-Semitic.
Permanent subjugation lends itself to permanent resistance, and 2014 won’t be the last Israeli crusade against the Palestinians. A modern incarnation of the medieval crusader state, Israeli terror cannot last without the generous sponsorship of U.S. imperialism, as UNAC and other anti-war activists correctly note. A stronger, more principled program of solidarity is our best weapon for severing that link.
(Originally published in The Red Vine.)
2. Eran Efrati, arrested after leaking information on the IDF massacre in the Gazan city of Shuja’iyya – where dozens of men, women and children were killed on July 20 – as an act of revenge against the death of Israeli soldiers. http://globalvoicesonline.org/2014/08/03/israeli-army-whistle-blower-leaks-account-of-revenge-attacks-against-civilians-by-israeli-troops-in-gazas-shujaiyya/
3. Bernie Sanders / Elizabeth Warren, http://www.gallup.com/video/174377/americans-continue-support-israel-actions-against-hamas.aspx
5. See the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee call to action, http://www.transportworkers.org/node/1413