After withdrawal from Lebanon crisis in Israel

After 22 years of the military occupation of South Lebanon, Israel's withdrawal marks an important change in the situation. Fred Weston looks at the history of Israel's occupation, the current state of the "peace process" and outlines an internationalist way forward.

After 22 years of the military occupation of South Lebanon, Israel's withdrawal marks an important change in the situation. The election of Ehud Barak of the Israeli Labour Party to the position of Prime Minister was welcomed by the West as they see in this the possibility of speeding up the peace process.

Even before the Second World War, the Zionist dream of creating an Israeli state on Palestinian territory was totally reactionary. The creation of this state was only possible on the basis of a war and the expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians from their land. Trotsky had predicted that the creation of such a state would mean the Jews having to live in an "infernal trap", a state of almost permanent warfare with their Arab neighbours.

The history of the state of Israel is in fact one of a series of wars. Far from being a "safe haven", the "promised land" from the very beginning has been a besieged fortress, surrounded by hostile states.

The strategic importance of this region lies in the fact that three quarters of the world's oil reserves are concentrated there. First British then US imperialism have always based their strategy for the domination of the Middle East on the division of the Arab people into a number of autocratic and reactionary monarchies such as those in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates. And they have used Israel and Turkey to police the region. US subsidies to Israel to the tune of $5 billion a year have transformed it into a major economic and military power in the region.

The occupation of Lebanon

Israeli military strategy has always been based on occupying buffer zones on its borders in order to defend its basic interests. In 1967 Israel's victory in the six-day war led to the occupation of the Sinai peninsula, the Gaza strip, the Golan Heights and the West Bank, where a total of 1,400,000 Arabs lived.

These territories were colonised with settlers recruited among the most fanatical orthodox Jews who were armed and supported by the Israeli state. Their number has now risen to more than 300,000. They have gradually displaced the local people, thus leading to the building up of enormous, and potentially explosive, resentment on the part of the Arab masses.

When the civil war broke out Syria and Israel invaded the Lebanon in 1978. Israel established its own protectorate in southern Lebanon, resting on a puppet army, the South Lebanese Army (SLA), which it used to crush any rebellion on the part of the Lebanese population.

Again in 1982 Israel launched a large scale invasion of the Lebanon with the aim of uprooting Arafat's PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation). In the hunt for PLO supporters genocide of the Palestinian people was perpetrated. Between 16th and 18th September 1982 Christian militias, allied to Israel, massacred over 2,000 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila.

The PLO apparatus collapsed and Arafat, together with 4,000 of his militants, had to flee to other countries. But at the same time the government and the ruling class of Israel found themselves, for the first time, facing mass opposition to the war inside Israel itself. This movement involved hundreds of thousands of Israeli workers and youth.

In 1985 the Israeli army was forced to withdraw, moving back to its former position in southern Lebanon. However, the Israeli debacle seriously affected the morale and discipline of the SLA and many cases of desertion and insubordination were reported. In these conditions it became almost impossible to contain the growing influence of the Hezbollah, an Iranian influenced Shiite Islamic movement. Thus a long, drawn out guerrilla movement developed. Israel's initial response was to increase the brutality of its reprisals, especially in July 1993 and April 1996 when it launched air raids on both military and civilian targets, thus killing hundreds of Lebanese. The SLA made an infamous name for itself by rounding up civilians and carrying out torture and murder in concentration camps such as the hated Al-Khiam prison.

A planned withdrawal or a debacle?

Sources close to the US government concluded that the withdrawal of Israeli troops would be a positive development, from their point of view, that would improve the situation in the Middle East. They saw it as a move aimed at gaining a strong position in Israel's peace negotiations with Syria.

Barak had already announced the withdrawal during the election campaign that was to bring him to power less than one year ago. The reasons he gave for the announced withdrawal basically come down to an admission that 50 years of Israeli foreign policy have been a failure and that a new relationship must be built up if security is to be guaranteed.

In twenty-two years of military occupation over 1,000 Israeli soldiers have been killed, but this has in no way served to stop the growing influence of the Hezbollah among the Arab population. Barak has had to admit that, "When we moved in there were no Hezbollah. They were created by the occupation" (Il Manifesto, 24.5.2000). Neither has security been guaranteed for the Israeli settlements near the Lebanese border. During these years the Hezbollah have managed to launch more than 4,000 missiles on Kiryat Shmona alone, a town in northern Israel.

The Israeli ruling class, together with western imperialism, had drawn the conclusion that their interests would be better served by withdrawal from southern Lebanon and reaching an agreement with its Syrian neighbour.

Barak abandons the SLA

The Israeli government had announced that the withdrawal of troops would take place at the beginning of July. So why did events suddenly develop so fast?

As always, the imperialists are not very generous with their own lackeys, when these are no longer of any use to them. In spite of 22 years of "honourable" service, at the same time as announcing the planned withdrawal Barak also declared that Israel would not give asylum to the SLA militiamen. Thus, in just a few hours, faced with the massive pressure of thousands of Arabs returning to their villages and to the homes they had been forced to abandon twenty years earlier, the SLA simply collapsed, abandoned even by its founder, general Lahad, who has fled to Paris. Hundreds of its soldiers refused to fire on the returning refugees and surrendered either to the Hezbollah or to the Lebanese army. Thousands deserted and fled with their families towards Israel. There was chaos and generalised demoralisation among the SLA soldiers.

The collapse of the SLA and the uprising of the Hezbollah transformed what was supposed to be an ordered retreat, with the "handing over of the keys" to the Lebanese army, into a chaotic rout. The prisons were abandoned, with the prisoners still in their cells. Even the Israeli military bases were left intact and now they will be used against Israeli air attacks, as one Israeli military expert commented bitterly.

The Hezbollah now dominate southern Lebanon. However, the Syrian army has a say in what it can and cannot do. Israeli reprisal air attacks could increase in the near future if the Hezbollah do fire on Israeli territory. This would include Syrian targets, who would get the blame for future Hezbollah raids. The Syrian regime is trying to achieve an agreement with Israel and doesn't want any trouble on the southern border of Lebanon.

The impact on Israel

The rout of Israel's puppets in southern Lebanon and the withdrawal of its troops has unleashed an offensive of the extreme right wing parties in Israel against the Barak government. The Barak government could thus be brought down. However, if this should lead to the Likud and the extreme right wing parties returning to government this will only serve to further aggravate the situation.

It would also lead to renewed social conflict along the same lines as what happened in the Spring of 1999, when the accumulated anger of the working class culminated in a series of strikes against the Netanyahu government and in a general strike of the public sector in April which involved 400,000 workers. The economic situation in Israel is placing a lot of pressure on the working class. Under this pressure, and with growing levels of inflation, the Histradut (the main Israeli Trade Union federation) has been forced to refuse the government's offer of a 3.1% increase in wages and has demanded increases of 14%. It was even forced to call a general strike, only to call it off later.

Three quarters of Israel's foreign trade is with the European Union and the USA. Therefore a crisis in the west means a crisis in Israel. On top of this, western aid is on offer only if the government of Israel applies IMF policies. That means cuts in welfare spending on such things as health and education. Already back in 1998 200,000 students in Israeli universities took part in a strike to stop the increase in university fees. They received massive support, with up to 91% of the population declaring they sympathised with the students' demands.

IMF policies have also meant widespread privatisation of Israel's large publicly owned industrial sector, involving job losses. In 1996 GDP growth in Israel was 4.5%. This had already declined to 1.5% in 1999. Unemployment has reached the level of 10%. This is a new phenomenon for Israeli workers, who were used to practically full employment for decades.

What is taking place is a huge differentiation between rich and poor. Zionism has always been based on the idea of "one-nation", but as in all capitalist countries there is no common interest between workers and bosses, and Israel is no exception. In 1999, 1.3 million Israelis, out of the total of 6 million, lived below the poverty line.

Strikes have already taken place and sooner or later the workers of Israel will have to take up the class struggle to defend their own interests against those of the Israeli ruling class.

The situation is much worse, however, when we look at the conditions of the Palestinian masses in the occupied territories and in the Palestinian Authority. In some areas one third of the work force is unemployed and of those that do have work less than a third have regular well paid jobs.

The Israeli bourgeoisie desperately needs to find new outlets for its products if it is to achieve the levels of growth required to avert a major movement, both among the workers in Israel and the Palestinian masses on its borders. This, together with pressure particularly from US imperialism, explains the attempts to keep the so-called "peace process" alive.

But on the basis of the crisis in the economy they will not be able to solve the basic underlying problems of the Palestinian masses. The unemployed will not get jobs. The housing problem will not be solved. Neither will the problem of water distribution. The Palestinians aspire to their own state where they can live in decent conditions. This will never be achieved so long as the capitalists dominate in Israel and the surrounding Arab regimes remain in the hands of reactionary cliques.

The crisis in Israel is a signal for millions of Arab youth and workers who are tired of being oppressed. In the occupied territories and in the Palestinian Authority the situation has become explosive, and the conditions for a new Intifada have developed. Thousands of Palestinians have come out onto the streets and have clashed with Israeli troops, like in 1987. The exchange of gunfire between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers underlines the extreme tension which has developed.

Nationalism must be broken down on all sides and in its place workers' internationalism should be posed as the only alternative. If the problems are posed in a class manner then an identity of interests can be developed among workers in Israel and Palestinian workers. The task of linking up the growing struggles of workers and youth in Israel against the effects of the crisis of Israeli capitalism to that of the struggle of the Arab workers has to be a priority for all conscious revolutionaries. This is not an easy task. But the crisis of capitalism in Israel will create the preconditions for achieving this. However, what is essential is the building of a workers' party among the Palestinian masses, based on the genuine ideas of Marxism. Such a party would be able to make an appeal to the Jewish workers and thus build workers' unity. It would be able to explain the need for common struggle of all workers in the Middle East, for the overthrow of the capitalists in Israel and for the overthrow of the reactionary Arab regimes, for the building of a Socialist Federation in the region, where all peoples would be guaranteed jobs, housing, health care, and a decent standard of living.

As long as capitalism continues to dominate the region, then any peace agreement will only be temporary. Conflicts will break out again and again. In the end it is a question of either class struggle for socialism or wars, ethnic conflict and barbarism.