Eyewitness Palestine

by Christopher Towne. Christopher is a member of the Connecticut branch of Socialist Action. He visited Palestine from Nov. 1 to 24.

Crossing into Bethlehem from Israel nowadays you are met with a scene from the pages of Orwell. The Israelis have removed anti-apartheid graffiti from the wall and erected two murals. One states in three languages, “Go in peace,” and the other describes the relationship between the annexed city of Jerusalem and the occupied city of Bethlehem as one of “peace and love.”

Tourists on their way to see the birthplace of Jesus may not even realize they’ve entered martial law. Along with the absurd facelift, plenty of things have changed in Palestine since my last stay here two years ago. Abbas and Fatah have accepted Western aid to crush Hamas. Militias are being disarmed despite continued Israeli attacks and land theft. And basic Zionist law is being challenged.

On Nov. 5, when I entered Nablus, our driver avoided the main road that bordered on Balata, the largest West Bank refugee camp. We heard shooting from that direction so I asked him what the Israelis were up to. He told me, “Not Israelis. Palestinian police.”

The Palestinian Authority (PA) had brought into Nablus hundreds of armed police to disarm militias, obviously expecting confrontation. We heard shooting for hours. Refugees have every right to take back their stolen land and redistribute it. Palestinians under occupation have every right to defend themselves from attacks and theft. But on that day in Nablus, the PA would not recognize the right for Palestinians to defend even the status quo.

The Oslo agreements created the PA as a policing agent, not a resistance force. Instead of uniting the various militias as a single Palestinian army, it is actively disarming them and negotiating with Israel for permission to create a capitalist mini-state.

In Halhool I met some locals and visiting French activists who were helping with the olive harvest. We were assisting farmers that had been victimized by the apartheid wall, which either made it difficult for them to access their lands or just outright confiscated it for use by Jewish settlers.

One family we met had waited seven years just to plow the land. We picked and pruned the olive trees, started a small fire for tea, and felt pretty good about helping the family get past the soldiers. The next time, however, the military was not impressed by the French and American volunteers. The family was once again denied access to their land, belonging to them since before the state of Israel was founded.

An English-speaking soldier had an interesting take on the situation. He believed the military presence was necessary because Israel had to broker between two extremist groups: Hamas and the radical Jewish settlers. The absurd idea that an occupation mediates between extremists should sound familiar to Americans fed up with this rhetoric being used to justify the Iraq war.

Israeli citizens may find comfort in Zionism by blaming the conflict on extremists, but this is not the reality. Even in Hebron, where the settlers are the most brazen and violent, the reality is not one of “bad apples.” Radical Zionists have been on a campaign to terrorize the population into leaving, with some successes. They do this by threats, open harassment, home invasions, vandalism, and violence.

They have taken over homes above Palestinian shops to throw their garbage, or bricks, upon them regularly. Shop owners have had to erect nets to keep the filth off their wares.

But the problem in Hebron, and in Palestine, is not a small population of extremist Jews. The Zionist government was founded with the intent to continue expanding and ridding the land of the indigenous population. The settlers have the support and protection of the military, and without this the local Palestinian population could have easily defended themselves. Israel is not mediating; it is using the settlers as a battering ram.

In Tel Aviv I met with folks at Kav La Oved (worker’s hotline) and got some good news. On Oct. 10 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Israeli companies that employ Palestinians under martial law must provide for them the same minimum wages and labor rights guaranteed to Jews.

At the same time, 90 West Bank workers employed by Yamit irrigation systems went on strike to demand enactment of the ruling. In the beginning of November, all 90 of the workers of the Sol-Or petrol container and metal factory went on strike for the same demands. This small strike wave is impressive in its simple demand: that Jews and non-Jews should have equal rights in the workplace. Though the victory brings hope, Israel fears becoming dependent on Palestinian labor and has been steadily replacing them with foreign “guest workers.”

The number of Palestinians employed inside Israel or in Israeli-controlled industrial zones has dwindled from 180,000 in 1987 (before the first Intifada) to 33,000 in 2004. It is unlikely that the Palestinian capitalist leadership will aid in the fight for West Bank workers to keep their jobs in Israel, preferring to profit from their own exploitation of those men and women.

Nor would they see the necessity of forming an alliance between guest workers and Palestinians, demanding full rights for non-Jews regardless of origin. Only a working-class leadership can remedy this.

The Zionist government of Israel enforces its racist rule in a three-tier system in which Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation, and Palestinian citizens of Israel are subject to different laws from Jewish citizens. Capitalist and middle-class Palestinian leaderships have led recent fights for those in one tier, but not the others. Only a working class leadership can unite Palestinians in all three tiers in a combined fight to dismantle Israeli apartheid.

Additionally, only a working-class leadership can unite Palestinians with Hebrew workers and guest workers in Israeli industries to establish a secular, democratic Palestine. Our activism aims at ending U.S. aid to the apartheid government of Israel, and our strategy here must reflect the complexities of the situation in Palestine. Israel is not a “mistake” in an otherwise benevolent U.S. imperialism.

This rhetoric only serves to justify imperialism, seeking merely to streamline it by ridding it of the burden of Israel.

Instead, our movement must seek to make it untenable to wage war on working people anywhere.

We must mobilize a powerful mass movement to counter Israel’s apartheid policies, while popularizing the ideas of the anti-imperialist struggle in the Middle East and in the world.

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