Palestine and Israel after the elections

By Adam Hanieh


To many the Israeli elections in May represented a battle between those who supported peace and those opposed to it. Election advertisements by incumbent Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu re-ran scenes of bombings in Jerusalem, to portray the message that Israelis are safe only under the leadership of the right-wing Likud party. The Labour Party, under Ehud Barak, responded with the image of Barak as ``Israel's most decorated soldier''.

In the West Bank, however, the situation continued as normal throughout the election period. The average Palestinian on the street paid little attention to what was going on just a few kilometres to the east. In contrast, the Palestinian leadership urged Palestinians inside Israel to ``vote for peace'', a thinly veiled call for a vote for Barak.

This gap between the street and the leadership is perhaps the most striking feature of life in Palestine today. The street cares little for what happens on an official level, while on a daily basis land is confiscated, houses are demolished, and Palestinians are imprisoned and tortured.

The reason for this gap between the people and their leadership lies in the fact that five years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, the initial mood of optimism has been replaced by one of cynicism and self-interest. Many believe that the claim that Oslo was to lead to an independent Palestinian state has been revealed for a subterfuge aimed at ensuring Israeli control of the West Bank while Palestinians are given self-rule over isolated cantons -- a subterfuge agreed to and supported by a Palestinian elite that has benefited enormously from the last few years.

Today this elite is attempting to convince the population that Oslo "hasn't been implemented", that we just need a partner in peace and then the process can continue as planned. The cynicism of the general population shows that this is no longer believed.


To understand the current situation, it is necessary to trace briefly the evolution of the Palestinian struggle. Israel was formed in 1948 by the partition of the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River (historic Palestine) by the major imperialist powers. From the turn of the century, Britain, followed by the US, had encouraged the colonisation of Palestine by the Zionist movement.

Zionism, a European movement that arose in the mid-nineteenth century, claimed that the only solution to the persecution of Jews in Europe was the separation of Jew and non-Jew. Zionism claims that Jews form a national group, although in reality the common feature of Jews around the world is based on religious traditions.

The Zionist movement began the colonisation of Palestine with the backing of the major power in the area at the time, Britain. It was a hostile colonial-settler movement that uprooted and destroyed the indigenous Palestinian population. More than 800,000 Palestinians were evicted from their houses and land, and more than 400 Palestinian villages were erased from the map.

Many Palestinian refugees settled in the east of Palestine (the West Bank of the Jordan River) which was placed under Jordanian control. The hub of Palestinian social, political, religious and economic life --  the city of Jerusalem -- was divided in two, a barbed wire fence down the middle.

At the end of the 1948 war, Israel ended up with a little over 80 per cent of the country's area -- about 12 times Jewish ownership at the beginning of the war. What is now known as the West Bank and Gaza Strip make up the less than 20 per cent of the country then remaining in Arab hands.

About one and a quarter million Palestinian Arabs lived in Palestine toward the end of 1947, about 300,000 of them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the rest in the area which later became Israel. Of the latter, about 150,000 stayed on in Israel, the others -- around 800,000 -- became refugees outside Israel. In addition, about 30,000 of those who stayed in Israe1 were "internal refugees", Palestinian citizens of Israel who were not allowed to go back to their homes.

Thus, about 70 per cent of the Palestinian people became refugees. This is still about the ratio of refugees among the estimated 4.5-5 million Palestinians: there are about 3.5 million Palestinian refugees today.

Palestinian Arabs, before the war, lived in about 850 villages and towns, five of which were mixed Arab-Jewish towns. About 300 localities were in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and about 550 in what became Israel. Of the latter, Arabs continued to live in about 100. The other 450 towns, villages and Bedouin settlements were emptied and the great majority physically destroyed.

This colonisation and occupation were naturally met by resistance. The early Palestinian movement was largely peasant-based but led by wealthy, pro-British Jerusalem families such as the Husseinis and Nashashibis who acquiesced in British demands that were steadfastly pro-Zionist. (The most important figure in the pre-1948 leadership was the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, who was appointed by the British.) When a genuinely peasant- and worker-based movement arose -- such as that led by Izzadine Al Qassem during the 1920s these notables did everything in their power to oppose it.

The aim of the mainstream Zionist movement was to create a Jewish-only state in Palestine. Israeli historian Benny Morris observed that, for the Zionist leadership, "transferring the Arabs out" was seen as the "chief means" of "assuring the stability and `Jewishness' of the proposed Jewish state". In 1948 this was achieved by what would today be called "ethnic cleansing".


In 1967, Israel occupied through military force the West Bank, Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights (Syrian territory) and the Sinai Peninsula (Egyptian territory). The Israeli government then began a process of settlement building. Settlement construction was not arbitrary but rather carried out with definite plans to solidify Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip and eventually annex these territories. Today there are more than 300,000 settlers living in some 200 settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

The present-day Palestinian movement was born in 1967, when Yasser Arafat and his Fatah movement took control of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The PLO had been established in 1964 by Arab countries and was initially headed by Ahmad Shukeiry, who had the backing of all the pro-West, conservative Arab states. The 1967 war brought an end to Shukeiry's brief rule.

Arafat's overt message was simple: Palestinians needed to rely on themselves, not on other Arab regimes, for their liberation. He backed this message with daring raids against an overwhelmingly superior Israeli military in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. News of these raids was broadcast on illegal Palestinian radio stations and through underground newspapers.

However, from its inception, Fatah had a distinct social base and mode of operation that ran counter to its message of independence. These factors are critical in understanding current developments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Arafat is now chairperson of the PLO and president of the Palestinian National Authority.

Fatah's formative years were in Kuwait during the late 1950s. The five key individuals in Fatah's original leadership came from wealthy backgrounds and during their time in Kuwait formed strong links with Palestinian business people and members of Kuwait's royal family. Large donations from the Palestinian bourgeoisie sustained Fatah in its early years and enabled Arafat to rule over a bloated organisational structure in which people were appointed by him on the basis of their personal support. This method continues to this day in the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Arafat's first financial success was with Tala'at Al Ghosein, former Kuwaiti ambassador to the USA and a wealthy businessman. Others followed: Muhsin Al Qattan, who heads a large investment fund, Abdel Majeed Shoman, head of the Arab Bank, the largest bank in the Arab world, and Mahmoud Abbas, a wealthy Palestinian living in Qatar who is currently number two in the PLO and one of the key architects of the Oslo accords.

Fatah's formation and support from the Palestinian bourgeoisie in the diaspora were perhaps not obvious to supporters of the Palestinian struggle in the West. Images of armed struggle and Palestinians fighting in Lebanon symbolised the Palestinian struggle for many during the late 1960s and 1970s. Certainly the PLO enjoyed wide support as the representative of the Palestinian people, but it was always controlled by a leadership which carefully balanced the interests of the majority of Palestinians against its conservative financial base.

This changed with the outbreak of the intifada (uprising) in 1988. In its early years the intifada expressed the wishes of the Palestinian people living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Youth confronted Israeli soldiers with stones, and an entire generation suffered imprisonment, torture and murder at the hands of the Israeli military. The intifada initially developed independently from the PLO as a genuine grassroots movement against the occupation. It caught by surprise not only the Israeli government but also the leadership of the PLO.

The intifada eventually collapsed due to factors such as the weight of Israeli repression and the internal state of Palestinian society within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These factors are complex and cannot be elaborated here, but the intifada left an indelible mark on the Palestinian struggle. In particular:

  • The focal point of resistance shifted from Lebanon and Jordan to inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This presented a challenge to the traditional Palestinian leadership, which at this point was located in Tunis.

  • A whole generation was brought up with a tradition of struggle. The intifada affected all layers of society â€” thousands were imprisoned, tortured and killed.

  • A new leadership arose within the occupied territories. Naturally, this leadership identified with and had strong links with the PLO outside the country, but the intifada was organised on a community and village level through underground committees.

In the early 1990s, an impetus developed for a settlement between Israel and the PLO. The pressure for this came from a number of directions--the intifada had taken its toll on Israel's occupation, while the PLO had made the decision in 1988 to accept a two-state solution (i.e., a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and recognition of Israel).

The outcome of this was the Oslo accords, signed in 1993 between Israel and the PLO. Oslo was promoted as leading to the eventual withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories in return for normalisation and security for Israel. Issues such as Palestinian refugees, settlements and the status of Jerusalem were to be negotiated and decided within five years (i.e. by September 1998). More than five years later, Israel retains control over more than 95% of the area, and final status negotiations are yet to begin.

Oslo was widely debated both inside and outside Palestine after the signing ceremony on the White House lawns in September 1993. Some characterised the agreement as a victory that would lead to a Palestinian state. Others were more cautious, noting that any advances would be dependent on the level of involvement and mobilisation of the Palestinian people. A third position rejected the agreement as a fatal compromise that gave away much, with no guarantees for Palestinian self-determination.

Controlling land and resources

Zionism, as a colonialist-settler movement, has always been faced with the question of how to deal with the indigenous Palestinian population. Following the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the Zionist leadership confronted the same dilemma as earlier in the century: it wanted the land but not the people.

Expulsion was not politically tenable this time. Instead Israel adopted the more sophisticated approach of controlling land and resources while confining Palestinians to self-rule in isolated cantons. This was the essence of earlier plans put forward by Israel's military and economic elite (for instance, the 1967 Allon Plan discussed below) and which today have reached their conclusion in the Oslo process.

The overall framework for Oslo was the heightening tension between US imperialism and Europe over competing visions of the Middle East. Both blocs view the region as an important area of influence and are competing for control over the economic and political arenas.

The US has historically been the major backer of Israel in the economic, military and political sense. This continues today, and the US has also encouraged trade and military cooperation between Israel and other countries in the region (particularly Turkey). The oil-producing countries in the Gulf are also completely subservient to US policy, especially following the 1991 Gulf War.

Europe has a long history of colonial rule in the area. In an effort to challenge US hegemony, in the early 1990s Europe began the Euro-Mediterranean Basin Plan, aimed at strengthening the dependence of the region on Europe. Funding has been allocated for "cooperation projects" between European and Middle Eastern countries. This funding gives incentives to programs that include Israel as a partner. For the purpose of Euro-Med funding, Israel is considered a member of the European Community.

As the largest economic and military power in the Middle East, Israel is viewed by both Europe and the US as the high-tech centre, while other countries would serve as suppliers of cheap labour, resources and a market. For this to happen, Israel needs to normalise its relationship with the Arab countries that traditionally maintained a boycott of the Israeli economy. This is not possible without a settlement with the Palestinians.

Oslo's faults can be summarised as follows:

  • Oslo postponed the fundamental issues in the Palestinian struggle (refugees, Jerusalem, settlements) to some later date while allowing Israel time to consolidate its control over Palestinian territory.

  • Oslo legitimised the Israeli claim to the West Bank and Gaza Strip (the exact amount to be "determined through negotiations"), despite the fact that even the UN had recognised the occupation as illegal. The Oslo process removed Israel's obligations to leave the occupied territories, reducing these to "concessions".

  • Oslo and accompanying agreements brought Israel in from the cold. Economic relations between Israel and Arab countries are proceeding at a very rapid rate. The boycott of Israel has virtually been lifted, and Israeli companies are rapidly exporting factories and capital to Jordan and Egypt.

  • Oslo created an enormous schism between all sectors of the Palestinian community through reducing the Palestinian question to only those Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza â€” about 30 per cent of the Palestinian people. This ignores the 1 million Palestinians who live inside Israel and the 3.5 million who live in exile (mostly in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon)

Facts on the ground

Since 1993, the Israeli government has pursued several related strategies to remove Palestinians from the majority of the West Bank and predetermine the status of most of the occupied territories before final status negotiations. These strategies are:

  • House demolition

  • Settlement construction

  • Bypass road construction

  • Closure policy

During the intifada, most house demolition took place for punitive reasons. Families of imprisoned activists often had their houses demolished as punishment for the activities of their relatives. Following Oslo, house demolition continued but with a focus of containing Palestinian population growth within small designated areas of the West Bank.

Israeli-prepared plans have placed severe restrictions on Palestinian building in large areas of the West Bank. Municipal boundaries were drawn by Israeli planners, who aimed to contain the population to a limited area. In some cases, boundaries drawn in the early 1980s have never been redrawn to include natural expansion. Palestinians have had to expand building outside these municipal boundaries because of the growing population. However, Palestinians are almost never granted permits to extend or build new houses. For this reason, Israeli military authorities claim houses are "built illegally" and proceed to demolish them. These demolitions often come unannounced while families and their property remain inside the house.


The restriction of Palestinian growth is mirrored by an expansion of the Israeli Jewish settler presence in the West Bank, which has grown dramatically since Oslo. Almost all of the homes which have been demolished or are threatened with demolition are near by-pass roads or settlements, or lie in the path of their expansion.

Between 1967 and 1977, the Israeli Labour government unofficially followed what was known as the Allon Plan. This called for the construction of settlements in Jerusalem and along the Jordan valley. These settlements were considered "security buffers" and essentially divided the West Bank from Jordan. During the mid-1980s, settlement construction focused on creating corridors between Jerusalem and the Jordan valley settlements and in the north of the West Bank, dividing the two major Palestinian towns of Nablus and Ramallah from each other. In 1991, a key figure in Israeli politics, Ariel Sharon, announced his Seven Stars plan. This called for construction of settlements with the intent of dissolving the border between the West Bank and Israel.

The result today is three large groups of settlements that divide the West Bank into three separate cantons. These settlements are not "military outposts" or temporary housing units. They are major cities with schools, shopping complexes and entertainment centres, linked by roads to Israel. They have become permanent fixtures.

The two largest settlement blocs are Gush Etzion and Gush Adumim. Gush Etzion is south of Bethlehem and has a projected population of 35,000. Its size and the construction of roads linking it to Jerusalem, other settlements in the Jordan valley, and the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron divide the southern part of the West Bank, in particular the major Palestinian towns of Bethlehem and Hebron. The Gush Adumim bloc, with a population of more than 20,000, is the largest settlement bloc in the West Bank. It links Jerusalem with settlements in the Jordan valley. A third bloc south-west of Nablus completes the division of the West Bank into three separate Palestinian cantons centring on Jenin and Nablus, Ramallah, and Hebron.

The number of settlers increased during the Rabin-Peres administrations by 48% in the West Bank alone. The Likud administration under Netanyahu also displayed a strong commitment to settlement expansion, most clearly evidenced when Netanyahu authorised construction of the 6500-unit new settlement of Har Homa, with a projected population of 25,000–30,000 in annexed East Jerusalem. Barak has promised to complete this settlement. Government ministers and settlement spokespersons have talked of a target settler population of 500,000 in the West Bank by the year 2000.

In the Gaza Strip, fewer than 6000 settlers live amongst 1 million Palestinians. However, these settlements and other land that Israel occupies amount to 42% of the total area. The settlements impoverish the Palestinian population by taking important agricultural land and natural resources such as water. The Gaza Strip settlements also disrupt the territorial contiguity of the Palestinian area through the construction of roads and military areas.

By-pass roads

The by-pass road network, which runs throughout the West Bank, was not designed to serve the needs of the local Palestinian population but to link the various Israeli settlements to one another and to urban centres within Israel. Not only did Israel demolish homes that lay in the path of the roads, but it has also issued demolition orders on homes in the path of future roads, and on homes lying "too close" to existing roads.

These roads enable the settlers to travel within the West Bank and to Israel without passing through any areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli road maps indicate that Israel views the West Bank as an integral part of Israel. A road network is almost completed which criss-crosses the area from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Highways connect settlements in the Jordan valley with Tel Aviv.

The design of the current by-pass road network is a continuation of plans proposed by the Israeli government during the 1980s, which aimed to strengthen settlements and divide Palestinian communities. Construction of the roads was begun by the Rabin government; within the context of Oslo, Israel has been able to rapidly carry out plans which international condemnation prevented it implementing fully prior to the "peace process".

Different-coloured licence plates identifying Palestinian or Israeli drivers make it impossible for Palestinians to use the roads safely. For example, a Palestinian travelling from Ramallah (north of Jerusalem) to Bethlehem (south of Jerusalem) must take a perilous mountain path known as "the valley of fire", which can take up to two hours. An Israeli making the same journey could take the network of by-pass roads and arrive within 40 minutes.

Blockade and closure

During periods of closure, people and goods are prevented from moving from the West Bank and Gaza to Jerusalem and Israel. These blockades became more sophisticated shortly before and after the signing of the first Oslo accord in 1993. In 1993, the Israeli government imposed a permanent blockade on the West Bank, and instituted a system of "entry permits" to control the flow of people across the border. Palestinians without a permit are refused entry into Jerusalem and Israel, and the permit system has become increasingly stringent: it now includes only married men over the age of 35 and women over the age of 30.

The canton-like Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank are easily surrounded and sealed by the Israeli military, and a new and improved blockade has periodically been put into effect. During these periods, all residents of Palestinian-controlled areas are under a kind of arrest; villagers and agricultural produce from outlying areas cannot come to the towns, and people and goods from the towns cannot go to the villages.

Residents of the Gaza Strip have been regularly prevented from working inside Israel, causing immense hardship for a population reliant on that source of income. The promised "safe passage" between the West Bank and Gaza Strip has not been delivered, meaning that Palestinians in Gaza live in overcrowded prison-like conditions. Gazan students wishing to study in the West Bank (many of whom are several years into their courses) are prevented from doing so.

The consensus of Israeli decision makers over the last 30 years has been to support some form of autonomy in which Palestinians would live in isolated blocs, separated from each other by Israeli Jewish settlements and Israeli highways. In this way, the Palestinian population could be contained. What is clear now, five years after Oslo, is that Israel has reached this goal and virtually guaranteed final control over the West Bank.

The economics of Oslo

These "facts on the ground" have been discussed by many analysts. While they form a major indictment of the Oslo process, a fact that is often overlooked is the concurrent political transformation of the Palestinian leadership to self-interested partners in Oslo. Oslo essentially marks the coalition of different sectors of the Palestinian elite as junior partners with Israeli capital. It signifies the transition of the PLO from a national liberation force to the political representative of those bourgeois interests.

As we have seen, the PLO and its dominant faction, Fatah, have always had close links with Palestinian money in the diaspora. Until the early 1990s, this always produced a certain tension between its pretension as a movement of national liberation and the more conservative interests which supplied the financial base of the movement. Indeed, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Arafat relied upon many of these wealthy Palestinians as a conduit for secret negotiations with the US.

In 1973 former Pennsylvanian governor William Scranton (brother-in-law of Time Incorporated chairman James Linen) met with Hassib Sabbagh, a Palestinian multimillionaire who is still a strong supporter of Arafat. Sabbagh raised the possibility of a small Palestinian state as acceptable to the PLO leadership. Sabbagh and others like him continued meeting with representatives of the US government and the CIA, but these meetings were kept secret because of their unacceptability to the majority of Palestinians.

While the PLO leadership remained outside the country, the Palestinian bourgeoisie living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip acted as subcontractors for the Israeli capitalist class.

Since 1967, a very clear Israeli policy has been to stem the development of any independent Palestinian economy in the occupied territories. This is indicated starkly by the fact that 50% of military orders (which is how Israel ruled the West Bank) were concerned with purely economic issues. Until 1990, Palestinians were forbidden to start any independent economic initiatives. This, coupled with land confiscation and the prohibition of agricultural exports, left the Palestinian bourgeoisie no option but to act as agents for Israeli goods in the Palestinian market. The Palestinian economy was (and remains) totally dependent on the Israeli economy.

Because of their close relationship with Israel, the Palestinian bourgeoisie in the occupied territories were regarded suspiciously during the intifada. It was clear that those who collaborated were often rewarded financially by the Israeli government. Two of the wealthiest business people in the Bethlehem area today (involved in the stone industry) were provided protection by the Israeli military during the intifada.

In 1994 the Paris economic accords between the PLO and Israel spelled out in more detail just what the future economic relationship would be in the new era of "peace". The accords formalised the dependence of the Palestinian economy on Israel, while closures of the West Bank and Gaza caused the economy to deteriorate to the lowest level in many years.

The Paris accords gave the Israelis the right to control the exports and imports of Palestinian goods if those goods would threaten any Israeli industry. However, Oslo has brought rich rewards for some. The almost complete ending of the Arab boycott has increased Israeli investment in other Arab countries â€” ironically at the expense of the Palestinians. One of the economic agreements between Israel and Palestine permitted the establishment of industrial parks sponsored by Israeli, Palestinian and US capital. These areas were to resemble the free trade zones of Taiwan and Mexico, without the attendant security problems of Palestinian workers in Israel.

Israeli companies continue to dominate the industries of the occupied territories. The largest industry in the territories is textile and garment, comprising around 1600 firms. Of these, 80-90% are subcontractors to Israeli companies.

The close relationship between Israeli and Palestinian business has caused anger among ordinary Palestinians. Monopolies control 27 basic commodities, including steel, cement, petrol and meat. These monopolies are controlled by ministers and senior figures within the Palestinian Authority.

The largest monopoly is petrol, headed by Arafat's senior economic adviser, an Iraqi Kurd, Khaled Salam (also known as Mohammed Rashid). Salam has signed a deal with the Israeli company Dor to supply all petrol within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. One of Dor's managers is Shmuel Goren, who was Israel's chief military coordinator for the territories during the intifada years. The Palestinian Security Forces prevent petrol stations from obtaining supplies from any other company. Salam also controls the cement monopoly, which is allied to the Israeli company Nesher. Eighteen per cent of Nesher's revenue comes from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Salam is also the principal shareholder in the Palestine International Bank and recently bought a luxury five-star hotel in Ramallah.

Nabil Sh’ath, minister of international planning, owns an Egyptian computer company that supplies most of the Palestinian Authority's computers, while the head of preventive security in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, runs the gravel monopoly.

Sky, a company which controls virtually all advertising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is owned by Arafat's number two, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

The largest construction company in the occupied territories is owned by Jamil Tarifi, minister of civil affairs. Tarifi is cynically known as the "minister of settlements" for his company's suspected settlement-building activities during the intifada. He was the target of several assassination attempts until he joined Fatah after the Oslo accords.

Profits of the Palestinian bourgeoisie are drawn from monopolistic positions as middle men for Israeli imports; there is very little investment in Palestinian industry. The majority of investment in the West Bank is speculative, in areas such as construction of luxury apartments or new buildings with prohibitive rents. Investment in infrastructure tends to be funded by loans from bodies such as the World Bank, with commissions drawn by Palestinian ministers and projects given to companies with favoured relationships with the PA. Naturally, in such a system of "crony capitalism", disputes arise between capitalists over how projects are distributed, the level of transparency and who has access to the right person.

The ruling class is reliant on its relationship with Israeli and international capital, not on industrial or productive investment. For this reason, a large proportion of the Palestinian working class works inside Israel, travelling back and forth on a daily basis. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 37% of male waged employees worked in Israel and the settlements in 1997. Private Israeli employers employ the vast majority of these workers (98%) on a casual basis. Sixty per cent of these workers are employed in the construction sector. The average daily wage for workers inside Israel is NIS 94.5 (US$1= 4.1 NIS), compared to NIS 56.8 in the West Bank and NIS 45.5 in the Gaza Strip.

One illustration of the relationship between the PA and Israel is in the new Jericho Casino, finished last year. The casino is located just outside Jericho, opposite a Palestinian refugee camp. It was funded by Austrian, Israeli and Palestinian capital (it is rumoured that prominent Palestinian officials are large shareholders). Gambling is illegal in Israel, so the casino caters to Israelis who travel from Tel Aviv and spend the night in newly constructed hotels in a nearby settlement. Although the casino is located in an area under Palestinian control, Palestinians are forbidden to enter it unless they hold a foreign passport or a VIP card.

This economic structure has resulted in a dramatic polarisation in living conditions. While economic indicators such as unemployment and income levels have worsened since the beginning of Oslo, a layer of ostentatious wealth is apparent in the major Palestinian cities.

The Palestinian Authority

A system of control prevents any mobilisation against the leadership. This system takes different forms. Overtly, activists have been imprisoned (often in collaboration with the Israeli security services and the CIA), refused court hearings and imprisoned indefinitely without trial. On other levels, the direct economic control of many institutions by the PA discourages people from speaking out, while people who conform are granted jobs and privileges.

Yasser Arafat has essentially dissolved the PLO and its structures, replacing it with a "bantustan" government, the Palestinian Authority, dependent on Israel and the United States. Endemic corruption and lack of respect for law or transparent procedures have marked the PA's rule. The Basic Law, passed by the Legislative Council, has been waiting three years for Arafat's signature. Municipal elections, which were supposed to be held two years ago, have been postponed indefinitely. Arafat has surrounded himself with hundreds of advisers, analysts and directors-general appointed because of their loyalty to the regime.

The population has played no role in determining the course of negotiations or mobilising against the actions of the Israeli government, except for narrow conjunctural reasons. This has led to a deep sense of cynicism among people who now refuse to lay their lives on the line to maintain the status quo.

A good example of this was the "Day of Rage" organised in early June 1999, which was supposed to be a day of mobilisation against settlement expansion. The demonstrations were poorly attended, and several key political centres refused to participate. This should be compared to the last major uprising in the territories in September 1996, when more than 90 people were killed by the Israeli military in clashes that lasted for days. There have been many cases where the Palestinian Security Forces have intervened to prevent demonstrations.

Rather than mobilising the people, the Palestinian leadership has placed its hopes in US imperialism, Arab regimes and the Israeli Labour Party. These hopes are not aimed at liberating land or people but at maintaining its privileged relationship vis-à-vis the Israeli government â€” i.e. securing itself as the head of the bantustan government at the end of the final settlement.

The Oslo accords continued the dependence of the Palestinian economy on the Israeli centre but also brought to political power an alliance between diaspora capital, the local comprador bourgeoisie and the PLO military-bureaucratic elite. This unholy trinity has benefited enormously from the accords, while the majority's economic and political rights deteriorated.

The left

The Palestinian left has not stepped into the vacuum of political leadership. The major left parties â€” the Popular Front (PFLP), Democratic Front (DFLP) and the Palestine People's Party (PPP, formerly the Communist Party) â€” have lost many former activists and either become part of the PA or been absorbed into the NGO movement. At no critical juncture in the Oslo process has there been any attempt by the left to mobilise the population independently of the PA. For this reason, the opposition role has fallen to the Islamist movement.

A plethora of NGOs has arisen, which advocate strengthening democracy and building "civil society". In practice this has de-politicised Palestinian society, replacing mass struggle with professional bodies that seek funds to hold workshops, conduct training courses and conferences, to advocate rather than mobilise.

The first NGOs arose during the British mandate period, pre-1948. They were largely charitable institutions run by wealthy individuals, which determined their conservative service-oriented approach. Despite their numerical weight in the NGO sector, they remain politically insignificant.

The current NGO movement dates from the 1977 Camp David accords â€” the bilateral agreement between Egypt and Israel which was condemned by the PLO â€” and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Following these two events, the PLO aimed at strengthening support for the national movement within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This movement was initially characterised by a mass mobilisation approach, focusing on worker and student movements, voluntary work projects and organising women. The Palestine Communist Party (PCP) played a significant role â€” it was not a part of the PLO â€” compared to Fatah, which largely depended on funding through the Jordanian regime.

Post-intifada, NGOs began to suffer from the decline of the mass movement that had enabled them to subsume the contradiction between grassroots, popular organisations and elite, professional bodies. In part this stemmed from the requirements of foreign funding organisations, which began to replace PLO funds. Again it was the PCP which led the way; it needed to make links with foreign donors more urgently than other factions which were part of the PLO.

The early 1990s marked the definitive transition of NGOs from mobilisers to service providers. In this approach, Palestinians are treated as passive "constituencies" rather than active participants in the struggle. Strategies advocated by NGOs have become almost the sole strategy of much of the left. Indeed, virtually without exception, the leaders of NGOs were previously activists in the left.

Today, millions of dollars flow from foreign governments to NGOs in Palestine. Most of this funding comes from Europe or the US and is clearly not going to be given for projects that are considered anti-Oslo.

The contradiction has sharpened in recent years as some smaller NGOs that have attempted to retain a grassroots and activist approach, struggle to survive, while a few favoured NGOs receive huge amounts of funding.

On a broader level, the crisis of the left is directly related to the Palestinian Authority. None of the left parties have been able to articulate a coherent strategy towards the PA. The DFLP and PPP participate within the structures of the PA, and all the parties rely on Arafat for funding. Many activists have resigned from the left parties or have become inactive. As yet, there is no organisational structure that can regroup these people.

Fatah has also been affected by the post-Oslo situation. With the return of the Tunis-based leaders, many of the local Fatah activists resented the assumption of leadership by people who had not participated directly in the intifada. Arafat has had to walk a careful line in balancing the interests of the local Fatah units and those of his traditional base in the diaspora. Many local Fatah branches refused to participate in the PA or its security branches, and instead have degenerated into armed vigilante groups. Arafat has been unable to disarm these organisations despite several attempts. There have been many cases in which people have been killed in fighting between the official security forces (of which there are eleven) and local Fatah tanzeemat (organisations).

The Islamic movement

The Islamic movement, represented by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, has become the most prominent target of the Israeli government and the international community. Responsibility for suicide bombings and militant speeches against Israel has led to illegal mass arrests of activists and calls by the Israeli government to "dismantle the terrorist infrastructure" in the areas under the control of the PA.

Hamas was declared publicly in February 1988 as a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). A Palestinian wing of the Egyptian MB appeared during the 1970s under the leadership of Sheik Ahmad Yassin. The MB was originally a cultural and religious force aiming to establish the "Islamic personality" in the West Bank and Gaza. It abstained from all anti-occupation activities, focusing instead on religion. Heavily funded from Saudi Arabia, the MB could claim in 1986 that it controlled 40% of Gaza's mosques and the largest university in the West Bank and Gaza.

However, the mass struggles of the intifada confronted the MB with the possibility of losing its grip on Palestinian society. It responded by forming Hamas, which for the first time linked nationalism with religious duty. It was characterised by a mix of fervent nationalism and anti-Semitism, rejecting the PLO’s acceptance of a two-state solution in 1988 and accusing Jews of responsibility for World War II and the League of Nations.

In the years following Oslo, Hamas combined a series of military operations and tactical manoeuvres with the Palestinian Authority and leftist factions. In 1994 it joined with the Popular and Democratic Fronts in forming the Damascus-based Palestinian Forces Alliance â€” an anti-Oslo coalition of 10 groups.

The first signs of tensions within Hamas occurred with the elections of January 1994. Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin supported participation because it would "reassert the strength of the Islamist presence", but many other activists criticised participation because it would add legitimacy to Oslo. While Hamas did not end up participating openly, several prominent Islamists close to the movement did stand and received considerable support.

Today the Islamic movement enjoys strong support (second only to Fatah). In 1999 it won the university elections in every student council in the West Bank and Gaza. No doubt this stems from the movement's image as "the party of the martyrs and prisoners" and its reputation as a movement opposed to both Israel and the PA.

In the last two years, though, there has been no significant military operation by Hamas, and sections have moved closer to the PA. Partly this relates to the increased coordination between the PA and Israel and the arrest of Hamas militants. Partly it relates to the PA's strategy of attempting to divide Hamas’  cultural and religious project from its nationalist program.

Some sections of the Hamas leadership are moving back to the ideals of the Muslim Brotherhood and are more concerned with the implementing its social policies than fighting the occupation. This will likely become an increasing source of tension because much of Hamas’ membership from the intifada years joined for nationalist reasons.

Within Israel

The aim of British colonialism and then the us was to build a Jewish state that would represent the interests of imperialism in the region. This sometimes contradicted the interests of the Jewish bourgeoisie in the area.

The clearest example of this was the debate around the use of Arab labour during the years before the founding of the state. Labour Zionism fought strongly for Jewish-only labour even though Palestinian labour was cheaper and favoured by bourgeois elements. This formed the main conflict within the Zionist community during the 1920s and 1930s; the Zionist labour bureaucracy won out with considerable support from the international Zionist community. At this point, the economic interests of a section of the Zionist bourgeoisie were subordinated to the political interests of a Jewish-only state and imperialism.

The last 50 years, however, have formed an indigenous ruling class marked by the fusion of traditional bourgeois elements and the labour bureaucracy. Politically this is reflected in the convergence of different segments of the ruling class and its economic program. There is no doubt that the Israeli ruling class is strongly behind the political and economic implications of the Oslo process, which can be summarised in the following:

  • An integration between the Israeli economy and the economies of the Middle East, where Israel exploits the cheap labour and the markets of the Arab hinterland.

  • The liberalisation and privatisation of major sectors of the Israeli economy, including banking and construction, which have traditionally been controlled by the state.

  • Vicious cutbacks to the "welfare state" and social programs that have traditionally provided security to the Israeli Jewish community.

  • The end of the "Palestinian problem" through granting a form of autonomy to Palestinians living in the West Bank â€” to control the land but not the people, who would be controlled through a Palestinian "proxy".

This program is premised on the shifts within the broader Middle East and the defeat of the Arab revolution across the region. Imperialism has many friends now â€” not just the traditional bases of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Every Middle East regime with the possible exceptions of Iraq, Libya and Syria follows a pro-imperialist policy like never before. Israel is in the process of becoming a Middle Eastern nation.

The economic and ideological shift that this implies has serious ramifications for the internal stability of Israel. For decades Zionism has promoted the myth of "Greater Israel", under threat from the surrounding Arab masses, and the myth of the "Promised Land" where every Jew can find a home. A vast and comprehensive welfare state resting on the Zionist labour bureaucracy guaranteed economic security for every Israeli Jew. Now Israel's bourgeoisie wants integration and normalisation with the Middle East and cutbacks to the Zionist utopia as factories move to Jordan, Egypt or the Palestinian autonomous areas.

The Israeli working population has felt this in a dramatic fashion. The last few years have been marked by a spate of factory closures and relocation of capital. The Israeli government headed by Likud continued the process of privatisation begun by the Israeli Labour Party under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. State revenues from the privatisation of banks and government corporations amounted in 1997 to an unprecedented NIS 8.33 billion, compared to only NIS 700 million the year before. This exceeded the government revenue forecast for 1997 by NIS 4.33 billion.

Privatisation and factory closures have provoked widespread anger. Several general strikes occurred over the last two years led by the Israeli trade union federation, the Histadrut. This wing of the Zionist movement (Labour Zionism) has historically played the most significant role in the establishment and continuation of the Zionist state.

The consensus among the Israeli ruling class was illustrated by the elections in May. Barak's position towards the Palestinians in the West Bank differs little from Likud's: no return to the 1967 borders; Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel; settlements are and will remain under the sovereignty of Israel; there will be no "foreign" army stationed west of the Jordan River.

There is no discernible difference between these positions and those of Likud â€” except that Labour may allow Palestinians to use the term "state" to describe their patchwork of cantons.

Religious and secular

The status of the occupied territories was not debated during the Israeli elections. The conflict between religious and secular Israelis dominated the entire campaign. Shas, the ultra-orthodox party representing Mizrachi Jews won 17 seats (up from 10 last elections) despite the conviction of its leader, Aryeh Deri, on bribery and corruption charges. As Barak reiterated his campaign message of "unity and the end to division" at a victory speech in Tel Aviv, thousands of Labour supporters responded with the cry of "Not with Shas!".

Several minor parties were elected on platforms opposed to Shas and religious control of society.

Shas’ increased support was largely based on Likud's losses. Likud has only 19 seats in the current Knesset, compared to 32 from the previous elections in 1996.

The rise of Shas and the debate around the role of religion in Israel reflect a fundamental contradiction within Zionism. Zionism claims that Jews form a national group, yet in reality the common feature of Jews is a religious one. Because of the absolute centrality of religion to Israel's existence, religious Jews and the orthodox branch have a lot of power. In the final analysis, the foundation of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 are based on a religious argument that Jews are "God's chosen people".

Zionism has attempted to create a national group within the state of Israel from the different national groups that settled there in 1948. This national identity is based on a mythologised form of Judaism, the language of Hebrew and the appropriation of Palestinian symbols and physical space. Villages were not only destroyed but were resettled and renamed in an attempt to erase Palestinian identity. The aim was not only to eradicate the Palestinian presence but also to manufacture a nationality.

Orthodox Jews claim they are the genuine representatives of Judaism, and they attempt to impose their lifestyle on the rest of Israeli society. Shas’ control over the Ministry of Interior accentuated this factor. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state.

Not only does this create tensions between different branches of Judaism, but it also means a difficult conundrum for secular Israelis. The very success of Zionism in creating an Israeli nationality (most of whom are not religious) puts it at odds with Zionism's inseparable link with religion. Religion is the central justification for Zionism's claim on Palestine, and to reject it means a serious examination of the last 50 years of occupation.

These issues also have a class dimension. The orthodox have a much higher birth rate than the rest of Israeli society and tend to hold a lower socioeconomic status. Many of the immigrant communities (such as Mizrachi Jews) are dominated by orthodox beliefs. They tend to live in overcrowded and poor conditions and are totally reliant on the state for survival. Secular Israelis dominate the business elite of the country and the wealthier middle classes of areas such as Tel Aviv. They also tend to be overwhelmingly white, male and from a European or North American background.

Shas presents a religious solution to these class questions. Shas tells Mizrachi Jews, "We are the authentic representatives of Judaism. Your problems are a result of the domination of the country by the anti-religious Ashkenazi elite." Driving through working-class Mizrachi neighbourhoods, one is struck by the posters of Shas leader Aryeh Deri and their chief rabbi, Oved Yusef. In contrast, the movement of secular Mizrachi is small and marginalised.

Palestinians inside Israel

This year's elections demonstrated the deep divisions within the Palestinian community living within Israel. For the first time ever, a Palestinian candidate, Azmi Bishara, nominated for prime minister. Bishara is a professor of philosophy and the head of the At-Tajamo party. At-Tajamo was formed in 1996 from the "Group of Fifty-one" notables and Ibna al Balad (Sons of the Country), a militant movement of Palestinians closely aligned with the left in the occupied territories. In the 1996 elections, At-Tajamo ran with Hadash (the Israeli Communist Party) and received five seats, one of which was allocated to Bishara.

In the three years after those elections, At-Tajamo moved away from Hadash. Bishara, a charismatic and eloquent Palestinian, began to advocate a "bi-national state" as the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although he gave contradictory messages on what he meant by this.

At times he spoke of a form of cultural autonomy for Palestinians living within Israel; he expressed his support of Oslo and voted for the partition of the Palestinian town of Hebron between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in January 1997. At the same time, he made several high-profile visits to Syria, where he met with George Habash, leader of the PFLP. In late 1998 he abstained on a vote on the Wye agreement, which largely focused on providing Israeli security through collaboration between the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government and the CIA. During this time, the Group of Fifty-one left At-Tajamo, as did a small group from Ibna al Balad that opposed Bishara from the left.

The other main Palestinian party is the United Arab List, the representative of the Islamist movement. In 1996 the UAL won four seats. In 1999, the Group of Fifty-one joined the UAL as well as a section from Hadash. Running as the Arab Democratic Party, this coalition won five seats.

Bishara's announcement that he was running for prime minister caused a huge division among Palestinians. Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party opposed Bishara's candidacy because they called for a "defeat Netanyahu at all costs" strategy, which meant calling for a vote for Barak. Bishara refused to express support for Barak and considered his candidacy as a challenge to both Netanyahu and Barak.

However, Bishara held a contradictory position, which was expressed in his alliance with Ahmed Tibi. Tibi, an adviser to Yasser Arafat from within Israel, is a strong supporter of the Oslo accords and is considered a conservative force within Palestinian politics.

The Israeli left

Within Israel, the word "left" has a very twisted connotation. It is critical to distinguish here between anti-Zionist and Zionist forces; this is the only real division between left and right, despite the pretences of the Zionist "left". However, the anti-Zionist movement is extremely small and divided.

Zionism is based on the notion that Jews cannot live with non-Jews. In practice the Israeli state implements this through racist laws such as the Land Law (non-Jews cannot own, reside or work on state land92% of Israel) and immigration laws such as the Right of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew from anywhere in the world.

The routine means for enforcing discrimination is through the ID card which everyone is forced to carry at all times. The card lists a person's nationality as "Jew", "Arab", or "Druze" â€” not Israeli.

Another method of discrimination is through service in the army. All Jews (except the ultra-orthodox) are required by law to serve in the army. Non-Jews are entitled to elect to serve, but most refuse because service generally involves a period in the occupied territories. Many jobs, loan applications and other services stipulate preference to those who have served in the army.

No discussion of discrimination can be complete without reference to policies such as the deliberate under-funding of services to Palestinian areas, house demolitions, distortion of Palestinian history in the media and education system and the everyday physical attacks against Palestinians. Then there is the significant requirement in the electoral system which demands "support for the Jewish nature of the state of Israel" from candidates for the Knesset.

All parties of the Zionist "left" support this racist nature of the Israeli state. The most important parties and movements in this category are the Israeli Labour Party, Meretz, the Peace Now movement and Dor Shalem (formed by the son of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin).

Often these movements (particularly Meretz and Peace Now) are portrayed as supporters of the Palestinian struggle. Sometimes they organise demonstrations around issues such as house demolitions, administrative detentions or torture. During the intifada, Meretz and Peace Now were active within the solidarity movement within Israel. However, their limited activism is based on an acceptance of Zionism. The leader of Meretz, Yossi Sarid, is an important figure within the Israeli Knesset but has supported the use of torture in Israeli prisons. Their vocal support of Oslo reveals much about the so-called peace process.

These movements campaigned for the election of Ehud Barak. Their inability to address the real nature of Zionism inevitably led to their support of a form of Zionism just as dangerous for Palestinians as Netanyahu and Likud. It remains to be seen whether the actual practice of Barak will lead to a differentiation within these movements.


Historically, the most important wing of the anti-Zionist movement was Matzpen. Matzpen was the Israeli section of the Fourth International and was formed in the 1970s. It led significant campaigns and made genuine attempts to build links with Palestinians. In the early 1990s, however, Matzpen was dissolved in the wake of the general crisis following Oslo.

Opinions on the reasons for its dissolution vary. Most agree, however, that despite its leading role in the anti-occupation movement which supported the intifada, Matzpen failed to build the party through this period and instead became solely oriented to the movement. At the time of its dissolution, it counted around fifty active members and perhaps 200 sympathisers.

Today the anti-Zionist left is not grouped in a party or organisation. Individuals remain within social movements and organisations, but it seems unlikely that an Israeli anti-Zionist movement will arise without the impetus of a strong, independent Palestinian movement.

Two-states and a democratic secular state

In the mid-1980s the PLO adopted a position for two states (a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the Jewish state of Israel). This was viewed by the left as a tactical demand that would be a stepping stone towards a democratic and secular state in the whole of historic Palestine.

When the West Bank and Gaza Strip were occupied by the Israeli military, the obvious question facing Palestinians was how to get rid of the occupation. This would not end Zionism, but any liberation of Palestinian territory, as long as it was viewed as a step towards the end of the Jewish-only character of the state of Israel, would be a step forward. The next step was viewed as building alliances inside Israel towards establishing a democratic, secular state â€” a state for all its citizens, not privileging any group.

However, this view was soon converted from a tactical step into the strategic goal. The objective of the PLO was no longer the end of Zionism but solely the establishment of "an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza". Today the goal has narrowed even further, to some form of limited autonomy and relinquishment of all 1948 refugee rights, acceptance of the apartheid regime of the Israeli state towards its Palestinian population and acceptance of an aggressive state backed by imperialism in all the region.

The victory of Israel represented by Oslo demands a rethinking of these questions. The result of Oslo is certain to be Israeli sovereignty over the majority of the West Bank (probably 60-70%). What becomes of this territory? It is no longer occupied in the sense of a military force overtly repressing a Palestinian population but more closely resembles the situation inside Israel â€” an apartheid regime. It is almost certain that the majority of settlements will remain in the West Bank (this point is hardly subject to debate within Israel) and that these settlers will become Israeli citizens differing little from their counterparts in Tel Aviv or Haifa.

We are rapidly moving towards a situation of classical apartheid reminiscent of South Africa: an indigenous population discriminated against in every sense and presided over by a privileged ruling class supported by a corrupt layer of Palestinians who benefit from their special relationship with the occupying forces.

Add to this the demographic question and the predicted Palestinian majority within the region from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River within the first few decades of the 21st century, and it becomes clear that any solution which confines Palestinians to these islands of autonomy is unjust and unworkable.

The alternative of a democratic secular state in the whole region is difficult to conceive in the current situation. This would mean the end to the Jewish-only character of the Israeli state and give Palestinians the right to live anywhere in their land. It would also require massive compensation and restitution for fifty years of occupation and deliberate dispossession of the Palestinian population.

This solution can be fulfilled only with the defeat of Zionism and recognition of the "original sin" of the Zionist conquest of 1948. Such a solution would mean a defeat for imperialism and could not be achieved without a massive shift in the consciousness of the Israeli population. However, in the long run it is the only solution which would satisfy the national rights of Palestinians and signal an end to fifty years of colonisation.

Oslo has led to the unification of the entire land of historic Palestine under Israeli control. Two future paths remain open: the complete eviction of the Palestinian population from the land, or a state for all its people. In the short term we are seeing an apartheid system of Palestinian bantustans take form. But in the long run it remains to be seen whether the tortured history of Palestine will follow the path of expulsion begun in 1948 or that of liberation.

Adam Hanieh is a correspondent for Green Left Weekly who lives and works in Ramallah, in the West Bank.