1980s >> 1984 >> no-953-january-1984

PLO in retreat

Even capitalism’s grotesqueries do not usually run to civil war in the absence of a nation-state, but that is precisely what has been happening in the Lebanon. The Palestinians, uprooted and dispersed at the lime of the formation of Israel in 1948, are engaging in fierce inter-factional fighting. Even before the latest events, it was the case that more Palestinian guerrillas had been killed by the armies of their supposed allies, the other Arab states, than by Israel; but now. Palestinian is killing Palestinian.


In June 1982. Israel launched a full scale invasion of Lebanon, supposedly in retaliation for the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Britain. Soon there were over 100,000 Israeli troops in Lebanon and the capital, Beirut, was bombed and besieged. About half a million Palestinians live in the Lebanon, many of them since 1948 in the more-or-less permanent settlements known as refugee camps. In August that year, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) began to evacuate its headquarters in Beirut. The following month, the Israeli army acquiesced as Phalangist Lebanese militia massacred upwards of two thousand men, women and children in the Sabra and Shatila camps.


Dissent within the PLO ranks has greatly increased since the withdrawal from Beirut. Syrian-backed opponents of PLO chief Yasser Arafat have been attacking troops loyal to him. The Beirut defeat weakened Arafat’s position, as did his willingness to talk to King Hussein of Jordan over an American peace initiative in September last year. The manoeuvring of Hafez Assad, the Syrian President, led to Arafat being expelled from Damascus (where he had gone after abandoning Beirut) last summer and going to the Northern Lebanon coastal city of Tripoli. There he and his supporters have been bombarded by dissident PLO men and the Syrians, who have forty thousand troops in the Lebanon. The rebels — led by men such as Ahmad Jibril and Abu Mousa — accuse Arafat and his clique of being corrupt. building large houses and even harbours and helicopter pads for their own use from PLO funds (Guardian 23 November 1983). At the time of writing, the PLO seem likely to be forced to evacuate Tripoli, perhaps under a United Nations flag, though it is not clear where they will be able to go.


Lebanon is a former French, earlier Turkish, colony. It became “independent” in 1943, but has remained embroiled in the murderous power politics of the Middle East. Its internal politics are dominated by two coalition groups: the Lebanese National Movement (L.NM) is a reformist grouping which supports the PLO and its main rival is the Lebanese Front, dominated by the Phalangist party (founded in 1936 and named after the Phalange of Franco’s Spain). The Phalange opposes the PLO, has collaborated with Israel and supports the expulsion of all Palestinians from Lebanon. Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Phalangist militia and president-elect of Lebanon when assassinated in September 1982. had gone on record as saying that in the Middle East there was one people too many, the Palestinians. No apologist for Zionism could have been blunter. These were the ideas that motivated the Sabra and Shatila massacres.


The Machiavellian tactics of Syria and President Assad lie behind much of the present turmoil and the possible escalation into war with the American part of the ludicrously-misnamed multinational “peace-keeping” force. Despite brave words about retaliation for encroachment of its airspace, Syria has done nothing in response to Israeli and French air-raids on parts of Lebanon it controls. Syria’s Russian-supplied armed forces are operating only against the PLO. Ironically, it is the Palestinian cause that Assad claims to be espousing, and whose chief spokesman he intends to be. A country with scant supplies of oil, Syria can only become powerful by conquest and/or influence. The plan for a Greater Syria encompasses Jordan and Palestine as part of Syria: control over that part of Lebanon not in Israeli hands is a first step on this road. Assad has retained dictatorial power in Syria for thirteen years; in 1982 he killed over twenty thousand Muslim fundamentalist opponents of his regime. In 1976, during an earlier civil war there, Syria invaded Lebanon in order to contain the Palestinians and the Lebanese National Movement, and supported the Phalange — all in the name of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian “revolution”.


The expansionist role of Israel in all this must also be remembered. Some Israeli military leaders have made no secret of their strategic aims: the Lebanon to be cleared of foreign forces and re-established as a christian-dominated state, the West Bank and Gaza annexed to Israel, the PLO destroyed and Jordan converted into the Palestinian state. The even less rational wings of Zionism claim that, as large parts of Lebanon belonged in Biblical times to Asher, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, so they should belong to Israel today! This kind of nonsense — hankering after past glories that only benefitted the ruling class anyway — seems as prevalent in the Middle East as in most parts of the world.


Meanwhile Israeli oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories continues. Palestinians on the West Bank have been dispossessed of their homes in favour of Israeli settlers. They must carry identity cards and are subject to military orders which, for instance, prohibit such subversive acts as the planting of fruit trees. One Palestinian is quoted as saying:


 For the moment, the Israelis have divided us into two categories, the educated, who cause trouble by talking about social and political rights, and the labourers, whom they need. They would like to expel the first and keep the second. (Time 21 November 1983).


The Palestinians are seen by Israel as at best, a source of cheap labour.
There are those who see the PLO and the Lebanese National Movement as representing something more than just a nationalist organisation. For instance, one member of the Palestine National Council writes:


Israel’s war against Lebanon was . . .  intended to destroy the first successful alliance between the Palestinians and a nationally committed Arab movement as well as the first liberated national zone where the alliance could have developed a prototype of a liberated Arab national polity.
(Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. in Race & Class, Spring 1983)


The claim, then, is that a PLO/LNM alliance would pave the way for “national liberation” throughout the Arab world, which would involve the removal of such despots as Assad and Hussein. This would explain why both Israel and Syria are opposed to such a development. But such claims are nonsense. A “democratic secular” Palestine would be a capitalist Palestine. forced to exploit its workers just as Palestinian oppresses Palestinian in intra-PLO feuds today. All leadership must be overthrown, Arafat and Jibril as well as Assad and Shamir.


Like the Zionists, the Palestinians have embraced a dangerous myth about the past; in their case, the myth that pre-1948 Palestine was some kind of paradise. It was no such thing: most Palestinians struggled along on tiny plots of land, under the weight of massive debts, exploited by a class of landlords. Palestine did not belong to the Palestinians, any more than modern Israel belongs to working class Israelis. They have yet to realise it, but the workers of the entire Middle East — within whatever irrelevant national boundaries they now live — have an identity of interest, that.


Paul Bennett