Palestine: Blood, Oil and Tears
It is a hundred years since the first Zionist colonists “returned” from the diaspora to Palestine, and it is from them that we can date the origins of the current Middle East situation and its succession of bloody wars. It would have been far less traumatic a period, however, but for the fact that beneath the desert sands lay a substance which was to become one of the major objects of twentieth-century capitalist rivalry – oil.
Prior to the First World War, much of the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire; Palestine; for instance, became a Turkish province in 1516. After the Turkish defeat in the war, much of the former empire was divided into British and French spheres of interest, and these two countries sought to divide up the area’s oil resources. A joint consortium explored for oil in the new state of Iraq, while a British-owned company (the forerunner of British Petroleum) ran the oil industry in Persia/ Iran, the Middle East’s first oil-producing country. Further west, Syria and Lebanon, both French dependencies, turned out to have little by way of oil reserves, though they were important locations for pipelines and refineries. The same held for Palestine, which came under a British mandate in 1918. Even an area with no oil of its own, however, could become a pawn in the oil- fired power struggle.
In Palestine, though, there was another complicating factor. European anti-Semitism had been responsible, towards the end of the nineteenth century, for creating a movement known as Zionism which aimed at creating a “Jewish homeland” free of racist persecution. Soon the idea took root that this homeland should be situated not in Africa or South America but on the Biblical territory of Palestine. The slogan was coined of “a land without people, for a people without land”, thus conveniently overlooking the existing Palestinian inhabitants. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British government undertook to look favourably on the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine”. In a typical piece of capitalist chicanery, Balfour himself wrote in 1919:
“in Palestine we not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country . . . The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right” (Quoted in Edward Said: The Question of Palestine.)
So much for the British government’s respect for the wishes of the inhabitants of its colonies.
We may disregard the rhetoric about “age-long tradition”; but what were the “present needs” and “future hopes” of which Balfour spoke? Basically, an independent Israel was seen as an outpost of Western capitalism in an area that is both strategically and economically of great importance. The continued availability of Middle Eastern oil is vital to Western countries, as was the use of the Suez Canal. Israel represents a sizeable market for Western capitalism, especially the American armaments industry. The Middle East is geographically close to Russia, and consists mainly of developing countries whose policies are, from a Western point of view, largely unpredictable and certainly unreliable. Western nations’ support for the establishment and defence of Israel (without which it would not exist) has not been due to humanitarianism but to familiar economic interests.
After 1918 more and more Zionist colonists arrived in Palestine, though they never formed a majority of the population. The Jewish National Fund began to purchase Arab land there, though prior to 1948 it only owned six per cent of the total land area. British rule used such oppressive measures as the Emergency Defence Regulations of 1922 to control and restrict the movement and settlement of the population, both Jewish and Arab (these regulations were adopted wholesale by Israel to suppress Palestinians after 1948). The rebellion of 1936-9 saw five thousand Palestinians killed by British troops.
The Zionist goal of a Jewish state of Israel was now close to attainment. It involved transforming Palestine into “a land without people”, as was acknowledged by the Labour Party National Executive in 1944:
“Palestine surely is a case, on human grounds and to promote a stable settlement, for a transfer of population. Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out, as the Jews move in” (Quoted in Rosemary Sayigh: Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries.)
And in 1948 the Palestinians did indeed mostly move out, about 840,000 being displaced from the area that become Israel, some to neighbouring countries and some to parts of Palestine that came under the control of Egypt (Gaza) and Jordan (the West Bank). The “encouragement” to move out took the form of Israeli military attacks on Palestinian villages, backed up by instances of terrorism and massacre. The creation of a “Jewish homeland” saw a new diaspora, that of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine.
So the scene was set for a further generation of war, killing and homelessness. The Suez crisis of 1956 was the largest in its involvement of outside armed forces, while other major conflicts between Israel and neighbours include the Six Day War of 1967 and the 1973 war. The current Israeli attack on Palestinian camps in southern Lebanon and Beirut alone is estimated to have made up to fifty thousand refugees homeless. All this time, too, there has been fighting among Arab states, and it is worth recalling that more Palestinian fighters have been killed by Arab armies than by Israel. The deposing of the other friend of Western capitalism, the Shah ofIran, in 1979, has been balanced by Egypt’s treaty with Israel and the United States. The post-1973 oil crisis has forced Western .countries to be more dependent on good relations with the Arab oil-exporters, while the Suez Canal has lost much of its strategic significance. But all in all, the Middle East remains a region which reveals only too clearly the effects of capitalist rivalry over resources.
There are now an estimated three million Palestinians in the world, of whom one in six live, as a discriminated-against minority, within the 1948 borders of Israel. Most of the rest live in refugee camps in neighbouring areas. The Palestine Liberation Organisation, founded in 1964, aims to restore the Palestinians to their pre-1948 position, via a state that will be open to Muslim, Jew and Christian. But a myth has grown up about what life was like in Palestine under the British Mandate. Rosemary Sayigh, in the book referred to above, claims that older Palestinians in the refugee camps are often heard to say, “We lived in Paradise”. But she then gives plenty of evidence to show that it was a strange kind of Paradise. In 1930, the average rural family in Palestine was in debt to the tune of £P27, which was approximately such a family’s yearly income. On 1936 figures, one-fifth of one per cent of the population owned a quarter of the land! Clearly pre-Israeli Palestine did not belong to the Palestinian peasants: in 1948 they were driven off land which was not theirs.
The PLO represents the interests of a would-be Palestinian ruling class. A minority of Palestinians have benefited from oil-financed development, while most have become a propertyless army of labour. The “secular-democratic” Palestinian state will be a capitalist state, required to play its own part in global politicking. Just as socialists opposed the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, so we oppose the PLO as a nationalist movement that puts forward capitalist not socialist solutions. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian capitalism can serve the interest of the vast majority of the population. The workings of world capitalism in the Middle East show that peace and prosperity there are only possible in a world-wide framework – socialism.