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Palestine: The Differences Between Revolutionaries and Reformists

By Francesco Ricci, PdAC, Italy

Nov. 7, 2023

It is too early to make predictions at the time of writing. It is too early to say whether a new mass movement has emerged worldwide. But certainly, one can see the signs of it.

The spark is the heroic struggle of the Palestinian people, who are now subject to Israeli bombardments of their homes, schools, hospitals, ambulances, a situation which has already claimed at least 10,000 lives.

While Israel is also attacking the Gaza Strip from the ground, protected by U.S. aircraft carriers and two Italian frigates, the main squares of all Western capitals have been filled with demonstrators in solidarity with the Palestinians. They have not been stopped by the repressive attempts of bourgeois governments who have revealed the true face of their “democracy.”

Most striking is the appearance of younger generations in these demonstrations. Young people have not experienced the defeats provoked and imposed by reformist directions in recent decades worldwide.

A hidden history

There is a important gap in all the debates about Palestine: the history of that country and its people. This is not an accidental, nor is it simply due to ignorance (as ignorant as most mass media commentators undoubtedly are). The reason is that if only basic historical information is provided, all the arguments–from those who side with Israel and those who ostensibly side with the Palestinians but with a list of caveats–collapse.

Concealing history is necessary for imperialism and its reformist tails, which is why serious historical texts on Palestine are rare.

Of particular interest are the books by Ilan Pappé (1), a Jewish historian born in Haifa (where he taught at the university), who now lives in exile in England after having come out against Zionism. In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Pappé, using hundreds of sources, describes in detail how the founding of Israel in 1948, what Palestinians call the Nakba (“catastrophe”), came about.

The destruction of the villages and the expulsion of the Palestinian inhabitants had been meticulously prepared as early as the 1930s in the collection and archiving of the names of each village and those considered potentially “rebellious” (because they had participated in the struggles against the British occupiers in the 1936-1939 uprising). This work was done by the Haganá, the main sector among the Zionist militias, which was formed in 1920 (and joined by the Irgun and the Stern Band).

The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the “de-arabization,” to use the term employed by the Zionists, took place according to a precise plan. Pappé recounts its genesis in the following way: “(…) on March 10, 1948 (…) a group of eleven men, veteran Zionist leaders together with young Jewish military officers, put the finishing touches on the plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. On the same evening, orders (…) accompanied by a meticulous description of the methods to be used to drive out the population by force were transmitted to the units in the field: intimidation (…) siege and bombardment of villages and towns; burning of houses (…); expulsions; demolitions (…). Each unit was given a list of villages and urban neighborhoods as targets within the master plan. Code-named Plan D (…). Having made the decision, it took six months to complete the mission. By the time this was accomplished, more than half of the original Palestinian population, nearly 800,000 people, had been uprooted, 531 villages had been destroyed and 11 urban neighborhoods emptied of their inhabitants” (2).

And this is how Pappé describes the “ethnic cleansing” operations in one such village, Deir Yassin, which was east of Jerusalem: “As they broke into the village, Jewish soldiers riddled the houses with machine guns, killing many of the inhabitants. Those still alive were herded into one place and murdered in cold blood, their bodies tortured, while many women were raped and then killed” (3).

The same was done in hundreds of villages. Pappé recounts dozens of similar incidents in the pages of his book. There is no doubt then that even a superficial knowledge of Palestinian history would lead one to use the appellation “terrorists,” which resonates in all debates referring to Palestinians, for Zionists insread. Israel is a “state” literally built on terror, as it used shootings, bombings, rape, and torture to annihilate a part of the population and induce the remainder to flee.

Four falsifications

The mechanism at work in any debate (in the mass media) on the so-called “Palestinian question” usually contemplates four steps: first, one removes the history of Israel’s origins within the framework of the Zionist project; second, one repeats the litany about Israel being the “only democratic state in the Middle East”; third, one invokes, accordingly, Israel’s “right to defend itself”; fourth, one introduces a parallel with the Holocaust and defines as “anti-Semitic” anyone who, being anti-Zionist, does not recognize Israel’s “right to exist.”

Let us look at these four false arguments that Jewish anti-Zionist historian Ralph Schoenman calls the “four false myths” in The Hidden history of Zionism (4).

First, they conceal the essence of the Zionist project

Israel’s origin story is a bloody one. Zionism (a political current that arose in the late 19th century) (5) had as its project from the start the expulsion of the Palestinians in order to occupy their land. The slogan “a land without a people for a landless people” served precisely to disguise the fact that a people, the Palestinians, had already been living in Palestine for centuries.

When in November 1947 the UN, with the vote of Stalin’s USSR (which also supported the Zionists by sending arms), divided Palestine in two and assigned 56 percent of it to the Jews (who owned about 5 percent of the land). Ben Gurion, leader of the Zionists from the 1920s to the 1960s, said to those who demanded more that the important thing for now was the formal recognition of a state and that they would take the rest with arms.

This marked the start of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. As we have seen, the Haganá had already collected information about the whole territory and registered thousands of its inhabitants in previous years for this purpose.

Since then, the extension of this artificial state, which was proclaimed in May 1948, has not ceased. To the original theft of land,  which was legitimized by the UN, other lands were added with wars and massacres: the war of May ’48-early ’49 between Israel and the Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria), then the “six-day” war in 1967 when Israel also took possession of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem (in addition to the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights).

This is how Palestinians have been expelled and divided: about 2.3 million live in the Gaza Strip surrounded by barbed wire. 3.5 million live in the West Bank, where Abu Mazen’s Palestinian National Authority (PNA) cooperates with Israeli forces. Here, last year alone, 150 Palestinians were killed. Another 2 million live without rights in the territory defined as “Israel” (which has ten million inhabitants), and which grants full rights only to those who can claim three generations of Jewish descent. Another 6 million Palestinians live as refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, etc., with no possibility of returning to the land from which they were expelled in order to make way for Jewish settlers who have flocked in from all over the world. The settlers are able to take advantage of special laws that allow them to take possession of the homes and lands of what are called “absentees,” that is, those who were expelled.

Zionism is a peculiar form of colonialism: it does not aim to exploit the population but to annihilate them in order to seize their land.

Second, they present Israel as a “democratic state”

The refrain of Israel’s defenders is that it is the only “democratic state” in the Middle East.

They do not say that it is a state that proclaims itself “Jewish,” based on more than 60 racial laws that distinguish between Jewish citizens and Arab or other ethnic inhabitants. Only the former enjoy full rights while the others are discriminated against in both work and social spheres. That is, they do not say that this is a confessional, theocratic, fundamentalist state (in the Western vulgate the “fundamentalists” are Islamists).

In the “occupied territories” (Gaza Strip and West Bank), moreover, this self-styled “democratic state” oppresses Palestinians in brutal ways: imprisonment, torture, rape, and economic oppression. In addition, the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has been formally unoccupied since 2005 but in reality has been surrounded and periodically bombed for 20 years, has left its inhabitants deprived of electricity and even water. According to UN data, 80 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip lives in extreme poverty and 50 percent are unemployed.

Third, they defend Israel’s “right to defend itself”

Not only the bourgeois commentators, but also the leaders of the reformist left around the world, are always quick to point out that Israel “has the right to defend itself” even when they pretend to defend Palestinian rights. They pretend to ignore that it is a settler-colonial State, built by destroying towns and villages that have existed there for centuries. In this way, they even ignore  their own (bourgeois) international law, which also recognizes the right of people of occupied countries to fight the occupiers. Moreover, the reformists only consider the occupation of the territories that have been left to Palestinians as an “occupation,” and thus they legitimize the settlements established in 1947, with the official stamp of the UN, that occupy  the majority of Palestine. In this way, they legitimize the colonial settlements that now bear the name of “Israel.”

Fourth, they equate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism

The most widespread leitmotif, however, is the equation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

By virtue of this falsification, various Western “democracies” (in recent weeks France and Germany, for example) have sought to ban and suppress pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

But the reality is that there are dozens of anti-Zionist Jewish associations around the world, which have been mobilizing.

To complete the charge of anti-Semitism, they also make undue reference to the Holocaust perpetrated by Hitler’s fascists. But here again they must conceal the fact that in historical reality, as Ralph Schoenman well documents, the Zionists allied themselves and traded economically, paradoxically, on several occasions, with German fascists and Mussolini. They saw the anti-Semitic persecutions in Europe as a stimulus to emigration that could benefit the Zionist project (6). Moreover, Schoenman shows how Zionists were silent accomplices in the Holocaust itself, refusing to support Jews who asked for help in organizing resistance in and outside Hitler’s death camps.

Why imperialism supports Israel

Some wonder why Western governments are, without exception, lining up to defend Israel despite the massacres it is perpetrating. The reason is simple: Israel is the outpost of imperialism in the Middle East. It is because of Israel that they maintain military control of an area that is crucial for its natural wealth and geographical location.

This is why the United States replenishes Israel’s permanent deficit every year with injections of billions of dollars.

The truth is that Israel is a giant imperialist military base, which produces and exports mainly weapons and intelligence tools that are also used by Western police to suppress struggles in their respective countries.

Why the reformist left defends the mirage of the Two States

The entire international reformist left defends Israel’s supposed right to exist and therefore the right to defend itself. The leaders of Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany, etc., have reiterated this in recent days, even going so far as to sympathize with Israel over Palestinian attacks.

This position is articulated in the proposal-mirage of the Two States (Israel and Palestine) that should coexist in the land of Palestine. This is the position that, beyond nuance, Rifondazione Comunista, Potere al Popolo, etc. share in Italy (7). Sometimes some, including Pappé, for example, speak of a future “multi-ethnic state,” but this is a play on words because it is never specified where and how it could arise if at the same time it claims to defend the existence of the colonial state.

The fable of the “Two States” was assumed as early as the mid-1980s by the majority component of the PLO, Al Fatah (then headed by Arafat). And it was then made official with the Oslo 1 and Oslo 2 agreements (1993 and 1995) between Arafat and Rabin. These agreements provided for the establishment of Palestinian autonomy (PNA) over a small part of the territory of Palestine (pieces of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) in exchange for the PLO’s recognition of Israel. It was the final capitulation of the Palestinian bourgeois leadership and the renunciation of the PLO’s own original program, which, although it was not socialist, nevertheless included the liberation of all of historic Palestine “from the river to the sea.”

The Two-State solution, which is often presented as realistic, is actually a blatant fraud for several reasons. First, it admits in its premise the first theft of Palestinian land, that of 1947, accepting that Palestinians should be given a small part of their original land without territorial continuity. Second, it implicitly leaves aside the question of the refugees’ right of return: where, in fact, would they go? Third, it ignores that Israel itself has progressively eroded the part of the West Bank that was supposed to constitute the Palestinian state, occupying it with 700,000 settlers who, defended by the Israeli army and Abu Mazen’s collaborationist police, systematically expel Palestinians.

We often hear that this Israeli policy results from the fact that there is a far-right government in power, that of Netanyahu. Actually, in the first thirty years of Israel’s existence there were governments headed by Labor (8), then alternating with Likud. This did not result in any substantial difference precisely because their policy was that of the Zionist project, regardless of the color of the government of the day. The objective continued to be the full occupation of Palestine. It was the Labor Ben Gurion government who organized the first ethnic cleansing; and it was the cabinet of Labor’s Rabin, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, which ordered soldiers to break the hands of Palestinian teenagers who threw stones at soldiers during the first Intifada in 1987.

So why do reformist leaderships credit the fiction of “Two States,” which is rejected by the vast majority of Palestinians? Why do they accept the definition of “occupied territories” with reference only to those annexed by Israel in 1967, when all of Israel is built on occupied territory?

The supposedly realist answer of the reformist leaders (unwitting emulators of von Bismarck, not exactly a revolutionary model) is that “politics is the art of the possible.” Where “the possible” implies recognition of the capitalist system (which they criticize in Sunday sermons) while the horizon contemplates not revolutions but only elections, not majority rule (the proletarians) but only changes of government to manage in a “more humane” way this barbaric system (in which, in the meantime, they do not disdain to occupy a few seats). In Palestine “the possible” is conjugated in the form of “apartheid” for Palestinians.

To make a supposedly “realistic” prospect even more far-fetched, there is then the appeal to the UN and the phantom “international law”: as if one and the other were not dominated by powerful interests. This is, in many ways, an even more grotesque appeal, considering that the colonial state was baptized by the UN itself and is defended by the UN to this day. Although it votes periodically for humanitarian resolutions that have the same effect as beating one’s chest and saying three hail Marys to atone for ones sins.

We can also add that imperialism’s plans, according to Biden’s latest statements, contemplate the possibility of using the very mantle of the UN (and the blue helmets) to occupy the Gaza Strip once the Israeli butchery is over. They would eventually entrust it to Abu Mazen, who has already distinguished himself for his collaborationist zeal in the West Bank.

Chanting about civilians

There is one point that unites reformist organizations and much of what we call “centrist” (i.e., those who oscillate between a revolutionary package and reformist content): it is the rhetoric about “civilian casualties.”

First, we, as Marxists, distinguish between social classes and not between civilians and the military. And second, given that in Israel all civilians (who are all settlers) are periodically called to arms, or live armed to the teeth like the settlers in the West Bank, means that a popular resistance, which has neither planes and tanks nor an army, cannot adhere to a supposed moral code of combat in the unequal struggle with the occupier.

That the rhetoric about civilians is an integral part of the pro-Zionist propaganda of the bourgeois mass media is understandable. Less understandable is that certain self-styled communists begin every speech by mourning the “civilian victims on both sides.”

If we ever wanted to apply an ideal code of combat, we would have to condemn the shooting of hostages (including civilians and the Bishop Darboy) by the Paris Commune; or the use of hostages by the Bolsheviks during the civil war in Russia; or the Workers’ Resistance in Italy; or the liberation struggle waged by the FLN in Algeria, etc. These are examples we give not at random, since these are events that organizations calling themselves “communist” claim. But it is evidently easier to claim the use of force when it concerns distant historical facts, than to clash with bourgeois public opinion and defend the right of the Palestinians to fight against the occupation forces by any means necessary today.

Trotsky, in that magnificent pamphlet Moralists and Sycophants (9), suggests that the ancestors of today’s reformists and centrists write a moral code of civil war, outlawing the use of hostages, rifles, and hand grenades, and the bombing of civilians warning, however, that “as long as this code remains unadopted as a rule of conduct for all, oppressors and oppressed alike, the classes in struggle, will try to bring about victory by any means, while petty-bourgeois moralists (… remain) prisoners of the morals of the ruling class (…).” Holy words!

Confusing the issue by erasing the national question

Some groups who want to be “internationalists,” and even “Marxists” (this is clearly a misunderstanding), claim that the key lies in uniting the Israeli and Palestinian proletariat against their respective bourgeoisies.

These are the same people who, convinced that they are applying a Marxist commandment, define all wars as imperialist and do not recognize (let Marx and Lenin beware) just wars. This  is why, when facing any conflict, they repeat that it is a matter of holding a position of bilateral defeatism (this is what they do, for example, with respect to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in their refusal to support the Ukrainian resistance).

In Italy, we have a rich sampling of these groups, which deny the national question, which they say is outdated in the imperialist era, just as they deny every other democratic claim (10). That is, they remove the need for a transitional program that includes democratic questions to build “a bridge” between the current situation and the revolution (11).

They are, to borrow Lenin’s ironic definition, people who will not get out of their seats until they see a “pure” revolution arise (12). This is the position expressed (with undoubted consistency) by various groups that descend, either directly or indirectly, from Bordighism (although to liken them to Bordiga is to pay them a compliment).

But it is noteworthy that a similar variant is also found in groups that define themselves as Trotskyist. This is the case with the SCR and the IMT, which, while they side with the Palestinians (and with the Ukrainian resistance), they jump feet-first on the national question and seem to regard Israel as the same as any capitalist state, instead of seeing it as the colonial entity that it is. They contrast the democratic claim for self-determination with the socialist one (the expropriation of the bourgeoisie), and thus postpone the solution of the national question until after the realization of socialism. Unlike the Bordighists, they use less unpopular arguments in the streets while demonstrating for Palestine. Their arguments have, coincidentally, the virtue of not shying away from tailing the reformists who do not want to hear about the destruction of the State of Israel. Thus, the SCR prefers to speak of “the disintegration of Israel from a class point of view” (13).

Behind the apparent “class” radicalism of this position lies either the emptiness typical of sectarians or (and this is the case with SCR) opportunism, as Lenin had already demonstrated a hundred years ago in his polemic with the similar positions of Bucharin (14). Sectarianism and opportunism are often the two sides of the same coin.

Then, in the present case, it is not taken into account that Israeli is a sui generis state with a sui generis proletariat composed of settlers. And the settlers are not only those living in the West Bank, but also those who live within Israel’s borders where they enjoy the status of citizens with the privileges sanctioned by the racial laws that defend the ethnic superiority of Jews in relation to Arabs, and who live on the lands and in the homes that have been expropriated from Palestinians. If, in the name of a supposed “class” analysis, this is not taken into account, it is unclear why (except in isolated cases) all mobilizations by Israel’s Jewish proletariat, including the most recent ones against Netanyahu, are driven by claims against individual governmental measures but never question Israel’s existence.

To speak, therefore, of a prospect of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is, in general, to be confused about the national question and the Marxist approach to it. It is, in particular, to gloss over the necessary destruction of Israel, a colonial state that survives not only by “normal” exploitation of proletarians but as a military base financed by imperialism.

The need for a different leadership

Our position– and the historical position of original Trotskyism–is based on the rejection of the UN partition of ’47. This is why we support the goal of the destruction of Israel as an inescapable step towards a future coexistence of the Palestinian majority (including the millions of refugees) with a non-Zionist (therefore non-Israeli) Jewish minority in a single non-racist, secular Palestine, from the Jordan river to the sea.

This is not, of course, to divide the process into stages, but to include the Palestinian national question in a transitional program that has as its goal a revolution and the building of socialist states in the Middle East. To accomplish this, one must advocate not appeasement, as the reformists would like, but an extension of the conflict involving the entire Arab proletariat, with the active support of the workers’ and youth movements of the imperialist countries. The images of city squares full of people supporting Palestine around the world in recent weeks show that this is not a dream. Certainly, the development of the movement will depend largely on the consistent intervention of revolutionaries.

In order to accomplish this goal, the construction of another, revolutionary, leadership of the labor movement both internationally and in Palestine is necessary (15). But the construction of this new leadership cannot take place in a vacuum. It must begin with the unconditional support for the Palestinian resistance and participation in the struggle to expel the Zionists from the land that is now referred to on maps as “Israel.”

Notes

(1) Among Ilan Pappé’s many books translated into Italian we particularly note: The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2006, ed. it. Fazi, 2008; La prigione più grande del mondo, 2017, Fazi, 2022; 10 miti su Israele, 2017, Tamu edizioni, 2022; and a gigantic Storia della Palestina moderna, 2003, Einaudi, 2014.

(2) I. Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, pp. 4-5.

(3) I. Pappé, ibid, p. 117.

(4) R. Schoenman, The Hidden history of Zionism, 1988: there are translations in various languages (also available in pdf on the internet) but not in Italian.

(5) Those wishing to learn more about the origins and history of Zionism may find the following sources useful: N. Weinstock, History of Zionism, 1969, Massari publisher, 2006 and A. Léon, Marxism and the Jewish Question, 1946, Samonà and Savelli, 1972. Leon, a Polish Jew and leader of the Fourth International, died at only 26 in the Auschwitz concentration camp. We also point out important research by Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, Rizzoli, 2010.

(6) R. Schoenman, op. cit.

(7) On the positions of Rifondazione Comunista see the resolution approved by the National Political Committee (October 26, 2023) http://www.rifondazione.it/primapagina/?p=54636

The position of Power to the People is expressed in “What Will Happen Now in Palestine and What Should We Do” (Oct. 18, 2023) https://poterealpopolo.org/palestina-cosa-dobbiamo-fare/

in which Pappé demands that Israel withdraw “by returning to the 1967 borders,” and the Oslo Accords be respected.

(8) From 1948 to 1967 in Israel the government was presided over continuously by Labor (Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin); then until 1984 by Likud (Conservatives, with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir); then alternating between the one and the other; and, from 2009 until now, except for brief periods, by Benyamin Netanyahu (Likud).

(9) L. Trotsky, Moralists and sycophants against Marxism, 1939, https://www.marxists.org/italiano/trotsky/1939/6/moralisti.htm

(10) This is the classic “ultra-left” position with which both Lenin and Trotsky polemicized. For example, the latter wrote: “The right to national self-determination is of course a democratic and not a socialist principle. But genuinely democratic principles are upheld and realized in our epoch only by the revolutionary proletariat: it is also for this reason that they are so closely intertwined with socialist ends.”

In “Ukraine’s Independence and Sectarian Confusion,” 1939, https://www.marxists.org/italiano/trotsky/1939/7/indUcraina.htm

(11) L. Trotsky, Transitional Program, 1938, Massari publisher, 2008. Here (pp. 126-127) Trotsky writes: “The sectarians see only two colors: red and black. Thus, in order not to fall into temptation themselves, they simplify reality. They refuse to distinguish between the two sides of the civil war in Spain on the grounds that both sides have a bourgeois character. For the same reason, they consider it necessary to keep themselves “neutral” in the war between Japan and China. (…) These sterile politicians do not normally need a bridge in the form of transitional claims because they have no intention of crossing over to the other side. They simply amuse themselves without moving, self-satisfied with the constant repetition of the same empty abstractions. Political events are an occasion for them to make comments, not to act.”

(12) V.I. Lenin, “Results of the Discussion on Self-Decision,” 1916, in Complete Works. Here Lenin scoffs at those who believe that “on one side you deploy an army and say, ‘We are for socialism,’ on another side you deploy another army and say, ‘We are for imperialism,’ and that will be the social revolution!” (…) a pedantic and ridiculous point of view (…). He who waits for a “pure” social revolution will never see it. He is a revolutionary in words who does not understand the real revolution.”

(13) See the statement of Imt (of which Scr is the Italian section), “Enough hypocrisy! Defend Gaza” (Oct. 11, 2023),

which states, “In the final analysis, only the creation of a united front between the Palestinian people and the working class and progressive sectors of Israeli society will create the possibility of dividing the Israeli state on class lines, paving the way for a lasting and democratic solution to the Palestinian question.”

(14) Lenin’s polemic with Bucharin (and Radek, Piatakov and others), who argued that the question of peoples’ self-determination was no longer on the agenda in the imperialist era and was indeed to be rejected as unfeasible or reactionary, is contained in a number of texts from 1916, in particular see: “Reply to Kievski” [a.k.a. Piatakov, ed.], “Around a caricature of Marxism,” and “On the Emerging Tendency of Imperialist Economism.” All three contained in volume 23 of the Complete Works, Editori Riuniti, 1966, pp. 9-74.

(15) We promise to devote a future article to an analysis of the historical and current directions of the Palestinians: starting with the PLO and its various components and arriving at the forces that directed the October 7 action, which included not only Hamas but also the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and other formations.

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