­­­­­­A Class Analysis of the Israel-Palestine Conflict

30 December 2023 388 hits

­­­­­­The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

This is a brilliant insight, a wonderful analytic tool – yet it is seldom used in analyses of what is commonly referred to as the Israel-Palestine conflict. This conflict is continually discussed within a nationalist framework that hides the class forces behind Israeli and Palestinian nationalism. Ironically, there is plenty of historical evidence regarding the class basis of these competing nationalisms. Examination of the origins and development of this nationalistic conflict indicates that it is based in the upper classes, has anti-working class politics, and relies on imperialism for support.

Palestine before World War I was part of the Ottoman Empire. Its population consisted mainly of Arabs but also included Jews, Ottoman officials and soldiers, European and American merchants, entrepreneurs, missionaries and educators. There was at the time no Israeli-Palestinian conflict because there were no groups with those national identities; before the 1880s there was no Zionist-Palestinian conflict for the same reason. The ethnic groups that did exist, Arabs and Jews, were not in conflict.

The late 1800s and early 1900s, however, saw the emergence of nationalist movements among European Jews and Palestinian Arabs. These movements embraced a central concept of the dominant ideology in the capitalist societies of Western Europe: this is the idea that States are (or should be) composed of ethnic (or “national”) groups each of which has an (alleged) historic claim to some piece of land on the planet. Because this idea linked ethnicity to territory, those people who did not belong to the ethnic or national group claiming a particular piece of land did not really belong there; they belonged in “their own” territory. In other words, the logic of nationalism is one of ethnic exclusion or, at the very least, ethnic domination. Another salient feature of nationalist ideology is that it downplays the central characteristic of modern capitalist societies: the division of the economy into two major groups - a class of families controlling economic production (through ownership of investment capital, factories, farms, resources) and a class of families toiling under the direction of the owners for low wages. Many in this latter class, the working class, were and are aware of the basic fact that they do almost all of the productive work and receive very little in return in the form of wages, benefits and basic economic security. They are aware that production is for profit rather than human need and that they have no control over the wealth they create through their work. They labor and they lose.

Among ethnic groups that had been dominated by others, nationalism was often proposed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a solution to the problem of subjugation. Those who embraced this thinking created movements of “national liberation”. It was not unusual for people to embrace this position in light of the cultural dominance of nationalism as a modern ideology. Thus, some Jews experiencing anti-Semitism in Europe and some Palestinians experiencing colonial domination under British rule opted for movements of national liberation. Although these movements adopted the fiery language and slogans of “national liberation”, they were not really revolutionary for they embraced the class division and inequality of modern capitalism, enforced ethnic and national separatism among workers, and were generally led and funded by bourgeois elements. When successful in achieving “national liberation”, these movements simply changed the ethnic identity of the class controlling economic production and exploiting workers and peasants.

Much of what passes for the Israel-Palestine conflict has its roots in economic changes affecting the regions of the former Ottoman Empire. The integration of the area into the capitalist world market transformed the forces and relations of production altering the lives of millions as

  • fellahin (peasants) were driven into debt, dispossessed of their lands, and transformed into proletarians,

  • new ruling classes emerged as landowners, merchants, and bankers in new nations constructed by European imperialists,

  • local economies now suffered through the “boom and bust” cycles of capitalism’s alternating periods of prosperity and depression,

  • lands were plunged into wars arising out of inter- imperialist rivalries or the competitions of local nationalist rulers for greater power.

To properly understand the Israel-Palestine conflict it is necessary to comprehend the effects of the transition to a modern capitalist economy, the rise of nationalist movements as political forces, and the role of outside imperialist powers, each of which has had their own agenda. This essay opens with a look at the post-WWI politics of three forces: Jewish nationalism, Palestinian nationalism, and British imperialism, as well as the unification of these forces against the peasant rebellion of the late 1930s. Following this, it considers a forgotten history of Arab-Jewish cooperation during the period of the British Mandate. The essay concludes with comments about nationalism and class struggle in today’s conflict.



Nationalism in Palestine: The Zionists during the British Mandate

Immigration to Palestine for the purpose of creating a Jewish home came in periodic waves and involved different conceptions of what that home should be. The first wave or aliya (a Hebrew word meaning “ascent,” thus implying betterment through immigration to Palestine) is dated from 1882 to 1903; the second aliya was from 1904 to 1914. Politically, the immigrants were divided into different factions depending on the goals and methods regarding national liberation: “cultural Zionists” and “Labor Zionists,” who were primarily concerned with establishing Jewish-controlled economic and political institutions that would eventually facilitate the creation of a Jewish state.

It was the Labor Zionism of the second aliya that played a major role in establishing the parameters of the subsequent conflict between Arabs and Jews. Labor Zionism was not only a national liberation movement but, because the national people were not to be liberated where they resided (i.e. Russia, Eastern Europe), it became a colonial movement of settlers. Because it saw anti-Semitism as something that could not be eradicated, the only solution to the problem of anti-Jewish racism was the establishment of a state where Jews would hold power within defensible borders. This line of reasoning led to a colonial project in Palestine.

The Zionist movement was not a revolutionary movement against capitalism although initially the movement was filled with a variety of groups espousing ideas of utopian socialism and attempting, in some cases, to combine Marxist ideas with the nationalist project. The leadership and policies, however, of the Zionist movement were thoroughly bourgeois: By developing a colonial settler economy in which land and jobs would be for Jews only, by creating ethnically-based political institutions, and by placing itself under the patronage and protection of an imperialist power (Great Britain), the Zionist movement placed itself squarely within capitalist theory and practice.

In the 1930s the Zionists clearly demonstrated their counterrevolutionary politics in three dramatic ways: (1)

they assisted British imperialism in its repression of the revolt of landless Arab peasants, (2) they effectively broke the Jewish-instigated economic boycott of Nazi Germany, and (3) they began to advocate the transfer of the Arab population out of Palestine.

Counter-insurgency against anti-imperialist rebels: During the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 against British imperialism – a revolt arising mainly from the immiseration of Palestinian peasants and workers – the Zionist leadership, through the Histadrut, worked with the British to sabotage the Arabs’ General Strike of 1936; it then aided the British military in its subsequent brutal counterinsurgency operations by supplying the Special Night Squads.

A deal with the Nazis: In April 1933, less than four months after Hitler assumed power, Zionists began exploring methods of securing Jewish immigrants and capital from Germany. At the time Germany’s exports were down ten percent because of an international economic boycott organized by Rabbi Stephen Wise (president of the American Jewish Congress) and Jewish War Veterans. In August 1933 a further meeting of Zionists with a German official in the Economic Ministry in Berlin led to the now infamous Transfer Agreement issued as Decree 54/33 by the Reich Economics Ministry on August 10, 1933: “The Transfer Agreement permitted Jews to leave Germany and take some of their assets in the form of new German goods, which the Zionist movement would then sell in Palestine and eventually throughout much of the world. The German goods were purchased with frozen Jewish assets held in Germany... Transfer helped Germany defeat the boycott, create jobs at home, and convert Jewish assets into Reich economic recovery. It helped the Zionists overcome a major obstacle to continued Jewish immigration and expansion in Palestine” (Black, 1999). In a further irony of history, the SS officer who was responsible for assisting the emigration of German Jews was Adolf Eichmann who “dealt cordially and cooperatively with Zionist representatives from Palestine” (Sachar, 2006: 197).

Preference for ethnic cleansing: Another indication of the thoroughly anti-revolutionary character of the Zionist movement was its growing embrace of the nationalist idea of the ethnic “transfer” of all or most of the Arab population from the future Jewish homeland - preferably voluntary but forced if need be. This has been discussed thoroughly by Israeli (and pro-Zionist) historian, Benny Morris, in his book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (2004: 39-64). As Morris points out, the idea that different ethnic or “national” groups should live apart was part and parcel of nationalist ideology in the twentieth century. Although talk of the desirability of the transfer of Arabs remained private among Zionist leaders (so as not to alarm the British and the Palestinians) until the outbreak of the Arab revolt in 1936, Morris observes that “To be sure, to some degree the praxis of Zionism,from the first, had been characterized by a succession of microcosmic transfers; the purchase of land and the establishment of almost every settlement (moshava, literally colony) had been accompanied by the (legal and usually compensated) displacement or transfer of an original beduin or settled agricultural community.” (Morris, 2004: 42)

When Britain’s Peel Commission in 1937 recommended a partition of Palestine, it gave the notion of transfer “an international moral imprimatur” and set off a debate among the Zionist leadership. But the thinking of the mainstream was expressed by David Ben-Gurion’s argument: “We must look carefully at the question of whether transfer is possible, necessary, moral and useful. We do not want to dispossess... In many parts of the country new settlement will not be possible without transferring the Arab peasantry... It is important that this plan comes from the Commission and not from us... Transfer is what will make possible a comprehensive settlement programme... You must remember, that this system embodies an important humane and Zionist idea, to transfer parts of a people [i.e. Palestine’s Arabs] to their country [i.e. Transjordan and Iraq] and to settle empty lands...” (Morris, 2004:48). This quote from Ben- Gurion illustrates the logic of nationalism: nations should be ethnically homogenous (Arabs and Jews should live apart), the Arabs have a homeland (Transjordan and Iraq), transfer will help the Arabs by forcing them into their home where they can “settle empty lands” and it will help the Jews by ridding Palestine of a people whose presence would interfere with the establishment of a Jewish state.

Although Morris does not believe that the extensive talk of transfer among political leaders and other functionaries in the Yishuv constituted pre-planning for a forced expulsion of Arabs in the 1948 war, he does claim that it conditioned the Jewish population to see it as “inevitable and natural” when approximately 700,000 Arabs became refugees in 1948. Another Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, contests Morris’ claim about actual plans for the forced removal of Arabs in his recent book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

Nationalism in Palestine: The Arabs

Like Jewish nationalism, Arab and Palestinian nationalisms are modern phenomena scarcely one hundred years old. The very words Arab and Palestinian today have nationalist connotations that they did not have 150 years ago. Consider the word arab: “Before the nineteenth century, the word ‘arab’ did not have the same meaning among Arabic speakers it has today. Instead, the word was commonly used as a term of contempt by town-dwellers when referring to ‘savage’ Bedouin. Only in the nineteenth century did intellectuals begin using the term to refer to their linguistic and cultural community.

Their nationalist descendents then appropriated the term and used it for their own purposes.” (Gelvin, Oxford 2005:202). Similarly, the use of the word ‘Palestinian’ in a nationalist sense did not emerge until 1908 after the Young Turks revolt against Ottoman rulers (Kimmerling and Migdal, 2003: 78).

Palestinian and Arab nationalism arose from exposure to the ideology of nationalism in Western missionary schools, the advocacy of nationalism by British imperialists to stimulate Arab revolts against the Ottoman Empire, the postwar creation of nation-states by the British and the French, and the confrontation with Zionism.

The Palestinian national movement was based among the traditional notable families such as the Husseinis, Nashashibis, and Khalidis whose sons learned the ideology of nationalism in the Christian missionary schools operated and staffed by Westerners such as the British, the French, and the Americans. In Jerusalem, for example, these included the Roman Catholic College des Freres established in 1875 and operated by French Jesuits. Arab nationalism was encouraged by British imperialism during WWI. The British promised Arabs (through the Husayn-McMahon correspondence) support for nationhood in return for their military rebellion against Ottoman power; less well known perhaps is the fact that the British army also actively promoted nationalism in the area: “As the British army moved north from Egypt to Damascus, political officers assigned to the army organized nationalist clubs to enlist the support of local leaders for the Arab Revolt and, more broadly, the entente campaign against the Ottomans. In the immediate aftermath of the war, these clubs acted as local branches of the Damascus-based Arab Club...” (Gelvin, Cambridge 2005: 97; emphasis mine). The destruction of the empire created a greater opportunity for political initiative on the part of local elites and the educated classes.

The British and the French created new countries from former Ottoman provinces: Iraq, Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, and occupied them while promising eventual independence. The very creation of these political units set in motion a variety of mechanisms to build Arab nationalism: the cultivation by the British rulers of loyal subjects from the indigenous upper class which would eventually administer these quasi-colonial states on a nationalist basis, the creation of a school system to teach patriotism, support for newspapers and preachers who encouraged nationalist thought and punishment for those who did not, and the establishment of borders with control over entry and exit based on a national passport system.

Class Politics and Intra-Class Rivalries

The class basis of the Palestinian national leadership was thoroughly elite with no representation from the urban workers or from the majority of the population, the peasantry or fellahin. The elite consisted of dozens of families based in Palestine’s towns: Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa, Gaza, Ramle, Nablus, Jenin, Haifa, Acre, Nazareth, Tiberias, and Safad. Like the Jewish nationalists, the Palestinian nationalists were characterized by different ideological outlooks, opportunism, and bourgeois politics. Perhaps the two salient features of Palestinian nationalism were its obvious upper class basis and its internal rivalries. The class position of such families as landholders, bankers, government officials, tax collectors, entrepreneurs and merchants led them to the politics of nationalism as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. (The spread of nationalist ideology to the masses of the Palestinian population - mainly peasants - came later in the 1930s.)

Internal rivalries evolved out of both British policy and the intra-class antagonisms among the elites themselves. The British ruling class saw Palestine as existing primarily for its imperial benefit and applied its traditional divide- and-conquer strategy to the Palestinian leadership class. The British also took advantage of existing intra-class family rivalries. When the British elevated a member of the Husayni family to the leadership of the Supreme Muslim Council, they then turned around and helped a rival family, the Nashashibis, in forming, “as part of a divide and rule policy, an official opposition group, al Mu’arada” (Pappe, 2006: 82).

It was the Husayni family that provided one of the pre- eminent nationalist leaders: Amin al-Husayni. Although this landholding family produced a nationalist, it was the British who provided him with a powerful office from which he could politically organize. He owed much of his initial power to the British who placed him at the head of the Supreme Muslim Council and also made him the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Husayni’s advancement as a nationalist leader from this power base was made possible by British imperialism not simply because the British put him in these offices but also because “Both the council and the position of grand mufti of Jerusalem were British inventions” (Gelvin, 2005 Cambridge: 110; emphasis mine). Neither of them had any historical precedent in Palestine or even the religion of Islam (Khalidi, 2006: 55).

As the British saw it, Palestinian Muslims had no leader with whom the British could deal. So they created a “grand mufti” (A mufti is a Muslim ‘priest’ who renders judgments on the basis of religious knowledge. Palestine had a number of muftis but the British wanted a contact point and so they created a “leader”.) The regular British practice of granting various offices to the ayan (“notables”) meant that “official” Palestinian national politics would be defined and controlled by the Palestinian upper class. The real political role of the ayan as ostensible representatives of the all Palestinians was to keep the laboring classes in line. “The British in Palestine depended in particular on erstwhile ‘radical’ Amin al-Husayni to act as such a

mediator. The Mufti worked hard to prevent outbursts and to pacify the Muslim community, channeling nationalist energies... into legal activities” (Swedenburg in Pappe, 1999: 142; emphasis mine). The mufti was so valuable to the British that they covertly financed his activities when the need arose. By using the Mufti, the British were able to channel anti-imperialist politics into a conservative direction that was explicitly anti-communist and which blended nationalism with religion. Today’s blend of religion, nationalism, and anti-communism by Hamas has its precedent in the British empowerment of the Mufti.

The policies pursued by the Palestinian leadership reflected their elite status and bourgeois position. Whatever criticisms the Palestinian nationalists made of the Zionist project and/or the British Mandate, at no time did they criticize the private property economy and its existing class structure.

Imperialism in Palestine: Great Britain

After WWI the British and French imperialists carved up the eastern part of the former Ottoman Empire creating nation states where none had previously existed. The French created modern Syria and Lebanon while the British established Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine. This colonialism was hidden behind the League of Nations mandate system. The British wanted control of Palestine for a number of strategic reasons. First, it would serve as a buffer state against any attacks against Egypt’s northeastern flank that might threaten loss of the Suez Canal which was a main shipping artery for British capitalism. Second, it would allow the British a secure territory to build an oil pipeline from Iraq across Transjordan and Palestine to Haifa. Third, it would allow Britain to control air routes from the Middle East to India.

Consequently, the genesis of the Balfour Declaration reflected the political exigencies and imperialist ambitions of World War I - it was very much a wartime declaration. Zionists, it was assumed, would also provide a more reliable political base with a loyalty to Western imperialism: “Britain’s Palestine expert, Sir Mark Sykes, saw in Zionism a vehicle for extending British influence in the Middle East” (Quigley, 2005: 8). Sir Ronald Storrs, Britain’s military governor of Jerusalem, and later of Palestine, wrote that Zionism would create “for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism” (8; see also Storrs, 1939).

Another consideration for the British was that the Balfour Declaration would hopefully encourage nationalism among the Jews of Europe as alternative to Bolshevism (Allain). The British were aware that Jews were active as both leaders and rank and file cadre in the Russian Communist Party, the Bolsheviks, as well as other European communist parties, and that many other East European and Russian Jews were members of the socialist Bund. The Balfour Declaration was issued November 2, 1917 just days before the November 7 seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in Russia. The declaration was then used as wartime propaganda encouraging German and Austrian Jews to support the British imperialists: “Leaflets were dropped over German and Austrian troops, urging the Jews to look to the Entente powers because they supported Jewish self-determination” (Smith 2004: 73).

The imperialist opportunism of the British ruling class during WWI produced a messy postwar situation. The problem was that the British made three sets of promises that contradicted each other: the Husayn-McMahon correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration. The British imperialists, with their Eurocentric colonial mentality, initially hoped that their support of European settlers (i.e. the Zionists) who were superior to the indigenous people in education, technological expertise, and capital would create an economic expansion providing job opportunities for the Palestinians and a subsequent improvement of their living standards. Thus, from the beginning of the British Mandate in Palestine (September 29, 1923) Britain committed itself to three broad pro-Zionist policies regarding immigration, land, and economic development: the expansion of Zionist immigration, facilitation of land acquisition by settlers, and promotion of Zionist economic development through the award of “monopolistic concessions to exploit natural resources and operate public services and utilities in Palestine” (Smith, 1993: 117). Because British rule more tightly integrated the Palestinian economy into the world market, the approximately 70 percent of the indigenous Arab population involved in agriculture as small landholders and sharecroppers found themselves unable to compete with the lower prices. When the worldwide Great Depression hit in 1929 and farm prices crashed, peasant agriculture “was consequently thrown into acute crisis” (Smith, 1993: 15). The onset of this economic crisis in 1929 provided the context for the Wailing Wall riots of the same year.

The ultimate results of the Mandate government’s institutionalization of economic inequality between Zionists and Arabs were the creation of a separate Zionist political-economic enclave within Palestine, the immiseration of the fellahin, the transformation of a part of the peasantry into proletarians and semi-proletarians, increasing national antagonisms, and a growing hatred for British imperialism. These factors combined to create the “Great Revolt” of 1936 -39.


The evolution of British imperial policy in Palestine resulted in a situation that favored the Zionists and the Palestinian upper class nationalists but exacerbated the exploitation of the Palestinian fellahin transforming

thousands of them into a landless proletariat. It also weakened the working class because of the policy of separatism and a policy of repression against the communists.

The pattern of nationalists collaborating against workers and peasants continued after the establishment of the state of Israel. Fearing the joint Jewish-Arab Israeli Communist Party (Maki), “the [Israeli] state sponsored public figures such as Archbishop George Hakim as anti- communist leaders. Another sponsored anti-communist was Muhammad Nimr al-Hawari, founder before 1948 of the al-Najjada paramilitary brigades... [which] participated in the fighting against the Zionist militias... Admiring his charisma, Israeli intelligence decided to allow his return to Israel in 1950 as an alternative anti- communist leader. The idea was that Hawari would establish a new Arab popular party.” (Yoav Di-Capua, “The Intimate History of Collaboration: Arab Citizens and the State of Israel”, MERIP Online, May 2007; see also Hillel Cohen, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948).

This review of the historical record from the beginnings of Palestinian and Jewish nationalism up to the outbreak of the Second World War establishes the following points about both Palestinian and Jewish nationalists:

· Their “national liberation” movements were thoroughly against liberation from capitalist exploitation either because of their economic positions as landowners and commercial agents (the Palestinians) or their dependence upon capitalist investment and imperialist patronage and protection (the Zionists).

· They were anti-working class and sought to weaken the working class at every opportunity through ethno-national division.

· They blended religion with nationalism: the Zionists by redefining believers in Judaism as a national group and the Palestinians by organizing nationalism through mosques controlled by the Grand Mufti or through activist preachers such as al-Qassam.

· They collaborated with fascist Germany: the Zionists through the Transfer Agreement and the Palestinians through the Mufti’s wartime services to the Nazis.

· They both actively sought the protection and patronage of an outside imperialist power (Great Britain) thus furthering imperial domination of the labor and resources of the local area.

· They were both anti-communist.



When the British replaced the Ottomans as rulers of Palestine in the years 1920 to 1947, both Jewish and Palestinian nationalists intensified their competition with each other to see which movement would be the dominant power in the creation of a future independent state. The intensification of this competition for power, together with other factors such as the increase of indebtedness and land dispossession among the Arab peasants (stemming from the destruction of pre-capitalist agriculture) and the creation of ethnically-based labor markets, led to the violent conflicts between Arabs and Jews for which the period 1920-1947 is well known. Yet, as the basis for the future Israeli-Palestinian conflict evolved through a process of “cyclical escalation” (Shafir, 1996: 199), another and opposite trend developed: the practice of interethnic cooperation, of bi-national solidarity, and even the advocacy of a-national consciousness.

The Period of the British Mandate (1920-1947)

After World War I, with the establishment of the British Mandate, the Jewish and Palestinian nationalist movements grew into powerful political forces confronting three enemies: each other, British imperialism, and anti- racist interethnic solidarity. This third nationalist enemy sprang “from below” (to use Ilan Pappe’s phrase). It came from workers, farmers, intellectuals, and consumers who resisted the segregationist politics of the nationalists. According to Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, “The entire history of Mandate Palestine is dotted with instances of cooperation between workers... it was there during the bloodiest years of the intra-communal strife towards the end of the Mandate. At every escalation of violence - 1920, 1929, 1936, or 1948 - I can find a case study of economic or social cooperation that was strongly opposed and destroyed by the national leaderships, especially the Zionist one” (Pappe, 2006: 110, 111).

As an example of this point, Pappe discusses the case of Haifa. The city of Haifa was the center of working class unity and a-national cooperation in 1920. It had Jewish, Christian, and Muslim populations of similar size. Many of the Jews and Arabs were immigrants; there were also thousands of immigrants from Syria and Egypt. Although these workers were in the most prosperous city of Palestine with its factories, oil refineries, and harbor, they labored long hours at underpaid jobs and lived in destitute conditions. As a consequence, “In 1920, the Palestinians, Jews, and Arabs from Syria and Egypt established the first trade union in Palestine in the yards and workshops of the railway, telegraphic, and postal services” (Pappe, 2006: 111). The Jewish workers who joined the union were severely criticized by the Histadrut (the Zionist labor organization). Its local chief, David Hacohen, stated, “The railway workers forget that the mission of the Hebrew workers who are part of the movement for settling Palestine, is not to be bothered by mutual assistance to Arab workers, but to assist in the fortification of the Zionist project on the land” (Pappe, 2006: 111). After almost ten years (by 1929), the Histadrut managed to get “most of the Jewish workers in the union to put national interest above class solidarity” (Pappe, 2006: 112). The Histadrut created a Jewish-only labor union and coerced the Jewish workers into joining it. The response of the Arabs was to create their own nationalist union in 1930.

Working Class Opposition to Nationalism and Ethnic Separation

Many Arab workers in the Haifa railway workshops opposed the creation of separate national unions or even national sections within one union and called upon Jewish workers to reject the separatist Histadrut. The appeal of Ilyas Asad, an Arab worker, presented to Jewish co-workers at a meeting of the Railway Workers’ Association council in March 1924 is striking for its class consciousness:

I am striving to establish ties between the Jewish and Arab workers because I am certain that if we are connected we will help one another, without regard to religion or nationality. Many Arab workers do not wish to join nationalist organizations because they understand their purpose and do not wish to abet a lie. They saw on the membership card [of the railway workers’ union] the words Federation of Jewish Workers [i.e., the Histadrut] and they cannot understand what purpose this serves. I ask all the comrades to remove the word Jewish, and I am sure that if they agree there will be a strong bond between us and all the Arabs will join. I would be the first who would not want to join a nationalist labor organization. There are many Arab nationalist organizations, and we do not want to join them, and they will say we have joined a Jewish nationalist organization.” (Ted Swedenburg, “The role of the Palestinian peasantry in the Great Revolt (1936-39)”, in Ilan Pappe, ed., The Israel/Palestine Question, 1999: 110; emphasis mine.)

Three years later in July, 1927, at the third congress of the Histadrut which discussed the matter of joint organization among Arab and Jewish laborers, an Arab worker, Ahmad Hamdi, (whose presence was probably sponsored by the left-wing Jewish group, Po’alei Tziyon Smol) made the following point about nationalist separation:

Such separate organizations are dangerous. Let not [distinctions between] East and West, Zionism, and Arabism, Torah and Qur’an, cause divisions among us. When the Arab workers approach the Jewish workers, their enemies say to them, “You are Zionists!’ And others say, ‘You are communists!’ And so the Arab worker is confused. We must unite and present common demands to the government, which ignores its obligations to the worker and instead sends in the police and puts him in jail.” (Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies, 1996: 105).

The response of David Ben-Gurion and other Labor Zionists who dominated the Histadrut was to argue that Jewish workers were (or should be) Zionists and that the development of a separate Zionist economy would eventually lead to the rise of Arab living standards. Arab appeals for worker unity were perceived by Labor Zionists as part of a strategy created by outside agitators – the effendis (wealthy Arab landholders) – who sought to destroy the Zionist movement in Palestine. By the late 1920s the Histadrut had committed itself firmly to separate ethnic unions in those workplaces where Jews and Arabs labored together. And, among the various socialist factions present within the Jewish immigration, the commitment to national liberation led them to put nationalist politics ahead of class politics, thus subverting any unity with the Arab workers. The few anti-Zionist Jewish communists who led the demand for working class unity had been expelled from the Histadrut in 1923 and were, by the mid-1920s, politically outmaneuvered by the Labor Zionists and later repressed by the British authorities (Lockman, 1996: 58-147).

Nevertheless, efforts at worker solidarity persisted. In November, 1931, Palestinian and Jewish truck drivers together organized a strike that lasted eight days, “paralyzed the country”, and forced the government to lower the taxes on truck drivers. Although the Histadrut endorsed the strike at first, its support declined when the strikers proposed expanding it to include other groups of workers. On the Palestinian side, “The nationalist notables used the local press to condemn Palestinians collaborating with their Jewish comrades... Both political leaderships, realizing the importance of traffic and roads, over the next few years forced drivers from their communities to take a national rather than a professional position. The result was that, in 1936, the truck drivers stood in the forefront of the clashes between the Zionists and Palestinians” (Pappe, 2006: 113).

Palestinian nationalists confronted an Arab population that saw British imperialism as a primary problem and that was able in a number of cases to distinguish between Zionism as a political force and Jews as co- inhabitants of the land. An example of this consciousness occurred during the Arab “general strikes, political demonstrations, and violent exchanges with the police” against British rule in 1931-32. The Arab organizers of these actions made it clear that “the British, not the Jews, should be the primary targets of action - in some cases, Palestinians even organized contingents of guards to protect Jews and their property during demonstrations. In fact, during this period, while the British were firing at Arab demonstrators... not a single Jew was attacked in urban protests” (Kimmerling and Migdal, 2003: 106, 107; emphasis mine). It was this more sophisticated political consciousness, interethnic solidarity, and human decency that had to be destroyed by the nationalists.

To intimidate antiracists both Palestinian and Jewish nationalists resorted to murder:

When persons such as Fawzi al-Husayni or Fakhri al- Nashashibi joined Arab-Jewish organizations advocating a bi-national political structure, they paid with their lives. In 1937, a leader of the Palestinian labour union was assassinated. In 1947, another union leader named Sami Taha was murdered. Both were killed for subordinating national solidarity to class awareness. Like other workers, they regarded the national cause as a limited venture run by and for the nationalist notables. The hand of Amin al-Husayni [Mufti of Palestine] was visible in both assassinations” (Pappe:, 2006: 113, 114; emphasis mine).

And Jewish nationalists, particularly those of Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi and Yitzhak Shamir’s Stern Gang, murdered Jews who stood against nationalism or at least their fascist version of it. According to a letter written and signed by several anti-fascist Jews including Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, and Sidney Hook, and published in the New York Times on December 4, 1948:

During the last years of sporadic anti-British violence, the IZL [the Irgun] and Stern groups inaugurated a reign of terror in the Palestine Jewish community. Teachers were beaten up for speaking against them, adults were shot for not letting their children join them. By gangster methods, beatings, window-smashing, and wide-spread robberies, the terrorists intimidated the population and exacted a heavy tribute.” (Shatz, 2004: 66; emphasis mine).

Although the nationalist leaderships systematically attacked interethnic solidarity, it kept recurring during the era of the British Mandate. Jews and Arabs worked together in the citrus industry and jointly operated the salt plant of Atlit. Working class Palestinians and Jews also carried out labor strikes together in the following industries and occupations: oil and petroleum, cigarette factories, bakeries, trucking, railways, and government offices (i.e. office clerks). Ilan Pappe notes:

The pattern of [joint] strikes increased after 1936 [i.e. during and after the Arab Revolt!]. Between 1938 and 1943 there was an average of two joint strikes a year, mainly in the railway system, the municipalities and the British army camps. Action peaked in 1943... One year later, in February 1944, the Histadrut did not even try to intervene in a joint strike in the railway workshops, where the main strikers were Jews, encouraged by a show of solidarity from Palestinian colleagues, who demonstrated, gave food and provided coats for the cold night spent in the plant” (Pappe, 2006: 114, 115; emphasis mine).

This strike has been described by Israeli historian Deborah Bernstein: When an Arab worker was severely hurt at work on February 2 and no appropriate medical help was available, the workers in the railway workshops halted work. “A strike committee of three Arab and two Jewish workers was set up. The workers staged a sit- in and refused to leave the work site... all the workers attended a meeting in the large halls of the mechanical workshops. Workers spoke out in Hebrew and Arabic and others translated... They decided that they would not leave the place until their demands were met” (Bernstein, 2000: 199, 200). She then quotes a labor publication of the period which depicts the anti-racism and unity of the workers:

The Arab workers treated the Jewish workers with fraternity and solidarity. The PAWS [Palestine Arab Workers Society] sent pitot and olives, and these were distributed among all the workers. Many of the Arab workers approached each and every Jewish worker to ask if he had had enough to eat... Jewish and Arab workers sat around the bonfires and warmed themselves together - singing songs and telling tales...” (Bernstein, 2000: 200).

Ephraim Krisher, who was a secretary of the local guild of the Railway, Post and Telegraph Workers’ Organization and also a member of the Shomer Hatza’ir (Hashomer Hatzair), wrote in a report about the strike:

... it was a moving experience for the workers. They feel that they have done a great thing. There was complete unity and joint action between the workers of both nationalities... The slogan ‘long live Arab-Jewish unity’ was enthusiastically received...” (Bernstein, 2000: 200, 201; emphasis mine).

In April 1946 a joint strike stopped postal services and grew into a general strike involving 22,000 Arab and Jewish employees of the Mandate government. In May 1947 telegraph service was disrupted by a strike of Palestinian and Jewish workers. In the same year a joint labor walkout by government clerks disrupted official government work for two weeks: “Their success was so overwhelming that the two segregated national unions, the Histadrut and the Arab Union of Workers, were obliged to join in” (Pappe, 2006: 114). The interethnic solidarity of workers in the cities and towns was also reflected in the countryside. “As the Mandate drew to its end, Jewish settlements provided more organized and structured aid to Palestinian villages, unprecedented joint agricultural cooperatives sprang up in the Marg Ibn ‘Amr in the 1940s between kibbutzim and villages, and in the city new joint commercial boards were established” (Pappe, 2006: 115). A sense of internationalism and class solidarity arose out of the class struggles and inequality faced by both Jewish and Palestinian workers. It was this solidarity, the potential for more revolutionary and communist growth, that the nationalist ruling classes on all sides organized to destroy.


This review of several of the highlights of interethnic and inter-religious unity during the Mandate indicates a number of points worthy of reflection:

First, in spite of recurring interethnic clashes, there were workers who actively sought solidarity. They did not passively wait to be told what to do; they tried to make their own antiracist history. Second, they sought this unification as workers, not as Jews or Arabs or Muslims or Christians; their class consciousness in several cases was quite outstanding. They saw nationalism as politically suicidal for the working class. They understood that interethnic and inter-religious solidarity was necessary for their collective advancement as workers.

Third, it was rank-and-file workers who took the lead in advocating an anti-racist position. “...[interethnic] cooperation was desired, initiated, and/or advanced to a far greater extent at the rank-and-file level... than at the level of labor leadership... [For example] The initiative to recruit Arab workers into the organization of railway workers came from the Jewish workers, and not from the full-time functionaries” (Bernstein, 2000: 212, 213). The policies of the Jewish and Arab nationalist labor organizations (i.e. the Histadrut, the Arab Union of Workers) were to create ethnically exclusivist unions. In those sectors where the separatists could not establish effective political control, the rank-and-file workers attempted and several times succeeded in forming interethnic unions.

Fourth, until they were politically marginalized by the Labor Zionists of the Histadrut in the mid-1920s, it was the anti-Zionist Jewish communists who took the lead in advocating Arab-Jewish working class unity. Fifth, the attempt to be both nationalist and anti- capitalist led several leftist Zionist groups and factions to advocate separatism as the best strategy for both Jews and Arabs. Class politics were subordinated to national separatist politics. Sixth, nationalist politics among the Zionists were co-mingled with a colonial mentality of cultural superiority. The idea was that the presence of the Europeans (in this case, Jews) would contribute to the cultural uplifting of the Arabs. This ideology mixed nationalism with a paternalist perspective that saw the European immigrant has having a civilizing effect on the less cultured indigenous people (Lockman, 1996).

Finally, the workers’ antiracist solidarity was constantly attacked by the Palestinian and Zionist nationalists who preferred separation and conflict to unity and peace. The seeds of today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict were planted by the nationalist leaderships who sabotaged the repeated efforts at unity. The contemporary conflict does not extend back into “time immemorial”; it has specific roots in the nationalist movements, in the class interests of nationalist leaders, and in the policies of outside imperial powers.

Cooperative antiracist actions were undercut by the strategies and tactics of the nationalist elites to divide Arabs and Jews. The anti-racism of workers, farmers, consumers, and others was continually assaulted ideologically, politically, physically. The anti-racists were battered with nationalist arguments. They also suffered beatings and assassinations at the hands of the nationalists. Their attempts to create bi-national or interethnic unions were countered by the nationalists’ creation of ethnically separate unions. Even the Palestine Communist Party succumbed to this nationalist influence and divided itself into separate Jewish and Arab sections by 1943. But the biggest blow to solidarity was perhaps the 1948 war because the triumph of nationalist forces resulted in the flight of a large part of the Palestinian population and the creation of a State which then had the power to institutionalize ethnic separation.

Part Three:

The Contemporary Consequences of “National Liberation”

The bourgeois basis of Zionist and Palestinian politics was consolidated after World War II to the advantage of the Jewish and Palestinian upper classes. The capitalists have prospered while the working classes – kept separate by nationalist and pro-imperialist politics – have only suffered. Consider first the Palestinians, second the Israelis.

The Palestinians

When approximately 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled during the 1948 war, the peasants and proletariat wound up destitute in refugee camps without land for the peasants or jobs for the wage laborers. The story was different for the commercial and landowning class, which during the Mandate had accumulated considerable wealth through land sales, export of crops, and contractual deals with the British government in Palestine. Much of this wealth was held “in the form of stocks and shares, bank deposits, cash, and financial investments abroad”; indeed, “about 16 percent of the total capital owned in the country [Palestine], was held by the non-Jewish population in the form of assets that could be transferred abroad” (Smith cited Berberoglu, 2004: 49, 50).

Many of the Palestinian bourgeoisie fled to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and reacquired their wealth from formerly blocked accounts in Barclay’s Bank and the Ottoman Bank in the early 1950s. About ten million Palestinian pounds “was estimated to have been transferred to Jordan in the form of bank deposits and cash... The magnitude of such a sum can be gauged by the fact that this figure equaled the total amount of money in circulation in the Hashemite Kingdom at the time” (Smith cited in Berberoglu, 2004: 50). With this reacquisition of capital, the Palestinian upper class rebuilt their businesses or invested in new commercial ventures. They became involved in the oil economies

of the Gulf region thus linking themselves to the royal families of various oil producing countries such as Kuwait and Qatar. In Jordan, a group of Palestinian merchant families achieved financial success through loyalty to King Hussein: “This elite, termed the ‘king’s Palestinians’ or the ‘Palestinian G7’, included... the Masri, Nuqul and Salfiti families and the owners of the Arab Bank, the Shouman family” (Bouillion, 2004: 38). A number of upper class families also prospered through business ventures in Europe and the United States.

The reconstituted Palestinian capitalist class used their money to dominate the newly formed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which was initially created in 1964 by Egypt’s ruler Gamal al-Nasser in an effort to control the direction of Palestinian diaspora politics (Gelvin, Cambridge 2005: 198, 199). The PLO was an umbrella organization for various political groups; it came to be dominated by El Fatah which had been founded by a member of the old Husayni family, Yasir Arafat, who himself “had been personal secretary to Abd-al-Qadir al-Husayni (one of the members of the Husayni family who was killed fighting the Israelis in April 1948)”. The internal organization that decided El-Fatah’s policies, the Gehaza, was composed of Husaynis or men connected to Husaynis through marriage (Divine in Migdal, 1980: 228). Fatah also relied on other families from the Palestinian establishment such as the Ghosseins, Kaddoumis, and the Abu So’uds (Aburish, 1997: 167). The donations of the elite allowed them to contain the agenda of the PLO within acceptable nationalist and private enterprise boundaries. “Most important among them were the Palestinian G7 from Jordan and the Shouman-run Arab Bank...The biggest conduit for private aid was the Geneva-based Welfare Association, sponsored by more than 100 of the richest Diaspora Palestinian businessmen” (Bouillion, 2004: 48).

After the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, the PLO elites set up the Palestinian Authority (PA) to establish a quasi-state in the West Bank and Gaza. The main function of the PA - dominated by the old PLO elite (the “Tunisians”) who, after decades abroad, returned to the Occupied Territories only in 1994 - was to generate profits for the capitalist class. The capitalists established a few “core conglomerates,” which concentrated capital. “The largest of those companies was the Palestine Development and Investment Company (PADICO), set up in 1993 by the Palestinian G7 from Jordan. With a working capital of $1.5 billion, it engaged in industrial projects, tourism, and developed telecommunications through its subsidiary, the Palestine Telecommunications Co (Paltel), as well as industrial parks in the Palestinian Territories through another daughter, the Palestine Industrial Estates Development Co. (PIEDCO). PADICO also owned the Palestine Securities Exchange...” (Bouillion, 2004: 45, 46). Another conglomerate, the Arab Palestinian Investment Company (APIC) was established by investors from the Saudi royal family and most of the Palestinian G7 to create industrial and trade enterprises. The PA was used to take market share away from small business by establishing monopolies; no less than thirteen monopolies were created and put under the control of five members of the PA’s inner circle. As economic power became concentrated in the hands of Palestinian big business, small and medium size business decreased.

The political economy of contemporary Palestinian secular nationalism has been summarized by Markus Bouillion in his book, The Peace Business: Money and Power in the Palestine-Israel Conflict: “The PA increasingly transformed itself into a rentier quasi-state. The political-economic elites used ‘the resources of the state to allow for the primitive accumulation of capital’ and distributed ‘these “privileges” tactically in ways that allow the regime to hold its power.’ [...] As in Israel and Jordan, therefore, power in the Palestinian economy came to be centralized in the core elites, which pursued highly personalized interest politics and marginalized most ordinary Palestinians.” (50). An example of the disparity between the PA and the Palestinian working class is the comparison of the monthly PA subsidy to Yasir Arafat’s wife with the daily income of 50 percent of the Palestinians: she lived in Paris on a monthly (!) subsidy of $100,000 while half the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, according to the World Bank, lived on less than two dollars a day in 2004 (Gelvin, Cambridge 2005: 239).

It should be noted that the Palestinian nationalists in their quest for power and wealth subordinated themselves to greater powers: Israel, the United States and Europe. For example, “[b]etween 1995 and 2000, 60 percent of total PA revenue came from indirect taxes collected by the Israeli government on goods imported from abroad and destined for the Occupied Territories... if the Israeli government chooses to withhold payment of this money – as it has since December 2000 – then the PA faces a major fiscal crisis... The other major source of PA income is foreign disbursements from the United States, Europe, and Arab governments. In 2001, these funds covered about 75 percent of the PA’s salary budget,” paying 122,000 public sector workers (Hanieh, 2002: 36). In this way nationalist politics came under the influence of outside imperial powers each seeking to advance their own agendas. The Israelis kept a hold on the land, resources and security of the territories while the U.S. and the Arab governments guaranteed that no radical politics would emerge in an autonomous Palestine.


The transparent corruption of the PA and its failure to counteract effectively Israeli policies of closure and sanctions amid the growing impoverishment of the Palestinian working class has led to the emergence of the Islamic Resistance Movement (better known as “Hamas”) as a competitor for power. Hamas, which many view as a predominantly religious organization, is essentially a nationalist organization with no revolutionary pretensions. Its primary goal is the national liberation of Palestine. Article 12 of its charter makes this clear: “According to the Islamic Resistance Movement, nationalism is part and parcel of its religious creed...Whereas other nationalisms consist of material, human, or territorial considerations, the Islamic Resistance Movement’s nationalism carries all of that plus all the more important divine factors...” (Mishal and Sela, 2006: 182). And, according to Article 25 of its charter, Hamas is also anti-communist: “It respects them [other nationalist movements] as long as they do not give their allegiance to the Communist East...” (Mishal and Sela, 2006: 191).

As an anti-revolutionary nationalist movement, Hamas emerged with the economic and political support of the area’s ruling classes: Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Israeli. After the oil boom of the 1970s, the upper classes of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait increased their contributions to Islamic charities and social welfare organizations in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza, “financing a host of Islamic foundations and mosques from which those foundations distributed largesse. In 1967, there were 77 mosques in Gaza; by the outbreak of the intifada [1987], there were 150. Many of these mosques... acted as incubators for Islamic political organizations”. Funding from Persian Gulf states for Hamas increased after 1990 as they transferred their prior support from the PLO because it sided with Iraq in the crisis over Kuwait. The Muslim charities were quite extensive and produced strong linkages with the local populations through organization of “daycare, kindergartens, primary schools, vocational training centers, blood banks, medical clinics, libraries, youth and sporting clubs, and soup kitchens”. The spread of the Islamic charities was also implicitly supported by Israel, which not only hoped that such aid would keep the Palestinians pacified but also thought that an emphasis on religious renewal and piety might undercut the political influence of the secular PLO (Gelvin, Cambridge, 2005: 222, 223).

One of the political forces the Israeli rulers sought to counteract in the 1980s was not simply the PLO whose leader, Arafat, increasingly appeared to Palestinians as a “bourgeois fraud” but the new trade union and community activists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These activists had organized about 20 percent of the Palestinian workers into unions. Furthermore, they put forth the view that the Palestinians should not waste time trying to establish a separate nation-state. Rather they should attempt to integrate themselves into the prevailing system and, sooner or later, the demographic weight of a larger Arab population would turn Israel into a “de facto binational state” (Sachar, 1996: 962). Fearful of this nonviolent strategy and what it meant for the ethnocratic character of Israel, the National Unity government under Peres and Shamir “authorized a certain limited enlargement of Moslem fundamentalist activities in Palestine. The fundamentalists’ program and institutions were directed principally by Hamas, an indigenous, Gaza-based movement...With unofficial Israeli approval now, these right-wing religionists were authorized to build new mosques, Islamic schools and colleges, clinics and infirmaries, and thus presumably to function as a more ‘spiritual’ alternative to Fatah and other PLO factions in Palestine” (Sachar, 1996: 963).

This line of thinking on the part of the Israeli authorities had a historical precedent: The Zionists spent “substantial sums” to set up the National Muslim societies in 1922 and 1923 as an alternative to the Arab Executive (Lesch, 1979: 51). Another precedent, of which Israeli rulers were likely aware, was found across the border in Jordan. When the West Bank was under the control of Jordan in the 1950s and 1960s, “Amman’s official policy had been marked by a tacit alliance with the Muslim Brothers against both pan-Arab movements and communism” (Mishal and Sela, 2006: 155). The old British colonial policy of supporting Islamic groups and their networks of mosques and charities to contain political thought and activism within acceptable limits has found its contemporary counterpart in the support of local ruling classes for Hamas.

The Israeli, Saudi, and Kuwaiti ruling classes would not support Hamas if it was a revolutionary organization seeking to overthrow the existing class structure. The Israeli, Saudi, and Kuwaiti ruling classes would not support Hamas if it was trying to organize Arab and Jewish workers into a revolutionary force. If these reactionary powers support it, how “progressive” can it be? A similar point can be made about the nationalist Lebanese political party, Hizbullah. For Hizbullah the achievement of social justice does not involve creating social equality. Private property is accepted thus giving owners of the means of production the power to exploit the labor power of the workers. For Hizbullah, alms-giving, tithing, and appropriate state policy will create a social order that “transcends” class differences. The struggle for social justice does not support class conflict. Justice is determined by individual moral behavior. (Hamzeh, 2004: 42, 43).

The Israelis

Jewish nationalism was able to create a state apparatus in 1948. With state power, what has the nationalist movement done for the capitalists and workers of Israel? The answer to this question can be divided into three historical periods marking the rise of the capitalists and the decline of the workers.

The first period from 1948 to 1973 saw the channeling of almost all capital transfers to Israel (coming from German reparations and foreign Jewish contributions) “to favored business groups considered allies in the ‘national project’. These groups eventually developed into the key conglomerates that dominated the Israeli economy in the following years” (Hanieh, 2002: 31). The ranks of the working class grew with tremendous immigration of Arab, African and Asian Jews known collectively as the Mizrahim. These immigrants were relegated to the lower paying jobs as Israeli society developed a pronounced system of inequality.

Another source of capital was the property abandoned by the Palestinians in the 1948 war as they fled or were forced out. The results were that, of Israel’s total land area, over 60 percent consisted of abandoned Arab property. The new farmland (about 2 million acres) was four times greater than what the Zionists controlled before the war. The total value of this capital has been estimated at 120 million pounds (expressed in 1947 financial values). In addition, the 150,000-200,000 Palestinians within Israel’s borders – under military rule until 1966 – lost almost 40 percent of their land through confiscation by the state; this amounted to 75,000 acres. Within thirty years (1950s – 1980s) the percentage of Palestinians tilling the soil fell from 70 percent to less than 10 percent. Many of them became workers at menial jobs within Israel.

After Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the economies of these territories became integrated with Israel’s. Palestinians entered the Israeli economy as a cheap labor force boosting profits; they constituted about seven percent of the workforce. A third of those commuting into Israel for work were “illegals” – they were hired by labor contractors who transported them to sub-minimum wage menial jobs in agriculture, construction, industry, and service. The workers had to depart before dawn to reach their jobs and did not return until mid-evening. They began to avoid the commute by not returning home on a daily basis; instead they started sleeping near their job sites - “in basements, huts, abandoned buses, even on open beaches” (Sachar, 1996: 961).

Economic penetration of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip allowed the Israeli capitalists to dominate the Occupied Territories and begin a process of “de- development” stifling Palestinian economic independence while Israeli firms and Palestinian compradors profited. About half of the military orders issued in the Occupied Territories between 1967 and 1994 dealt with economic matters. The overall objective was to make the West Bank and Gaza economies colonies of Israel. The workforce was proletarianized through the destruction of agriculture. As the occupation began, about 44 percent of Palestinian workers labored in farming; thirty years later, because of land expropriation and destruction of farmland for “security reasons,” only about 12 percent of the Palestinian workers were in farming. Those driven out of agriculture either became migrant workers to the Arab oil states or low-wage commuters to Israel.

Another method used for the political economic domination of the territories involved creating a loyal social base of colonists through a settlement movement subsidized by the state. The settlement movement required land acquisition. Although some land (about 50,000 acres) was purchased between 1979 and 1982, most was seized under security measures and through bureaucratic fiat. By late 1981 Israel “acquired not less than 31 percent of the West Bank’s total land area” (Sachar, 1996: 868). This state supported colonization, beginning in the 1970s, dramatically expanded in the 1980s and 1990s when the state, at Sharon’s behest, began to recruit secular nationalists to move to the West Bank. Because there were not enough religious nationalists to colonize the occupied territory, the state began to offer land and loans on financial terms better than within Israel itself. The ruling class financed colonization through state subsidization of real estate and mortgages, tax exemptions for businesses operating in the West Bank, and the construction of development infrastructure such as water and power lines, sewer systems, roads, bridges, and street lights. The subsequent influx of hundreds of thousands of settlers plus the construction of the “security” wall has made the West Bank a part of Israel. That is, much of the West Bank is not “occupied” – it is conquered.

The second period in the development of the Israeli economy was from 1974 to 1985 and saw military production become a central industry. The direction of state military spending to the powerful conglomerates resulted in tremendous profits for these groups. Israel by 1987 exported weapons to 40 countries; at its high point in the 1980s, weapons represented one quarter of exports and use one quarter of the industrial labor force. The Israeli ruling class used this profitable industry to develop political links with other ruling classes in the world including (or especially) those which had not extended diplomatic recognition even in the 1960s, such as Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. Israel provided training for Taiwan’s secret service, trained the private armies of Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, stationed Mossad agents in Jakarta, Indonesia under the anti-communist Suharto regime, sent military advisors to Thailand and Sri Lanka, sold weapons to Zaire’s billionaire kleptocrat, Joseph Mobutu, and to Morocco’s repressive King Hassan II. (Sachar, 1996: 946).

The Israeli ruling class made its most impressive alliance with the white supremacist rulers of South Africa. South African Prime Minister John Vorster made an official state visit to Israel in 1976 “at a time when other nations all but quarantined South Africa for its policy of apartheid”. Following this both nations approved bilateral trade agreements for weapons. South Africa provided steel for Israeli tanks and built its latest submarine. Israel traded jets, patrol boats, missiles, howitzers, communications equipment and radar systems. In September 1979 this cooperation reached its fruition in a joint nuclear bomb test 1500 miles southeast of the Cape of Good Hope near the Prince Edwards Islands.

As profits fell during a worldwide recession in the mid- 1980s and local inflation slowed the economy, a third period began with the Economic Stabilization Plan of 1985. This phase, continuing to the present day, has been characterized by neo-liberal reforms more tightly integrating Israel into the global economy by replacing public capital with corporate capital and cutting the living standards of the workers. American investment rose leading to increasing Americanization and the “McDonaldization” of Israeli society and culture.

Just as Palestinian capital became highly concentrated in the 1990s, so did Israeli capital: “A survey conducted by the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange revealed that six families controlled 40 percent of the value of the shares traded on the stock exchange [...]. These six families control 12 of 17 economic conglomerates in Israel, and their total sales amount to 10 percent of Israel’s annual GDP. As a result of their dominant status, the capital groups of these families made some 90 percent of the net profit of these 17 economic conglomerates. [...] This control enables them to concentrate far-reaching political power in their hands.” (Gozansky in Leon, 2004: 137). Integration into the global economy has resulted not only in the concentration of capital but also the ownership of a huge percentage of Israeli capital by foreigners.: “foreign corporations and entrepreneurs today own 50 percent of the 20 largest companies in Israel that trade on the stock exchange, including banks, and companies involved in high-tech, chemicals and drugs, insurance and investment” (Gozansky in Leon, 2004: 137).

If economic and political power has become concentrated among six Israeli families and a number of foreign investors, what does it mean to say that Israel is a state of all the Jewish people? Nationalism, whether ethnic, racial, or religious, works to hide and mystify economic inequality and class antagonisms, fooling workers into believing in “their own” national leaders.

To increase profits Israeli capitalists have employed four strategies. First, they began in 1993 to import foreign workers as cheaper substitutes for the Palestinian laborers they had used since 1967. These new workers, numbering about 300,000 in mid-2003 “were often brought ‘illegally’ (although with full knowledge of the Israeli government). They were brought by labor-hire firms set up in Thailand, the Philippines, and Romania, with employers taking their passports on arrival, employing them in very poor conditions and often withholding pay. They formed an ideal reserve army of labor...” (Hanieh, 2002: 34). They now constitute about 16 percent of the labor force and are tremendously profitable since most earn less than minimum wage and lack benefits like overtime pay and annual vacations. The use of foreign labor has meant a collapse of Palestinian employment within Israel as the number of Palestinian workers in the years 1992 to 1996 declined from 116,000 to 28,100. Whereas formerly 33 percent of Palestinian workers had jobs in Israel, by 1996 only 6 percent did. And, in the West bank and Gaza, as of 2004 the number of unemployed Palestinians was 226,300. In a labor force of 845,000 this constituted an unemployment rate of 26.8 percent! (Farsakh, 2005: 206, 207).

Second, the Israeli capitalists supported the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 to get an end to the Arab boycott so that Israeli firms could subcontract low tech industrial production (e.g. textiles) to lower wage industrial zones in Jordan and Egypt; in this they have been successful. Third, after Oslo they partnered with Palestinian capitalists for development projects in the Occupied Territories. The large Israeli firm Koor, for example, formed a partnership with the Palestinian Authority for infrastructure projects. In this light, the Oslo Accords can be viewed as a deal between the Israeli and Palestinian business classes to allow the PLO to consolidate its political grip on the Palestinians under the watchful eye of Israel while both partners in the deal make money. The collapse of Oslo has seemingly negated this strategy. Fourth, the Israeli ruling class assaulted the Israeli workers themselves.

This was done not only by pitting them against low wage immigrant labor but also by shifting the terms of employment and curtailing the organizing power of workers. There has been a growth in hiring workers through manpower agencies and contractors which deny workers the rights accorded to those previously hired through trade unions. The result of this is that, according to Israeli government statistics, 32 percent of all families and 36 percent of all children are, on the basis of their incomes alone, living in poverty. By 2003 almost 11 percent of the workforce was unemployed. Clearly, Jewish nationalism has enabled a few to profit from the exploitation of “their own” people.

A final observation is in order about Israeli nationalism. In spite of achieving formal national independence in 1948, Israeli rulers, like the Palestinian nationalists, have always sought the patronage and protection of an imperial power. In the 1950s Britain and France were powers with which to align; the Suez Crisis of 1956, however, revealed American dominance over Britain. The 1967 war convinced the Americans to back Israel as a potent military ally in the Middle East. American financial patronage and military protection has meant reducing Israel to the status of a servant power performing useful errands and services for the U.S. ruling class. These errands and services have included aid to apartheid South Africa, training Central American soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics, and providing weapons to Iran during its war with Iraq in the 1980s. In the 1970s and 1980s the U.S. could not openly intervene against peasant rebellions in Central America because of the anti-imperialist politics of the American workers.

The American anti-war movement – particularly in the military – crippled the U.S. as an openly interventionist power. In this political context, the American ruling class relied on Israel for some important imperialist work. In the 1970s and 1980s Israel provided weapons to the fascist oligarchies of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras and to the CIA mercenary army, the Contras. Israeli officers helped train the armies of the oligarchies of Guatemala and El Salvador in counterinsurgency tactics. Israel also sold weapons to the anticommunist Pinochet dictatorship in Chile that killed between 3,000 and 5,000 people upon seizing power and to the military dictatorship in Argentina that waged a “dirty war” against leftists leaving 25,000 to 30,000 disappeared. The Israeli ruling class also acted as a surrogate for the Americans in other areas by supplying military assistance to counterrevolutionary guerrillas such as UNITA in Angola, MNR in Mozambique, Habre in Chad and the Contras against Nicaragua (Sachar, 1996: 947-949). Are these the actions of an independent nation or of a client regime? Whatever answer you choose, the established fact is that the Israeli ruling class has deliberately linked itself at different times to fascist forces around the world in South Africa, Zaire (Congo), Morocco, Chile, Argentina, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Philippines.


After a century of nationalism in Palestine and Israel, the Arab and Jewish working classes have received only misery. Nationalist leaders have pushed them into ethno- national conflicts and have continually exploited them for their labor. Attempts at working class and anti-racist unity have been continuously sabotaged by the local and imperialist ruling classes in the Middle East. A century of nationalism and opportunist alliances with imperialist powers have brought neither peace nor prosperity for Arab and Jewish workers. The capitalists are the ones who profit, while the workers suffer.

Nationalism holds no revolutionary potential for changing our world for the better. It is a tool of capitalism, used to divide and conquer workers from Palestine and Baghdad to New Orleans and Oaxaca. Only an internationalist and multiracial movement of workers, students, and soldiers organized around communist politics can put an end to the genocidal wars, colonial domination, vicious economic inequality, and racist and sexist brutalities that the capitalist ruling classes of every country create and maintain to stay in power.

Despite their fiery rhetoric, all national liberation movements have kept capitalist exploitation, racism, and inequality alive and well after achieving “independence.” The bourgeois leaders of the nationalist movements always put their class interests ahead of the “people,” while misleading workers to see the struggle for justice and freedom in racial or ethnic, rather than class, terms. As the history of Palestine shows, nationalism is always anti- working class and divides workers through ethnic, racial, and/or religious divisions to weaken their revolutionary potential. Nationalist leaders are opportunist to the core, looking always for the best deal from one or another imperialist ruling class in order to safeguard their local power and profits. The recent dealings between Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution and Russia, China, and the E.U. is one contemporary example. Iran’s growing relationship with Russia and China reveals another. Even groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, seen as possible liberators for Arab and Muslim workers, offer nothing but new nationalist (capitalist) leaders to take over the machinery of oppression, poverty, and misery rooted in the profit and wage-slave system. Revolutionary movements of the past were crippled by nationalism and collaboration with national bourgeois leaders.

It is fashionable today within what is called the political “Left” to discuss the merits of a two-state vs. one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Is either “solution” an advance for the working class? What do the Palestinian and Israeli workers gain from national independence? The Israeli workers have had it for well over fifty years. The result is that they have become such a highly exploited labor force that many choose to leave the country in search of better opportunities abroad. More than half of the world’s Jews (the majority of whom are workers, not capitalists) choose not to exercise their national “right of return”. This fact in itself says something about the hollow appeal of nationalism. For Palestinian workers to be told that they will see an end to exploitation and the violation of their rights if they have national independence under either bourgeois forces -Fatah or Hamas – is laughable. For a Leftist or a “progressive” (whatever that means) to claim that national independence is a worthy goal only shows intellectual shallowness and a lack of political courage.

It may be objected that there are no other viable alternatives to nationhood. Immediately, and next year, and the year after, this is certainly true. If, however, anti-capitalists refuse to raise the goal of a world without borders, if they refuse to attack nationalism as another form of racism, if they are unwilling to assert that workers must organize across boundaries, they will have even greater difficulties organizing against exploitation and war. The material basis for this working class organizing exists: the tremendous and accelerating international labor migrations of the last twenty to twenty five years have forced workers to leave one nation for another. How deep can national allegiance be when it is changed like an overcoat? How deep can it be when workers see their national bourgeoisie locate factories abroad?

Many workers around the world today are bicultural and bilingual. With populations of immigrant workers scattered around the planet, there exists the basis for political organizing across borders. What is desperately needed now is a revival of communist politics across all borders – national, ethnic, racial, and religious – that relies on the politicizing and mobilizing of the international working class (rather than aid from the local bosses and/ or outside imperialists) to take state power from the capitalist rulers, regardless of their race, nationality, or professed religion. The opportunity is there, why not seize it?