Palestine: Legacies of Empire

In the closing weeks of the Clinton ad-ministration, as US officials worked frantically behind the scenes to secure a peace accord as part of Clinton\’s \”legacy\”, renewed violence broke out in the occupied territories of Pales-tine, spilling over in the state of Israel itself. For a few days, with the Clinton administra-tion unsure of how to respond to this crisis, and corporate news managers left temporary with-out clear ideological guidance, viewers of US propaganda channels such as CNN were treated to typically uninsightful but unusually neutral or even slightly favorable coverage of the Palestinian side. This of course soon changed, as the US administration made its position clear: we support Israel. The error was understandable: with the peace process and all its hand-shaking and smiling, it would at least be plausible to assume that the Pales-tinians could be okay, and now their children were being killed by Israeli soldiers, which does look like they are being, well, at least slightly mistreated.

But US strategic and economic interests demand otherwise. The modern politics of the Middle East are largely reducible to the re-gion\’s dubious fortune of having the world\’s largest known concentration of oil reserves. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire fol-lowing the First World War, the region came under the control the British Empire, which after being weakened in the Second World War, was replaced by the United States-the new imperial hegemon of the \”free\” (capitalist) world. The US largely followed the control strategies developed and deployed by its Brit-ish predecessor: contain the Arabs by lever-aging non-Arab states against them, control the Arabs internally by supporting corrupt, despotic rulers.

The non-Arab states thus employed in-cluded Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, the latter having been taken off the list of close allies and recategorized as a rogue terrorist state after the Shah, a despotic pro-US ruler, was overthrown in 1979.

A major new element was tossed into the politics of the region when in 1948, a group of European Jewish terrorists (that\’s what they were called back then) succeeded in establish-ing a colonial regime in what used to be British Palestine. They were more or less supported by Britain in their efforts, but weren\’t satisfied with \”more or less\”, and insisted on more (that\’s why some of them were branded ter-rorists). They proceeded to enlarge and rein-force their position with equal zeal, expelling the native inhabitants of the land in droves, destroying entire villages, fighting effectively against the surrounding Arab regimes who objected to this intrusion.

Their militant zeal was not unnoticed by the emerging imperial overlord of the region. US ruling circles appreciated the brutality and efficiency of Israeli methods, their straightfor-ward willingness and ability to \”get things done\” (one individual notable since the time of the state\’s founding for his ability to \”get things done\” is Ariel Sharon, recently elected Prime Minister of Israel). Quickly, Israel became a \”staunch ally\” in the region. They also appreci-ated that the uncompromising methods em-ployed by this new colonial re-gime would be unpopular: thus the support for Israel would likewise have to be uncompro-mising.

The US regime has been fortunate in that critics of its support for Israel have chosen to play the \”anti-Semitic\” card, explaining the support in terms of the influence of wealthy Jewish lobbyists and the like-thus allowing the imperialist geostrategic objectives of the US military-corporate complex in the region to go largely unchallenged.

The peace process so vigorously pursued by Clinton was but the latest scheme in this larger imperial design. Perhaps Clinton was enamored with this ill-conceived scheme out of concern for his all-important legacy (post-White House marketability), a concern shared for not too dissimilar reasons by former Israeli premiere Barak and Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat.

Barak\’s political career was on the line, and for now has ended with his announcement of resignation, submitted just a few days after his agreement to serve as Defense Minister under Sharon met with outrage from Barak\’s Labor party. Arafat\’s position, while suffi-ciently strong to allow him to survive the collapse of the \”peace process\”, has nonethe-less been somewhat weakened and has forced him to give ground to hard-line Palestinian factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which favor armed conflict with the \”Zionist entity\”.

Under the existing regime, Arafat and his cronies have enjoyed near total control of the Palestinian economy, including monopoly con-trol of all the key profitable commodity markets and exclusive deals for resale of Israeli corpo-rate products to the Palestinian population.

The fact that Arafat has been installed into his current sinecure as chief of the Palestinian Authority largely by decision and in the inter-ests of the Israeli military and business elite threatens Arafat\’s credibility with the Palestin-ian people, thus prompting him to at least rhet-orically adopt a somewhat \”militant\” posture in relation to his Israeli colonial back-ers. So far, with the major Arab powers, particularly the largest one-Egypt, refusing to back to Arafat in a military option, the Pales-tinian Authority remains militarily impotent. The Egyptian gov-ernment is of course the largest recipient of US foreign aid-with the notable exception of Is-rael-and would be loathe to lose that money by crossing its North American paymaster.

The peace process promoted by the United States would give the Palestinians exactly what the US and Israeli ruling classes wanted them to have. The maps of the proposed Pal-estinian entity present the classic picture of Bantustanization: a series of hundreds of dis-connected enclaves separated by Israeli ac-cess roads to which the Palestinians have no access. Key water resources would likewise remain under Israeli control. External borders would similarly be controlled by Israel.

Naturally, a hero of Palestinian resistance such as Arafat was needed in order to foist such a scheme upon the Palestinian people, to endow it with some fig leaf of authenticity. Implementation of the scheme was to be over-seen by the CIA, who had agents de-ployed throughout the Palestinian Authority to monitor the situation on the ground and ensure compli-ance. At the height of the peace process ne-gotiations, CIA director George Tenet took up residence in Israel.

The task set forth for Arafat was clear: the Palestinian people were to be repressed and subordinated to US-Israeli interests by what-ever means necessary. A report on the Middle East situation recently issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Wash-ing-ton think tank, recommended the use of \”ex-cessive force\” against Palestinian civilians, as well as \”interrogation methods bordering on psycho-logical and/or physical torture\” as a means of enforcing the peace process.

But the scheme failed to take root. The Pal-estinian people had simply suffered too many depredations and humiliations to accept what was laid out before them. Unfortunately, their leaders could not come up with any better solutions, beyond various bids to prop up their own power.

As Barak repeatedly emphasized in the wake of this most recent intifada uprising, \”they have never been offered so much\”. Barak was right-Israel did indeed make many compro-mises, at least compared to its usual policy of no-compromise, no-holds-barred aggression and repression.

A man who embodies that no-compromise approach is the newly elected prime minister, Ariel Sharon. A former commando and adher-ent of right-wing revisionist Zionism, Sharon is clear in his sentiments: the Arabs are the en-emy. Historically, Sharon has been deployed as a sort of \”rogue commander\”. His hawkish-ness and over-the-top zeal provided a cover of plausible deniability in cases where the Israeli govern
ment felt it needed to take drastic and internationally unpopular measures to enforce its power.

When Sharon led a raid in which Arab women and children were massacred in 1953, the \”liberal\” Eshkol regime censured him, but took no action. In the wake of the 1982 mas-sacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla camps in Southern Lebanon, for which Sharon was found to be personally responsi-ble, he was dismissed from his post as De-fense Minister. Now, following an election with a historically low voter turnout, the rogue is in charge.

The Washington regime, ever on the alert, has censured Israel (and the Palestinians, just to be fair), perhaps as a way of saying to Sharon that now, with the plausible deniability gone, he better follow the standard operating procedure for repression.

Along with the whole Arab world, the Pales-tinian Authority has issued statements ex-pressing its displeasure: \”Barak was bad, but Sharon is worse\”. For Arafat, Sharon is indeed worse, for he threatens to upset the facade behind which Arafat and his cronies have pur-sued their personal enrichment while the vast majority of Palestinian people languish in pov-erty. Unfortunately, just turning up the rhetoric against Israel will probably suffice to bolster Arafat\’s credibility and keep him in power.

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that this region, Palestine, is a center of several intolerant religions, and it is all too easy for the region\’s rulers or would-be rulers to play the religious hatred card for all it\’s worth.

The Palestinians want their own state, or so we are told. Perhaps it is because they have been told that\’s all they can get, all they can hope for as a means of relieving their real suffering. But in this violent region especially, states have a way of only fanning the flames of war, of bringing suffering and repression to their people.

In the state system, the biggest and most violent state rules. Today, that state is the United States of America, whose imperialist policies have defined the political landscape of the Middle East to be one of violent repression, for that is the only way it knew to ensure that its corporations would have access to the oil resources whose frantic exploitation is choking the planet. To have access and thereby deny others access: that is the golden rule of the state system of power. Or the corporate sys-tem of power, for that matter-they are but two sides of the same coin.

Zionism was in its inception a socialist movement. The Jewish state was to be founded upon the Zionist maxim of \”a land without a people for a people without a land\”. Failing to find a land which met such condi-tions, elements of the Zionist movement sought to create them. In the process, a differ-ent version of Zionism became dominant. \”The Arabs only really came to Palestine after the Jewish settlement started, in order to spite the Jews and get in their way. All those refu-gees weren\’t exiled, they left just to make Israel look bad, or because the other Arab states told them to.\” Such is the talk of these revisionist Zionists. For them, there is no \”Palestinian people\”-it\’s all a hoax to thwart the Jews. \”And plus, we were here first\”.

According to the Bible, the god Yahweh granted the land of Palestine to his people. Then too, the land was not empty. The god Yahweh was clear in his commandments: his people were to either exterminate or enslave the earlier inhabitants, according to their tribe. A kingdom was erected, stood not long, and fell. Now his people are back, and again doing what at least some of them believe to be their god\’s bidding. Some Talmudic scholars have been offering the more religious soldiers moral support: it is okay to kill Arab women and chil-dren, so long as it\’s done in such as way that it doesn\’t make Jews look bad. The less relig-ious ones need no special encouragement to kill-their secular hatred suffices. Such are the fruits of empire.

In the Middle East, in this region of oil and violence, the legacy and actuality of imperial-ism make themselves felt all too clearly. But we must also see beyond the horizon of impe-rial domination. In today\’s world of governing by remote control, the independent nation-state is precisely the orga-nizational subunit into which people must be divided before they are absorbed into a world empire. Those divi-sions must be torn asunder.