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Israel's state piracy: warding off the threat of peace

The immediate purpose of Israel’s state piracy and mass kidnapping in the Eastern Mediterranean is clear. The aim is to maintain the siege (“closure”) of the Gaza Strip that was imposed in 2007 to induce the Gazans to overthrow the Hamas administration they had just elected. Of course, the political effect of the blockade, which caused enormous suffering, was just the opposite.

But there is an even more important aim – to reassert Israeli control over Gaza’s borders, airspace and territorial waters. This control was not relinquished when PM Ariel Sharon withdrew ground forces and settlers in 2005. Keeping Gaza and the West Bank isolated from direct contact with the outside world is crucial to Israel’s claim to continued sovereignty over the occupied territories and preventing the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state (or two such states).

Some sections of the Israeli ruling class are prepared to accept a peace settlement based on the “two-state solution”. Peace would give Israeli business unrestricted access to Arab export markets and cheap labour. The present government, however, is a creature of interests tied to the occupation – above all, the military-industrial complex and the settlers’ lobby. The parties of the governing parliamentary coalition are either (like PM Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud) loathe to contemplate a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state or (like Jewish Home) committed to Greater Israel and thus opposed to a Palestinian state in principle.

For these people, peace is a threat to be warded off at all costs. A danger that peace might be imposed emerged when the United States, on which Israel is now totally dependent, elected a president who believes that American strategic interests at the regional and global level demand urgent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Why so violent?

This may help explain a somewhat puzzling aspect of Israel’s response to the Free Gaza flotilla. Why was it so violent?

The Israeli navy could have maintained the blockade and its control of Gazan waters simply by blocking the path of the aid ships until they gave up and went away. This method had worked well in the past. By massacring a dozen or so activists and hurting and humiliating many more – including influential individuals such as parliamentarians, former diplomats, and film makers – Israel has created a PR disaster for itself. It has strained relations with countries around the world and alienated its main regional ally, Turkey.

Part of the explanation may be that key members of the Israeli cabinet are ex-generals accustomed to tackling political problems by military means (defence minister Ehud Barak) or simply thugs (foreign minister and former bouncer Avigdor Lieberman). They seem to have thought that a brutal reaction would deter future attempts to break the siege.

There is another plausible motive. An atmosphere of heightened confrontation, making progress toward a negotiated settlement impossible, may have been exactly what the Israeli government sought to achieve. And if Israel’s state terrorism provokes a new upsurge in Palestinian terrorism, that will serve even better to thwart Obama and ward off the threat of peace.

Offshore gas 

There is another aspect to the issue of control over Gazan waters – one that commentators usually overlook. In 1999, the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed a 25-year agreement with British Gas and the Athens-based but Lebanese-owned Consolidated Contractors International Company (CCC) to explore for oil and gas off the Gazan coast. Two wells were drilled in 2000 and, sure enough, a major gas field was found, not very far from the spot where the Free Gaza flotilla was attacked. (Some offshore oil was also found.) Rights to the proceeds were assigned: 60% to British Gas, 30% to CCC, and only 10% to the PA. Nevertheless, the discovery enhanced prospects for an economically viable Palestinian state.

When Sharon became prime minister in 2001, he challenged Palestinian sovereignty over the gas field and declared that Israel would never buy gas from the PA. The consortium made plans to pump the gas to Egypt instead. But all plans were scuppered in 2006 when Hamas replaced the PA in Gaza. Israel then tried to take over the negotiations, but British Gas decided to put the whole risky project on hold. Presumably both Israel and the PA still hope that eventually the gas will be theirs.

What next? 

Israeli state piracy did not have the desired intimidating effect. More attempts to run the blockade followed. Iran and Turkey have offered naval escorts for future flotillas. Conceivably this will broaden the war, though it is more likely that the US will force Israel to abandon the siege. This is likely to trigger the collapse of the current Israeli government and greatly increase the chances of a peace settlement under its successor.

A settlement will not eliminate capitalist rivalry over resources and zones of control. The seeds of future war will remain. Yet as socialists we will welcome even a fragile peace that temporarily halts the horrors of occupation and terror.

That is partly because we sympathize with the suffering of our fellow workers, whatever their ethnic origin. It is always they who suffer the brunt of their masters’ wars.
It is also because war provides an ideal opportunity and excuse to suppress democratic rights on both sides. Peace will create better conditions for democracy. No longer obsessed with ethnic conflict, “Jews” and “Palestinians” will be able to refocus on the social, economic and ecological problems spawned by the “normal” peacetime functioning of capitalism. A space for socialist ideas will open up in this corner of our world.

The Socialist Standard, no. 1271, July 2010 

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