Ariel Sharon’s untimely visit to Temple Mount on September 28th, with his entourage of 1,000 soldiers, was perhaps the final slap in the face for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had suffered decades of poverty, degradation and discrimination since Israel annexed their land in the wake of a failed Arab invasion in 1967.

For the crimes of their forbears, the youth of Palestine have perhaps suffered the most at the hands of the Israeli state. Indeed, it is the Palestinian youth that have largely carried the new intifada and been its first victims.

The statistical injustices which are very much part of the present unrest speak for themselves. Since the start of the Oslo peace process seven years ago, Palestinian GNP has fallen by 35%, unemployment in some areas stands at 40% and the average income per head of the population living in Gaza and the West Bank is $1,500 (compared to $17,000 per head in Israel proper). The Israel/Palestine disparity is also echoed in access to land and water. Whilst Israel’s population of 6 million share 2.1 million hectares of land, with access to 2 billion cubic feet of water, the 3 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza share only 0.6 hectares of land and have access to a miserly 232 cubic metres of water. When it comes to other serious issues such as health housing and education, it is evident that Palestinians are very much second class citizens.

Moreover, since the Oslo round of talks, Israel has continued with a closure policy which has restricted movement from one part of Palestine to another – a freedom of movement guaranteed under the Oslo and Wye Valley agreements – and isolated towns and cities and further exacerbated Palestinian social and economic problems. Like the black South African resistance movement, engaged in an age long struggle against white minority rule, the stone-throwing youth of Palestine can perhaps be forgiven for perceiving their struggle to be one against a Middle Eastern form of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

There is nothing exceptionally unique about the present crisis in the Middle East. For the Palestinians, it is a familiar tale about conflict over land and resources between an occupier and a subject people. But there is one significant difference here. This is an ‘occupation’ deemed illegal by the United Nations under resolutions 242 and 338 which call upon Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.

And it is further an occupation sanctioned by the world’s only super power – regardless of the hypocritical cant mouthed by US peace brokers at the negotiation table. As Tim Llewellyn commented in The Observer of 15th October:

“The US of Bill Clinton and any foreseeable US of George W. Bush is the friend, mentor, armourer and financier of Israel, advocate, judge, progenitor and saviour of unilateral Israel’s rights and executioner of Palestinian aspirations.”

This is the US which allegedly plays an objective role at the negotiating table, whilst propping up the Israel state to the tune of $4 billion per year – money which is dressed up as aid, which is never accounted for and in breach of US legislation which outlaws the financing of a state with a covert nuclear weapons programme. Hence Senator Pat Buchanan’s remark that “Congress is Israeli occupied territory.”

For its part the US has invariably steered peace negotiations away from the UN whilst refraining from every opportunity to invite Israel’s European neighbours or the wider international community to the peace talks. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, the US has consistently sided with Israel, the two countries almost alone in opposing resolutions censorious of Israeli policy; the two countries siding, in fact, as sole opponents of a myriad pro-human rights resolutions. Little wonder, with so much US support Israel feels vindicated in invading Lebanon, bombing who and wherever it chooses, restricting the movement of Palestinians, annexing East Jerusalem and building settlements in areas that could only ever frustrate the peace process. With regards the latter, in the seven years since Oslo, Israel’s ‘illegal’ settler population in Gaza and the West Bank has increased from 110,000 to 195,000 – 60% of this increase in the West Bank. And for all Bill Clinton’s apparent eagerness to get the peace process back on track, it is clear that this is one outgoing president pursuing his own agenda, looking for a foreign policy success to lay before the US electorate in time for November’s presidential elections. Throughout his term in office, like his predecessors, Clinton and team have overtly and covertly worked the Middle East peace process to advance US-Israeli interests only.

Neither would it seem can Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO and heading the Palestine Authority, deliver the much hankered after peace. Arafat was the leader that so many Palestinians invested their hopes in, but like all ‘good’ leaders, he is at the mercy of those with even more power. In recent years there has been a growing image of Arafat as a puppet of Mossad and the CIA, whose reputation for corruption is not concealed by his life-long struggle against Israeli perpetrated injustice. Only three years ago, his own accountants were forced to admit that $400 million had gone astray. Out of his current budget, some 60% is dispersed by Arafat to his bureaucracy and security forces. Of the remainder only 2% goes to infrastructure. While he surrounds himself with a police force of 40,000, (a 33,000 increase since Oslo) prepared to arrest and detain anyone perceived as a threat – union leaders, human rights activists, those militants Israel deem a serious threat to their interests, his regime censoring a press critical of his ideas, and with the Fatah faction and the tanzim militia bent on a pro-Hamas line that Arafat seems reluctant to follow, Palestine is looking increasingly like a dictatorial regime inside a more repressive state in which those with the most to lose are those with the least.

In recent weeks we have witnessed the painful fractioning of society across the Palestine territories. Both sides of the religious/nationalist divide have organised into militias. In the increasing ‘lebanonisation’ of the region. Fatah commanders pursue a 1970’s agenda of all out war against Israel, whilst right-wing Jewish extremists refuse to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians in defiance of previous Israeli commitments. As we go to press in the wake of another US brokered deal in Egypt, the shallow trust it had taken seven years to build seems about to evaporate. Although ostensibly the basis for a ceasefire, as the ink was drying on the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, the violence of the preceding weeks continues with Palestinian extremists still firing on Israeli soldiers and Israeli tanks still positioned at roadblocks and outside key Palestinian cities. Seven years after the Oslo round of negotiations and two years after the agreement at Wye Valley that saw the PLO detach itself from its promise to destroy the state of Israel, the prospects of peace in the wake of the latest agreement seem as distant as ever. As the editorial of The Guardian commented (18th October): “[the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement] is as fragile as a gossamer thread on a windy autumn’s day, and possibly just as transient.”

So where do socialists stand in all of this? When it comes to the nationalistic zeal and religious fervour of recent weeks, there is nothing at all with which we can identify, for both are abstractions that have imbued the workers of the region with a false consciousness that prevents them identifying their real interests. The label Jew or Moslem, Palestinian or Israeli do not camouflage the bigger and more permanent label of ‘working class’, a label most caught up in the present crisis could, if challenged, identify with. Though we have focused here on the Palestinian grievances against injustice, it is fair to add that the majority of Israel’s Jews are also exploited and degraded and live lives of relative poverty too, and within a system that depends on the exploitation of a global majority and their division for it continued survival. And as the warring camps in the Middle East continue to vent their hatreds we can only maintain that there is more that unites them as members of that exploited majority, with the same basic needs and desires than can ever divide them along religious or national lines. For the real conflict is yet to be waged – that between ourselves, the exploited, and the master class – though with ideas, not rifles and catapults.