Imperialism, capitalism, colonialism: The Israeli state and occupied Palestine

The following is based on an introduction given to an educational discussion in Te Whanganui-a-Tara branch of the ISO on October 31st 2023. The recorded talk is also available here.

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire, centred on the Mediterranean, reached its zenith. Before the Romans there were many empires in human history based on territorial expansion and the exploitation of peasants and/or slaves by landholding classes. Capitalism, by comparison, is a system based on the exploitation of a nominally free working class by holders of capital. Capitalism has only grown to its present dominance since the Industrial Revolution that began 200 years ago. I’m going to ask for about 15 minutes of your time to consider imperialism in the contemporary, capitalist, context. In particular, this introduction will consider the intersection of imperialism, capitalism, and colonialism, and centre on occupied Palestine as an example of that intersection of forces.

Let’s start with the Ottoman Empire, which arose in the 14th century. In World War I the Ottomans lost much of their territory, which was occupied by the victors – Britain and France. That territory included Palestine, a land bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The League of Nations handed Britain the Mandate for Palestine, i.e. British administration. I touch on this history because I think it’s important to acknowledge that Palestinians have been under successive imperial occupations, and I want to acknowledge there was struggle against British occupation, such as a 1936 General Strike and revolt, just as there is struggle against Israeli occupation now.

In case British occupation was not insult enough for Palestinian people, the British in 1917 had publicly taken a pro-Zionist position and stated a desire, at some unspecified future time, to “establish in Palestine […] a national home for the Jewish people”, claiming that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” In reality, the British demonstrated an utter lack of thought as to how this might be achieved without disrupting existing land ownership by the Palestinians. As the Zionist ideology spread, many European Jews displaced by the horrors of Nazism found refuge in Palestine. Under British government, there was escalating conflict between Zionist immigrants and Palestinians, driven by Haganah, Irgun, and the “Stern Gang” which were terrorist Zionist groups. In 1946 Irgun bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that housed the British administration. In 1948, the British withdrew from Palestine amid civil war. On the last day of the Mandate the Jewish Agency for Palestine declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” The United States president Harry Truman immediately expressed his support: “This government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof. The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new state of Israel.”

Since then, through a series of wars and annexations, the state of Israel has expanded to occupy all of the territory bordering Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Chris McGreal wrote in The Guardian: “What happened to the Palestinians who were living there? About 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled – about 85% of the Arab population of the territory captured by Israel – and were never allowed to return. Palestinians called the exodus and eradication of much of their society inside Israel the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, and it remains the traumatic event at the heart of their modern history.”

This expansion of territory and oppression of the Palestinian people serves the state of Israel in a number of ways. On the one hand, the cry “Never again!” is raised as a statement that Israel exists to ensure the Jewish people are never again subjected to a holocaust. On the other hand, the state itself is not necessary to ensure such, and the scale of misery and death inflicted on an indigenous population in support of that cry is itself a genocide. Looking further, then, we see some other themes that may be familiar to socialists. 

The oppression of Palestinians provides a useful labour pool for Israel. Karl Marx said in Capital: “In the interest of the so-called national wealth, [the capitalist] seeks for artificial means to ensure the poverty of the people.” It is not by accident that I pull that quote from the chapter of Capital which addresses colonisation. A reserve army of labour is useful for capitalists as it increases the dispensability of those currently employed and decreases the likelihood that those newly employed will fight for improved employment conditions. The unemployment rate in Israel is 3 percent, and the Israeli economy ministry has said “the existence of 14,000 vacancies in manufacturing was creating a barrier to economic growth.” Compare Israel’s relatively low unemployment against unemployment of 13 percent in the West Bank, and unemployment of 45 percent in Gaza. Israel employs around 100,000 Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, who must purchase a work permit and commute through militarised checkpoints. Even just the commute can take hours in each direction, partly due to queues under armed surveillance, and this has been identified as a significant source of stress to workers even before they arrive at their workplace. At work, Palestinians are often set to unsafe tasks with inadequate safety measures. Israeli worker monitoring group Kav LaOved writes: “The need [for Palestinians in the West Bank] to support their families leads many who are educated to forgo finding work in their profession in the Palestinian Authority and instead look for employment in those sectors open to them in Israel, particularly the construction, agriculture, and industry sectors. The unequal power balance makes it impossible for many workers to consider other, less dangerous, employment options—until they get hurt at work.” Palestinian workers are often not made aware of the possible specific consequences of risks to their health, often do not feel able to take sick days nominally owed to them, and are not made aware of health services which nominally exist to assist them. While all employed workers are by definition exploited, the exploitation of the Palestinian population is significantly greater thanks to the significantly greater precariousness created by political circumstance.

Since Truman’s first expression of support, the US and its allies have stood steadfastly by Israel. And this despite the Red Cross calling out war crimes; despite both the United Nations Special Rapporteur and Amnesty International calling out apartheid; despite Palestinian protest, and solidarity protests around the globe. The AUKUS alliance commits Australia and the UK to joint nuclear submarine development, purchase, and deployment for decades to come, to escalate the potential for conflict with China while ignoring domestic issues including health and wellbeing. Those same countries have, for years, maintained a united front and made strong statements in support of Israel, denying the Palestinian struggle. The US has gone even further, sending two aircraft carriers and their strike groups to assist Israel carry out their genocidal attack on Gaza while claiming the increased military presence is to “prevent the conflict from widening.” Omar Rahman, Fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, correctly describes this nightmare situation: “The US is escalating the situation by bringing in huge naval forces into the region, and it’s in a sense emboldening Israel to carry on what it’s doing in Gaza.”

Historian Bradley Simpson writing for Jacobin says that the US has a long history of downplaying the massacres carried out by its close allies. We should see this atrocity denialism as the US deploying its significant international media power in yet another manifestation of imperialism. Meanwhile in the USA, Jewish protesters against Israel’s murder of Palestinians have been arrested while simply expressing a “not in our name” sentiment. In the UK, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has threatened that simply waving a Palestinian flag might be considered a criminal offence. She also advised the police to consider whether chants such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” should be interpreted as expressions of violence, and perhaps considered to amount to a racially aggravated public order offence. While New Zealand government has not followed the UK, both of our major parties’ leaders have supported the USA line in support of Israel no matter what.

Several commentators have noted the manner in which the media of AUKUS countries have not just been complicit in allyship with Israel but have actively manufactured consent for war on the Palestinian civilian population. The concept of manufactured consent is well explained by Herman and Chomsky: “the ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.” This same phenomenon has been identified by Mat Nashed of Al Jazeera, who reports: “Palestinians invited to speak to Western news channels are frequently asked if they ‘condemn Hamas’, while Israeli guests are seldom asked to condemn their government’s apartheid policies in the occupied West Bank or its siege and bombardment of Gaza”. As Marxists, we understand this as acquiescence to the interests of the ruling class, whether those interests are expressed explicitly or are implicit.

How does support for Israel further the AUKUS and other Western imperialist interests? There is some suggestion that US president Truman may have been partially motivated by compassion for the plight of Jewish people, although that explanation relies on either a short-sightedness or a lack of care for what the establishment of an exclusive autonomous state within shared land might do to the other people living in that land. However, the US also supported a new Jewish state for anti-Semitic reasons, since it provided an alternative to welcoming post-World-War refugees. Truman might also have been rushing to consolidate influence in the Middle East ahead of the US’s rival the Soviet Union, who declared their support for Israel three days later. At the time of that declaration of support, US presidential advisers recognised the likelihood of alienating existing Arab states, and expressed concern that such alienation might threaten access to oil which the US valued highly for its “war machine”. 

Regardless, since 1948, the presence, expansion, and strengthening of Israel has proved highly useful for Western interests in the region. In the mid-1980s, Israeli whistle-blower Vanunu Mordechai revealed to the world that Israel had nuclear weapons – a capability achieved through French nuclear facility construction, German finance, and US compliance. The very real threat of nuclear hellfire hangs over the heads of all dissenting Arab nations, thanks in large part to the collaborative efforts of Western powers. By proxy of Israel’s immense and ever-growing military threat to its neighbours, Western imperial powers ensure their interests continue to be served in the region. This bolstering of Israeli might is a contemporary example of what Lenin described as: “the development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism in general.”

The state of Israel is a colonial imperialist entity. We have supported, and must continue to support, the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom from the crushing boot of the Israeli state. We must support a free and just future for all people. What does this look like exactly? It looks like support for activist groups such as Aotearoa’s Justice for Palestine in their education, advocacy, and solidarity work. It means boosting the voices of anti-racism and anti-oppression groups such as Alternative Jewish Voices. It looks like engaging with and practically supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. It means rallying to pressure our own governments to acknowledge the oppression of Palestinian people, so that our governments might be forced to finally advocate for justice. It means using our own voices to advocate for an outcome in the region that is free from threat and oppression for Jews and Palestinians and everyone alike. It means adding our voices to the rallying cry heard worldwide: “From the River to the Sea – Palestine will be Free!”


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