Palestine: The political background to Israel’s war on Gaza

The 52-word Matzpen statement, published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on 22 September 1967. It ends with “Let us leave the occupied territories now.” See Endnote for full translation.

This article is an edited version of a talk given by Moshé Machover to a ‘Talking About Socialism…from a Marxist point of view’ online discussion on the subject, on Monday 13 November 2023.

I will place present events in their historical context. As the General Secretary of the United Nations said, these events are not happening in a vacuum. I want to start by placing the conflict that is unfolding now in its historical context, from a Marxist viewpoint.

The first thing to understand is that what we have here between Israel and Palestine, in fact between the Zionist project and its Palestinian objects, is a colonial conflict; this is precept number one. Without getting this most fundamental point you will fail to understand the whole chain of events from the beginning of this conflict until today and to expectwhat might happen in the future.

If you listen to the way that the conflict is depicted in the mainstream media, not necessarily those that are hostile to the Palestinians, you get a sort of symmetric view, that it is a conflict between two nations or between two religions. The more tendentious depiction is here there is the state of Israel and there are these Palestinian outsiders who keep attacking it; the Palestinians somehow don’t accept the existence and legitimacy of the state of Israel and Israel has the right to defend itself against them. Of course, this is nonsense.

Saying the conflict is colonial is not a value judgment, it is a statement of fact. The fact is this is how the Zionist project defined itself in the early days before the words colonialism and colonisation became suspect, or not politically acceptable. In its early days and until quite late in the Zionist literature itself, the project was described as a project of colonisation of Palestine by Jews to create a Jewish nation-state. This was how it was defined by the Zionists themselves. 

Colonisations and colonial conflicts come in several varieties. There have been three main types, and I’m using here the Marxist classification of colonial conflicts. I want to question the term settler-colonialism that is used in this context. It comes from the academic postcolonial discourse. You will often hear the Zionist colonisation lumped together in the same category as the colonisation of South Africa, both being settler-colonialism.

I say that this is highly misleading because if you take a Marxist point of view and look at the political economy, the Zionist colonisation and South Africa represent two very different kinds, very different species of colonisation. 

Marx described very briefly in Capital, Volume One, three types of colonisation. One is irrelevant to the present discussion and that is plantation colonies based on slavery. The other two were elaborated further by Kautsky in his 1907 article about colonialism. Kautsky got many things wrong, but his classification was right in Marxist terms, based on the colony’s political economy.

Political economy is primarily a question of who the direct producers are, and what kind of production is engaged in. Apart from plantation colonies based on slavery, there have been two types of colonisation in modern history. One was colonisation where settlers were after the resources of the country being colonised, including the labour force of the indigenous people. In this type of colony, the indigenous direct producers are the majority of the population, and the settlers form a kind of quasi-class.

The other type of colonisation was what you had in what became the northern part of the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Here the indigenous people were not the main source of labour power for the political economy. The majority of the direct producers were themselves settlers. That is also what happened in Palestine.

In South Africa you had the opposite. The majority of the direct producers were indigenous people. So, if both Israel Palestine and South Africa belong to the same category then this category itself is misleading.

In the type of colonisation represented by South Africa and many other colonies – predominantly in Africa – the settlers coalesce into an exploitative quasi-class. They remain a minority of the population.

In the other type of colonisation, which I would term for this discussion exclusionary colonialism, where the indigenous population was excluded from the political economy of the colony, and the resources were taken over by the settlers by degrees, the indigenous population was surplus to requirement. In these types of colonies, the settlers crystallized as a new nation – a new Australian nation, a new American nation. There is a new nation in Israel resulting from the Zionist colonisation.

From the beginning, the aim of Zionist colonisation was explicit: to colonise Palestine to constitute a Jewish nation-state. Now you don’t get a Jewish nation-state if you rely on the labour power of the indigenous people because the direct producers are always the majority.

The additional main difference between the two types of colonisation is that all the decolonisations that occurred in the second half of the 20th century were exclusively related to colonies in which the indigenous people were the majority of the direct producers. If you look at all cases of decolonisation belonging to this type, the latest of those were Algeria and South Africa. There was a reason why it took longer to decolonise South Africa. It was because there was an exceptional situation where the settler minority had their own military organization that did not require constant direct protection by the army of the mother country.

Now if you look at the case of Zionist colonisation it is the exclusionary type of colonisation, but within this category, it is a very exceptional and unique case. You cannot equate the colonisation of Palestine to the colonisation of Australia, for example. For one thing, it is anachronistic, it has come late. This type of colonisation elsewhere came to its resolution – always in favour of the settlers – by the beginning of the 20th century. The colonisers managed either to ethnically cleanse the indigenous people or to overwhelm them numerically. In this sense, the colonisation of Palestine is historically very late. It started when all other colonisations of this type were in the history books. 

In this respect the Zionist colonisation is still a work in progress. It is not complete. You can see this by the demographic balance. If you look at all colonisations of the type of South Africa, and other colonies in Africa, the settlers were a small minority. The indigenous people constituted the vast majority of the population. This was the typical ethnic balance. In the exclusionary type, if you look at Australia, if look at the United States, if you at Canada, the demographic balance is the opposite. Here you have an overwhelmed, decimated indigenous population with an overwhelming majority of settlers. By the end of the 19th century, you had an overwhelming majority of settlers and a small indigenous population which had either disappeared completely – was ethnically cleansed – or it was reduced to a remnant.

What do we have in Palestine? Neither the settlers nor the indigenous people are the decisive majority, they are at present more or less equal in number. This indicates that the process is at an unstable juncture, and it is incomplete. What we are witnessing in Palestine is a work in progress. The direction of development is towards increasing ethnic cleansing until, from the point of view of the Zionist settlers, the indigenous population either disappears or is reduced to a small minority. This indicates that the direction is that of ethnic cleansing.

If you look at the history of Zionist colonisation from the beginning of the 20th century you will see that the indigenous population was reduced in stages. The biggest step in this direction was the 1947-49 war. What Israel calls its War of Independence is what the Palestinians refer to as the Nakba – “the catastrophe”. This was a stage in the process of ethnic cleansing. The Nakba constituted the ethnic cleansing of the majority of the Palestinians that were left in what became Israel. What became Israel, however, was not the whole of Palestine. The Zionist aim, formulated many times, most importantly and publicly in the Biltmore Conference of May 1942, was the whole of Palestine as a Jewish State.

The Zionist mainstream majority,  fundamentalists, and not only the marginal minority, regarded the outcome of the 1948 war as a mission incomplete. The next stage came in the June war of 1967. In every case where a further stage of ethnic cleansing happened, it has always been presented as being in response to an attack by the indigenous people or by the Arab states. If you look at the Israeli version of what happened in 1948, they were attacked by the Arab states and by the indigenous Palestinians and as a response, as self-defence, they had to take three quarters of Palestine, wellover and above what the United Nations resolved to allocate to a Jewish state in its 1947 decision. 

In 1967 Israel expanded its domain to include the whole of historical Palestine and, in addition, also part of Syria. Israel is controlling not only the Palestinian areas conquered in 1967, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank but also a bit of Syria – the Golan Heights, which it formally annexed. This was made possible from the point of Israel colonialism because the population of the Syrian Golan Heights was by and large ethnically cleansed. The dilemma for the Zionist state is that it is now ruling over the whole of historical Palestine plus a bit of Syria but it hasn’t achieved a Jewish majority.

From the viewpoint of the Zionist project, this can only be resolved by somehow getting rid of a big chunk of the Palestinian population of Palestine. You are witnessing part of this process now. If you look physically at what is happening, a million people are told to move from half of the Gaza Strip. This is ethnic lensing in action. People refer to it as genocide, this may be a correct description, but this is a judicial point of view, it is a legal description. What I think we should focus on, to understand what is going on, is a political description: politically it is ethnic cleansing. 

Israel is described as an apartheid state, this is legally correct according to the internationally accepted definition. Israel is operating apartheid not only in the occupied territories but also within 1967 Israel – but again this is a legalistic way of describing it and it is, in some sense, confusing, because apartheid immediately invokes the example of South Africa. The term was coined in South Africa. Now, according to the international definition of apartheid, what Israel is implementing in the area under its control is a kind of apartheid – but it is not the same apartheid as in South Africa.

I want to make two further points. The first is another unique feature of Zionist colonisation compared to the other colonisations. In other similar cases of exclusionary colonialism, there was a mother country, a metropolis that sent its nationals to colonise a new territory and backed them. The colonisers of Australia and North America were largely British. The Zionist colonisation had no mother country, it therefore had to rely on surrogate mothers. Its surrogate mothers were a sequence of Empires that were dominant in the area.

It started, of course, with the Balfour Declaration, the document by which Britain became the surrogate mother of Zionist colonisation. This came to an end in 1939. Then there was a period when the surrogate mother of Zionist colonisation was France – this is often forgotten. From the mid-1960s the surrogate mother has been the United States.

The Zionist project has been extremely successful in all sorts of ways, but one way in which it was particularly successful was in forging useful alliances with its surrogate mother by providing useful services in return for the latter’sunwavering protection. This is the way to understand the relationship between Israel and the Zionist regime and the United States. Israel is an extraordinary strategic asset of the United States and in return it is given extraordinary and unusual protection. Britain likes to boast that it has a special relationship with the United States but if you want to see a real special relationship then look at the relationship between the United States and Israel.

If you look at the historical direction of development, then the probable further evolution of this conflict is a further bout of ethnic cleansing. I have predicted the danger of further ethnic cleansing in Palestine for several years based on an analysis of the nature of the conflict, the nature of the Zionist colonisation project, and the fact that the present situation in which there is a demographic equality between colonisers and colonised is unstable from the point of view of the colonisers. This is not sustainable in the long run.

Israel has in reality opposed the idea of a two-state solution. It is an obvious deception. This is no longer regarded as realisable by anybody who has any knowledge of the situation. It is made impossible because the Israeli Zionist regime has a historical claim from its point of view to the whole of Palestine. It is not going to allow the creation of another nation-state there. The whole of Palestine is supposedly destined to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. 

How is further ethnic cleansing going to materialize? Well, of course, nothing is certain. History is still open. The fact that the logic of the situation is pointing it this way doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen. Fifty-six years ago, I and my comrades published a very short statement1, 52 words that depicted what was going to happen if Israel persisted in the occupation of the Palestinian territories which it captured in 1967.

The statement was published as an advertisement in the Israeli major newspaper, Haaretz, on 22 September 1967. The core of the text says occupation entails foreign rule, foreign rule entails resistance, resistance entails oppression and oppression entails terror and counter-terror. What we said is that if we hold on to the occupied territories, we will become a nation of murderers and murder victims.

Although written fifty-six years ago, within this statement you will see not only a logical chain of causality but also a direction of development. It points to the dynamic of the situation because resistance invites oppression. This is, if you like, a law of history. The oppressor does not know any way of responding to resistance except by further repression. This is not a static process, it is a process of a spiral escalation which at some point inevitably leads to an explosion. From the Palestinian point of view, the only way they can respond to it is by escalating the resistance. 

From the point of view of the coloniser – the Zionist regime –  there is a way out, namely further ethnic cleansing; to get rid of the whole process by ethnic cleansing. This is where it is heading. It may require a major regional reconfiguration, which can happen in all sorts of ways. However, all sorts of things can happen to prevent it, including the disintegration of Israel or the erosion of Israeli society from within.

Israeli society has become very unstable internally. This was demonstrated by the 40 weeks that preceded the present conflict. Before October, Israeli society was split down the middle. The poison of occupation seeps into Israeli society itself and makes it subject to a sharpening internal conflict. It may be that this conflict will somehow intervene and prevent the possibility of Israel perpetrating ethnic cleansing.

I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t predict what will happen, but I can only end by saying that the logic of the process itself, as it has been unfolding from the beginning of the 20th century, points towards the likelihood of major further ethnic cleansing in Gaza, in the West Bank, and with the possibility of Israel trying to ethnically cleanse part of its own existing Palestinian citizens.

  1. The statement from Moshe Machover and his Matzpen [Socialist Organisation in Israel] comrades, published in Haaretz on Friday, 22 September, 1967, is shown in the image at the head of this article. The English translation says: 

    “Our right to defend ourselves against annihilation does not grant us the right to oppress others. Conquest brings in its wake foreign rule. Foreign rule brings in its wake resistance. Resistance brings in its wake oppression. Oppression brings in its wake terrorism and counterterrorism. The victims of terrorism are usually innocent people. Holding onto the territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims. Let us leave the occupied territories now.”

    See also: Haaretz, 26 May 2017, ‘The 52 Words That Foretold the Future of Israel’s Occupation in 1967 ↩︎

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