Class, colonialism and economy in Palestine

Colm Breathnach explored the class dynamics of Palestinian society in Issue 16 (July 2003).

With the American victory in the Iraq War, world attention has again turned to Palestine. There is no doubt that this was a war for oil, but it also put in place another piece in the great jigsaw called global dominance. ‘Stability’ in the Middle East is absolutely essential for the continued and enhanced hegemony of US imperialism in the region. This hegemony translates in practical terms as a compliant government in Iraq, control of all oil re­sources in the region, regime change or compliance in Syria and a final and comprehensive ‘peace’ agreement in Palestine. This settlement must guarantee the security of the Israeli state and effectively ensure the pacific­ation of the Palestinians and their confinement to an emasculated statelet ruled by compliant stooges.

While there has been much discussion on the left about the question of Palestine it has tended, not without good reason, to concentrate on the bigger picture. This has left little space to discuss the internal dynamics of Palestinian society or for that matter, the internal contradictions of Israeli society. The purpose of this article is to look at these internal dynamics and how they relate to Israeli colonialism.

The nature of Israeli colonialism

It is to the essence of this imperialist-backed local colonialism that we must first turn. To try to understand the internal dynamics of Palestinian society as if it can be extricated from the all-encompassing effects of Israeli colon­ialism is a spurious exercise. It would be akin to the well worn character­isation of Palestinian society by rightist commentators as ‘naturally’ extremist, breeding and training hordes of crazy suicide bombers, rather than seeing the origin of individual acts of terror and growth of the fundamentalist organisations in the crushing weight of occupation.

The nature of this Israeli state cannot be considered in isolation from the general question of the role of colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East nor from the history of European nationalism and fascism. Three separate but interlinked developments caused the creation of Israel: the desire of British imperialism to create a secure ‘European’ bridgehead on the Eastern Mediterranean coast as a counter to the rising Arab nationalism; the desire of both Zionist Jews and anti-semitic forces to solve the so-called Jewish question by ‘ridding’ Europe of Jews or creating a Jewish homeland outside Europe; and, of course, the unprecedented genocide of the Holocaust.

The nature of the current Israeli state is a complex one with contra­dictory elements: a client state of US imperialism subsidised to the tune of $1.8 billion per annum in military subvention and $500m per annum in private funding (mainly from the Jewish community in the US), an apartheid entity grounded on confessionalism, the legal exclusion of the Palestinian minority and its creation in a monstrous orgy of ethnic cleansing. Perhaps its most significant characteristic is the highly militarised nature of a society increas­ingly dominated by a politico-military elite intent on further increasing this militarisation of society. This would account for developments such as the repression of the refuseniks (Israelis who refuse to serve in the army) and the transformation of a primarily intensive agricultural economy into a high-tech industry-centred economy, with the arms industry at its core. Yet inherent in this bizarre structure are major contradictions of class, ethnicity and religion, even within the ‘Jewish’ majority. The direction of recent policies regarding the Palestinians seem to be largely based on a desire of a section of the elite to bind the diverse Jewish populations of Israel in a siege mentality and to complete the War of 1948 by the final conquest of all of historic Palestine, solving the ‘Arab Question’ by gradual ‘voluntary’ transfer and the creation of isolated and impotent Bantustans.

The occupation as settler colonialism

The process occurring in Occupied Palestine is straightforward settler colonisation displaying all the classic characteristics of such a process: political and legal domination over an alien population, relations of econ­omic dependence and exploitation between the indigenous population and the colonisers, compounded by racial/cultural inequality on a grand scale. One sight of the manicured and sprinkled lawns or the azure blue swimming pools of a settlement perched above the parched brown of a Palestinian village is evidence enough of this.

It is no coincidence that the Israeli occupation reeks of past colonial enterprises such as the Plantation of Ulster, the American frontier in the late nineteenth century, or apartheid South Africa. The location of settlements on strategic hilltops, the militarised nature of settler society, the politico-religious justifications, the total complicity and support of the Israeli army, the widespread disregard by both settlers and army for the rule of (Israeli) law, the impunity of settlers in their criminal actions towards the Arab population, the grand-scale resource exploitation of continuous land grabbing and water diversion, the gradual confinement of the ‘native’ population into smaller and smaller zones are resonant of past colonialism. Nor are such resource-robbing peripheral settler colonies unique to this region as exemplified in the current situation in West Papua, Western Sahara, Tibet and Sin kiang. All these colonies serve in some way as strategic buffers for the metropolitan elite, as protection against rival powers/states and as a rich source of wealth for local or multinational capital. Hence the Israeli settlements serve a key military and strategic pur­pose, ensuring the continued subjugation of the Palestinian population, acting as a buffer against the ‘Arab Sea’, making the creation of a viable Palestinian state extremely difficult and of course strengthening Israel’s position as the key forward position of American imperialism in the region.

But what of the role of Jewish religious fundamentalists in the settle­ment process? Theirs is essentially that of ideological justifiers of a crude form of colonial annexation. They provide the ideological fig leaf for the illegal expropriation of another people’s land; they are the 21st century advocates of modern manifest destiny. Yet even settler society is not without its contradictions. The major division of settler society is between the economic, mainly new immigrant settlers (mostly from the former Soviet Union, from where approximately 750,000 immigrants arrived in the 1990s) who are attracted to the settlements by social and economic incen­tives, and the ideological settlers (many from the USA) who simply regard this land as theirs by right of divine grant. This division is reflected spatially, with the bulk of economic settlers occupying the settlements around Al Quds (Jerusalem) and the bulk of ideological settlers in the smaller outlying settlements, the four heavily guarded Al Khalil (Hebron) city settlements being the epitome of these. As to the contention that they are too entrenched to be removed, it seems from recent opinion polls that the large majority of settlers would move back to Israel if granted compen­sation, adequate rehousing, etc, and that only a very small minority would need to be forcibly removed.

Palestinian society

No society is unitary: all but the most primitive are divided by class, gender and a range of other divisions. Even in a colonial framework, where the class divisions and other social structures of the colonised may be muted or hidden by the overarching reality of colonial domination and appropriation, these structures remain, albeit distorted by the primary forces of exploitation.

It needs to be repeated that the occupation has had a catastrophic effect on the whole Palestinian economic and social structure. One cannot view a colonised society independent of the effects of colonisation. The immiseration of Palestinian society by the ferocious oppression of the occupiers, especially since the start of the second intifada, has affected all classes, but the poor have paid the highest price. Locked into the tiny cells of a dissected prison, the poor of the villages and camps have little to fall back on but their family networks and charity. By mid-2001 64% of Palestinian households were living below the poverty line and 53% were in receipt of some sort of humanitarian aid.

Two simple examples illustrate this mass immiseration. Firstly, take electricity. Most Palestinian households are dependent on electricity bought from the Israel Electric Company by the municipalities. Some towns try to generate their own electricity from small power plants or generators, but these are frequent targets for Israeli attacks. Many municipalities are now heavily in debt to the IEC, since most people have no regular income with which to pay their bills. In many areas electricity is only available at certain times.

The vital resource of water presents an even starker example. The Israeli water authority, Mekorot, controls all water supplies with the result that 79% of the renewable water resources of Occupied Palestine are used by Israelis, either within Israel itself or by settlers in the West Bank or Gaza. Some 215,000 Palestinians now live in villages that are not connected to the water network, depending on springs, rainfall cisterns and water tankers. Israeli troops constantly puncture the water tanks during punitive raids, in a deliberate policy of depriving people of this essential resource. The army frequently deprives villages of water for days on end by preventing access of water trucks, which in any case are exorbitantly expensive. Mekorot power has been used to prevent Palestinians from digging deeper wells despite the fact that the boring of deep wells by the settlers has lowered the water table. The outcome has been predictably disastrous: of the 750 Palestinian wells functioning in 1967 less than half are now functioning. These policies amount to environmental warfare aimed at the civilian population.

It is difficult to accurately describe the complex class structure of Palestinian society given the differing interplay of class structures in different areas. To add to the confusion there is the ambiguous class position of many Palestinians in rural areas, where an individual might own a small farm, run a small shop or work as a teacher or an electrician all at the same time. On top of all this there is the reassertion of traditional extended family structures brought about by the destruction of the proto­structures of the stillborn Palestinian Authority state, so that it is impossible to treat a person’s class position in isolation. This reassertion has manifested itself in increasing recourse to family elders to settle individual disputes or a reliance by all extended family members on those still involved in economic activity as a basic ‘welfare net’. So it is at the risk of simplification that one attempts to identify and characterise the main social classes or class fragments in Palestinian society.

At the bottom of the social structure in terms of both wealth and power is the manual working class: labourers and the unemployed, impoverished not only by the direct effects of occupation but also by the closure of Israel to migrant Palestinian labour. Up until the start of the second intifada, 23% of the Palestinian labour force worked in Israel, possibly something in the order of 140,000 workers. This process increased the proletarianisation of rural Palestinians and to a certain extent loosened the ties of traditional village society. The Palestinian labourers mainly worked in the construction and agricultural industries, many working illegally without work permits, providing a rich source of cheap labour for Israeli capital. They have now been replaced by equally cheap labour from Eastern Europe and the Far East. Most of this class are now largely dependent on charity in the villages or UN assistance in the camps. Although hard to estimate accurately, unemployment now stands at more than 30% in Occupied Palestine. In 2000 wage workers accounted for 66% of the Palestinian labour force, although this figure includes the skilled working class and salaried middle class as well as manual labourers.

The blurring of class boundaries is epitomised by the small farmer class who form a large element in the rural areas. They often supplement their meagre agricultural income with shop ownership or skilled working class positions. Almost all farms are small family-based units producing fruits and vegetables with regional variations such as olive growing in the north of the West Bank and livestock in the south. The wealthy also often own parcels of land and are frequently accused of selling it to the settlers surreptitiously, though in reality most land is simply seized directly by the settlers or initially by the army and passed on quickly afterwards. Employ­ment in agriculture fluctuates radically according to season, with the majority of those engaged in this seasonal labour being women.

The middle class, based mainly on working in public services, especially as teachers, is quite influential. In fact 35% of the labour force worked in services in 2000. There is also a greater participation rate of women in this sector. The public sector accounted for 16% of the total labour force in 2000 and was the major generator of new employment until the beginning of this intifada. Again many middle class families in rural areas supplement their income with land ownership or small business. At the upper limits of this class stand the professionals, engineers, doctors, lawyers etc. The tourism sector which employed a significant number has completely collapsed. This has particularly affected the Christian middle class of the Bethlehem region.

To talk about a capitalist class in Palestine is somewhat of a misnomer. The private sector is massively dominated by small family-owned and run businesses, staffed largely by unpaid family participation. 92% of all private sector establishments employ 1 to 4 people. Over half of these Palestinian enterprises belong to the wholesale, retail, trade and repairs sector, so we are effectively talking about a self-employed petit bourgeoisie. Yet even to call the top layer of the business class a bourgeoisie in the classic Marxist sense of the word is somewhat inaccurate. The source of some of their wealth and whatever power they maintain in the overall scheme of things is mainly due to either their collaboration with the occupiers, their former connection with the corrupt PA structures or their diaspora-based wealth. These are in essence a crony class, dependent for their position on external forces.

Class politics

Of course this is of necessity a simplified division, as class divisions are never as neat or clear, as Marx displayed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte with his description of multiple class fragments and the political implications of such fragmentation. Nevertheless, without falling into the trap of falsely trying to identify a ‘class politics’ that does not exist just because it would fit the theoretical model more closely, it is possible to tentatively sketch some possible connections. There is certainly some correlation between degrees of resistance, political affiliation and class, though these interconnect strongly with other factors such as locality and generation.

The strongest militant resistance comes from the poor of the camps, fighting in the mixed formations of the ‘shebab’ (the boys), the heart of the military resistance. On the other hand the core of Fatah’s grassroots is the middle class, though many are now deeply wary of Arafat and the crony class that surround him. The most sophisticated politically are the generation of the first intifada, often of a more leftist or at least secular bent, men in their thirties, often from the camps, militant but far more politically savvy than the younger generation. These men seem at least in some places to be the organisers of the alternative civil society structures. The wealthier elements of the middle class and the crony class are strong on rhetoric and weak on action. To continue their business, what passes for a bourgeoisie needed to maintain a precarious balance between holding their position in Palestinian society, accumulating capital, and collaborating tacitly or actively with the occupiers.

The strength of the leftist organisations is more obviously linked to class and generation. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine seems largely confined to the thirties and forties generation of camp dwellers who came of age politically during the first intifada or earlier during the heydays of the revolutionary left. Under pressure of the adverse conditions their base has shrunk and they seem to lack any real influence on the youth, though they command respect. Their politics also seems to have degenerated under the ferocious pressure of the occupation to a romantic revolutionary nationalism entirely uncritical of the Islamicist organisations whom they seem to coat-tail with a simplistic ‘national unity’ policy. Any trace of a Marxist analysis seems to have disappeared.

The People’s Party, as the former Communists are now known, is also a rather contradictory formation. Its membership is small, consisting mainly of professionals and intellectuals as well as workers. Its programme is openly reformist (it does not even mention socialism any more) and it was a supporter of the Oslo Agreement. In contrast, however, it has been to the fore in the development of a stronger civil society in Palestine, playing a progressive role in developing alternative types of mass resistance to the occupation, in contrast to the failed strategies of both the Islamicists and the nationalists. The People’s Party has widespread respect across all sectors for its work in NGOs—in particular the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees—a respect that does not translate into membership or support. They have correctly identified that the emergence of such a civil society would allow for progressive politics to develop in Palestine, though it is doubtful, given their reformism, whether they would be the ones to energise a workers’ movement from below.

It is more difficult to characterise the class nature of the Islamicist organisations. At this stage their support seems to cross class boundaries. One fact is clear, however: they have strong and growing support amongst the poorer classes, especially in the refugee camps. This growth in support is not primarily due to a surge in fundamentalism. Its origins lie in three factors. Firstly, there is the provision of social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, prisoners’ dependents payments, charitable activities by the well-financed Hamas movement. In effect they have erected a sort of alternative welfare state at a time when huge numbers of ordinary Palestin­ians are in dire need. Secondly, the Islamicists are seen as incorrupt, in contrast to the endemic corruption of the top echelons of Fatah. Finally, they are seen to be leading the military resistance, not only through the constant use of suicide bombings but also through the actions of their armed wing in defensive operations. Their Achilles heel is that most Palestinians recognise that they have no serious political programme for the future social and economic development of Palestine. All but the most medievalist know from what has happened in Iran and elsewhere that the imposition of sharia law, which is what passes for a Hamas programme, simply does not put bread on the table.


It is not the purpose of this article to pose a socialist solution to the Pales­tine question. However, one assertion regarding a solution seems to be self-evident as the disastrous Oslo Agreement clearly revealed: the ending of the occupation will not be brought about by imposition from above but by struggle from below. Imperialism’s latest bag of tricks, the so-called Road Map peace plan, is nothing more than another Bantustan plan, designed to pacify the Palestinians and secure the Israeli state in its current form. Palestinians have been here before, when the former Israeli prime minister Barak made his famous ‘best offer’ of a state without control of water or the skies above, with its capital in a village outside Jerusalem, the main settlements annexed to Israel and refugees who make up more than half the total Palestinian population having to accept that there will be no justice for them at all, ever. It is a road map to nowhere, designed to hoodwink world opinion into believing that the USA wishes to engineer a just solution in the region. Whatever form the liberation of Palestine takes, it will not be as a gift granted from above by George W Bush or his ilk, but will be achieved by the mass resistance of the Palestinian people with the support and solidarity of ordinary people throughout the world.