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The Political Economy of Israeli Apartheid and the Specter of Genocide
Read this outstanding historical interpretation and analysis of what is happening in Israel and Gaza. It is particularly important to take into account these basic facts at this time.
By William I. Robinson
Shaked's Facebook post was shared over 1,000 times and received nearly 5,000 "likes." A few weeks later, on August 1, The Times of Israel published an op-ed piece by Yochanan Gordan titled "When Genocide Is Permissible." Gordan claimed that "there's going to have to come a time where Israel feels threatened enough where it has no other choice but to defy international warnings." He went on: "What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable quiet for the citizens of Israel . . . If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?"
Echoing these sentiments, the deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament Moshe Feiglin, a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, urged the Israeli army to kill Palestinians in Gaza indiscriminately and use every means possible to get them to leave. "Sinai is not far from Gaza and they can leave. This will be the limit of Israel's humanitarian efforts," Feiglin said. "The IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations. . . . The enemy population that is innocent of wrong-doing and separated itself from the armed terrorists will be treated in accordance with international law and will be allowed to leave."
These calls for ethnic cleansing and genocide are increasing in frequency. The political climate in Israel has continued to shift so sharply to the right in the past few years that a fascist discourse is now palpable in the daily life of the country. In Tel Aviv in August, some of the right-wing protesters who beat leftists demonstrating against the siege of Gaza wore T-shirts bearing neo-Nazi symbols and photos, including T-shirts bearing the slogan "Good night left side," a neo-Nazi slogan popular in Europe at rock concerts featuring far-right bands, as a response to the original anti-fascist slogan: "Good night white pride." Nearly half of the Jewish population of Israel supports a policy of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and major portions of the population support complete annexation of the occupied territories and the establishment of an apartheid state, according to a 2012 poll.
Fear that fascism is on the rise in Israel led 327 Jewish survivors and descendants of survivors and victims of the Nazi genocide to publish an open letter in The New York Times on August 25 expressing alarm over "the extreme, racist dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli society, which has reached a fever-pitch." The letter continued: "We must raise our collective voices and use our collective power to bring about an end to all forms of racism, including the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people."
The Zionist project may have been founded - we now know from the spate of historical studies that have emerged in recent years - on systematic ethnic cleansing and terrorism against the Palestinians. Article II of the UN Convention of 1948 defines genocide as "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group." There is little doubt that we are seeing pre-genocidal activity in Israel-Palestine. What are the underlying structural roots in the Israeli political economy bringing about such genocidal pressures?
To answer this question we must step back a few years to focus on the larger structural changes associated with capitalist globalization and the integration of Israel and the Middle East into the new global order. The globalization of the Middle East starting in the late 20th century fundamentally changed the social structure of Israel and the political economy of its colonial project. Restructuring through capitalist globalization has brought about an important shift in the relationship of Palestinians to that project and generated conditions that make it easier for the Israeli right to raise the specter of genocide.
Oslo and the Globalization of Israel
Israel's rapid globalization starting in the late 1980s coincided with the two Palestinian intifadas (uprisings) and with the Oslo Accords, which were negotiated from 1991 to 1993 and then broke down in the following years. Transnational elites had argued as the Cold War wound down that the emerging global capitalist economy could not be stabilized and made safe for transnational capital accumulation in the midst of violent regional conflicts around the world and they began to push for the agenda of "conflict resolution," or the negotiated settlement of smoldering regional conflicts, from Central America to southern Africa. Backed and nudged on by the United States and transnational elites, as well as by powerful Israeli capitalist groups, Israeli rulers entered into negotiations with the Palestinian leadership in the 1990s in large part as a response to the escalation of Palestinian resistance in the form of the first intifada (1987-1991). The Oslo process can be seen as a key piece in the political jigsaw puzzle brought about by the integration of the Middle East into the emerging global capitalist system (an integration that also constitutes the structural backdrop to the Arab Spring, although that is a story for another time).
The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, turned over a Bantustan-like autonomy to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the occupied territories for what was supposed to be a five-year interim period in which negotiations would continue over key "final status" issues, among them, the status of refugees (and their right to return), Jerusalem, water, final borders and a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Yet during the Oslo period (1991 to 2003, when the process finally broke down altogether), the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza greatly intensified. Why did the "peace process" break down?
First, the process was intended not to resolve the plight of the dispossessed Palestinian majority, but to integrate an emergent Palestinian elite into the new global order and give that elite a stake in defending that order and in assuming the role of internally policing the Palestinian masses inside the occupied territories. It has been shown in fact that Palestinian class formation during this time involved the rise of transnationally-oriented Palestinian capitalists integrated with Gulf capital elsewhere and hoping to convert a new Palestinian state into a platform for its own class consolidation. The PA was expected to mediate transnational capital accumulation in the occupied territories while maintaining social control over the restive population.
Second, the Israeli economy globalized based on a high-tech military-security complex, the importance of which will become clear momentarily. There has been an ever-deeper interpenetration of Israeli capital with transnational corporate capital from North America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere. In effect, Israeli capital has integrated inextricably into global circuits of capital. Oslo helped this process along, facilitating an Israeli transnational capitalist presence throughout the Middle East and beyond, in part by allowing conservative Arab regimes to lift the regional economic boycott of Israel and in part by opening negotiations on the creation of a Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA) that inserted the Israeli economy into regional economic networks (throughout, e.g., Egypt, Turkey, Jordan) and integrated the whole region much more deeply into global capitalism.
And third, closely related, Israel experienced a major episode of transnational immigration, including the influx of some 1 million Jewish immigrants, which undermined Israel's need for Palestinian labor during the 1990s, although this would change later in the 21st century.
Up until globalization took off in the mid-1980s, the relationship of Israel to the Palestinians reflected classical colonialism, in which the colonial power had usurped the land and resources of the colonized and then exploited their labor. But Middle Eastern integration into the global economy and society on the basis of neoliberal economic restructuring, including the well-known litany of measures such as privatization, trade liberalization, International Monetary Fund-supervised austerity and World Bank loans, helped spark the spread of mass worker and social movements and grassroots democratization pressures, reflected in the Palestinian intifadas, the labor movement across North Africa and mounting social unrest - most visibly in the 2011 Arab uprisings. This tidal wave of resistance forced a reaction from Israeli rulers and their US backers.
Globalization Converts Palestinians into "Surplus Humanity"
The Israeli economy has undergone two waves of restructuring as it has integrated into global capitalism, as Nitzan and Bichler show in their study, The Global Political Economy of Israel. The first, in the 1980s and 1990s, saw a transition from a traditional agriculture and industrial economy towards one based on computer and information technology (CIT), high-tech telecommunications, web technology, and so on. Tel Aviv and Haifa became "Middle Eastern outposts" of Silicon Valley. By 2000, a full 15 percent of the Israeli GDP and half of its exports originated in the high-tech sector.
Then from 2001 and on, and especially in the wake of the 2000 dot-com bust and worldwide recession, followed by the events of September 11, 2001, and the rapid militarization of global politics, Israel saw a further shift towards a "global military-security-intelligence-surveillance-counter-terrorism technologies complex." Israeli technology firms have pioneered the so-called homeland security industry. Indeed, Israel has become globalized specifically through the high-tech militarization of its economy. Israeli export institutes estimate that in 2007 there were some 350 Israeli transnational corporations dedicated to security, intelligence and social control systems that stood at the center of the new Israeli political economy.
"Israel's exports in counter-terrorism related products and services increased by 15 percent in 2006 and were projected to grow by 20 percent in 2007, totaling $1.2 billion annually," Naomi Klein noted in her study Shock Doctrine. "The country's defense exports in 2006 reached a record $3.4 billion (compared to $1.6 billion in 1992), making Israel the fourth largest arms dealer in the world, larger than the UK. Israel has more technology stocks listed on the Nasdaq exchange - many of them security related - than any other foreign country, and it has more tech patents registered in the US than China and India combined. Its technology sector, much of it linked to security, now makes up 60 percent of all exports."
The Palestinian population of the occupied territories constituted up until the 1990s a cheap labor force for Israel. But with Israeli incentives to the in-migration of Jews from around the world and the collapse of the former Soviet bloc, a major influx of Jewish settlement has occurred in recent years, including 1 million Soviet Jews, themselves often displaced by post-Soviet neoliberal restructuring. As well, the Israeli economy began to draw on transnational immigrant labor from Africa, Asia and elsewhere as neoliberalism and crisis displaced millions in former Third World regions.
The rise of new systems of transnational labor mobility and recruitment have made it possible for dominant groups around the world to reorganize labor markets and recruit transient labor forces that are disenfranchised and easy to control. While this is a worldwide phenomenon, it became a particularly attractive option for Israel because it does away with the need for politically troublesome Palestinian labor. Over 300,000 immigrant workers from Thailand, China, Nepal and Sri Lanka now form the predominant labor force in Israeli agribusiness in the same way that Mexican and Central American immigrant labor does in US agribusiness, and under the same precarious conditions of super-exploitation and discrimination. The racism that many Israelis have shown towards Palestinians - itself a product of the colonial relationship - has now translated into an increasing hostility towards immigrants in general as the country becomes a thoroughly racist society.
As immigration has eliminated Israel's need for Palestinian cheap labor, the Palestinians became a marginalized surplus population. "Before the arrival of the Soviet refugees, Israel could not have severed itself for any length of time from the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank; its economy could no more survive without Palestinian labor than California could run without Mexicans," as Klein has noted. "Roughly 130,000 Palestinians left their homes in Gaza and the West Bank every day and traveled to Israel to clean streets and build roads, while Palestinian farmers and tradespeople filled trucks with goods and sold them in Israel and in other parts of the territories."
The collapse of the Oslo Accords and the farce of ongoing "peace" negotiations in the midst of an ever-expanding Israeli occupation may present a political dilemma to transnational elites and some of their Israeli counterparts who wish to find mechanisms for cultivating and coopting Palestinian elites and capitalist groups. However, seen from the logic of the dominant sectors of militarized capital embedded in the Israeli and international economy, this situation does not constitute a tragic loss of opportunity for conflict resolution but rather a golden opportunity to expand capital accumulation - to develop and market worldwide weapons and security systems through the use of the occupation and the captive Palestinian population as the target and testing ground.
Once we cut through the ideological smokescreens and the rhetoric, it is these powerful economic interests that have come to exercise decisive influence over Israeli state policy. "The rapid expansion of the high-tech security economy created a powerful appetite inside Israel's wealthy and most powerful sectors for abandoning peace in favor of fighting a continuing, and continuously expanding, 'war of terror,'" Klein observed several years ago, "as well as a clear strategy to reframe its conflict with the Palestinians not as a battle against a nationalist movement with specific goals for land and rights but rather as part of the global war on terror - one against illogical, fanatical forces bent only on destruction."
In a 2009 op-ed titled "Israel Knows That Peace Just Doesn't Pay" and published in Haaretz, the Israeli "newspaper of record," Amira Hass - one of the few critical, courageous voices in the Israeli media, commented that "the security industry is an important export branch - weapons, ammunition and refinements that are tested daily in Gaza and the West Bank. . . . protecting the settlements requires constant development of security, surveillance and deterrence equipment such as fences, roadblocks, electronic surveillance cameras and robots." Hass continued: "These are security's cutting edge in the developed world, and serve banks, companies, and luxury neighborhoods next to shantytowns and ethnic enclaves where rebellions must be suppressed."
The Sociology of Racism and Genocide: From Ferguson to the Occupied Territories
The sociology of race/ethnic relations identifies three distinct types of racist structures, that is, structural relations between dominant and minority groups. One is what has been called "middle men minorities." In this structure, the minority group has a relationship of mediation between the dominant and the subordinate groups. This was historically the experience of Chinese overseas traders in Asia, Lebanese and Syrians in West Africa, Indians in East Africa, Coloureds in South Africa, and Jews in Europe. When "middle men minorities" lose their function as structures change they can be absorbed into the new order or can become subject to scapegoating and even genocide.
Jews historically occupied this role of "middle men minority" in feudal and early capitalist Europe. The structure of feudal Europe assigned to Jews certain roles vital to the reproduction of European feudal society. These included managing long-distance trade and money lending. Such activities were proscribed by the Catholic Church and were not an ordinary part of the lord-serf relationship at the heart of feudalism, yet they were vital to the maintenance of the system. As capitalism developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, new capitalist groups took on the functions of commerce and banking, making the Jewish role superfluous for the new ruling classes. As a result, Jews in Europe came under intense pressures as capitalism developed and eventually suffered genocide, given a deadly mix of scapegoating for capitalism's hardships, the loss by Jews of their previously vital economic role, the world crisis of the 1930s, and the Nazi ideology and program.
A second type of racist structure is what we call "super-exploitation/disorganization of the working class." This is a situation in which the racially subordinate and oppressed sector within the exploited class occupies the lowest rungs of the particular economy and society within a racially or ethnically stratified working class. What is key here is that the labor of the subordinate group - that is, their bodies, their existence - is needed by the dominant system even if the group experiences cultural and social marginalization and political disenfranchisement. This was the historical post-slavery experience of African-Americans in the United States, as well as that of the Irish in Britain, Latinos/as currently in the United States, Mayan Indians in Guatemala, Africans in South Africa under apartheid, and so on. These groups are often subordinated socially, culturally and politically, either de facto or de jure. They represent the super-exploited and discriminated sector of racially and ethnically divided working and popular classes. This was the experience of Palestinians in the Israeli political economy until recently and under the unique circumstances of Israel and Palestine in the 20th century.
The final racist structure is exclusion and appropriation of natural resources. This is a situation in which the dominant system needs the resources of the subordinate group but not their labor - that is, not their bodies, their physical existence. This is the racist structure most likely to lead to genocide. It was the experience of Native Americans in North America. Dominant groups needed their land, but not their labor or their bodies - since African slaves and European immigrants provided the labor needed for the new system - and so they experienced genocide. It has been the experience of the indigenous groups in Amazonia - vast new mineral and energy resources have been discovered on their lands, yet their bodies stand in the way of access to these resources by transnational capital, literally, and are not needed, hence there are today genocidal pressures in Amazonia.
This is the more recent condition that African-Americans face in the United States. Many African-Americans went from being the super-exploited sector of the working class to being marginalized as employers switched from drawing on black labor to Latino/a immigrant labor as a super-exploited workforce. As African-Americans have become structurally marginalized in significant number, they are subject to heightened disenfranchisement, criminalization, a bogus "war on drugs," mass incarceration and police and state terror, seen by the system as necessary to control a superfluous and potentially rebellious population.
Now, like the Native Americans before them - and unlike the black South Africans - Palestinian bodies are no longer needed and simply stand in the way of the Zionist state, the ruling groups, the setters and would-be settlers who need Palestinian resources, specifically land, but not Palestinians. To be sure, although Palestinian workers are being phased out of the Israeli economy, thousands of West Bank Palestinians still labor in Israel. The Russian and other Jewish immigrants who replaced Palestinian labor inside Israel in the 1990s went on in subsequent years to rely on their own racial privilege to be drawn into the Israeli middle class, as they did not want to work in jobs associated with Arabs. But as this has happened, African, Asian and other migrants from the global south have continued to pour into Israel. This shift to "surplus humanity" appears to be more advanced for Gazans, who remain locked out and relegated to the concentration camp that Gaza has become. The Gaza Palestinians appear as the first group facing genocidal activity.
Zionists and defenders of the Israeli state take great offense at any analogy between the Nazis and Israeli state actions, including the charge of genocide, in part, because the Jewish Holocaust is used by the Israeli state and the Zionist political project as a mechanism of legitimation, so that to draw such analogies is to undermine Israel's legitimating discourse. It is crucial to point this out, because that discourse has gradually come to legitimate current or proposed Israeli policies that demonstrate an ever more frightening similarity with other historical instances of genocide.
The noted Israeli historian Benny Morris, a professor at Ben Gurion University of the Negev who closely identifies with Israel, gave a lengthy interview to Haaretz in 2004 where he referred to the genocide of Native Americans in what is today the United States in order to suggest that genocide may be acceptable. He said in the interview "even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history." He then went on to call for ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, saying, "something like a cage has to be built for them. I know it sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another."
Morris' views do not represent consensus inside Israel, much less internationally and there are multiple divisions, points of tension and contradictions among Israeli and transnational elites. There is also a mounting worldwide movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) that places pressure on dominant groups to reach an accommodation in defense of their own economic interests. This is an unpredictable moment. Whether or not structural pressures for genocide actually materialize into a project of genocide will depend on the historical conjuncture of crisis, the political and ideological conditions that make genocide a possibility, and a state agent with the means and the will to carry it out. A slow-motion genocide apparently has already begun in Gaza, where there have been month-long Israeli sieges every few years that leave several thousand dead, tens of thousands injured, hundreds of thousands displaced and the entire population deprived of the necessities of life, with astounding Israeli public consensus supporting these campaigns. These overall conditions of a project of genocide are far from incarnation, but they are certainly percolating at this time. It is up to the world community to struggle alongside the Palestinians and decent Israelis to prevent such an outcome.
I would like to thank Yousef Baker and Maryam Griffin for their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.
William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global studies and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His most recent book is Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity. This article appeared at TruthOut.
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