Israeli Unionist: Grow the Mass Movement to Stop the War in Gaza

Dror Kay

As the repression of Palestinians and dissenting Israelis escalates amid Israel’s renewed onslaught in Gaza, domestic tensions are getting harder to conceal. Jacobin spoke to an Israeli trade unionist who stands against the war and the occupation.

Israeli activists gather in front of Ministry of Defense to protest the attacks on Gaza and call for cease-fire in Tel Aviv, Israel, on December 5, 2023. (Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Interview by
Chris Dite

Following the collapse of the temporary pause in fighting, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Israel’s war against Hamas will continue until “total victory.” In conjunction with renewed violence in Gaza, there has been the continued, wild ramping up of ultranationalist fervor in Israel, and a clampdown on any and all calls for peace. The dehumanization of Palestinians continues apace: in a weekend press conference, Netanyahu ridiculed the idea of negotiating with “a Satan for whom life has no value.”

There has been severe repression against Arab Palestinian community organizing in Israel, a ban on antiwar and antioccupation protests, and vicious reprisals against innocuous gestures of solidarity with Gazans on social media. Meanwhile, the right-wing lynch mob that attacked the Sheba medical center near Tel Aviv was handled with kid gloves, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have functionally outsourced their harassment of Arab Palestinians in the West Bank to fanatical settlers.

Some small cracks have appeared in the narrative of absolute unanimity within Israel. Remonstrations and demonstrations by the families of Israeli hostages have very publicly ridiculed the government’s ultraviolent propaganda as dangerous nonsense. Following a legal challenge, one protest calling for a cease-fire was allowed to take place in Israel — albeit in a remote location and with a cap of the number of attendees.

The Socialist Struggle Movement is a cross-community organization campaigning for socialism in Israel and Palestine. It is active in trade union and anti-racism struggles, stands against the occupation, and has participated in many of the antiwar actions and conferences that have taken place thus far. Jacobin spoke with an elected union representative from the Socialist Struggle Movement about Netanyahu’s attempts to paper over the contradictions at the heart of Israeli capitalism, and the pathological fear of all Middle Eastern governments that the masses will move into action.

Chris Dite

Your organization has described what’s taking place in Gaza as state terrorism — “the Dahiya Doctrine on steroids . . . designed to convey that ‘the landlord has gone mad.’” Can you explain this strategy?

Dror Kay

The horrific tragedy that the Israeli regime is inflicting on Gaza is the worst since the Nakba in 1948. Generations of families wiped out. More than sixteen thousand people dead, 75 percent of them women and children. Hundreds of thousands of residences destroyed, alongside three hundred schools and universities, and damaged hospitals. There’s been the tightening of the sixteen-year-old blockade to an almost Middle Ages type of siege: starving the population, denying them medicine, electricity, and water, causing illness and disease on a mass scale. This is why we’re saying the onslaught has genocidal elements.

All of this destruction and killing is not an accident. It’s a political decision, related to the Dahiya Doctrine. This is a policy that the Israeli army developed during the 2006 war in Lebanon, in which the Israeli Air Force leveled the Dahiya residential neighborhood in Beirut. The person that formulated this policy is Gadi Eizenkot. He was chief of general staff of the Israeli army, and after the war started became a member of war cabinet. A lieutenant colonel close to Eizenkot explained the doctrine’s principles: to damage and punish on a scale that will require long and extensive rehabilitation. The process is intended to preserve a memory for years to come among decision makers. “The landlord has gone mad” is Hebrew slang, meaning to show no restraint, to prove there are no lines they’re unwilling to cross. It’s supposed to deter, and to cause such suffering among the civilian population that they will pressure Hamas to give up. But obviously what this policy does is pave the way for more rounds of bloodshed. It’s based on the idea that the Palestinian people will just give up on their aspirations to live with dignity and freedom. That’s never going to happen.

Chris Dite

How does the Israeli state’s attempt to tighten its grip undermine the conditions for peace and stability?

Dror Kay

The occupation regime has been in a deepening crisis of its ability to control. It has been tightening the occupation in East Jerusalem, changing existing conditions in holy places like Al-Aqsa, expanding the colonial expropriation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the West Bank, and intensifying its political repression. But it has been having to implement more repression just to uphold the status quo.

The Hamas attack on October 7 shattered notions that the establishment has promoted for a really long time. This current crisis has debunked the idea that it’s possible to “manage the conflict” and marginalize the Palestinians through normalization with the dictatorships in the region. This approach was based on the premise that the solidarity of the masses in the region with the Palestinian people is not as strong anymore. But we’ve seen now that’s not true. This is a major concern for the Israeli state; the most fundamental risk for it is developments in the direction of a mass struggle and a new uprising.

The aim of the current war in Gaza is the continuation of the same logic of “managing the conflict.” They want to reorganize and perpetuate the dictatorship of siege, occupation, poverty, and extreme national oppression. But they won’t succeed. The occupation regime, the siege, and the brutal national oppression of the Palestinians is something that’s met with resistance because people are not going to just agree to live under these dire conditions. They aspire to a better life, freedom, self-determination, independence, and national and social liberation.

There are a few directions this could go: toward the path of mass struggle, but also potentially to the path of a regional war. This is why it’s so important to expand and escalate the global international protest wave against Israeli aggression. It’s not only the Palestinian masses, but all the masses in the region who are in danger due to US-backed Israeli aggression.

Chris Dite

Are the dynamics of the US-China rivalry intensifying this catastrophe?

Dror Kay

US influence in the Middle East has been declining for more than a decade following the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, the Saudi-Iran normalization brokered by China, etc. The current crisis is an opportunity for the United States to really strengthen its standing. It has sent aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines to the Mediterranean and Red Seas; we’ve seen lots of visits from the Biden administration, seen them attending war cabinet meetings, backing up and cheering on the slaughter in Gaza. At the beginning of this onslaught on Gaza, Biden gave full backing for Israel to do whatever it wants. Now the White House has begun a kind of damage-control operation, making empty speeches about the victims of the atrocities in Gaza. They’re afraid they will lose control over the Israeli war machine, and the United States will become entangled not only in a prolonged military occupation of Gaza, but a regional war against Lebanon, Syria, or even Iran. Part of US imperialism’s embrace of Israel is an attempt to make sure that things go according to its interests. It can’t be seen to lose control of events, and has to project power. US involvement sends a message to the Arab states that they shouldn’t turn to China or Russia for security.

It’s not only fears of a regional war. Part of what’s causing Biden’s change of tune is the eruption of anger against US imperialism regionally and globally. With the war in Ukraine, the United States managed to position itself — at least to certain layers — as a fighter for democracy. So what’s happening in Gaza is not a good look for it. I’m sure parts of the ruling class in the United States are not happy that Washington is identified with the ongoing massacres of civilians in Gaza. The Democratic Party is paying a price for it politically.

It should be said that there is no symmetry between the involvement of US imperialism and the bloc around China. US imperialism has gone all in to show who’s the boss in the Middle East. China and Russia are saying that they support the two-state solution and hypocritically taking the role of “peacemakers.” They have a false reputation as an alternative to Western imperialism, but they’re working to preserve their own interests in the in the region.

Neither side of this new Cold War is interested in a broader military conflict in the region. Each side is taking measures to avoid that. But from the beginning there has been a clear process of the war’s regional expansion. There’s an internal, spiraling type of logic that could lead to a major escalation in the Middle East.

Chris Dite

The wild nationalist sentiment right now is masking the fact that Israeli society is riddled with divisions. Could you explain some of the tensions within and between the different groups in Israel?

Dror Kay

Occupation and siege is the policy of the entire Israeli ruling class. But the class argues on how to implement it; this contributed to the recent political crisis that we’ve seen. Parts of the ruling class would prefer to see a stabilization of the dictatorship of occupation. But there are reactionary, petit-bourgeois forces pushing for more colonial settlements, more ethnic cleansing and annexations — the destabilization of the status quo. These forces have joined Netanyahu, who over the past decade has become more problematic for the establishment to control.

All the Israeli establishment parties have glorified the Israeli attack and the bloodbath in Gaza. This has fueled a wave of nationalist reaction and blindness in Israeli society. Toward the end of October, 84 percent of the Jewish population in Israel believed that the Israeli attack on Gaza does not need, or only needs to a small extent, to take into account the suffering of the residents of the Gaza Strip. At the center of that reactionary sentiment lie the deep existential fears generated by the Hamas attack on October 7, and the false chauvinist idea that security for one group can be achieved at the expense of the other.

This war crisis cut across the ten-month long, unprecedented mass movement against Netanyahu’s far-right government and its plans for judicial counterreforms. But the contradictions remain. There is a major contradiction in Israeli society between the almost full support for the war, but the simultaneous complete distrust of the government, and growing vocal criticism against the settlements and settler violence in the West Bank. There is also the collapse of state mechanisms, including the health and welfare system — which could not cope with the aftermath of the October 7 attack.

The generals and the security establishment are publicly supported, though the far right is trying to pin the blame for Hamas’s attack on them. The far right voted against the limited “women and children” hostage deal: they are fully ready to sacrifice Israeli hostages, along with obviously tens of thousands of Palestinians, to recolonize Gaza, to continue this war campaign and the bloodshed. This is not a sentiment that is shared by the families of the hostages, some of whom are saying that they don’t want more bombardment or occupation of Gaza. They just want their loved ones back. There’s also the oppressive Jewish religious establishment. There was this fanatic right-wing rabbi on TikTok, victim-blaming the young women at the Nova Party massacre — saying it’s their fault for wearing immodest clothing. That also received backlash.

The mood in society is not set in stone. For example, opinion polls consistently show support for the occupation of Gaza dropping since the war began. Looking at the contradictions can also show what potential there is for change.

Chris Dite

Despite the government’s security propaganda, polls show that Jewish Israelis feel more insecure than ever. Do you think this crisis is undermining the Zionist narrative that the capitalist state of Israel would be a safe haven for the Jews of the world?

Dror Kay

The Marxist left historically warned that this promise — that Israel would be the safest place for Jews — would result not just in a disaster for the Palestinian people, but a cycle of bloodshed for the Jewish working class. The Israeli ruling class idea that they could “manage the conflict” has now definitely been shattered. Interestingly, the army chiefs and generals are not attracting the intensity of the criticism directed to the government. This might reflect a conclusion people are drawing, still in its infancy, that the root of the crisis is political and that it requires a political response.

At the moment there is a growing realization that Israel isn’t a safe place for Jews. But what does that mean? At the moment, there is no political force in Israel that offers a way forward. Even those that speak about a so-called two-state solution speak about a deal between oligarchs and elites within the framework of capitalism in the region. This will not result in a genuinely independent and equal state for the Palestinians. The national oppression, and therefore the national conflict, will continue. For people that live here, there isn’t really a clear path forward. On the one hand, that raises questions and doubts, but at the same time, it’s also something that allows the barbaric onslaught on Gaza by the Israeli regime to go on.

Chris Dite

It seems like all the states in the region exist in a permanent state of anxiety that the masses will move into action. Could you explain how mass action, both within Israel/Palestine and abroad, could influence the dynamics of the war?

Dror Kay

It already has. The demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Egypt, the protests in Jordan and other places in the Middle East caused the cancelation of the summit between the King of Jordan, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Mahmoud Abbas from the Palestinian Authority, and Joe Biden. Globally, including in the United States and in Europe, huge mobilizations preceded the now-collapsed pause in the bombings.

This mass movement against war is one of the factors that is helping to restrain the threat of escalation toward a regional war. But to be actually able to block such a development, it’ll have to continue to expand and become stronger. If we want to see an end to what’s going on, it’ll have to be through a mass application of pressure.

Over the past decade we’ve witnessed the Israeli state’s aggression, not only in terms of enforcing the blockade, but also in the severe repression of popular uprisings like the Marches of Return in 2018. The brutality was staggering — Israeli snipers competing to see who could shoot more knees off Palestinians, etc. We also saw it in the unprecedented dignity strike on both sides of the Green Line in May 2021. The strategy of mass struggle, popular struggle is such a threat to the Israeli regime.

The state prefers military confrontation because there is a completely unbalanced relation of forces. Hamas’ strategy was on the one side readiness for settlements with different imperialist powers and the Israeli regime itself, and on other hand to portray itself as resisting Israeli aggression and occupation. And it showed, with this attack on October 7, that even with imperialist backing and high tech military capabilities, the Israeli army is not all-powerful. But at the same time, such an attack does not bring decolonization; it brings more bloodshed and suffering. The tools to win the struggle against the Israeli regime are political tools. The Palestinians, and the masses in the region more broadly, of course have a legitimate right to self-defense and armed resistance. But these need to be democratically organized. The atrocities that Hamas committed — torture, rape, preplanned intentional violence toward ordinary working-class people — had reactionary effects, helping to paper over across the class divide and the contradictions in Israeli society, and helping the Israeli regime to mobilize public support for the onslaught on Gaza.

The hostages are a headache for the Israeli regime for many reasons. They raise questions among the Israeli masses about the bombing and to the collective punishment of starvation. While some families in the protests called to block aid to Gaza until all the Israeli hostages are released, many of the families know that anything that happens to the people of Gaza will now affect their loved ones. A released hostage spoke at a demonstration in Tel Aviv yesterday, and said that “without the protests we wouldn’t be here.” There’s some awareness of the need protest to pressure the Israeli government — though the organizers, “professional” strategists with a nationalist, proestablishment agenda, refuse to call for a cease-fire and a comprehensive prisoners-hostages deal on a basis of “all for all.”

Chris Dite

What role is the labor movement playing in this crisis, and what role should it be playing?

Dror Kay

The right-wing, pro-capitalist leadership of the Histadrut now fully supports the war. Rather than promoting cross-community solidarity, it has actively cooperated with the witch hunt on campuses and in workplaces against dissenters. Just a few days ago, Chairman Arnon Bar-David signed “Greetings from Histadrut” on a rocket aimed to be thrown on the heads of children in Gaza. This is a disgusting betrayal not only of Palestinian workers, but of any notion of working-class solidarity that the international labor movement is based on.

Palestinian unions have called on the international workers’ movement to take a stand against the attack and even actively intervene to stop the flow of weapons to Israel, to take action against corporations that are enabling the aggression, blockade, and siege on Gaza and Palestinians. Some labor unions actually came out in the first few days of the war in support of this. It’s important to promote and support this call.

Chris Dite

What are the prospects for resistance within Israel/Palestine, and what is your organization doing?

Dror Kay

There is severe repression everywhere, first and foremost targeting Arab Palestinians, Palestinian parties and organizations. In Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority fired live ammunition on protesters following the blasting of the Al-Ahli Hospital. Since then, we’ve not seen mass demonstrations in the West Bank, or within Occupied East Jerusalem, but the potential for the development of resistance there shouldn’t be discounted.

The Left is under severe political repression. There have only been two protests against the war approved. The first demo that was authorized was two weeks ago in Tel Aviv in a very isolated place, limited to seven hundred people. When some people tried to hold a small demonstration of leading figures in Palestinian Arab society, the police just arrested everyone, including participants from Hadash and Balad, whose offices were then raided. Palestinian youth tried to organize in Haifa and were stopped before they’d even begun. The chief of Israeli police said that he’ll put any protesters that sympathize with Gaza on a bus to Gaza.

Since day one, we’ve seen a wave of arrests not only in the West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem, but also within 1948 territories, first and foremost targeting Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, but also Jews who oppose the war. People have been fired from their jobs and expelled from campuses, in some cases just for writing that they feel sorry about children and babies dying in Gaza.

The demonstrations demanding the release of the hostages are the driving force in the attempts to release them. There’s a real potential there for upheaval — not necessarily antiwar, but anti-government. So there is the possibility of resistance within Israeli society. But of course, Palestinians shouldn’t have to wait until the Jewish Israeli public decides, “oh actually, the occupation is bad, and it doesn’t serve our interests.” The hostages’ families have had public confrontations with the far right, saying, “we don’t want to hear about flattening Gaza, our loved ones are there.” They should also be opposing the atrocities committed against Palestinians. The far right is clearly just interested in scoring points with its base, and its “Occupy, Expel, Settle” campaign to reoccupy Gaza.

We are involved in the antiwar protests, conferences, and gatherings in collaboration with left organizations, and organizations within Arab Palestinian society, and the campaign against the political witch hunt on campuses. In the first stages of the war, we helped organize — with Academia for Equality, which is an organization of around eight hundred academics within institutions — a petition to the Council for Higher Education opposing the political witch hunt, but that also openly opposed the war. It was signed by hundreds. Our international organization is active in the mass solidarity demonstrations around the world, including in Ireland, South Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere.

We not only promote opposition to the war, but a real political solution, that can only result from struggle. There are no shortcuts, especially not in this region. But if we want to be able to have an equal and safe existence for the millions of Palestinians and millions of Israelis, we need to put an end to occupation, siege, colonial settlements, and all forms of discrimination and national oppression, including a just solution to the plight of the Palestinian refugees. There needs to be an agreement that recognizes historical injustice and the right of return. We’re fighting for a democratic socialist, fully equal state of Palestine alongside democratic socialist Israel, with two capitals in Jerusalem and the full equality for minorities and for all residents. We’re trying to build international solidarity, and also to call on ordinary Israeli workers to join forces and fight for a radical solution based on ending oppression and full equality, the right to existence, to self-determination, to live with dignity, well-being, and personal security.