How can Palestine be free?

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Israel's war on Gaza provoked huge protests across the world. People are asking what the solution is for Palestine. It lies with the working class in the region, argues Anne Alexander. Recent struggles in Egypt show that the road to liberation goes through the streets of Cairo.

The recent attack on Gaza has exposed the brutal nature of the Israeli state to millions around the globe. Gaza remains a potent symbol of Palestinian resistance. The area is crammed with refugees and their descendants who fled ethnic cleansing by Zionist militias in 1948. They suffered decades of direct Israeli occupation and the theft of their land and water by Israeli settlers. They have seen their already weak and stunted economy strangled by Israeli policies of "closure", transformed into a near total blockade since 2005. Yet rather than surrender, growing numbers of Palestinians in Gaza turned to Hamas, rejecting a policy of collaboration with their oppressors.

Gaza's suffering also demonstrates that the "two-state solution" is both unjust and unworkable. Unjust, because it would legitimise the ethnic cleansing which turned Gaza into a gigantic refugee camp in the first place and condemns future generations of its inhabitants to continued poverty, dependency and isolation. Unworkable, because the assault on Hamas makes it clear that neither Israel nor its backers in the US will permit a Palestinian state to exist unless its leaders agree in advance to capitulate to their demands.

Hamas's contestation of the 2006 Palestinian elections showed that the Islamist movement was serious about creating a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, even if it still argued that this was just a step towards the future liberation of the whole of Palestine. Hamas's election victory made it clear that the majority of Palestinians agreed with this stance. In addition, Hamas explicitly offered a long term truce, conditional on Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. Yet Israel's response has been to blockade and then attack Gaza, to grab more land in the West Bank and to attempt to destroy Hamas. Moreover, Israel has not acted alone, but with the full support of the US - and its client state, Egypt, which polices Gaza's southern border.

However, if there is hope in the Palestinians' desperate situation, it is because Gaza also acts as a bridgehead between the Palestinian resistance and the struggle against the Arab regimes. This connection was made obvious in January 2008, when tens of thousands of Palestinians swept aside the Egyptian border guards and poured into northern Sinai. With protests multiplying in the streets of Cairo, Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, suspended the siege and invited Hamas into negotiations, breaking the boycott of the Islamist organisation enforced by Israel and the US.

These talks paved the way for the six-month long ceasefire between Hamas and Israel agreed in June 2008. As Amman-based political analyst Mouin Rabbani notes, this ceasefire was "no less of a political blow than its 1981 ceasefire - brokered by the US and UN - with its previous Palestinian arch-nemesis, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Once again, it was making agreements with a foe it had assiduously worked to delegitimise and place beyond the pale of permissible engagement by others." The crucial factors in this breakthrough were the defeat inflicted on Israel by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, Hamas's continued refusal to surrender, and the Mubarak regime's fear that events at the border with Gaza would set off a chain reaction of explosive protest inside Egypt.

Mass movement in Egypt

Mubarak's fears are rooted in the growth of a mass movement for change from below over the past decade. The different strands of the movement have brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in protest since 2000. The wave of demonstrations began with protests by school and university students in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada in 2000 and 2002, followed by huge anti-war marches against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. December 2004 saw the birth of Kifaya, the first popular movement in three generations which has crossed the "red line" of direct challenge to the legitimacy of the presidency. Kifaya forged links between democracy activists, opposition groups, students and even reform-minded judges to mobilise protests against dictatorship and repression across Egypt in 2005.

Even more significant has been the emergence of a new workers' movement, triggered by mass strikes in the textile industry starting in December 2006. Every sector of the Egyptian economy has been shaken by workers' protests, strikes and factory occupations. Textile workers, rail workers, teachers and civil servants are among those who have won pay rises, improved conditions and forced the sacking of corrupt and abusive managers. The workers' movement is driven by economic motors: the spiralling cost of living is the major force pushing workers into action. However, a broader political consciousness is developing fast in the most advanced sections of the movement.

Workers can see the connection between the regime which starves their children and sends riot police to beat them off the streets, and the oppression of the Palestinians. Thus it has been in those sections of the workers' movement which have gone furthest in the economic struggle, such as the Mahalla textile workers and the tax collectors, where the call for solidarity with the Palestinians has found the strongest echo. One of the striking tax collectors interviewed by filmmaker Nora Younis in December 2007 put it like this: "We are going to hell, but our country is backing Israel and the US." Egyptian workers have long whispered such things in private, looking over their shoulders in fear of Mubarak's secret police. Spoken in public, in the midst of a strike by 55,000 tax collectors, during a ten-day occupation of a street in central Cairo round the corner from the cabinet offices, these words represent the potential for something not seen in Egypt since the 1940s: the coalescence of the anti-imperialist protest movement with the social power of the Egyptian working class.

Events in 2008 give glimpses of how this movement could develop into a force capable of shaking the Egyptian regime to its core, and therefore breaking the weak link in the chain which binds the Palestinians. In April 2008 the town of Mahalla al-Kubra exploded into an uprising as the security forces suppressed a strike by workers at the Misr spinning plant. Tens of thousands battled with riot police and cut the railway line to prevent reinforcements arriving. Although the protests were eventually quelled, shops shut and workers stayed at home across in Egypt in solidarity with the textile workers' demands for a rise in the national minimum wage.

A movement on this scale confronts the Egyptian regime with difficult questions. Can it send riot police to Gaza to keep the Palestinians besieged at the same time as putting down workers' strikes and street demonstrations? How should it respond if workers start to call for opening the border with Gaza, or sending arms to Hamas and backing up their rhetoric with action which shuts the Suez Canal, the Mahalla textile mills, the railways and the tax collection system? If they know anything of Egyptian history, Mubarak's advisers should realise that these are more than just fantasies. In the early 1950s the dying days of the Egyptian monarchy saw struggles over the cost of living fuse with a mass anti-imperialist movement against the British military occupation. Workers brought the Suez Canal Zone to a standstill and marched on Cairo, demanding bread, jobs and arms to fight for liberation. The police deserted the regime and joined the guerrilla struggle against the British, while army officers plotted the coup which would overthrow the monarchy in July 1952.

It is idle to pretend that such a future is inevitable. But it is certainly possible. Within Egypt, it will take the conscious intervention of activists determined to make the links between the struggle against the regime and the fight for Palestinian liberation by harnessing the power of the strike movement in the service of both causes. Socialists in Egypt are best placed to make these connections, but they can find an audience of millions who have been inspired by the strike wave and are raging with anger at the plight of Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt's main opposition movement and has historic links with Hamas. Although the Brotherhood's leadership has often been reluctant to turn rhetoric in support of the Palestinians into mass protests in Egypt, it is under increasing pressure from its own base to do so.

On the Palestinian side, it means abandoning the idea that Palestinians alone can achieve liberation. The grotesque spectacle of the world's fourth largest military power raining white phosphorous shells onto UN schools packed with refugees shows just how unequal the military contest is. But it will also require the end to the principle of "non-intervention" in the internal affairs of the Arab regimes.

In other words, what is needed is an appeal over the heads of the corrupt Arab leaders for a borderless intifada, not only in Egypt but around the Arab world.