Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s genocidal assault on the people of Gaza has exposed the brutality at the heart of Israeli society. Millions of people around the world are beginning to see the so-called “Israel-Palestine conflict” for what it is: a repressive colonial occupation of one people by another, punctuated by a series of brutal massacres. This has been going on for nearly a century, and every atrocity has been backed to the hilt by the US and Australia.

For those coming to grips with the issue for the first time, understanding Israel as a colonial settler state intent on expansion through ethnic cleansing is a good place to start. But truly to understand the nature of Israel, a regional perspective is needed. While the Palestinians have been the main victims, there is hardly a country in the Middle East left unscarred by Israel’s imperial aggression. It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire history of the Zionist project is one of perpetual warfare against the people of the region, involving Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and more. Or, in the words of Jewish-Israeli journalist B. Michael, Israel is “a small, arrogant, violent, wicked nation ... and an ally to pariahs”. 

From the very beginning of Israel’s existence, it was consciously hostile to the countries surrounding it. This reflected its roots as a creation of British imperialism, designed to strengthen London’s control over a region rich with oil. Zionist Jews would be allowed to settle in Palestine as long as they promised to be a force for conservatism in the region, protecting the imperialists from unwanted rebellions by the restless natives. This role was made explicit by one of the co-founders of the World Zionist Organisation in a speech to British diplomats in 1920. “We must protect the Suez Canal for you. We shall be the guards of your road to India as it passes through the Middle East”, he explained. “We are ready to fulfil this difficult military role but this requires that you permit us to become powerful.”  

Their chance to protect the Suez Canal came sooner than anyone expected, when Israel led the British and French armies in an invasion of Egypt in 1956. The trigger for this act of aggression was the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Egypt’s new leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The canal had previously been owned and operated by the British government alongside French businesspeople, who had profited from it for more than 70 years while Egyptians lived in extreme poverty. This reflected the broad relationship between Egypt and the West. The same forces had made a killing from the cotton trade, in which low-paid Egyptian peasants and workers grew cotton to be shipped to Europe and spun into high-quality fabrics and other products. 

Though an authoritarian figure who was no friend to workers, Nasser sought to undo some of these historic injustices. His promise to usher in an era of political and economic progress—nothing less than an Arab renaissance—was a threat to British and French interests. So even though Egypt committed to paying the full value of the shares to the Canal’s investors, they refused to accept it. Their opposition to the nationalisation was just an excuse to topple a popular and powerful Arab leader who refused to be subservient to the imperial powers. Israel had its own reasons for wanting to overthrow the nationalist regime, which represented an obstacle to its ambitions. It leapt at the chance to work with the old powers to undermine a regional rival. 

Despite early successes of the aggressors, the US quickly intervened to force Israel and its allies’ withdrawal from Egyptian territory, worried that the whole episode would push Nasser closer to the Soviet bloc. Despite this, Israel’s role was clearly established. It would be the protector of the status quo and a warrior for social and geopolitical conservatism. It would seek to crush any attempt at changing the political and economic conditions that left millions in dire straits while a handful of parasites made immense wealth at their expense.

Israel launched another unprovoked war against its neighbours just a decade later in 1967, known as the Six-Day War. Israel took Egypt, Syria and Jordan by surprise again. In a lightning-fast operation, Israel managed nearly to double the territory under its control, seizing not only the West Bank and Gaza but also the Golan Heights in Syria and the entire Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. 

This expansion is presented by many Israeli historians as an accidental and unwanted consequence of Arab military failures. The war is presented as a defensive one to prevent a second holocaust against Jews in Israel. Yet a few years ago, journalists at the Intercept compiled a number of statements from Israeli figures that revealed the truth about the whole affair. In an interview with Israeli newspaper Al HaMishmar in 1971, a member of the government during the war insisted, “This whole story about the threat of extermination was totally contrived, and then elaborated upon, a posteriori, to justify the annexation of new Arab territories”. 

This approach, of posing as the victim while inflicting enormous casualties on its enemies, has become a trademark of Israeli politics. “We had fallen in love with the pose of a victim with an iron fist”, wrote Yossi Klein in a recent piece in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz

This positioning was given its first and only justification in 1973, when the Arab states launched an unexpected attack against Israel. But far from representing a real threat to Israel, the war was largely a face-saving exercise by new Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Its goal was not the military defeat of the Israelis, but opening negotiations for a permanent peace with Israel on more favourable terms. Sadat eventually got his way, signing the reviled Camp David Accords in 1978. He was assassinated shortly after. Few mourned.

Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt did not end the occupation of Palestinian and Arab land. Nor did it encourage Israel to demilitarise and shift away from its aggressive military posture. Rather, by isolating and neutralising the Arab world’s major economic and military power, it allowed Israel to act with impunity. Aside from the Sinai, Israel’s occupation of territory stolen in 1967 has continued indefinitely, while its theft of Palestinian land never stopped. To this day, Israel is the only country on the planet with no finite borders, as its leaders refuse to constrain their colonising ambitions. 

Lebanon in particular has borne the brunt of significant Israeli violence. Through the 1970s, a revolutionary wave had swept Lebanese society, as students and workers protested and struck to demand democratic reform and an end to economic inequality. Their target was the sectarian political and economic system, which entrenched the power of capitalist elites of all religions while leaving the population permanently divided and ripe for exploitation. The movement, led by various communist groups and Arab nationalists, threatened to challenge the very foundation of capitalism in Lebanon, and united people across traditional boundaries. Israel, along with the other regional powers, was terrified.

What made things worse, from the ruling class perspective, was the involvement of Palestinians in the whole affair. By this stage there were around 300,00 Palestinians refugees in Lebanon, some of whom had been there since the Nakba in 1948, others who had arrived more recently. They were politicised by their oppression at the hands of Israel and then the Lebanese elites, who denied them their basic rights. 

The situation developed further on the arrival of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Beirut in 1970, which had been expelled from Jordan following its failed uprising against the corrupt monarchy. The presence of these well-armed revolutionaries added further political and military strength to the left forces. Many Lebanese leftists joined the PLO militias, seeing their struggle against Lebanese bourgeois as inseparable from fighting the influence of Zionism and imperialism in the region.

Fearful of losing power, the Lebanese far right eventually moved to crush the nascent revolution. It used its militias, and its control over the official Lebanese army, to launch a campaign of terrorist attacks against Palestinian and Lebanese people. But aided by the PLO, the Lebanese left seemed unstoppable. When it looked as though change was on its way, Lebanon was invaded by the Syrian and Israeli armies, both of which were bitterly hostile to any radical change. Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon began in 1978, but for a while reached right into the suburbs of Beirut. Their targets were not simply the Palestinians; their goal was to crush any possibility of real democracy—let alone socialism. To achieve this, they were prepared to collaborate closely with the Syrian regime, which saw a chance to entrench its influence over Lebanon. Together these reactionary regimes were able to stabilise the situation. In collaboration with the various Lebanese warlords, they turned a revolutionary movement into a brutal sectarian civil war. 

Israel’s occupation of Lebanon led to unfathomable violence and destruction. Most infamous are the events surrounding the UN-run Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp, where Israeli troops assisted far-right Christian militias to besiege and then murder thousands of Palestinian refugees. But there were many more such incidents. By June of 1982 Caritas, the Catholic aid agency, insisted that the “minimum established figures” were 14,000 dead, 25,000 severely wounded and 400,000 homeless. “The overwhelming impression among Beirut’s residents”, reported the Washington Post after one particularly brutal assault on Beirut, “was that the Israelis in a single day had wrought almost as much destruction in some places as the various combatants had achieved in the 19-month civil war”. The occupation lasted for another 18 years.

The point of this violence was again to prevent any progressive developments that might endanger its occupation of stolen land. Israel knew full well that a revolutionary movement led by students and workers, who saw the Palestinians as their comrades in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism, posed a fundamental threat to its power. 

Aside from these major episodes, Israel has been involved in innumerable assaults on neighbouring states. It treats Iraq and Syria as a free fire zone, and assassinates Arab and Iranian diplomats and scientists at will. During the terrible war between Iran and Iraq, the Israelis armed the reactionary Iranian regime, selling it equipment worth billions of dollars in order to prolong the bloodshed and weaken both sides. (They then gave some of this money to fund right-wing death squads in Nicaragua as part of the Contra scandal.) In 2006, they invaded Lebanon again, killing at least 1,000 people. 

Why recall all this terrible history? When fighting a battle, it is vital to understand the nature of our enemies. So while it is true that Israel is a settler colony, it is much more than that. It is an outpost of Western imperialism, a vicious dog designed to hunt down and destroy any prospect of progressive change in the region. The Zionist state is a key plank of the system of capitalism and imperialism that keeps workers and the poor oppressed across the whole Middle East. That is still the case today, even though Israel’s current focus is not on crushing nationalist or left currents, which are today relatively weak. Instead, it helps to entrench the most authoritarian and reactionary factions of the Arab ruling classes, forming close ties with repressive regimes, including in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the treacherous quislings among the Palestinian Authority. 

This is why revolutionaries across the Middle East and North Africa have always understood that the oppression of Palestinians is at the same time our oppression, and that the liberation of Palestine requires the liberation of the entire Middle East. Put another way, the question of Palestine cannot be solved by nationalism, but only by internationalism.