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Why we must see Israeli policies as a form of settler colonialism

Israel and its advocates seek to deny the historical record, obfuscate what is happening on the ground today, and undermine strategies for change
File photo of Israeli soldiers standing guard against Palestinian protestors on the road leading up to the Israeli settlement of Halamish
File photo of Israeli soldiers standing guard against Palestinian protestors on the road leading up to the Israeli settlement of Halamish

The so-called ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ is not an ancient, tribal conflict, or millennia-old grudge match. Nor, as some propose, is it a tragic clash of competing nationalisms, or a cycle fuelled by religious extremism. The Zionist political project in Palestine has been, and is, a form of settler colonialism. Understanding it as such is important for three reasons.

First, it provides historical context, and at the heart of it all, is the Palestinians’ Nakba, or ‘Catastrophe’. By which, I do not mean a single, isolated historical event, or even one particular year. The Nakba began long before the formal establishment of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948 – and it has continued ever since.

The creation of a Jewish state in Palestine flew in the face of the principle of self-determination; when the first Zionist Congress was held in 1897, the population of Palestine was approximately 96 percent Arab and 4 percent Jewish. Even by 1947, Palestinian Arabs constituted a clear majority – two-thirds – of the population.

The only one way of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was to remove its non-Jewish inhabitants. As the Jewish National Fund chair put it in 1930: “If there are other inhabitants there, they must be transferred to some other place. We must take over the land. We have a greater and nobler ideal than preserving several hundred thousands of Arab fellahin.”

By 1949, some four out of five Palestinian villages inside the new Israeli state had been ethnically cleansed, their inhabitants expelled and prevented from returning. City neighbourhoods were also emptied of their Palestinian residents. Palestinians were displaced well before May 15, 1948, – and long after. Al-Majdal – now Ashkelon – was finally ‘cleansed’ of Palestinians in late 1950.

But the Nakba is not just ‘ancient history’. There are some 7.5 million Palestinians in the diaspora, with refugees living often just a few miles from their ancestral lands. In addition, Israeli policies of displacement and colonisation have continued over the decades, in different forms, and can be seen today in places like East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, southern Hebron hills, and the Negev.

Which brings us to the second reason why the settler colonial framework is significant: as well as providing historical context, it also offers analytical clarity. It helps us make sense of what is happening on the ground, not just in the past, but today as well.

When I went to Palestine for the first time in 2003, I broadly understood the situation to be one of military occupation and a struggle for statehood. One day, I was speaking with my students after an English class in Bethlehem, and a resident of Dheishe refugee camp said rhetorically: “Why can’t I go home?” And I realised that there wasn’t a good answer to that – or at least, no non-racist answer.

It was a moment when it began to sink in for me that this wasn’t ‘just’ about a military occupation – and the timeline did not begin in 1967.

When Israeli authorities demolished the unrecognised Bedouin Palestinian village of al-Araqib in 2010 – a village now rebuilt and re-destroyed more than 100 times – I was in the West Bank. A couple of days later, I went to the Jordan Valley, and met with a family who, hours earlier, watched as Israeli soldiers demolished one of their basic agricultural structures.

The juxtaposition of these two events, which took place within the same week, was striking for me. In both places, Palestinians had their homes, or properties, demolished – and in both cases, albeit with technical differences, on the basis that they lacked the correct ‘permit’ or authorisation from Israeli officials who make it impossible to obtain such approval.

Al-Araqib is inside Israel’s pre-1967 lines. The Jordan Valley is in the West Bank occupied by Israel in 1967. Both are parts of pre-1948 Palestine, now part of a de facto one-state regime that discriminates, segregates, and colonises, privileging one group of inhabitants over another. As an advisor to Ehud Olmert said in 2006, from the Galilee to the West Bank, “settlement is settlement.”

Finally, as well as context and clarity, understanding Israel as a settler colonial state gives us a third ‘c’ – it helps shape a course of action.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has three demands: the end of military occupation, the end of discrimination against Palestinian citizens, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Together, these demands go to the heart of what Zionist settler colonialism has meant for Palestinians – and they help suggest what a process of decolonisation would look like.

But in addition, the tactic of boycott makes perfect sense as a means of confronting settler colonialism. Appeals for ‘dialogue’ not ‘divisive boycotts’ are misguided and disingenuous because ‘dialogue’ does not tackle the asymmetrical status quo. As Martin Luther King once wrote, “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

Israel and its advocates seek to deny the historical record, obfuscate what is happening on the ground today, and undermine strategies for change. By contrast, understanding events in Palestine, past and present, as a form of settler colonialism, brings context, clarity, and a course of action.

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ArticleDebatesIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestine
  • Helen4Yemen

    Year — Non-Jews — Jews — % Non-Jew/Jew
    1851 — 326,000 — 13,000 —
    1861 — 356,000 — 13,000 — 96/4
    1881 — 442,000 — 25,000 — 95/5
    1895 — 522,000 — 47,000 — 92/8
    1914 — 675,000 — 85,000 — 87/13
    1919 — 500,000 — 65,000 — 87/13
    1922 — 723,000 — 93,000 — 89/11
    1924 — 765,000 — 113,000 — 87/13
    1931 — 881,000 — 175,000 — 83/17
    1936 — 1,003,000 — 370,000 — 73/27
    1940 — 1,113,000 — 467,000 — 70/30
    1945 — 1,295,000 — 564,000 — 70/30
    1948 — 1,319,000 — 650,000 — 67/33

    • Alexander Malinowski

      UNO (League of Nations) has been underlining right of Jews to immigrate to area of Mandate of Palestine.
      Moreover, there are suspicion that number of Arabs also has increased through strong immigration.

  • Helen4Yemen

    Jeff Blankfort —

    “They wanted white Jews in Israel. They did not care whether they were Jews or not.
    They are so hypocritical, so cynical, about a third of the Russian Jews who came there
    were not Jews at all. They said they were Jews, they wanted a white population, because
    the European Ashkenazi are essentially racist against people of dark skin.”

  • Helen4Yemen

    Jabotinsky — There is only one thing the Zionists want, and it is that one thing that the Arabs do not want, for that is the way by which the Jews would gradually become the majority, and then a Jewish Government would follow automatically, and the future of the Arab minority would depend on the goodwill of the Jews; and a minority status is not a good thing, as the Jews themselves are never tired of pointing out. So there is no “misunderstanding”. The Zionists want only one thing, Jewish immigration; and this Jewish immigration is what the Arabs do not want.”

  • Helen4Yemen

    Ken Livingstone:– — ” The creation of the state of Israel was a great catastrophe. We should have absorbed the post-World War II Jewish refugees in Britain and America. They could all have been resettled, whereas 70 years later, the situation is still very tense, and there is potential for many more wars, potential for nuclear war.”
    (Interviewed by Al-Ghad Al-Arabi, MAY 2016)

  • Helen4Yemen

    Israel simply has no right to exist

    Faisal Bodi Tuesday 2 January 2001

    Several years ago, I suggested in my students’ union newspaper that Israel shouldn’t exist. I also said the sympathy evoked by the Holocaust was a very handy cover for Israeli atrocities. Overnight I became public enemy number one. I was a Muslim fundamentalist, a Jew-hater, somebody who trivialised the memory of the most abominable act in history. My denouncers followed me, photographed me, and even put telephone calls through to my family telling them to expect a call from the grim reaper.

    Thankfully, my notoriety in Jewish circles has since waned to the extent that recently I gave an inter-faith lecture sponsored by the Leo Baeck College, even though my views have remained the same. Israel has no right to exist. I know it’s a hugely unfashionable thing to say and one which, given the current parlous state of the peace process, some will also find irresponsible. But it’s a fact that I have always considered central to any genuine peace formula.

    Certainly there is no moral case for the existence of Israel. Israel stands as the realisation of a biblical statement. Its raison d’être was famously delineated by former prime minister Golda Meir. “This country exists as the accomplishment of a promise made by God Himself. It would be absurd to call its legitimacy into account.”

    That biblical promise is Israel’s only claim to legitimacy. But whatever God meant when he promised Abraham that “unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the Euphrates,” it is doubtful that he intended it to be used as an excuse to take by force and chicanery a land lawfully inhabited and owned by others.

    It does no good to anyone to brush this fact, uncomfortable as it might be, under the table. But that has been the failing with Oslo. When it signed the agreement, the PLO made the cardinal error of assuming that you could bury the hatchet by rewriting history. It accepted as a starting point that Israel had a right to exist. The trouble with this was that it also meant, by extension, an acceptance that the way Israel came into being was legitimate. As the latest troubles have shown, ordinary Palestinians are not prepared to follow their leaders in this feat of intellectual amnesia.

    Israel’s other potential claim to legitimacy, international recognition, is just as dubious. The two pacts which sealed Palestine’s future were both concluded by Britain. First we signed the Sykes-Picot agreement with France, pledging to divvy up Ottoman spoils in the Levant. A year later, in 1917, the Balfour Declaration promised a national home for the Jewish people. Under international law the declaration was null and void since Palestine did not belong to Britain – under the pact of the League of Nations it belonged to Turkey.

    By the time the UN accepted a resolution on the partition of Palestine in 1947, Jews constituted 32% of the population and owned 5.6% of the land. By 1949, largely as a result of paramilitary organisations such as the Haganah, Irgun and Stern gang, Israel controlled 80% of Palestine and 770,000 non-Jews had been expelled from their country.

    This then is the potted history of the iniquities surrounding its own birth that Israel must acknowledge in order for peace to have a chance. After years of war, peace comes from forgiving, not forgetting; people never forget but they have an extraordinary capacity to forgive. Just look at South Africa, which showed the world that a cathartic truth must precede reconciliation.

    Far from being a force for liberation and safety after decades of suffering, the idea that Israel is some kind of religious birthright has only imprisoned Jews in a never-ending cycle of conflict. The “promise” breeds an arrogance which institutionalises the inferiority of other peoples and generates atrocities against them with alarming regularity. It allows soldiers to defy their consciences and blast unarmed schoolchildren. It gives rise to legislation seeking to prevent the acquisition of territory by non-Jews.

    More crucially, the promise limits Israel’s capacity to seek models of coexistence based on equality and the respect of human rights. A state based on so exclusivist a claim to legitimacy cannot but conceive of separation as a solution. But separation is not the same as lasting peace; it only pulls apart warring parties. It does not heal old wounds, let alone redress historical wrongs.

    However, take away the biblical right and suddenly mutual coexistence, even a one-state solution, doesn’t seem that far-fetched. What name that coexistence will take is less important than the fact that peoples have forgiven and that some measure of justice has been restored. Jews will continue to live in the Holy Land – as per the promise – as equals alongside its other rightful inhabitants.

    If that kind of self-reproach is forthcoming, Israel can expect the Palestinians to be forgiving and magnanimous in return. The alternative is perpetual war.

    https://www. theguardian com/world/2001/jan/03/comment.israelandthepalestinians

    • Alexander Malinowski

      However, Mandate of Palestine approved in 1922 by League of Nations (now UNO) says explicit that Jews have right to immigrate. Saying Isreal has no right to exist is absurd.

  • Alexander Malinowski

    Population of Palestine in 19th century was 700 000. In 2035 will be 18 000 000 plus Palestinian refugees, the author counts at 7500 000. It is hard to believe that without Mandate of Palestine and Israel there would ever be way to feed 25 millions people in place of 0.7 million. Average person, who lived in Palestine in 1900 is forefather of more then 20 people in 2035.

  • Mike Abramov

    This article by Ben White does not differ from the backlog of anti-Israel articles going back more than a decade. However, what made me sit up is the audacity of mis-quoting Dr. M. L King. This quote has been taken completely out of context and is a dirty tactic to use in an on-line debating platform. I have been pining, for the last three years, for PSC members to open a dialogue with me. Only Tony Greenstein had the decency to meet me. We had an open and honest discussion where I learned the following;

    The pro-Palestine supporters who are left-wing, are backing a right-wing cause. I fail to understand why Ben White is vehemently against a democratic Israel despite all it’s shortfalls, and prefers to demonise the only democracy in the Middle East providing NO DIALOGUE as a way forward. This article is not about the poor Palestinians who are victims of their own corrupt leaders, it is about the concept that the Palestinians ‘have not done a thing wrong’ that p—-s me off.

    Q. Mr. White, have you ever asked yourself why the Palestinians had such a big issue with the Balfour Declaration but were quite happy to be under the servitude of the British Mandate and the Ottoman Empire? I know the answer, but you will not reply.