A look at Israeli colonisation from the inside requires a thorough reckoning. In Hagar Kotef’s recent study, The Colonising Self: Or, Home and Homelessness in Israel/Palestine, settlement narratives are juxtaposed with accountability. Running parallel to Palestinian memory, Kotef immediately embarks upon the concept of settlement and settler narratives, and examines the extent to which these narratives can threaten or colonise Palestinian memory itself.
The book is engaging from the start. The Nakba’s presence and absence in settler narratives, even those conscious of the destruction wrought by the earlier Zionist colonial process, is not necessarily authentically conveyed. What is the positioning of the settler in Nakba narratives? On Israeli efforts to render the Nakba more visible to Israeli society, Kotef writes of: “The risk of colonising Palestinian memory itself in and through this endeavour.”
Settler homes cannot be separated from colonial violence. The author notes that without attachment to violence, settlement cannot be contained. What is perceived by society as shelter was constructed upon the ruins of dispossession, or simply by moving into the houses of displaced Palestinians. Within the settler mind-frame, there is a dissociation between the home and the self, and Kotef asks if settlers can reconcile their image with the violence that provided them with homes. The fantasy of the home conceals the atrocities that produced the current dwellings.
In the introduction, Kotef asserts: “This is a book about homes that were formed in and through violence; about homes that themselves became tools of destruction and expulsion, and about lives and selves whose very being is a form of injury.”
Kotef discusses three main issues of settler-colonialism: homes and identity built upon destruction as a common feature, the settler attachment to homes and how this brings about oblivion to violence and the ongoing settlement practices in the occupied West Bank. Focusing on how settler-colonialism and settling legitimises violence, the author discusses how the settler identity is shaped under violence and how settler presence itself is a form of violence, even if the act of settling is far removed from the acts of violence perpetrated by others.
As a result of settling and the way settler-colonialism generates identity, the colonised and their lack of homes contributes to a loss of identity that is visible. Kotef writes: “As part of the shift in perspective from violence in the home to homes as a tool of violence that is deployed externally, scale changes; at stake is an entire society that disposes of another.”
The “settler self” is described by Kotef as “a function of territory”. On the other side of the equation, the Palestinian “unsettlement” has dissociated the concept of home from the state. For Palestinians, the home also has a political meaning – its absence emphasises its importance.
Noting how the concept of home for Palestinians altered through Zionist settler-colonialism, Kotef discusses the implications of temporary homes in Palestinian refugee camps. She addresses how Palestinians are trapped between the right of home in a camp, albeit as a result of dispossession and not of choice, and the Palestinian right of return, in which acknowledging the Palestinian homeownership would spell the beginning of undoing the Zionist settler-colonial project. While Palestinians contend with these restrictions, the Israeli settler-colonialist is entrenched in the home of the dispossessed.
Kotef’s discussion on decolonisation is particularly insightful and recognises the multi-layered approach and intricacies that one must acknowledge, in particular, the “change of attachment”. The book argues that state-level democracy is not enough to produce a decolonial framework, since the settler is an intricate part of the process. “The Israeli attachment to territory is at least derivatively also an attachment to the act of colonisation, since the latter is the condition for the self’s placement in the land.”
For Israeli settlers, the victory rests at the settlement project, which comes as a result of negotiating with violence to justify its existence. As the book shifts its discussion to Palestinian ruins and how these have been integrated into the colonial landscape to the detriment of the colonised, Kotef notes how such normalisation erases the Nakba from the settlers’ consciousness, which in turn leads to a denial of Israeli violence. Denying violence constructs dissociation, so much so that Kotef argues: “The point, then, is not that we could not see the remnants of violence, but that we saw them all the time and almost everywhere.” A pertinent observation by Kotef, bluntly stated: “As Jewish Israelis, we learned to feel at home in Palestinian ruins.”
Dissecting the settler consciousness as Kotef does, brings forth a realisation that the history of colonisation spills over to the present. The ongoing colonial expansion in the occupied West Bank – illustrated in detail by the author through the story of a farming enterprise that differentiates between business and product ethics, and the absence of ethics that comes with the expulsion of the Palestinian people – shows both the trauma of the dispossessed, as well as the settler justification for expulsion, which is violent and wrongly legitimised.
Yet in media narratives, as the book portrays, the settler’s trauma over the eviction at Amona eclipses decades of Zionist expulsion of the Palestinian people. The erasure of Palestinians has been so thorough – there is no consideration for the people who the settlers uprooted in order to establish homes built upon violence. As far as mainstream narratives go, it is the evicted settler that lost a home, and not the Palestinian people whose homes have been destroyed or re-inhabited by the settler-colonists.
Kotef’s writing on settler narratives is, first and foremost, a reckoning for the Israeli settlers themselves. Being conscious of the role that the settler plays is an important step in the decolonisation process that is often overlooked. An incredibly detailed and engaging study that illustrates Palestinian erasure from within the settler consciousness, the book brings forth an understanding from within that does much to bring the Palestinian trauma to the fore.