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Decolonisation and the case of Palestine

November 27, 2023 at 2:05 pm

A picture released on June 8, 1948 shows an Israeli officer raising the National Flag for the first time during the celebration of the birth of the Israeli State after its proclamation, on May 14, 1948. [INTERCONTINENTALE/AFP via Getty Images]

The situation in Palestine cannot be seen as a simple military occupation; it is much more than that. Israel’s geopolitical strategy involves not only occupying the land of Palestine, but also controlling the Palestinian people through ethnic cleansing, forced displacement and isolation. Thus, any understanding of the context of the situation should start or end with decolonisation, because Israel has been a settler-colonial regime from its creation in 1948.

Like other historical and positive social movements, the decolonisation narrative unfolds with complexity, seeks to rectify historical injustices, and empowers marginalised communities toward self-determination and freedom. When the latest Israel-Palestine war started, it is notable that some Western commentators began to critique the concept of decolonisation, asserting it to be “a dangerous and false narrative” in the case of Palestine.

Anti-decolonisation is the reluctance to acknowledge, discuss or engage with the processes of decolonisation. It can manifest itself as counter-knowledge that denies fundamental rights to indigenous people worldwide. In the case of Palestine, many pro-Palestine protestors have recently chanted the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. Those who are anti-decolonisation, or anti-Palestine, viewed this as an implicit endorsement of the killing or deportation of Israeli Jews. However, I argue that we need to illuminate critical aspects of decolonial theory and applying it to Palestine to underscore the goal of restoring autonomy to oppressed nations and indigenous peoples, not killing anyone.

Decolonisation involves more than just political independence

We can achieve decolonisation by understanding that it involves more than just political independence. It requires us to heal people from historical trauma, revitalise our culture and attain economic self-sufficiency. This process aims to empower communities by dismantling long-standing colonial structures. It is important to note that decolonisation does not mean dehumanising individuals. Instead, it aims to address structural, cultural and direct violence.

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Colonialism spanning centuries has imposed enduring scars on societies globally by leaving long-standing patterns of power even in post-colonial areas (coloniality). The surge of decolonisation in the mid-20th century, fuelled by the quest for independence and self-determination, marked a pivotal turning point. Notable events, such as the African decolonisation wave in the 1950s and 1960s, influenced history significantly. Political philosopher Frantz Fanon delved into decolonial theory and explored colonisation’s psychological and social impacts in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth. In his 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said dissected Western perceptions of the Eastern world, exposing the power dynamics inherent in colonial discourse. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o advocated for decolonising African literature and education and made an impact with Decolonising the Mind (1986) and Petals of Blood (1977). Decolonisation remains a broad movement including activists and scholars such as Walter Rodney and Aimé Césaire who aim to liberate human beings and their land instead of oppressing and colonizing them.

This is not a newfound concept tied arbitrarily to 7 October 2023. Such a perspective, which frames decolonisation as commencing solely with the pro-Palestine protests using the phrase “from the river to the sea”, is very abstract and fails to consider two pivotal dimensions: the long-standing theories and global liberation movements that have shaped history, and the enduring 75 years of oppression by Israel in Palestine. Once again, understanding decolonisation requires a wide historical lens encompassing global struggles for freedom as well as the enduring complexities of Israel as a settler-colonial, apartheid and occupation state.

Expanding on the aforementioned, decolonisation emerges as an intricate process of dismantling the enduring legacy of colonialism. To dig into a deeper exploration of the contextual narrative of Palestine leads us to view Israel within the framework of settler-colonialism linked with other imperialist-colonialist entities. This perspective underscores the urgency of engaging in the fundamental discourse of decolonisation to redress the historical imbalances, liberate the people of Palestine and recalibrate the power dynamics that have shaped the region. Decolonisation emerges not just as a theoretical concept, but also as an imperative dialogue to reshape the trajectory of Palestine and advocate for the freedom and self-determination of the Palestinian people. That is why we see the solidarity movement worldwide: the struggle against colonialism is a struggle for humanity.

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Decolonisation in Palestine necessitates a historical examination, in which two predominant schools of thought emerge: one championed by the international community and the Palestinian Authority, advocating a two-state solution; and the other upheld by resistance parties and segments of the public, endorsing a one-state solution. But the question is how the majority of indigenous people — the Palestinians in this case — look at their place to be decolonised, especially since some of them live as refugees in camps in Palestine or other countries like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as the global diaspora.

The two-state solution for Palestinians entails the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside the existing state of Israel. This approach should address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by establishing distinct peace systems and sovereign entities coexisting. The international community argues that the two-state solution provides a framework for Palestinians to achieve self-determination and statehood. However, challenges arise concerning borders, natural resources, economic disengagement, refugees, political identity for Palestinians in different areas, and the status of Jerusalem, both East and West. While the two-state solution remains a widely discussed option since the Oslo peace process started in 1993, its implementation still faces obstacles, and opinions on its viability vary among Palestinians.

Israel marks 75th anniversary amid doubt and division - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Israel marks 75th anniversary amid doubt and division – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The one-state solution, though, envisages the establishment of a single, democratic state encompassing both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. In this scenario, supporters advocate for equal rights within a unified political entity, regardless of ethnicity or religion. The one-state solution narrative assumes that deconstructing the direct, structural and cultural violence that the Israeli government practices is the first step toward liberation. However, perspectives on the feasibility and implications of a one-state solution vary and reflect the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Following three decades of a faltering peace process, Palestinian optimism for the feasibility of a two-state solution has waned. This scepticism is exacerbated by the relentless expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, wherein more than 700,000 Jewish settlers, and the unresolved issue of the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees, in addition to the separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, checkpoints, the apartheid wall and losing control over borders. Amid this disillusionment, observers like those who are anti-decolonisation, often offer abstract commentary on the two-state solution without delving into the profound roots of the conflict.

The Palestinian situation is far more intricate than is implied when advocating for a two-state solution. Failing to recognise Israel as an imperialist-colonialist force and settler-colonial entity, and not acknowledging its position as a white state, can advertently guide discussions toward solutions that are distorted and only scratch the surface of the complex realities at play. Israel is rooted in the logic of elimination, unfolding as the Zionist movement systematically erased 500 Palestinian villages and perpetrated numerous massacres from 1948 onwards.

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Israel’s treatment of Palestinians who persevered and were able to remain in their homeland post-1948 underscores a deeply ingrained hierarchy, and consigns them systematically to a de facto fourth class of citizenship. It is remarkable how a so-called democratic state can draw distinctions between its citizens based solely on their religious affiliation or their race, not just for Arabs, but also for Jews based on the colour of their skin.

Rooted in historical context, Israel’s genesis as a new population in Palestine unfolded through a process of displacement and subjugation of the indigenous people. This characterisation of Israel as a settler-colonial state gains many other facts, such as the fact that the establishment of the state witnessed a substantial influx of Jewish immigrants, coinciding with the forced displacement of Palestinian Arabs. The acquisition of land for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem further underlines the settler-colonial narrative, accentuating the challenges faced by the indigenous population. Crucially, the power dynamics between the Israeli government and the indigenous Palestinian population echo elements of settler-colonialism. This manifests in the assertion of control over land and resources, underscoring the intricate nature of colonisation within the framework of settler colonialism.

Given Israel’s status as a settler-colonial structure, the essence of decolonisation lies in dismantling the power structures that perpetuate military violence against Palestinians. Thus, the decolonisation discourse does not dehumanise any group and/or individual; instead, it aims to dismantle historical structures of oppression and decolonise the affected places, all while advocating for the liberation of oppressed peoples. The focus lies on rectifying historical injustices and fostering a more equitable and just future, rather than perpetuating dehumanisation.

Examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of decolonisation emphasises the need for a nuanced comprehension. The reluctance to acknowledge Israel as an imperialist-colonialist force with a settler-colonial narrative hinders meaningful discussions and obstructs genuine solutions. Moreover, dismissing decolonisation as perilous just oversimplifies the deep-seated roots of the Palestinian conflict.

In essence, the discourse of decolonisation demands a comprehensive understanding. It isn’t merely a regional matter but a global imperative, urging us to reshape narratives, redress historical imbalances and strive collectively toward a future that is both equitable and just. In the absence of a robust decolonisation narrative, Palestinians remain in a state of perpetual bleeding, lacking genuine advocates dedicated to securing justice and freedom for them, which is why their supporters use the phrase “from the river to the sea”. Pro-Palestine protestors all over the world understand that decolonisation is a holistic process that cannot be divided or distorted, and they know that the fear or rejection of decolonisation is not only unjustified but also harmful and inaccurate.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.