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The Palestinian Struggle for Freedom: Little to Do With Whoever Rules Israel and Everything to Do With Settler Colonialism

The “change government”?

To kick off summer 2021, on June 13th, Naftali Bennett was sworn in as the Israeli Prime Minister who finally managed to oust Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 long years of rule. The liberal commentariat, the “Netanyahu does not represent Israel” crowd, was gushing: the thorn on Israel’s side had been taken care of and hope for the “peace process” between Palestine and Israel reinstated. The “change government” was finally here.

But as is usually the case with liberal commentary, the best it can offer is a decontextualised, superficial and ahistorical analysis that is more preoccupied with preserving or restoring law and order than it is with attaining justice. There is not a single aspect about Bennett that suggests anything but the preservation of the Israeli status quo – that is, the continuation of its brutal and illegal 54-year military occupation of Palestine, its 73-year ethnic cleansing campaign against Palestinians and the overall advancement of the settler-colonial agenda that underpins the state of Israel. 

For the sake of swiftly laying bare the misplaced confidence in Bennett’s government, it is worth reminding readers who Bennett is. Perhaps the most notorious of his highlights is his unapologetic boasting of the generous amount of Arabs killed at his behest. Perhaps less known is the time he spent heading the illegally-occupied West Bank’s settler council before joining the Knesset – the Israeli parliament. In fact, a mere two weeks into its tenure, the brand new “change government” issued its approval for the further construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank. 

We have continued to witness the recurrence of these policies for more than half a century no matter who rules Israel because, far beyond a single figurehead, it is the building block of Israel that constitutes nothing less than a death sentence to Palestinian freedom – Zionist settler colonialism. It is well beyond time to shift the conversation about Palestinian liberation in this direction, for Israel’s crimes of apartheid, military occupation and settlement expansion all stem from the settler-colonial enterprise that has formed the backbone of the Israeli state since its inception.

Contextualising the Palestinian struggle

To understand why whoever sits in the Knesset has no bearing on the liberation of the Palestinian people, it is necessary to first understand how the subjugation of Palestine began. For all the broken records that try and drill into our minds that the “Israel/Palestine conflict” is too “complex” and “complicated” to grapple with, the Palestinian experience is incredibly simple. It represents a long, arduous and brutal struggle for land – more specifically, the struggle for Palestinian self-determination on all of the land encompassing historic Palestine, including modern-day Israel.

Historic Palestine has an astonishingly rich four-thousand-year history that traces back to the Bronze Age despite conventional talking points that Palestine did not exist before 1948. Delving into its extraordinary history is well beyond the scope of this article, but it suffices to note that the claim that Palestine was “a land without a people” can be refuted in the blink of an eye.

Balfour Declaration in the Times of London, November 9, 1917. Image obtained via Wikipedia.

To keep it as brief as possible, the plight of the Palestinian people today must be located within the advent of the Zionist movement that emerged in late 19th-century Europe. Zionism viewed the establishment of an ethnonationalist Jewish state as the solution to European antisemitism and so, in the early 20th century and with the help of the British Empire, Palestine – then a British mandate – was chosen as the “national home” for the Jewish people.

The problem, which constitutes the foundation of the Palestinian liberation struggle, is that the creation of a “national Jewish home” did not occur in a vacuum. It did not occur on deserted land waiting to be populated, as the Zionist myth traditionally goes. It should then come as no surprise that Lord Balfour’s almost insultingly naive condition that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the … rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” was bound to come apart at the seams from the outset.

For to make way for the creation of Israel, the vicious logic of indigenous elimination was a non-negotiable. To that end, the state of Israel was, in the least figurative way possible, established over the blood of ethnically cleansed Palestinians in the years leading up to 1948. In 1947, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, the non-Jewish population of Palestine was around 1,300,000. In 1948, the year that Israel declared its “independence”, the non-Jewish population had plummeted to 150,000. What happened to Palestine’s native inhabitants?

In just a few bloodcurdling figures, during the war of 1948, anywhere from 750,000 to 1,000,000 Palestinians – around 80% of the total population of historic Palestine – were fated to a life of exile by the nascent Israeli state’s brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that came to be commemorated by Palestinians as the Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe”. 400 to 600 Palestinian villages were uprooted by Zionist paramilitary terrorists who would later develop into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Zionist militias committed at least two dozen massacres, that we know of, in which hundreds of Palestinian civilians were slaughtered en masse in one go.

Today, the descendants of those expelled during the Nakba and beyond are scattered across the world, mostly crammed into refugee camps, forming one of the world’s largest and longest-running – 73 years and counting – refugee populations: at the end of 2008, there were 7.1 million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. Today, we can expect this brazen figure to be even higher. It is in this gruesome context that we must understand a core component of the Zionist enterprise: the systematic denial of the Palestinian right of return that is enshrined in international law. The inhumane and illegal refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland is at the heart of Israel’s settler-colonial logic of elimination to maintain the Jewish majority that the ethnostate demands. 

But if the last few months have taught us anything, it is that the Nakba, far from being a singular, isolated tragedy wedged in the past, is an ongoing and perpetual experience of ethnic annihilation. Thousands of Palestinians living under occupation are facing dispossession and forced ethnic displacement as we speak: from Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan to Beita and Lifta. This insatiable and structural drive to rid historic Palestine of indigenous Palestinians and their identity is the reason why settler colonialism represents the lifeblood of Zionism: the logic of elimination is integral to the Israeli state.

Settler colonialism as the underlying feature of Israel

The term “settler colonialism” has been gaining recent traction within Palestine activism circles, particularly as a result of the May 2021 violence in Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa mosque and the ensuing onslaught on the besieged Gaza Strip. However, “settler colonialism” remains a long way from being adopted into the conventional political discourse on Palestine and so the need to reframe Palestinian freedom in this context is of utmost importance. So what is a settler colony and why is Israel one?

Settler colonialism differs from what we may think of as “traditional” colonialism, that is, the process by which scores of land were carved up by European empires across Africa, Asia and the Americas throughout the centuries. Traditional colonialism saw European metropoles seize control of overseas territories with the explicit aim of syphoning resources out of the colonies for the benefit of Europe. Settler colonialism, then, is characterised by the drive to usurp native land by replacing its indigenous population with an alien demographic. To be sure, settler colonialism was also a defining practice of multiple European empires: apartheid South Africa and what we today call the United States of America, for example, were both products of brutal settler-colonial ventures emanating from Europe.

Settler colonialism is still a reality
Visual by Visualizing Palestine.

In the context of Palestine, Israel operates as a textbook settler-colonial state and only denial stands in the way of facing this reality. It is not an aberration that has only surfaced in recent years but the crude nature of the Israeli state. Referring to the Zionist project as a colonial enterprise is not something that modern-day “activists” concocted out of thin air. Matter-of-factly, during the advent of Zionism in the 19th and early-20th centuries, the Zionist movement itself proudly marketed the creation of a Jewish state in explicit colonial language that leaves no room for ambiguity.

Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, desperately sought to attach the movement to the strongest imperial force at the time: Britain. He viewed the British Empire’s mastery of ruthless territorial domination as an invaluable asset to his very own colonial crusade in Palestine. In the face of the myth that seeks to convince us that Zionism is a liberation movement of the Jewish people, it is worthwhile to remember Kwame Turé’s words: “Liberation movements fight against imperialism, not with it.”

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, also a prominent figure of the Zionist movement, openly affirmed, with no qualms, that Zionism was a “colonisation adventure”. He also appropriately foreshadowed the militarisation of the Israeli state that was to ensure the wholesale subjugation of the Palestinian people living under its far-reaching tentacles.

Zionism’s nascent days are ripe with endorsements of the colonisation of Palestine and the ethnocide of Palestinians. A simple look at the events that have taken place since 1947 confirms that Israel was always bound to assume a genocidal form. As with all settler-colonial projects throughout history, the native had to be replaced, expelled, eliminated, had to become extinct.

The methods that Zionist settler colonialism employs to its end are manyfold and each one is distinctly vicious in its own way. From the Nakba of 1948, the war of 1967 in which Israel effectively seized control of all of Palestine – but also of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights –, the siege of Gaza that functionally amounts to an incremental genocide, the building of the apartheid wall throughout the West Bank that signs off on the ghettoisation of Palestinian territory, the denial of the right of Palestinian return, the mass incarceration and extra-judicial executions of Palestinians, the demolition of their homes, to the expansion of illegal settlements that now house close to one million illegal settlers on occupied Palestinian land, the chilling list of atrocities goes on.

Graphic obtained via Vox.

Above all, “settler colonialism destroys to replace”. The purpose of the Israeli state was to build a new society of Israeli settlers on top of an existing society of Palestinian natives. To give the floor to Herzl: “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.” Israel can sustain itself only through the underlying logic of settler-colonial land usurpation and the systemic violence that underpins this genocidal process.

Shifting the narrative

Understanding Palestine through the lens of anti-colonial resistance is paramount to shifting the dominant narrative that paints “Israel/Palestine” as a symmetrical conflict that can only be resolved through conflict resolution and a peaceful settlement mediated by international institutions. This perspective has given rise to the infamous “peace process” and the “two-state solution” that calls for an Israeli state and a Palestinian state coexisting side by side. Such framing ignores the settler-colonial foundations of the Zionist project that seeks to expunge Palestinians from their homeland in honour of an ethnostate. 

It also assumes that Israel has an active interest in peace and Palestinian statehood when the mere existence of its illegal military occupation and never-ending settlement expansion is an immediate slap in the face to any “peace process” claim. Beyond the illegality of the “Occupied Palestinian Territories”, all of modern-day Israel was erected atop the same barbarity that we denounce in the officially “Occupied Palestinian Territories” today. As the protest sign below reminds us, every Israeli city was once Sheikh Jarrah and so accepting the existence of Israel legitimates the Palestinian blood spilt throughout the past 73 years that has served to entrench the ethnostate.

It thus becomes crystal clear how the Palestinian liberation struggle exists independently of whatever “change government” sits in the Knesset. For the struggle is not against “bad governance” but against the existence of a settler-colonial apartheid regime that “can only claim its sovereignty through the eradication and erasure of native sovereignty.” As such, the desperately needed narrative shift on Palestinian freedom is the first step to extending our unconditional solidarity with a people resiliently resisting their colonisation and ethnic annihilation. “Israel/Palestine” is not a conflict. The issue at hand, in its simplest terms, involves a militarised power with an expansionist agenda that enjoys the unconditional backing of the richest and most militarised settler-state, the U.S., against the legally and morally justified anti-colonial resistance of the displaced, dispossessed and ethnically cleansed indigenous Palestinian people. Any conversation on Palestine must start there.

By Elisa Emch

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