A residential building was destroyed and neighbouring properties damaged in an Israeli strike on the Sheikh Ridwan district of northern Gaza City on 19 October 2023 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]
19 October 2023
The present crisis did not begin on October 7th, as Israel (and Biden) would have it. Focusing on immediate events, particularly the gruesome and indefensible killing of Israeli civilians, feeds right into Israeli hasbara. Not that the attack should not be at the center of attention in its own right but taking it as the cause of Israel’s retaliation – indeed, proof that Israel is an innocent victim of Palestinian terrorism and must be allowed to “defend itself” – effectively conceals the wider political context which defines what is happening from the micro to macro: Zionist/Israeli settler colonialism. Indeed, it shuts down all political discussion.
That is precisely why we need to view events such as October 7th through an informed and critical political lens. Only by understanding them as part of the Palestinians’ century-long struggle for liberation from Zionist/Israeli colonization can we explain why many Palestinians felt a sense of pride at the Hamas breakout from Gaza and continue to support the operation despite its tragic aftermath.
What is that lens through which the October 7th events and the disproportionate Israeli retaliation must be viewed? The lens of Zionist/Israeli settler colonialism. Now the term “settler colonialism” is bandied about when talking about Zionism and Israel’s consolidation of its apartheid regime. But it is used mainly as an accusation, a way to delegitimize Israel and its expansionism, not as an analysis that leads to a political program. Only by understanding its logic and intentions can we interpret events big and small, from why the two-state solution never was to why Israel’s assault on the Palestinians of Gaza is so ferocious and, beyond exacting vengeance from Hamas and what political designs lie behind it.
Settler colonialism is a deliberate, structured, and prolonged process in which one people not only takes over the country of another – violently by necessity – but seeks to transform it from what it was at the time of invasion into an entirely new entity, a new country reflecting the settlers’ presence, entirely erasing the natives’ presence and history. It is not a “conflict”. There are no “sides”, no symmetry of “violence”. The settler project is a unilateral one which must deny the indigenous population’s existence as a people endowed with rights to their land and identities if it is to claim the country exclusively for itself. Following from that is the need to move the indigenous off their land, killing them, driving them out of the country or confining them to tiny enclaves, so as to settle the land with the settler population itself. Then comes the process of erasure: erasing the physical and cultural presence of the indigenous from the landscape and replacing it with the settlers’ own manufactured history, heritage, national narrative and national identity. After a prolonged process of violent displacement and the pacification of those amongst the indigenous who remain, the settler project concludes quietly. Now the world is presented with a normal, peace-loving, democratic country remade in the settler’s image, and the settler colony fosters a popular perception that it is the “real” country. (Try buying a plane ticket to Palestine.) The process of normalization is complete; any further resistance on the part of the native population is criminalized as “terrorism” and, as such, is effectively de-politicized and delegitimized.
Such was the history of settler colonialism in the United States and Canada, in Australia and New Zealand, in apartheid South Africa, Russified areas of the Ukraine, Tibet, among many other places. And so it is in Israel, now entering into the final stage of the Zionist national-colonial project began some 130 years ago, that of normalizing its settler state over the entirety of historic Palestine, from the River to the Sea. This is not to deny genuine Jewish ties, historic and religious, to Palestine/the Land of Israel, or the national character of Zionism. The problem is not Jewish aspirations to nurture a national life in that country. What delegitimizes Zionism is that it chose violent conquest, displacement of the local population and an exclusivist settler colonialism over acknowledging the presence of a local population and accommodating its national project to their prior rights. And if that could not be done – and it was never even considered by the Zionist movement – then the Jews had to accept their status in Palestine as one of the national, ethnic and religious communities comprising that society, as Jews had long done peacefully under the Ottoman Empire.
The indigenous, of course, can never reconcile with the loss of their lands, their patrimony, their culture and heritage, their identities, their very communal, if not national rights. Resistance is ever-present, whether armed (and colonized peoples possess the right to armed struggle in international law), political or symbolic. This, then, is the lens through which the October 7th events must be viewed. One need not accept Hamas’s Islamic agenda or its illegal, indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilian populations to see it nevertheless as a resistance group. And, indeed, their October 7th action represented agency, perhaps in the only form still available to the Palestinians. All other “acceptable” options had been foreclosed to them. Negotiations failed (Oslo collapsed under the weight of Israeli settlement after seven years of open-ended “talks” with no declared political aim; there have been no diplomatic initiatives since 2014). Appeals to international law have fallen on deaf ears (the US refuses to support the implementation of the Fourth Geneva Convention since Israel’s blatant violation of virtually every article would cause the collapse of its occupation under the weight of its illegality). Even non-violent resistance, as in the First Intifada, met with excessive military repression. Only armed resistance, delegitimized by Israel and its G-7 allies as “terrorism,” appears to many Palestinians the only way, if not to defeat Israel, then to prevent it from completing its colonial project.
By the dint of their own refusal to be erased, the Palestinians have begun to reverse attempts by Israel and its powerful allies to eliminate them from history and their own homeland. If the Hamas operation proved disastrous to the people of Gaza, and arguably to the cause of the Palestinians in the Court of Public Opinion, it did achieve (again, cold political analysis) a strategic political goal: after years of Israeli and American attempts to marginalize the Palestinians, to by-pass them completely through a normalization process with the Arab and Muslim world that would seal their fate and signal the triumph of the Zionist settler project, it was Hamas that returned the Palestinians to the political game. No longer can they be ignored. That represents the transformational change that the Hamas attack released, intentionally or not.
The political lens of settler colonialism plays yet another, far more important role, when evaluating the present stalemate. It sets out what is and what is not a (substantially) just and workable resolution. While that discussion may seem fanciful at this particular moment, the Hamas operation and the political and military forces it has set in motion have created an opening. Even the most transactional Western and Arab states see the need for a settlement, the Palestinians have been shaken out their despair and given a new sense of agency; and world public opinion, while taken back by the brutality of the Hamas killings, has gained a much better sense of the suffering of the Palestinians and Israel’s role as occupier and oppressor. The impending ground invasion is, tragically, to strengthen support for the Palestinians’ plight.
What becomes obvious through the lens of settler colonialism is how misguided and futile are attempts to resolve a colonial situation through means of conflict resolution and negotiations. A
wholly different approach is required, that of decolonization. The colonial structures of domination and control must be thoroughly dismantled. Only then may a new body politic emerge in which the indigenous regain their place in their country. An anti-colonial struggle can engender only one post-colonial reality: liberation, the restoration of the national rights of the colonized and, in the case of the Palestinians, the return of the refugees. Settler colonialism is different from classical colonization. On independence, the colonists left India, Nigeria and Malaya. A settler state can be decolonized, but if the settlers have become strong enough to establish a state, and if they enjoy the backing of other powerful countries – as do Israeli Jews – they are too strong to drive out. There are few if any cases in which settlers have ever been forcibly removed.
Palestinians will have to struggle with how to reconcile their aspirations for liberation in a Palestinians state with the post-colonial reality of a bi-national society. Israeli Jews will remain a large and powerful segment of the population and continue to identify themselves as a national group. This is not the place to get into a discussion of the One Democratic State Campaign’s political program, to which I subscribe. But only the establishment of a common civil state of equal citizens that will enable national expression of the two groups yet possesses the authority to constrain their hegemonic impulses will be able to cope with the complex post-colonial process of constructing a new, shared state and civil society.
Only by foregrounding the political, even in times when immediate events grab all our attention and emotions, are we able to understand what is occurring. We must not allow ourselves to be diverted by the outrages that are part of any anti-colonial struggle. Foregrounding the political enables us, even at times like these, to differentiate between acts of genuine resistance and terror, and particularly between acts of resistance – including the lashing out of the oppressed which can be understood if not excused – and massively more violent and destructive acts of pacification by the oppressing power’s miliary apparatus intended to maintain, in our case, the Israeli settler state.
As I write this Biden has left Israel having given the Israelis the green light to invade Gaza. As a settler colonial president, he follows in the footsteps of those presidents from Washington to Harding who waged the Indian Wars. The ground invasion of Gaza is imminent. Foregrounding a political settlement has become that much harder, yet so much more urgent.
Jeff Halper is an Israeli anthropologist, the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a founding member of the One Democratic State Campaign. His latest book is Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine: Zionism, Settler Colonialism and the Case for One Democratic State (London: Pluto, 2021).