From Shared Life to Co-Resistance in Historic Palestine

From Shared Life to Co-Resistance in Historic Palestine

by Marcelo Svirsky Senior Lecturer at the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong, Ronnen Ben-Arie


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How do we contribute to the decolonisation of Palestine? In what ways can we divest from settler arrangements in the present-day? Exploring the Zionist takeover of Palestine as a settler colonial case, this book argues that in studying the elimination of native life in Palestine, the loss of Arab-Jewish shared life cannot be ignored. Muslims, Christians, and Jews, shared a life in Ottoman Palestine and in a different way during British rule. The attempt to eliminate native life involved the destruction of Arab society - its cultural hegemony and demographic superiority - but also the racial rejection of Arab-Jewish sociabilities, of shared life. Thus the settlerist process of dispossession of the Arabs was complemented with the destruction of the social and cultural infrastructure that made Arab-Jewish life a historical reality. Both operations formed Israeli polity. Can this understanding contribute to present-day Palestinian resistance and a politics of decolonisation? In this book, the authors address this question by exploring how the study of elimination of shared life can inform Arab-Jewish co-resistance as a way of defying Israel's Zionist regime. Above and beyond opposing an unacceptable state of affairs, this book engages with past and present to discuss possible futures.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783489640
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 11/07/2017
Series: Critical Perspectives on Theory, Culture and Politics
Pages: 206
Product dimensions: 5.88(w) x 9.08(h) x 0.62(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Marcelo Svirsky is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong.

Ronnen Ben-Arie is an Associate Researcher at the Minerva Humanities Center at Tel-Aviv University, and teaches at the Department of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion Institute.

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Formulating the Problems


One can only replace – namely repeat a localised emplacement – in a place that retains its form and content. In settler colonial processes, given the talents that invaders sooner or later cultivate and develop during conquest, the place that native life enlivened is gravely damaged and is no longer there in its previous form. This is because, as Lorenzo Veracini explains, 'Settlers routinely and programmatically set out to reorganize the landscape and deliberately promote the processes of systematic environmental transformation'. In the words of Palestinian Knesset member Haneen Zoabi,

What do you [Israelis] mean 'you love the place', but you don't love its language, not its culture, neither its architecture? What do you mean 'you love the place'? Which place you love? You don't love anything of it! Which homeland you love? You came and destroyed everything! You destroyed the landscape, the architecture, you destroyed the vegetation and brought trees that get burnt every summer because they do not fit this land, so what do you mean 'you love the place'?

'In Australia', states Aboriginal author Tony Birch, 'the usurpation of land not suited for wide-acre agricultural farming had led not only to the appropriation of Indigenous land, but also the destruction of local ecologies and the wasteful use of natural resources such as water and soil'. Settler colonial projects are developed by displacing native peoples from their historical home – by extermination or expulsion, by destroying their environment and by assailing native sociabilities. In this light the Palestinian Nakba – the 1948 ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people – must be understood, not simply as a national downfall but as an attack on a history, a culture and a society, 'a disaster in every sense of the word and one of the harshest of the trials and tribulations with which the Arabs have been afflicted throughout their long history', as Zurayk defined it. The planned destruction of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages and their farmed fields, as well as of numerous urban centres and neighbourhoods and their once energetic social institutions during 1947-1949 was complementary to the not less calculated physical expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians committed by Zionist armed forces during that period of time. Attempts at native removal have generational consequences. In this light the late Australian historian Patrick Wolfe described the settler assault on native life: 'Rather than replacing one owner with another, settlers seek to replace an entire system of ownership with another. The settler/Native confrontation, in other words, is not between claims to ownership but between frameworks for allocating ownerships'. It is not natives who are replaced in settler colonial formations, but their systems of life. Natives are either exterminated or displaced to occupy other tracts of land, bereft now of their former social and cultural coordinates. This is the reason why Wolfe defined processes of settler colonisation as hinged on native elimination. Colonial settlers set foot, seize, and transform native spaces in their own image. Dreadful and devastating as they are – plundering, enslaving, raping, expropriating and occupying – are mediations of settler colonial creationism. Settler colonials seek to re-create space and time. In white histories Indigenous land is always 'discovered' as a point of departure; then, 'the cultural and legal history of a continent could be said to "begin" with the arrival' of the colonialists. White obsession with stories of first occupancy follows.

In the remaking of space and time, colonial settlers may preserve native elements but not the relations that historically embodied these elements and formed a spatialised age. In the annals of the settler, those relations are erased, and that age was nothing but a temporality before redemption. Settler invasion is not only about creating a new life but, in its own eyes, the society invasion establishes has arisen miraculously. Here lies the main difference with classic forms of colonialism. Both are forms of organised aggressive migration, but whereas colonialism developed as an exploitative arrangement of Indigenous labour and resources, settler colonial creationism is conditioned on the aspiration to terminate Indigenous life, not on its exploitation.

The practicalities of conquest make invaders aware of the potentiality of native return. For settlers, the prior remains a latent agent of history. Settler anxieties then, drive their ideological apparatus to be eternally on guard, averting even the contemplation of return as a mechanism of prevention of return itself. Settler privilege hinges on that prevention. Penalising the teaching in Israeli-Jewish schools of the Nakba is precisely about that. In other words, besides peopling and militarising the expanding frontiers, in their formation, settler societies invest in discursive arrangements of prevention pedagogies, law and so forth.

Settler creationism transforms by mobilising a number of material and discursive resources, racial doctrine and racial practice among them. As a distinctly European phenomenon, race informs immunitarian tactics that safeguard seized spaces, broke apart from native wholeness. Native discontinuity is the first name of the emerging settler societal silhouette; native exclusion within this silhouette follows as its second name – both series already drawing the contours of the tendency, native elimination. In terms of the sequence of accumulation-aggregation of settler spaces, the process of elimination of native life is not scripted according to a strict chronology. For instance, it is generally assumed that in settler colonial expansion conquest of territory must come first. But conquest can emerge as the product of earlier fencing and exclusionary practices functioning to appropriate native social spaces. Such was the case, to give an example, of the infamous Zionist strategy of 'Hebrew labour' used by Jewish second Aliyah' (wave of immigration) settlerimmigrants in early twentieth-century Palestine. It leant on a combination of tactics aimed at destroying Arab competition in the labour market and, in due course taking jobs from Arab hands. Here, Arab-free labour zones followed as a result of Zionist exclusionist logics. Vitally, for Arab workers Arab-free labour zones meant losing means of existence and social habitats; namely, it meant native elimination. In general, for Arabs, the accumulative effects of this exclusionary practice redrew possibilities of addressing existential needs; thus, the problem of the labour supply emerged as a symptom of the more structural concern arising from the seclusion of labour spaces and their extirpation from the general body of society. The opposite trajectory took place in the case of land, where Jewish money and deception facilitated the seizure of tracts of land from Arab hands and only then exclusionary and immunitarian practices racially fenced the land for the consumption of Jews only. Given that Arab fellahin (peasants) were first to face the impacts of these colonisatory processes, no wonder they were the first to resist. It is worth noting that for these processes of settler appropriation to take place Zionist immigrants had to have a first moment of access into the social spaces of Palestine as welcomed members of their new community. A sort of unelaborated brief phase of cohabitation took place before becoming a settler enveloped the new Jewish European immigrant. In the case of Palestine, hospitality preceded the negation of the encounter by the settler – that is, sociability and sharing were rejected, and in their stead separatist practices were elaborated and implemented, quickly conceived by the Arab native as intrinsically threatening. In the annals of settler colonisation, invasion is at a first sight not always an evident spectacle as with the violent landing of a foreign armada.

As suggested earlier, in the process of formation of the settler colony, native life as a collective form of life is interrupted. That is, the sociabilities and ecologies of life that sustained and spatialised native existence are vandalised. To claim that settler colonialism is about the violent remaking of landscapes and forms of life is to spell out its eliminatory-creationist law of motion stated by Wolfe in this way: 'Settler colonialism has both negative and positive dimensions. Negatively, it strives for the dissolution of Native societies. Positively, the ongoing requirement to eliminate the Native alternative continues to shape the colonial society that settlers construct on their expropriated land base', the second dimension unthinkable without the first. As Perry Anderson recently put it, 'nothing binds the [Israeli] community tighter than fear of losing what it has made of what it has taken'.

In its most structural aspect, the settler strives to dispossess life from its native forms. In the process, native routines, sociabilities, and institutions wither away. This means decreasing the potentiality of a life by fatally debilitating the supports that nurtured and animated native spaces. Making the inherited coordinates of these spaces unavailable to the native, that is the most treasured of the settler's aspirations. In terms of process, dispossessing life from its native forms means the creation of a replacement structure emerging during the course of the struggle to eliminate the native. As Wolfe famously insisted – 'Invasion is a structure not an event'. The inquiry into how the structure of invasion-elimination is formed begins by charting the forces of elimination, and in our case, by answering the question of what exactly settler forces sought to displace in Palestine.

What do we mean by native forms of life that became an object of elimination? And how native life does come to be challenged in the first place? The challenge to native forms of life in Palestine began as early as the late nineteenth century with the arrival of the first Aliyah (1882-1904), and intensified and consolidated with the second Aliyah (1904-1914). Their dealings with land, their separatist practices and their cultural mannerisms awakened more than just preoccupation among Palestinian Arabs and Jews. It did not take long – based on the recurrence of certain emergent practices – for settlerism in Palestine to shape a tendency and a form that not only opposed but sought to destroy the conditions of existence of the traditional forms of life in the country. However, this was not by any means a linear and uninterrupted development. That is, concomitantly, it did not take long for the recurrence of these practices to be challenged. Resistance to the Zionist project began with the first steps of Zionist settler colonisation; the first violent incident took place on 28 March 1886 at Petah Tiqva (the first Jewish settlement in the Zionist era) because of disputes over grazing rights and rights of access to land. Before Arab resistance reached a sound level of local and national political organisation, it was incubated via different actions. At first, Arab peasant opposition to Zionist land purchases and evictions comprised acts of violence and petitioning the Sultan. Political intervention by means of parliamentary activity (during the second constitutional Ottoman era, 1908 — 1922) was another sphere of protest, and lastly the press was invoked. Later on, during British rule, armed resistance was organised for the first time in the early 1930s. In the dialectics of settler power and its opposition, the question we ask is what are the forms of native life that existed in Ottoman Palestine and which Zionism sought to eliminate in its formative stages? That is our first research question.

When thinking of native elimination in Palestine, we suggest not assuming what the prior was on the basis of the oppositional axioms and binarisms of the present-day colonial conflict in Israel-Palestine. The ways we have politicised the present do not explain the processes of the past. Under today's terms, for instance, only an absurdly small number of people in Israel-Palestine believe that joint Arab-Jewish education for primary and secondary school children is the right choice. In other words, the sort of Arab-Jewish cohabitation these schools offer to practice and promote – which needless to say encompasses not the wholeness of social life and is in fact moderate – is not just a very marginal activity but is perceived as inimical to the mainstream, particularly by Israelis but also by Palestinians. But that wasn't always the case.

Before Zionist immigration began making a historical impact by the third decade of the twentieth century, the Arab majority of Palestine lived not just in reasonable harmony with the Jewish minority – most of them Oriental Jews. As has already been widely established in research, these two communities were socially espoused by way of a myriad of cultural, political and economic everyday practices. Shared life was a form of normality that structured the everyday of the natives of Palestine, Arabs and Jews. Yet for these practices of shared life the encounter with the divisive strategies of Zionism was fatal. One must become conscious of the effects of this destruction. Styles of life and modes of being were replaced, and a new world of subjectivities emerged during the transition – the result of the combined effects of the unbinding forces that attacked native life in Palestine (Wolfe's negative aspect), and those effects impacted by the binding forces that consolidated Jewish settler life (Wolfe's positive aspect). A rupture had taken place.

If the logic of native elimination is the organising principle of the settler colonial society, what did elimination in Palestine dis/organise? If it is agreed that elimination crystallises in the specific attacks on Indigenous forms of life and their dominance in and of the land, the particularities of native life and the native-settler encounter in Palestine must be accounted for in the study of elimination. In studying the elimination of native life in modern Palestine the loss of Arab-Jewish shared life cannot be ignored. As it will be discussed further in the next chapter, Muslims, Christians and Jews (mostly Oriental) did share a life in Ottoman Palestine, and during British rule, though these shared experiences suffered a transformation in the transition between the two regimes. In this book, 'shared' is not a neutral adjective. We use 'shared life' not to stress the mere cohabitation of different racial subjects in the same space, but to voice the historical implications of Arab-Jewish familiarity as it evolved during hundreds of years in the Arab world, and particularly in modern Palestine. Though the notion of 'our Arab neighbours' is nowadays used by Israelis to stress those who metaphorically live on the other side of a recognisable divide, during Ottoman times 'neighbours' reflected a different reality: people living together in the same street, in the same building, at times sharing the patio and other communal facilities.

In Palestine, native elimination involved the rampant attack on Arab society – the annihilation of its cultural hegemony, the dispossession of land and the removal of its demographic supremacy – but also the racial rejection of Arab-Jewish sociabilities, of shared life. Both series of operations intertwined as part of the organisation of the emergent settler colonial society. These operations shaped the organs of the Zionist body. Its present-day functionality is the result of erasures. Elimination in Palestine, to put it in a definitional form, developed as double elimination. That is, in the case of Palestine, settler predation extended to a variety of forms of life that were part of the texture of society. The dispossession and displacement of the Arabs of Palestine became a necessary but insufficient condition in the Zionist settler project. For the settler project to thrive, the process of dispossession and displacement of the Arabs was complemented with the destruction of the social and cultural infrastructure that made Arab-Jewish life an identity and a historical reality. Native life in Palestine had, from the point of view of the settler, two aspects: Arab-Jewish shared life had to go as much as the Arabs of Palestine had to go. Yet, importantly, the two processes of elimination grew interdependently and affirmed each other; that is, actions impacted simultaneously on Arab life and on shared life in a resonant fashion. In fact, our claim in this book is that the two processes of elimination were one. 'Double elimination' is also the optics we suggest for the reading of the events and episodes in the next chapter.


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Table of Contents

Preface, Dr Raef Zreik / 1. Formulating the Problem/ 2. Shared life in Palestine/ 3. Rewriting the Settler Colonial Paradigm/ 4. After 1948/ 5. Co-Resistance/ Afterword/ Bibliography/ Index

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