The struggle between Israel and the Palestinians is not unique whatever the news media may suggest. Lorenzo Veracini argues that the conflict is best understood in terms of colonialism. Like many other societies, Israel is a settler society. Looking in detail at the evolution of other colonial regimes apartheid South Africa, French Algeria and Australia Veracini presents a thoughtful interpretation of the dynamics of colonialism, offering a clear framework within which to understand the middle east crisis.
Veracini challenges two important myths: firstly, that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is unique and defies comparative approaches; and secondly that the struggle is mainly based in nationality and religion and therefore different to typical colonial conflicts. On the contrary, Veracini shows how Israeli society is organised along apartheid lines and that apartheid was not unique to South Africa, but a common feature of colonisation. He examines wars of decolonization, and conflicts where whole native populations were all but eradicated as in Australia. Comparing and contrasting these with the more recent history of Israel and Palestine, he offers a critical perspective on colonialism as well as important new insights into patterns of imperialism today.
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Introduction: Comparing Colonial Conditions
This book challenges two paradigmatic aspects of a wide historical literature: first, that the Israeli–Palestinian struggle is intractably unique and largely defies comparative approaches (Israel and Palestine are cited here in alphabetical order), and, second, that this struggle consists exclusively or mainly of a conflict of national/religious revival/liberation and bears little resemblance with typically colonial conflicts.
On the contrary, Israel and Settler Society approaches this conflict by utilizing a colonial framework of interpretation and a number of comparative test cases. Specifically, it develops the notion that the current circumstances of Israel/Palestine are determined by colonial conditions and a settler colonial system of institutional and personal relationships. Colonial circumstances could be broadly defined as an association of both elements contained in David Fieldhouse's classic analytical distinction between 'colonization' and 'colonialism'. Fieldhouse presented colonization as the successful reproduction of a European society in a colonial context, a dynamic clearly associated with the visceral metaphor embedded in the etymology of the term. 'Colonialism', on the other hand, is understood as the successful imposition of political and economic control over a colonial domain. Conversely, a viable definition of a settler society could depart from Anthony Smith's 1986 authoritative description of a settler state, with its emphasis on a progressive narrative of original indigenous dispossession followed by multicultural inclusion. Israel and Settler Society contends that the historical experience of Zionist development in Israel/Palestine meets both these definitions.
While this notion is hardly breaking new ground and the colonialist nature of Zionism as an historical enterprise is frequently mentioned – Baruch Kimmerling, for example, published Zionism and Territory in 1983, and one should also mention Gershon Shafir's Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which regarded Zionism as a form of 'European overseas expansion in a frontier region' – the paradigm with which the conflict is generally framed tends to discount the colonial genealogy and current phenomenology of the confrontation by foregrounding religious and nationalist features. As a result, the current colonial dimension of the conflict is not often examined in detail.
Many contributions refer to the fact that historical Zionism is essentially a colonial enterprise, albeit a unique one (yet again, as a comparative historian of colonialism, I cannot recall a colonial historiography that does not stress the stubborn uniqueness of its historical experience), and some of the debates over the 'new' Israeli historiography in the 1990s involved a discussion of the colonial elements of Zionist settlement. Kimmerling has called for a comparative approach involving an analysis of settlement processes in North and South America, South Africa, Algeria, Australia and New Zealand in order to 'deal with Israel's colonial legacy, the very allusion to which is taboo, in both Israeli society and Israeli historiography', and Anita Shapira admitted that 'defining a movement as settlement-colonialism may well help to clarify the relations between the settling nation and the native one'; yet, this call and this acknowledgement have not been extensively pursued. Even when the colonial origins of the conflict are revealed, the articulation of the dynamics that transformed a typically colonial context into an intractable conflict of opposing nationalisms is rarely explored. And if the current colonial dimension of the conflict is sometimes mentioned but not as often pursued, the same could be said with regards to a comparative methodology, frequently approached yet rarely the subject of more extensive research.
Although it focuses on Israel as a settler society, by emphasizing a colonial circumstance, Israel and Settler Society ultimately responds to what has become a pressing need to interpret Palestinian agency. There is a recurring and entrenched incapacity in otherwise subtle and highly informed analyses of the conflict to assess the rationale that informs some of the choices of the Palestinian resistance. I contend that a systematic disregard of the colonially determined characteristics of the Palestinian struggle contributes to a specific interpretative deficiency.
Israeli daily Haaretz analyst Yoel Marcus has brilliantly expressed this in an October 2004 piece entitled 'Get down from the roof you crazies'. The background of Marcus's piece is an escalation in the launch of Qassam rockets from the northern sector of the Gaza Strip (Qassam rockets are almost homemade projectiles Palestinian militants shoot towards Israeli territory; however, their restricted range and low efficacy have improved with time); this escalation triggered the longest and deadliest offensive of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in Gaza. His article exemplifies an apparent interpretative impasse:
Now is the time to repeat the immortal words of Israel's former finance minister, Yigal Horowitz, for the benefit of the Palestinians: 'Get down from the roof, you crazies!' What is the matter with these people? Why, every time the door opens a crack for some Israeli compromise or concession, do they suddenly have this urge to maim and kill?
Why, after the Oslo Accords, which Israel went through hell and high water to approve, did they unleash a campaign of bloody terror, blowing up buses, shopping malls, cafes, restaurants and markets? Why did they go on an indiscriminate murder spree, butchering citizens of all ages? Why did they launch another wave of terror at the split second that another opportunity arose for a settlement brokered by President Clinton at Camp David? Why is every senior American peacemaker sent here to tie up the loose ends of some deal always greeted by a terror attack that sabotages the mission even before it begins?
None of this is any clearer today. Why, when the patriarch of the settlements decides in his old age to disengage from Gaza – when he makes up his mind to clear out all inhabitants, businesses and military posts, and on top of that, evacuate four West Bank settlements to get the ball rolling – have the Palestinians gone on a rampage? Why are they attacking, ambushing, and wildly shooting Qassam rockets at Sderot? I say Palestinians, and not Hamas, because the Palestinian Authority has more power and say-so than we think. If the PA didn't want Sderot bombarded, it wouldn't be.
Besides the debatable validity of some of its assumptions, the most striking feature of this approach seems to be a failure in detecting a rational agency informing Palestinian actions. Classic reflections on the nature of colonial circumstances can be of help. While Marcus does not appear to be interested in addressing an apparent and self-confessed interpretative gap, his posture resonates in many ways with the 'opaqueness' of the colonized as it was identified by Albert Memmi in The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957):
The humanity of the colonized, rejected by the colonizer, becomes opaque. It is useless, he asserts, to try to forecast the colonized's actions ('They are unpredictable!' 'With them, you never know!'). It seems to him that strange and disturbing impulsiveness controls the colonized. The colonized must indeed be very strange, if he remains so mysterious after years of living with the colonizer.
Framed in this light, Marcus's rhetorical questions confirm a typically colonial state of mind:
What is the point of all this violence in the Gaza Strip? The accepted theory is that Hamas wants to take credit for expelling Israel, which it needs for internal political purposes. But Hamas doesn't need to kill women and children now that the prime minister has decided on his own to pull out of Gaza. Everyone knows Israel is taking the first step because it hasn't been able to eradicate terror by force. Israel withdrew unilaterally and unconditionally from Lebanon for the same reason. So Hamas and the Palestinian Authority can boast just as well about kicking us out of Gaza without starting a new cycle of bloodshed.
With all due respect for the Palestinians' right to an independent state, there's a screw loose somewhere. Colin Powell was right on the ball when he said the intifada has done nothing for the Palestinian cause and the time has come to call it quits. But the Palestinians never caught on. They know nothing about the workings of democratic procedure in Israel. They don't get it. They don't understand that the process of leaving Gaza, like the process of implementing the Oslo Accords, requires national consensus, a government decision, a parliamentary majority – all of which take time.
Another thing they don't get is that their impatience and embrace of violence have turned the tables politically in this country. Peaceniks have gone over to the far right. Every time public opinion tilts in the direction of concession and compromise – for example, the overwhelming majority in favor of Sharon's disengagement plan – the Palestinians do something that ends up helping the opponents of evacuation ... But as Abba Eban liked to say, the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. ...
Yes: why? I contend that there is as well a flaw somewhere in the lens through which Palestinian agency is generally interpreted. Israel and Settler Society sets out to address Marcus's questions to some extent, but intends to focus as well on the origins and character of what amounts to a generalized interpretative deficiency. In the end, Marcus also did not get it: he did not get that disengagement without some degree of decolonization will be impracticable and, in fact, will not even constitute disengagement. Most importantly, while he ultimately does not respect a Palestinian right to an independent state, he also doesn't perceive that an understanding of the Palestinian struggle cannot be limited to an appraisal of the outcomes of a struggle for statehood and therefore cannot be judged on that merit.
On the other hand, Frantz Fanon noted in the 1950s that 'the natives' challenge to the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of points of view'. The point, of course, is not whether his rhetoric celebration of anti-colonial violence is appropriate – it is not – rather, it is a matter of measuring whether the dynamics he detected and described can be used in the comprehension of the current conditions of Israel/Palestine. Besides, Marcus's piece also shows that some Israeli commentators very rarely miss an opportunity to refer to Abba Eban's remark that Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
As regards Marcus's questions, Jean-Paul Sartre's 1961 exhortation to read Fanon may provide a contributing point: 'Read Fanon: you will know that, in their time of powerlessness, murderous madness is the collective unconscious of the colonized.' But to read Fanon in this context one should be able and willing to first recognize the current colonial dimension of Israel/Palestine. This is its main purpose: Israel and Settler Society is a contribution to detecting the reproduction of coloniality in Israel/Palestine during the 1990s and in more recent years. (Israel and Settler Society also suggests reading Sartre's work on 1950s France and the colonial question: you will know that a settler polity facing an incessant erosion of its democratic life in the face of securitarian discourses and paranoias must coherently and honestly face the issue of colonialism and all its consequences.)
Indeed, typical markers of a colonial condition can be detected in many aspects of the current confrontation. Israeli difficulties in negotiating with a Palestinian counterpart are indicative of something more multifaceted than the mere necessity of retaining dominion over an ideologically charged country and fulfil the project of a religiously and ethnically homogeneous settler state. Besides colonial warfare, coordination with an Indigenous other was always within the cultural horizon of colonialism. On the other hand, negotiation requires an initial degree of decolonization. Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy detected a distinctive colonial state of mind when he commented on Ariel Sharon's discomfort in dealing with an autonomous Palestinian political dynamic:
Perhaps Sharon feels at home with only two types of Arabs: those who can be demonized as the enemy and those who can be co-opted as collaborators. Yasser Arafat could easily be depicted as the former [yet he had been visualized as the latter during the years of Oslo]. Mustafa Dudin, from Dura near Hebron, who was leader of the Village Leagues in the early 1980s – which then-defense minister Sharon created to implement his limited autonomy-without-territory plan – is an example of the 'good Arab'.
Moreover, the incapacity to commit to a specific timetable for the relinquishment of control is also very much part of a colonial mentality. Permanent withdrawal from, or relinquishment of control of, a specific area would be impossible without abandoning an interpretation of history that views 'progress' in terms of Palestinian erasure/absence. As I will suggest, this vision of history (and of Israel), a vision that measures its development as a function of Palestinian dispossession, cannot accept – in the present, or in a historicized future – that Palestinians may be entitled to sovereign rights. A Palestinian polity that is more than a Bantustan, or that is not a transitory accommodation or an interim agreement, would epitomize the end of a specific and deeply entrenched settler narrative.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that an enhanced degree of attention has focused especially on the psychological outcomes of the implementation of the Gaza disengagement plan. In this case, the obvious trauma of withdrawing and abandoning settlers' homes is also compounded with a collective trauma associated with the process of tearing apart important tenets of a typically colonialist set of mind.
When, in January 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak appeared to offer a maximalist version of an 'autonomy without independence' blueprint (a series of separated entities that were to be as extended as far as possible without losing their constituent character) the Israeli colonial mind had reached the limit of its negotiating agenda: anything more would have required a decolonization of the Israeli–Palestinian relationship. The myths surrounding the 'generous offer' of Prime Minister Barak fail to detect the intrinsically colonial character of his negotiating platform. Two narratives of that summit have by now emerged: that the Palestinian leadership failed to accept a generous offer or, conversely, that the Palestinian party could not accept what they were offered. While the establishment of a more balanced counter-narrative is a positive development, both these interpretations may need to be integrated by a third one, in which the Camp David summit had become a negotiating anticlimax, when the Israeli side ended up not offering a deal that could be maintained. It was a convergence of realistic approaches: nothing unfeasible was proposed (or accepted) during the summit. And, alas, what was not proposed could not be rejected. Rather than accepting the existence of an autonomous Palestinian polity and its effective sovereignty, the Israeli establishment preferred – with a bipartisan decision – to progressively unfold the Oslo 'peace' process. Any undefeated colonial power would most probably act in a similar way.
Colonial tropes can be detected in many of the stories coming out of Israel/Palestine. Tali Fahima's administrative detention (arrest without trial – the first Israeli woman to be subjected to it) in late 2004 is one such episode. A Jewish Israeli woman going to live with a Palestinian wanted man in the Jenin refugee camp of all places, and acting outside the boundaries of established and recognizable political practice ('a right-winger all her life', she acted alone and did not belong to any organization) inevitably crosses a number of colonially determined red lines and is bound to raise anxieties that are typical of a colonial consciousness. Her actions posed a threat that, while very different from the security concerns that were mentioned in order to create her terrorist image, is, none the less, especially destabilizing. This may contribute to explaining the reasons why, despite the fact that all the accusations relating to her alleged involvement in terrorist activity proved to be unsubstantiated, the Israeli establishment decided to insist with her detention.
Excerpted from "Israel and Settler Society"
Copyright © 2006 Lorenzo Veracini.
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Table of ContentsINTRODUCTION: COMPARING COLONIAL CONDITIONS 1. THE GEOGRAPHY OF UNILATERAL SEPARATION: ON ISRAELI APARTHEIDS a) Comparing Colonial Settler Projects b) The Bantustanisation of Palestinian Space c) The Racialisation of Palestinian Mobility 2. THE TROUBLE OF DECOLONIZATION: FRANCE/ALGERIA, ISRAEL/PALESTINE a) Comparing Wars of Decolonization b) Winning the Wars of Decolonization c) Narratives of the Wars of Decolonization 3. FOUNDING VIOLENCE AND SETTLER SOCIETY IN ISRAEL AND AUSTRALIA a) The New Israeli History b) Australian History and Aboriginal History c) History Writing and Deadlocked Reconciliations CONCLUSION: IMPERIAL ENGAGEMENTS AND THE NEGOTIATION OF ISRAEL AND PALESTINE Endnotes Bibliography Index