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Why we must see Israeli policies as a form of settler colonialism

The so-called ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ is not an ancient, tribal conflict, or millennia-old grudge match. Nor, as some propose, is it a tragic clash of competing nationalisms, or a cycle fuelled by religious extremism. The Zionist political project in Palestine has been, and is, a form of settler colonialism. Understanding it as such is important for three reasons.

First, it provides historical context, and at the heart of it all, is the Palestinians’ Nakba, or ‘Catastrophe’. By which, I do not mean a single, isolated historical event, or even one particular year. The Nakba began long before the formal establishment of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948 – and it has continued ever since.

The creation of a Jewish state in Palestine flew in the face of the principle of self-determination; when the first Zionist Congress was held in 1897, the population of Palestine was approximately 96 percent Arab and 4 percent Jewish. Even by 1947, Palestinian Arabs constituted a clear majority – two-thirds – of the population.

The only one way of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was to remove its non-Jewish inhabitants. As the Jewish National Fund chair put it in 1930: “If there are other inhabitants there, they must be transferred to some other place. We must take over the land. We have a greater and nobler ideal than preserving several hundred thousands of Arab fellahin.”

By 1949, some four out of five Palestinian villages inside the new Israeli state had been ethnically cleansed, their inhabitants expelled and prevented from returning. City neighbourhoods were also emptied of their Palestinian residents. Palestinians were displaced well before May 15, 1948, – and long after. Al-Majdal – now Ashkelon – was finally ‘cleansed’ of Palestinians in late 1950.

But the Nakba is not just ‘ancient history’. There are some 7.5 million Palestinians in the diaspora, with refugees living often just a few miles from their ancestral lands. In addition, Israeli policies of displacement and colonisation have continued over the decades, in different forms, and can be seen today in places like East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, southern Hebron hills, and the Negev.

Which brings us to the second reason why the settler colonial framework is significant: as well as providing historical context, it also offers analytical clarity. It helps us make sense of what is happening on the ground, not just in the past, but today as well.

When I went to Palestine for the first time in 2003, I broadly understood the situation to be one of military occupation and a struggle for statehood. One day, I was speaking with my students after an English class in Bethlehem, and a resident of Dheishe refugee camp said rhetorically: “Why can’t I go home?” And I realised that there wasn’t a good answer to that – or at least, no non-racist answer.

It was a moment when it began to sink in for me that this wasn’t ‘just’ about a military occupation – and the timeline did not begin in 1967.

When Israeli authorities demolished the unrecognised Bedouin Palestinian village of al-Araqib in 2010 – a village now rebuilt and re-destroyed more than 100 times – I was in the West Bank. A couple of days later, I went to the Jordan Valley, and met with a family who, hours earlier, watched as Israeli soldiers demolished one of their basic agricultural structures.

The juxtaposition of these two events, which took place within the same week, was striking for me. In both places, Palestinians had their homes, or properties, demolished – and in both cases, albeit with technical differences, on the basis that they lacked the correct ‘permit’ or authorisation from Israeli officials who make it impossible to obtain such approval.

Al-Araqib is inside Israel’s pre-1967 lines. The Jordan Valley is in the West Bank occupied by Israel in 1967. Both are parts of pre-1948 Palestine, now part of a de facto one-state regime that discriminates, segregates, and colonises, privileging one group of inhabitants over another. As an advisor to Ehud Olmert said in 2006, from the Galilee to the West Bank, “settlement is settlement.”

Finally, as well as context and clarity, understanding Israel as a settler colonial state gives us a third ‘c’ – it helps shape a course of action.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has three demands: the end of military occupation, the end of discrimination against Palestinian citizens, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Together, these demands go to the heart of what Zionist settler colonialism has meant for Palestinians – and they help suggest what a process of decolonisation would look like.

But in addition, the tactic of boycott makes perfect sense as a means of confronting settler colonialism. Appeals for ‘dialogue’ not ‘divisive boycotts’ are misguided and disingenuous because ‘dialogue’ does not tackle the asymmetrical status quo. As Martin Luther King once wrote, “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

Israel and its advocates seek to deny the historical record, obfuscate what is happening on the ground today, and undermine strategies for change. By contrast, understanding events in Palestine, past and present, as a form of settler colonialism, brings context, clarity, and a course of action.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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