From the Community | Denying the history of settler-colonialism only perpetuates suffering in Israel and Palestine

Oct. 31, 2023, 1:56 a.m.

Coming of age as a Jewish-American adolescent in the late 1980s, I had seen the U.S. media coverage of the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) against Israeli occupation. I feel that the stakes of the current Israeli-Palestinian violence are much higher and scarier than anything else I’ve experienced since then. This is not only because the scale of civilian deaths since Oct. 7 on both sides is so much larger. It is also because there had been no serious peace process to try to end the more than century-long conflict for years before Oct. 7.

Yet largely absent from the debate on the conflict since Oct. 7 in most major U.S. media is acknowledgement of the conflict’s extreme asymmetry — a fact rooted in historical reality that the state of Israel was the creation of a settler-colonial project known as Zionism. There is no doubt that Zionism emerged in large part as a defensive response to centuries of virulent European antisemitism and the terrible oppression of Jews that culminated in the Nazi Holocaust, a horrendous genocide that wiped out 12 members of my great-grandmother’s family. This, however, does not negate the fact that Zionists, including their founding father Theodore Herzl, saw the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine through a European settler-colonial lens. 

Like their brethren in neighboring Ottoman provinces, who became nation-states after the First World War (i.e. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq), the indigenous Arabs of Palestine were forging a national identity when Herzl’s First Zionist Congress chose Ottoman-ruled Palestine as the site of a future Jewish homeland in 1897. Upon the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, Great Britain imposed a mandate (temporary neocolonial rule) over Palestine. 

Unlike neighboring mandates, however, Palestine was promised to the Jews as a homeland in a letter from Britain’s then-Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to British Zionist leader Lionel Walter Rothschild. Known as the Balfour Declaration, the letter referred to the Arabs of Palestine, who had made up 90% of the Palestine mandate’s population, as “existing non-Jewish communities,” whose civil and religious rights should not be prejudiced. The letter also granted national rights exclusively to the 10% minority of Jewish settlers. Effectively, this “imperial edict” declared that there would be no independent state of Palestine for its majority indigenous Arab inhabitants.

Zionism was and is a complex ideology, movement and raison d’être of Israel as a nation-state. The major element of Zionism that made possible the founding of Israel was the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes during the first major Arab-Israeli War in 1948 — commonly known as the “Nakba,” or catastrophe in Arabic. After the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along with the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula (the latter having been returned to Egypt in 1979). Since 1967, Israel has been steadfastly committed to Jewish settlement of the West Bank, and, until 2005, the Gaza Strip. Not only has this commitment continuously and forcibly dispossessed Palestinians of their land and water, it is also a gross violation of their internationally recognized sovereignty per dozens of U.N. resolutions. In 1976, an international consensus emerged on a two-state solution in a U.N. General Assembly report stating “that the establishment of an independent Palestinian State, in accordance with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, was a prerequisite for peace in the Middle East.” This Palestinian state was to be established in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, which consisted of 22% of historic Palestine.

The secular Palestine Liberation Organization joined this consensus, prompting Israel to support the precursor of Hamas in the late 1970s and 1980s as a counterweight to the more moderate PLO. This was a fateful decision that helped to create Hamas in 1987. U.S.-supported Israeli elites across the political spectrum have consistently rejected an authentic two-state solution in favor of settlement expansion into Palestinian-occupied territories, even during the long Oslo peace process of the 1990s. The current Netanyahu government is only the latest, although the most extreme, instantiation of this consistent policy. 

The persistent demand in the U.S. media and among politicians that Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims condemn the war crimes of Hamas is rarely accompanied by a parallel demand that Jews in Israel and abroad condemn the illegality and brutality of the now 56-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the 16-year blockade of Gaza. The structural violence of the occupation often terrorizes Palestinians through collective punishment in flagrant violation of international law. The current punishment consists not only of indiscriminate bombing of densely populated urban areas in the tiny coastal enclave of Gaza, but also the issuing of an evacuation order that forced more than a million Gazans — 50% of whom are children — to immediately leave Northern Gaza, as Israel prepared to commence its major ground invasion. 

As former President Jimmy Carter, who presided over the landmark 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, has pointed out, Israel’s rule over Palestine clearly resembles South African apartheid in form and practice prior to 1994. And lest we forget, Nelson Mandela endorsed armed resistance against the structural violence inflicted by apartheid in South Africa and supported an authentic Palestinian state — one with borders along the pre-1967 border and with full sovereignty over its resources free of Jewish settlements.

Hamas is certainly not the moral equivalent of the African National Congress, but neither is the current government of Israel, whose defense minister after Hamas’ attack declared that “we are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly” in Gaza. Ignoring or downplaying the structural violence of occupation while dehumanizing its victims only ensures that the civilians of Israel and Palestine will continue to suffer. But it is Palestinian civilians, especially those in the besieged and bombarded Gaza, who will suffer exponentially more. Until Israel and its superpower U.S. backer recognize this and fundamentally change their decades-long status quo narrative, there will very likely be neither justice nor peace in Israel and Palestine for generations to come. 

This article was written by Mikael Wolfe, an associate professor of history at Stanford University.

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