Over the years tons of ink have been expended on the seemingly interminable issue of the Palestinians and Israel. The wonderful Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem is filled from floor to ceiling with books, films and merchandise on the Palestinians and their struggles, while Steimatsky’s in West Jerusalem offers as much (but less critical) material on Israel. The Association for Israel Studies lists thirteen affiliated institutes and departments of Israel Studies; there are eight Institutes of Palestine Studies in the world. Plus journals specializing in Palestine and Israel, dozens of international conferences on specific issues around Israel and Palestine and thousands of articles in a wide variety of journals. What else could be added to the analysis? What else could significantly alter how we view “the conflict”?
In the end, analysis matters. Seemingly arcane discussions of issues in academic language impenetrable to most readers and outside the activist discourse at time spawn ways of conceiving the political situation that open up new possibilities of reaching a political settlement while eliminating others. Such is the power of settler colonialism, a relatively recent focus of study, maybe twenty years old. Although totally absent from the considerable public discourse and political debate (even as a term “settler colonialism” is too academic and awkward to integrate into popular discussion), it clarifies more than any other term (“occupation,” for instance) the situation in the entirety of Israel/Palestine while pointing the way to decolonization, the only just and feasible political resolution.
It does so by addressing a fundamental issue that has so far proven unbridgeable: Is Zionism a legitimate national movement or simply another case of colonialism? For those arguing that Zionism is a valid movement for Jewish national rights, it cannot be a colonial movement, since it is the Jews that are indigenous to the country. “Jewish” rights by definition take precedence over those of Palestinians, whose very existence as a people, and certainly as the indigenous people, is denied. For those casting Zionism as a colonial movement of Eastern Europeans and Russians to take control of another people’s country, it has no “national” legitimacy. Not only is colonialism illegitimate since it violates the fundamental right of self-determination (and, in its form of permanent occupation, in violation of the 1973 International Convention for the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid), but the very fact that Jews constitute a nation that even has rights of self-determination is rejected.
It is this lack of a way out – conceptually and structurally, as well as practically – that has led to the present state of Israeli apartheid and to virtual despair over any kind of just resolution. Regardless of the party in power in Israel, Zionism is an ideology and movement that lays exclusive claim to the entire Land of Israel, from the sea to the river. Israel officially denies the very fact of occupation (and, of course, apartheid), and refuses to recognize Palestinian national rights beyond Israeli-defined “autonomy.” It reserves the right to take any unilateral action it wishes in the Land of Israel out of both “security concerns” and entitlement. For this reason, and not because of difficulties in negotiations or logistics, Israel never seriously entertained the two-state solution. To do so would be tantamount to admitting that there does exist in “our” country another people with equal claims to national rights and territory. For their part, the Palestinians can never accept the legitimacy of Zionist claims, which to them smacks of legitimizing settler colonialism, although for reasons of political weakness they did accept the two-state solution. So all options are currently closed. The two-state solution because Israel refuses to give up claim to east Jerusalem and the West Bank/Judea and Samaria; the current apartheid regime (including any adjustments between apartheid and autonomy the Trump Plan might propose) because Palestinians cannot accept permanent subjugation; and even a single bi-national state, because neither Israelis nor Palestinians can recognize the national presence of the other.
Within the present analytical parameters, any political process is stuck. What is needed is a conceptual shift that offers a way out which, surprisingly, settler colonialism does. It does so by shifting the political outcome from a compromise between a dominant occupying state enjoying the support of governments and a weak occupied “authority” to a process of decolonization in which, as in South Africa, the settlers remain but the structures ensuring their domination re dismantled. A kind of “deal” or “swap” becomes possible: we the indigenous will grant “belonging” (legitimacy) to you settler colonists – which you will never get any other way – in return for your recognizing our indigenous sovereignty, narrative and rights. The Constitution of the democratic state that emerges thus represents a kind of treaty between distinct collectives that stops short of a bi-national regime. Ensuring collective and individual rights addresses Israeli concerns over their continued presence in the country while also responding to Palestinian objections over any possibility to perpetuating a colonial situation. No less important, decolonization enables a process of Indigenous/settler reconciliation while the new state’s citizens collectively get on with constructing a shared civil society.
Decolonization as a Political Settlement
Any approach to ending settler colonialism in historic Palestine must begin with Zionism. Regardless of Palestinian policies, responses and negotiating positions, not substantially just political settlement is possible without dismantling the structures of domination erected by settler Zionism. Decolonization must contend with this fundamental asymmetry. It must also direct our attention to Zionist agency. The campaign of settler colonialism was entered into deliberately and the colonial situation constructed consciously and systematically. A political actor was responsible, and that was the Zionist movement, since 1948 the Israeli government. What’s more, Zionism was twice offered the choice of reaching a national accommodation with the Palestinians, at the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise and again in 1988 when the PLO accepted the two-state solution, and in both cases, it chose to reject accommodation and pursue exclusivist, unilateral settler colonialism. The settler colonial analysis emphasizes Zionist agency – choices made – rather than biblical entitlement, Jewish victimization or ein breira (“no choice”) that cast Jewish/Zionist/Israeli claims either as inherently just, exclusive and unchallengeable or as mere responses to others’ agency.
Regardless of Zionism’s claim to have begun as a genuine national movement, once it chose the form of settler colonialism it made decolonization the only acceptable form of resolution. It is Zionist/Israeli policies and actions that have eliminated any other form of accommodation other than decolonization. By repeatedly and consistently choosing to enforce an exclusive claim to the Land, excluding (and negating) Palestinian national rights and carrying out ongoing policies of displacement and colonization, Zionism rapidly transformed a potentially legitimate movement for Jewish national rights into an unacceptable and unsustainable settler colonial enterprise. Before considering what decolonization entails, let’s briefly trace the transition from a Jewish national movement to Zionist settler colonialism.
Zionism: A Settler Colonial Project
One source of clarification that comes out of a settler colonial analysis is a simplified, yet not reductionist, depiction of “Israeli” history, shown in the chart below. The usual political markers (the Roman “exile,” the Zionist Congresses, the waves of aliyot (immigration), 1948, 1967, Oslo, etc.)lose their decisive character, folded as they are into a more continuous process of colonization. And rather than merely offering a most coherent view of Zionist history, it makes an even more important political contribution: specifying what must be done to achieve a genuine but inclusive postcolonial reality.
(1) The conquest of Canaan. Since Zionism invokes Jewish national rights going back to biblical times, it is useful to note that the ancient Hebrews/Israelites/Judeans – not organically related to modern Jews at any rate – were also settler colonists. Referencing that long-gone history, then, actually strengthens the settler colonial analysis by undermining the notion of Israelite/Jewish indigeneity and entitlement. It also emphasizes Israelite/Zionist/Israeli agency and responsibility, even towards indigenous Canaanites, the targets of Israelite genocide. The conquest of Canaan launches a settler colonial story-line – ironically at the center of Israeli claims to entitlement – that takes us through until today.
(2) Zionism chooses settler colonialism (1897-1904). Jump to the start of modern Zionism. The “Hidden Question,” what do we do with the Arabs?, arises already at the very birth of the Zionist movement. Addressing the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, Yitzhak Epstein (1907), who has been in Palestine already 20 years, told the assembled delegates:
Among the difficult issues regarding the rebirth of our people in its homeland, one issue outweighs them all: our relations with the Arabs…. We devote attention to everything related to our homeland, we discuss and debate everything, we praise and criticize¶ in every way, but one trivial thing we have overlooked so long in our lovely country: there exists an entire people who have held it for centuries and to whom it would never occur to leave…. We must not uproot people from land to which they and their forefathers dedicated their best efforts and toil. If there are farmers who water their fields with their sweat, these are the Arabs. Who could place of value all the toil of the fellah, plowing in torrential rains, reaping in the hot summer, loading and transporting the harvest?…
But let us leave justice and sensitivity aside for a moment and look at the question only from the point of view of feasibility. Let us assume that in the land of our forefathers we don’t have to care about others and we are allowed – perhaps even obligated – to purchase all the lands obtainable. Can this type of land acquisition continue? Will those who are dispossessed remain silent and accept what is being done to them? In the end, they will wake up and return to us in blows what we have looted from them with our gold! They will seek legal redress against the foreigners who have torn them from their land….
The principles which should guide us when we settle among this nation are as follows:
A: The Jewish people, the foremost with regard to justice and the law, egalitarianism and the brotherhood of man, respects not only the individual rights of every person but also the national rights of every nation and ethnic group.
B: The people of Israel, yearning for rebirth, is in solidarity – in belief and deed – with all nations who are awakening to life and treats their aspirations with love and goodwill and fosters in them their sense of national identity.
These two principles must be the basis of our relations with the Arabs…. We must, therefore, enter into a covenant with the Arabs which will be productive to both sides and to humanity as a whole.
Forewarned by Epstein and others – Sephardi figures like Albert Entebbe and Nissim Behar, the Zionist leader Max Nordau who, upon arriving in Palestine in 1897, reported that “the bride is beautiful but she is married,” “Cultural Zionists” such as Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Ahad Ha-Am and Henrietta Szold, and on to Musa Alawi and numerous other Palestinians – Zionist leaders took deliberate decisions to become a setter colonial movement. They laid claim to the entire country, both denied and violated the national rights of the Palestinians, and embarked on a concentrated campaign of “Judaization” that continues, nearing completion, until today. Although Zionism as a movement emerging out of Central and Eastern Europe and Russia was predisposed to an exclusivist nationalism, it could have endeavored to avoid colonialism by acknowledging and accommodating Palestinian nationalism, but did not.
(3) Second chance: 1988-1996. Whether one marks the formal beginning of Zionist colonialism in the policies already adopted by the Palestine Office in 1908, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 or the shock of the Arab Revolt (the “riots” or even pogroms in Zionist parlance) in 1936, Zionism was always a self-conscious settler colonial movement that kept to its course through such major milestones as the Versailles Conference, the Peel Commission, 1948, 1967, the Oslo Process and on to today’s policy of settlement, annexation and the abandonment of the two-state solution. Within this century and a quarter-long process of colonization, these seemingly profound events become mere details, at most stages, in a unitary, protracted and unilateral process. There was, however, one additional decisive moment when Zionism/Israel could have fundamentally changed the nature of the “conflict” and moved towards genuine postcolonialism: 1988, when the PLO accepted the two-state solution and recognized the State of Israel within the 1947 armistice lines. One might even say that at that moment Zionism triumphed; it won the opportunity to resolve its differences with the Palestinians, win legitimacy and still keep 78 percent of historic Palestine. Yet despite this more-than-“generous offer,” Israel again chose to reject it and to continue to the end (full Judaization) its colonial campaign. Whatever might have happened had Rabin lived, his assassination in November 1995 and Netanyahu’s election in March 1996 ended any Palestinian postcolonial aspirations. If the First Intifada (1987) erupted as a revolt against occupation, the Second Intifada (2000) represented a much deeper uprising against Zionism, Judaization, displacement, and colonialism. From this moment on Zionist settler colonialism closed all the options to decolonization except one: the transformation of the entire country into a single democratic state.
(4) The “triumph” of settler colonialism. Israel’s rejection of any possibility of accommodation and decolonization – indeed, its assertion of its commitment settler colonialism – came with Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 which effectively suppressed not only the Second Intifada but Palestinian resistance in general. Since then, and particularly in the course of Netanyahu’s fourth government beginning in 2015, the process of Judaization has been completed: East Jerusalem has been formally annexed to Israel, the existing settlement “blocs” that fragment the West Bank are on their way to annexation and Gaza has been effectively severed from the West Bank, and the Right of Return is not even on the table. Taken as a whole, the Palestinian inhabitants of historic Palestine account for 50% of the population but are confined to 10% of the land, and that in dozens of disconnected enclaves. Unless a process of decolonization can be forced on Israel, Zionism has succeeded in its primary goal: transforming Palestine into the Land of Israel.
(5) Towards postcolonialism: a single democratic state.When viewed through the lens of settler colonialism, only a process of decolonization can engender a genuine state of post-colonization, a type of political settlement that addresses the underlying structures and mechanisms of domination, not merely its symptoms. It is only under conditions of thorough decolonization that indigenous/settler reconciliation can take place and both populations can move ahead towards establishing a common civil society. These are the only conditions in which a settler colonial situation can end without the settlers leaving.
There are only a few ways to end settler colonialism. The settlers might physically leave, thus returning the country to its native inhabitants. This happened in situations where reconciliation proved impossible, and settler domination became unsustainable: the British in Ireland, Kenya, and Rhodesia; the French in Algeria; the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique; the South Africans in Namibia. Alternatively, the settlers succeed in either eliminating the indigenous population, as the Spanish did in Argentina, or in reducing it to a marginal position within the independent settler policy, as in Brazil, Mexico and much of Latin America, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The settlers may also succeed in establishing an independent policy but unable to decisively defeat the natives, who remain but constitute a destabilizing population, thus leaving open the possibility of ending settler dominance. Israeli settler colonialism over Palestine is a prime example of this dilemma, as was South Africa before the end of apartheid and Northern Ireland until the end of The Troubles (which still needs resolution).
In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, only a successful process of decolonization and indigenous/settler reconciliation can bring an end to “the conflict” (a term the Palestinian reject since it implies a contest between two warring “sides” rather than the unilateral imposition of a repressive settler regime). The history of the “peace process” over the past half-century has been one that has been restricted to finding some pragmatic formula, a workable compromise. The Palestinians, in their political weakness, have played along with this. For the past 30 years an extremely “generous offer” to the Israelis has been on the table: we, the indigenous population, will not only recognize your sovereignty over 78 percent of our historic homeland, but we will also normalize relations with you and ensure that the wider Muslim world does so as well. But by submitting to a “peace process” based on power negotiations rather than on international law, human rights, justice or decolonization, the Palestinians have had to accept ever more outrageous “compromises” up to submitting to an apartheid regime. Such a process has encouraged Israel to see accommodation with the Palestinians as a zero-sum, win/lose proposition, one which Israel believes it has won.
Only a justice-and-peace process based on decolonization defines a political settlement in terms that address the deeper issues involved, and thus lends the claims of the weaker indigenous greater moral weight as well as equal political weight and visibility. What, then, would the true decolonization of Palestine entail? What would have to be done for an indigenous/settler accommodation, if not reconciliation, to be realized?
+ The “settler contract,” by which the settlers agreed among themselves that they are entitled to colonize the country, must be undone. This opens a space in which they can make the necessary gesture of greatest peril to them: acknowledging the sovereign presence of the indigenous people and their right to self-determination. It is this act that makes the constitutional “deal” possible: settler legitimacy in return for native rights;
+ The right of Palestinian refugees to return to their country and, to the degree that it is possible, to the places from where they were expelled, must be implemented. Refugees – the internally displaced as well as those exiled – must rebuild their personal lives and be fully reintegrated into the country’s society, economy and polity.
+ A democratic regime must be instituted where common citizenship, equal civil rights, restorative justice and respect for collective forms of cultural and religious association combine with acknowledgment of past colonial crimes and, in a concession to the settlers, a process of reconciliation.
+ The native must be “written back in.” The “narrative gap” in which the indigenous story now was unknown, unacknowledged, counter-intuitive, threatening, repressed and resisted by the dominant settler population must be filled. That “gap” rendered the indigenous anti-colonial struggle invisible, concealing and denying the fact of settler colonialism itself. While parts of the settler narrative may be integrated into a new representative one, some of its basic elements – that of settlers coming to an empty, barren land devoid of history, of violent, unentitled, primitive indigenous people versus peaceful “civilized” settlers, and in this case of de-Judaizing the national narrative – must be superseded; and
+ The structures and mechanisms of domination (de-Judaization) must be dismantled, in particular of population management, land management, military and security controls, the management of legitimacy and a decolonization of the mind – settler and colonized alike.
Towards a Political Plan
Defining a process of decolonization, then, brings us closer to an actual plan. As important as resistance, protests, BDS activism, lobbying, campaigning and other actions may be, a political struggle cannot be resolved without an end-game – and in the case of Palestine/Israel an end-game formulated and led by Palestinians, with strategic support from critical Israelis and the international civil society. We need to translate the requirements of decolonization into a political plan, a vision of the future, and an effective strategy for getting there.
The One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC), a core group of Palestinians and Israeli Jews that I have been engaged with over the past year (which has a Facebook page of that name), has formulated the following 10-point program for establishing a single democratic state in historic Palestine based on the principle of decolonization:
(1) A Single Constitutional Democracy. One Democratic State shall be established between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as one country belonging to all its citizens, including Palestinian refugees who will be able to return to their homeland. All citizens will enjoy equal rights, freedom and security. The State shall be a constitutional democracy, the authority to govern and make laws emanating from the consent of the governed. All its citizens shall enjoy equal rights to vote, stand for office and contribute to the country’s governance.
(2) Right of Return, of Restoration and of Reintegration into Society. The single democratic state will fully implement the Right of Return of all Palestinian refugees who were expelled in 1948 and thereafter, whether living in exile abroad or currently living in Israel or the Occupied Territory. The State will aid them in returning to their country and to the places from where they were expelled. It will help them rebuild their personal lives and to be fully reintegrated into the country’s society, economy and polity. The State will do everything in its power to restore to the refugees their private and communal property of the refugees and/or compensate them.
(3) Individual Rights. No State law, institution or practices may discriminate among its citizens on the basis of national or social origin, color, gender, language, religion or political opinion, or sexual orientation. A single citizenship confers on all the State’s residents the right to freedom of movement, the right to reside anywhere in the country, and equal rights in every domain.
(4) Collective Rights. Within the framework of a single democratic state, the Constitution will also protect collective rights and the freedom of association, whether national, ethnic, religious, class or gender. Constitutional guarantees will ensure that all languages, arts and culture can flourish and develop freely. No group or collectivity will have any privileges, nor will any group, party or collectivity have the ability to leverage any control or domination over others. Parliament will not have the authority to enact any laws that discriminate against any community under the Constitution.
(5) Immigration. Normal procedures of obtaining citizenship will be extended to those choosing to immigrate to the country.
(6) Constructing a Shared Civil Society. The State shall nurture a vital civil society comprised of common civil institutions, in particular educational, cultural and economic. Alongside religious marriage the State will provide civil marriage.
(7) Economy and Economic Justice. Our vision seeks to achieve justice, and this includes social and economic justice. Economic policy must address the decades of exploitation and discrimination which have sown deep socioeconomic gaps among the people living in the land. The income distribution in Israel/Palestine is more unequal than any country in the world. A State seeking justice must develop a creative and long-term redistributive economic policy to ensure that all citizens have equal opportunity to attain education, productive employment, economic security and a dignified standard of living.
(8) Commitment to Human Rights, Justice and Peace. The State shall uphold international law and seek the peaceful resolution of conflicts through negotiation and collective security in accordance with the United Nations Charter. The State will sign and ratify all international treaties on human rights and its people shall reject racism and promote social, cultural and political rights as set out in relevant United Nations covenants.
(9) Our Role in the Region. The ODS Campaign will join with all progressive forces in the Arab world struggling for democracy, social justice and egalitarian societies free from tyranny and foreign domination. The State shall seek democracy and freedom in a Middle East that respects its many communities, religions, traditions and ideologies, yet strives for equality, freedom of thought and innovation. Achieving a just political settlement in Palestine, followed by a thorough process of decolonization, will contribute measurably to these efforts.
(10) International responsibility. On a global level, the ODS Campaign views itself as part of the progressive forces striving for an alternative global order that is just, egalitarian and free of any oppression, racism, imperialism, and colonialism.
The ODSC program envisions a multicultural democracy that is thoroughly democratic but recognizes and protects the collective rights of all the peoples living in the country. As a constitutional democracy, the new state provides for one common citizenship, one parliament and thoroughly equal civil rights for all the country’s citizens. The authority to govern and make laws would emanate exclusively from the consent of the governed.
Decolonization requires, of course, the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their homeland. It also entails the dismantling of all structures of domination and repression. No group or collectivity can have any special privileges (save affirmative action designed to help the Palestinian population as well as Mizrahi Jews and other disadvantages communities achieve parity), nor will any group, party or collectivity have the ability to leverage any control or domination over others. Other forms of governing one’s personal life, such as religious laws and customs, will be respected within their communal settings.
Decolonization must be accompanied, however, by a positive process of moving towards postcolonialism. Having ensured the integrity of collective identities and associations, the ODSC vision is that of forging a new, shared civil identity, society and institutions. The following illustration depicts this postcolonial country.
Towards a Strategy of Decolonization
Analyses, plans and even organization are necessary parts of any struggle, but for any campaign to succeed, a focused and effective strategy must be developed, of which activism is a crucial part. The stakeholders, in this case, Palestinians with the support of their Israeli Jewish allies, must mobilize their supporters abroad and give them their marching orders. Only a Palestinian-led movement can bring the direction and leadership needed for turning supporters into effective advocates.
Like the whites in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggles, Israeli Jews will never be active partners in a struggle for the decolonization of Palestine. As settler colonials they are benefitting from the situation they have created and have no motivation to fundamentally change it – certainly not to decolonize, which they view, like all settlers, as a form of suicide. The best we can aim for strategically is to “soften” them through an inclusive plan of decolonization to a point where, as in South Africa, they will not actively resist the transition to postcolonialism that, in the end, will have to be imposed upon them. Taking a leaf out of the playbook of the ANC, this means forging a Palestinian/international civil society alliance, in which Israeli Jewish allies will also play a key role. The ultimate goal of such an alliance is to generate broad-based support among the international public – trade unions, churches, intellectuals, academics and students, the activist community and the broader public – that will “trickle up” and eventually change government policies in support of a single democratic state.
The time has come for the decolonization of Palestine and a new, inclusive state of genuine postcolonialism.
This article was previously published in Counterpunch and is reprinted here with permission of the author.