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A Primer on Settler Colonialism


The Alternative Information Center on 12 June published a seventy word notice that five dunams of land belonging to Rana Talbieh were being confiscated in al-Khader, a village west of Bethlehem. It was something of a banal announcement expressing some expected difficulties for a few nearby farmers, but it is exemplary of the fundamental process beneath what is often misnomered the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’. We can identify this process by distinguishing between two of the many ways that people relocate: immigration and settlement.

We discuss the arrival of Zionists to Palestine with the Hebrew term aliyah (ascend; plural: aliyot). Aliyot are nearly always described as “waves of immigration”. This mischaracterizes things. When you immigrate someplace, you join or articulate to the sovereignty (the organized society; nation, tribe, kingdom, etc.) you find upon arrival. Settlers do not. Settlers carry their own sovereignty with them which challenges the indigenous sovereignty. Successful settler colonies displace or exterminate the indigenous sovereignty. Alternately put, when the British built colonies on Turtle Island*, they ‘brought Britain with them’, creating settler colonies and displacing the Powhatan sovereignty and Powhatan people they encountered in what the settler society calls Virginia. This simultaneous increase of British—later American—and decrease of indigenous sovereignty is how Turtle Island is transformed into ‘North America’ through the past 500 years. The processes of establishing, perpetuating and extending settler colonies is called settler colonialism.

Zionists did things differently than Britain but still established a settler colony. Unique amongst settler colonies, Israel did not have a primary nation-state from which it drew settler population and logistical support (this relatively minor detail is the traditional explanation for why Zionism is supposedly not colonial). Instead Zionists brought European capital and class privilege with them and established settler sovereignty on site, displacing the indigenous Palestinian sovereignty they encountered. Tel Aviv is not an outgrowth of Shayk Muwannis and the other Palestinian villages buried beneath it nor was it a suburb of neighboring Jaffa. Tel Aviv is the sovereignty that eliminated those villages and with them, Palestinian sovereignty there. Building Tel Aviv and the other Zionist settlements—’collectivish’ kibbutzim included—is settler colonialism, the process of creating Israel where Palestine was and is. Five more dunams of Israel are created now from al-Khader as five more dunams of Palestine are eliminated. This is the settler colonial equation.

The question of sovereignty not only distinguishes settlers from immigrants, but settler colonialism from more widely discussed and studied forms of colonialism. The British in India and Nigeria co-opted, exploited and reorganized the sovereignties and societies they encountered. The British in Turtle Island and Zionists in Palestine eliminated them. Settler displacement of indigenous sovereignty is a primary function of what Australian scholar Patrick Wolfe calls settler colonialism’s “logic of elimination.” There was and is elimination too by the British in India and Nigeria and co-optation, exploitation and reorganization by Zionists in Palestine, but not as the defining process. Wolfe’s seminal 2006 article “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native” focuses primarily on settler elimination of indigenous people but the eliminationist logic he describes is equally applicable to the erasure of sovereignty.

Palestine and Palestinians are eliminated through death, displacement and stripping of identity. Hundreds of thousands were expelled in 1948 as the settler society became the State of Israel and again in 1967 when Israel expanded its control to all of historic Palestine. From 1967 to date, Israel revoked residency rights another 240,000 Palestinians’ from the West Bank and Gaza Strip condemning them to be ‘illegal’ in their homeland or to exile. The numerous Israeli massacres perpetrated between 1947-49 demonstrate this ‘logic of elimination’ in a most horribly clear manner. Another way to eliminate the indigenous population is to remove their indigeneity. Israel attempts to do this with the category of ‘Israeli Arabs’. Calling Palestinian citizens of Israel ‘Israeli Arabs’ removes their indigenous Palestinian identity and instead articulates them through the settler society. This is never more clear than in the Nagab (what the settler society calls the Negev) where Israel is trying to eliminate the Bedouin population not through killing them, but through preventing them from living as indigenous people. The Naqab Bedouins are not allowed to be pastoralists or otherwise define their relationship with their historical lands. When Naqab Bedouins try, the Israeli government demolishes their houses and fines and arrests them. This is also why the Naqab has to be called the Negev and Palestine must be called Israel. Indigenous peoples and sovereignties have no place inside settler societies.

There is of course, much more to the narrative. The particulars of Zionist colonization and Palestinian resistance are shaped, abetted and contested by numerous factors. These include: European anti-Semitism (including pogroms and the shoah), Ottoman land policies, British and French colonialism, capitalism, ‘Third World nationalism’, Islamism, U.S. and Soviet interventions and the Cold War, U.S. empire, the Egyptian, Iraqi, Libyan, Israeli, Saudi and Iranian quests for regional hegemony and the particulars of Zionist and Palestinian narratives and ideologies. All of these are direly important but we very often lose sight of the fundamental process of settler colonialism while discussing them. Five more dunams of Israel, five less dunams of Palestine.

The settler colonial process has been the same since the Second Aliya (1904-1914) when new Jewish arrivals definitively decided not to articulate to Palestinian society but to create their own, separate sovereignty in Palestine (see Gershon Shafir’s Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 for an in depth examination). Settler colonialism is the transformation of Palestine into Israel, the process of the settler eliminating the indigenous, and it is why Palestinians resist—as they have since the beginning—continued Israeli settlement construction. Israeli settlement construction is literally Palestinian destruction (see Walid Khalidi’s All That Remains and Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks, amongst other works for this narrative). This is why the confiscation of five more dunams, just one and one-quarter acre, in al-Khader tells us more about the fundamental process at work than 99% of all the discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’.

* Turtle Island is one of numerous indigenous terms for what the settler society calls North America. I use it only as an example and not to privilege the term, used primarily by northeastern tribes, over others.

Jimmy Johnson is one of hundreds of thousands of unemployed Detroiters and should do more sit-ups. He runs Neged Neshek, a website documenting and analyzing the Israeli arms and homeland security industries. He is former International Coordinator for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Hit him up at johnson [dot] jimmy [at] gmail [dot] com.

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