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Israel - the last of the settler colonies

Examining the history of colonialism suggests that Israel today is more analogous to apartheid South Africa or French Algeria than to its settler state counterparts the United States or Australia.

sraeli Settlement Outpost, Old City, Jerusalem. Flickr/David Masters. Some rights reserved.Rewind the clock back a century and you will find a world teeming with settler colonies engaged in battle with ‘unruly natives.’ Today only one remains. Israel is the last of a dying breed, the last of the settler colonies. The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is often described as unique - a conflict with no historical precedent. But viewed through the eyes of an imperial historian it is on the contrary reassuringly, or rather, disconcertingly familiar. In a largely post-colonial world, colonial conflicts are certainly harder to spot. But there are also less savoury grounds for not recognising the events of today’s Middle East as analogous with those that took place in America, Africa and Australia in the age of imperialism: simply because the treatment of the indigenous peoples of these continents has been universally brandished as immoral and any comparison would reflect unfavourably upon Israel.

History offers a reservoir of vicarious experience, and tapping into it presents a framework with which to analyse the dynamics between the two sides of the current conflict, namely that of settler colonialism. This particular mode of imperialism is hallmarked by the dispossession of land and the creation of a new state in which the original population is deprived of their rights by the incoming settlers. The indigenous people are cast as ‘others’ and dehumanised – written out of the settler state’s creation myth, whilst resistance is simply branded mindless terrorism. Secure in their just cause as the bringers of civilisation and progress, the settler state will casually resort to the use of disproportionate violence to quell resistance or employ ethnic cleansing to expand territorially on land declared res nullius. If demography is on their side it results in ‘successful’ settler states such as the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, but if the settlers are outnumbered, there follow protracted and violent conflicts such as in French Algeria, Southern Rhodesia or indeed South Africa.

From the late Victorian zeitgiest 

Critics of the settler colonialist analogy with regard to Israel point to the fact that it lacks a metropole, that Israel is not directed or controlled from an imperial centre that has transplanted its population onto foreign soil. Whilst this is true in a strict legal sense, America’s carte blanche military, economic and political support for Israel would for all intents and purposes qualify them. Whether a metropole is required at all for classifying settler colonialism is also doubtful. Although the African-Americans that settled Liberia and dominated the local population between 1847 and 1980 did not have an imperial metropole, they were still settlers engaged in settler colonialism. Likewise with the Boer population in South Africa, after the Cape Colony had passed to Britain in 1806 and the Afrikaners had been severed from their Dutch metropole. Even Algeria, the locus classicus of settler colonialism, which was settled by almost one million Europeans since the conquest in 1830, would not fit this metropole criterion. France defined the three northernmost provinces as integral departments of metropolitan France – hence the periphery was in constitutional terms also the metropole, although the distinction is purely semantic. 

The Zionist Movement, the precursor and basis of modern Israel, led by the Austrian atheist Theodor Herzl, was far from God-given or particularly unique. It was simply one of the many settler colonialist movements that grew out of the late-Victorian imperialist zeitgeist. In the 1880-90s it seemed like almost everyone had some sort of colonialist scheme for Africa or any part of the world deemed suited for European colonisation. Croydon’s great son, Verney Lovett Cameron, wanted to set up an abolitionist colony in modern-day Zambia, whilst Harry Johnston, on a mission for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to collect botanical specimens at Mount Kilimanjaro, also came home with signed territorial treaty forms. A gentleman named Carl Peters, fresh history PhD in hand, found inspiration when looking through British colonial files during a visit to the Public Record Office to secure Germany a ‘place in the sun’ - so he founded German East Africa, modern-day Tanzania. Even a group of socialists couldn’t resist the bandwagon and set up the British Freeland Association in order to settle in British East Africa. But today only Herzl has a mountain named after him; the other colonial ventures were never as successful in the long term of alienating the rights of the indigenous population.

Desperate to make British East Africa remunerative with exports of cash crops grown by European settlers, the Balfour government offered the Zionist movement a patch of land in the Rift Valley in 1903. This so-called ‘New Palestine’ was to be a Jewish settlement had it not been refused at the last hurdle in 1905 by the World Zionist Organisation. But even then reservations were made by British authorities: ‘It is not likely that non-Jews will much frequent the Jewish settlement, but their rights should be carefully reserved. When circumstances permit the persecuted to become persecutors, they are apt to find the change very enjoyable…’ Sadly Sir Charles Eliot’s words still ring true over a century later.

Imperial age conflict

A Victorian witnessing Israel’s bombardment of Gaza would doubtless have deemed it a ‘pacifying mission’ instituted in order to ‘teach the natives a lesson.’ Because to precisely describe this conflict a vocabulary from a more imperial age is required. The Germans present in 1880s East Africa were all too familiar with the use of excessive force or ‘wholesome severity’ in order to impose their will upon the perceived troublesome natives. In one incident reported in 1888, a German soldier had been fired upon, to which the Germans in retaliation burned the offending village and killed most of its inhabitants. To add insult to injury the Germans labelled those who resisted both ‘fanatical and stranger-hating.’ The parallel to the current Israeli tactics and rhetoric regarding Palestinian resistance is striking.

Another striking parallel is the support settler colonists received from metropolitan public opinion – those who were deemed their ‘kith and kin.’ Despite its banality, people have a preference for people who resemble themselves. British supporters of the white settlers in both Kenya and Southern Rhodesia invoked this argument. And no matter the atrocities committed by the pied noir in Algeria, the French could find no fault in the actions of their countrymen (although most were Spanish, Italian or Maltese). That is to say until Charles De Gaulle finally had had enough and pulled out after uttering the now famously ambiguous words ‘I have understood you!’ to the settler population in 1958. A peculiar example of this clan-mentality came with the Boer Wars, suddenly the white Boers were cast as natives by the British and ‘Germanic Europe’ was in an uproar – once the ‘indigenous’ population were white they were also valued as equals or indeed ‘real people’. The courtesy however did not extend to the coloured tribes of Africa.

Israel’s kith and kin are the American public, largely uninformed and subject to the hasbara spin of Israeli public diplomacy, right-wingers, evangelicals and other pro-Israeli groups. Its trump card is the fervent Christian religiosity of Americans, which ensures divine sanction for what is simply a land grab.  As long as this support is forthcoming then Israel can pursue its policies with impunity however atrocious they may be. Sadly for settler colonies, change rarely comes from within. History has shown that the only ways in which to stop a settler state from pursuing oppressive policies against its indigenous population is either through abandonment by the metropole, international isolation or successful indigenous resistance.

But even when support for the settlers fade, as happened in Southern Rhodesia, the settlers continue their imperialist project – in this particular case with the unilateral declaration of independence and creation of a white minority ruled state. This hawkishness is yet another hallmark; the settler colonists usually have a far more expansionist and reactionary agenda than their metropolitan supporters. And this is the state of US-Israel relations today – the Israeli pit bull tugging on old Uncle Sam’s leash.

Return to 1967 borders to bring lasting peace

From its inception Israel sought to remove the native Palestinians and build upon all their land a settler state, an Eretz Israel. In 1937 the leader of the Jewish state-in-waiting David Ben-Gurion revealed his plans to his son Amos: ‘We must expel Arabs and take their place.’ His vision has now in large part been realised, but the Palestinians remain in their Bantustans. However as the late Professor Tony Judt suggested in 2006, there will come a day when Israel cannot rely on the unquestioning support of the US, when Israel becomes a strategic liability rather than an asset and when the horrors of the Holocaust cannot be invoked to justify atrocities committed against a different people in a different time and at a different place. Or when the ad hominem ‘anti-Semitic’ cannot be invoked to invalidate legitimate criticism. There will come a day when a US President will utter those ambiguous words of non-support.

Israel’s position today is more analogous to Apartheid South Africa or French Algeria than it is to its settler state counterparts the United States or Australia. Although the Palestinians are oppressed they are still present on their native land. Their struggle for the right of self-determination is a just cause, and if equality is not granted to them, the conflict is likely to carry on undiminished. If Israel wants to avoid walking in the footsteps of the pied noir or indeed the white minority regimes in Kenya, Southern Rhodesia or South Africa, it should decolonise the West Bank, remove its blockade of Gaza and earnestly support a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with the Palestinian people – this is the only way in which to ensure an equitable and lasting peace.     

About the author

Jonas Fossli Gjersø holds a PhD in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Find him on Twitter @JFGjerso 


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