Before they were evicted from their homes and forcibly removed from their communities by the Israeli government in 2005, Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip warned that their removal would only make things worse. They warned that the front line of violence between Israelis and Palestinians would move closer to those Israelis who lived inside the Green Line. They claimed that not only did their presence provide a buffer, but that God had promised this Land to the Jewish people and they should not abandon it. They argued that Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, unlike many other places inside Israel, did not involve the destruction of Palestinian communities or the displacement of Palestinians. In fact, Israeli Jews living in Gaza predicted that life would become more dangerous for other Israelis if the government pulled out.
Indeed, that is exactly what has happened. In the southern part of Israel, previously quiet communities have found themselves at the forefront of violent conflict since the 2005 disengagement when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, removing its soldiers and citizens. Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens, once aimed at the settlements in Gaza, have since turned to the communities inside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. Now, missiles are fired from Gaza into the southern towns of the Israeli periphery.
The settlers might not have made public predictions about the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, but surely their situation has become markedly worse since the 2005 disengagement. So far, there have been three major military campaigns and intermittent exchanges of fire resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. The number of casualties and deaths, and the destruction of property has only increased for Gazans since the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. Although this might seem counterintuitive, in many ways it was entirely predictable.
Flickr/Israel Defense Forces (Some rights reserved)
An Israeli settler is forcibly evacuated from his home in Gan Or, Gaza.
In fact, such might have been the prediction of James Ron, who compares state violence in Israel and Serbia. When a minority is contained within a nation-state, he explains, they may be subject to extensive policing. This, according to Ron, has been the case for Palestinians in the West Bank, which he describes as similar to a “ghetto”—or what we might think of as a reservation or camp. The ghetto, he says, implies subordination and incorporation, and ghettos are policed but not destroyed.
But state violence increases when those considered outsiders or enemies of the nation are separated and on the “frontier” of the state. In the American West, for example, when the frontier was open and indigenous populations were unincorporated into the United States, they were targeted for dispossession and massacre. And when Western powers recognized Bosnian independence in 1992, Ron argues, it helped transform Bosnia into a frontier, setting the stage for ethnic cleansing.
We might ask ourselves if disengagement set up Gaza as such a frontier. If so, we might have anticipated the extreme violence that has since ensued. Then we are also left to wonder if dismantling Jewish settlements is more dangerous for Palestinians than for Israelis.
What is gained if the ethno-national foundation of the nation-state necessarily leads to containment or removal of those who are not considered members of the nation? Many of those who support the rights of Palestinians have been calling for an end to Israeli settlement and for dismantling existing settlements in Israeli Occupied Territories, in preparation for the establishment of two states for two peoples, side by side. But what is gained if the ethno-national foundation of the nation-state necessarily leads to containment or removal of those who are not considered members of the nation?
This was Hannah Arendt’s warning about the danger inherent in the nation-state formation—it makes life precarious for those who are not considered part of the sovereign national group. As Judith Butler so eloquently explains, "The category of the stateless is reproduced not simply by the nation-state but by a certain operation of power that seeks to forcibly align nation with state, one that takes the hyphen, as it were, as a chain."
Removing Jewish settlers, like demolishing Palestinian homes, is also part of a larger process of separation, a power that seeks to forcibly align a people with a territory. That separation might seem liberating: a stage on the way to independence. But partition does not necessarily lead to peace. In the case of Gaza, removing Israeli citizens might just have made it possible for violence to increase.
If Israel/Palestine is a struggle between two national groups for one piece of territory, then fighting for that “hyphen as chain” will continue, and the violence, death and destruction will only increase. If Israel/Palestine is a settler colonial society, then the forces of separation required for two states should be understood as part of a foundational structure that requires elimination of the natives. According to Patrick Wolfe, settler colonialism is a structure with an underlying logic of elimination that can take multiple forms. In Australia, for example, assimilation in a multicultural democracy can also be a form of eliminating the indigenous. But in Israel/Palestine that logic takes the form of maintaining purity through the separation of ethno-national groups, and squeezing people into smaller and smaller spaces—what Sari Hanafi calls “spacio-cide”. This could mean that those calling for the dismantling of Jewish settlements might also be helping to set the stage for the destruction of the very people they aim to liberate.
If we take the two theories together—settler-colonialism and frontier violence—then struggling for statehood might be less important than the effort to stay on the land, even if that means temporarily forgoing equal rights as citizens. That is what Sari Nusseibeh recently recommended in his controversial book. Or, as Noam Sheizaf recently suggested, the struggle for human and civil rights could take precedence over demanding statehood. Of course, that scenario might lead to assimilation, which Patrick Wolfe suggests is actually elimination (genocide?) by other means.
An earlier version of this article appeared at the Oxford University Press author’s blog: http://blog.oup.com/2014/10/gaza-war-settlers-israel-palestine/.