A colonial state in a postcolonial era

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Children walk past graffiti on the Palestinian side of the separation wall in Bethlehem, West Bank. (Photograph by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Children walk past graffiti on the Palestinian side of the separation wall in Bethlehem, West Bank. (Photograph by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
  • This is an excerpt of Rashid Khalidi’s The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017.
  • Here Khalidi traces how backed by colonisers, the Zionist movement first waged war on Palestinians. 
  • In reevaluating the forces arrayed against the Palestinians, it offers an illuminating new view of a conflict that continues to this day.


A century of war on the PalestiniansIn 1917, Arthur James Balfour stated that in Palestine, the British government did not “propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country”. The great powers were committed to Zionism, he continued, “and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700 000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”. One hundred years later, President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying, “We took Jerusalem off the table, so we don’t have to talk about it anymore.” Trump told Benjamin Netanyahu, “You won one point, and you’ll give up some points later on in the negotiation, if it ever takes place. I don’t know that it will ever take place.” The centre of the Palestinians’ history, identity, culture and worship was thus summarily disposed of without even the pretense of consulting their wishes.

Throughout the intervening century, the great powers have repeatedly tried to act in spite of the Palestinians, ignoring them, talking for them or over their heads or pretending that they did not exist. In the face of the heavy odds against them, however, the Palestinians have shown a stubborn capacity to resist these efforts to eliminate them politically and scatter them to the four winds. Indeed, more than 120 years after the first Zionist congress in Basel and over 70 years after the creation of Israel, the Palestinian people, represented on neither of these occasions, were no longer supposed to constitute any kind of national presence. In their place was meant to stand a Jewish state, uncontested by the indigenous society that it was meant to supplant. Yet for all its might, its nuclear weapons, and its alliance with the United States, today the Jewish state is at least as contested globally as it was at any time in the past. The Palestinians’ resistance, their persistence, and their challenge to Israel’s ambitions are among the most striking phenomena of the current era.

Over the decades, the United States has wavered, going back and forth between paying lip service to the existence of the Palestinians and trying to exclude them from the map of the Middle East. The provision for an Arab state in the 1947 partition resolution (albeit never implemented), Jimmy Carter’s mention of a Palestinian “homeland”, and nominal support for a Palestinian state from the Clinton to the Obama administrations were artifacts of that lip service. There are many more instances of American exclusion and erasure: Lyndon Johnson’s backing of UNSC 242; Kissinger’s years of sidelining the PLO in the 1960s and 1970s and covertly making proxy war on it; the 1978 Camp David accords; the Reagan administration’s green light for the 1982 war in Lebanon; the lack of will of US presidents from Johnson to Obama to stop Israeli seizure and settlement of Palestinian land.

Regardless of its wavering, the United States, the great imperial power of the age, together with Great Britain before it, extended full backing to the Zionist movement and the state of Israel. But they have been trying to do the impossible: impose a colonial reality on Palestine in a postcolonial age. Eqbal Ahmad summed it up: “August 1947 marked the beginning of decolonisation, when British rule in India ended. It was in those days of hope and fulfillment that the colonisation of Palestine occurred. Thus at the dawn of decolonisation, we were returned to the earliest, most intense form of colonial menace . . . exclusivist settler colonialism.” In other circumstances or in another era, replacing the indigenous population might have been feasible, especially in light of the long-standing and deep religious link felt by Jews to the land in question – if this were the 18th or 19th century, if the Palestinians were as few as the Zionist settlers or as fully decimated as the native peoples of Australasia and North America. The longevity of the Palestinians’ resistance to their dispossession, however, indicates that the Zionist movement, in the words of the late historian Tony Judt, “arrived too late”, as it “imported a characteristically late-19th-century separatist project into a world that has moved on”.

With the establishment of Israel, Zionism did succeed in fashioning a potent national movement and a thriving new people in Palestine. But it could not fully supplant the country’s original population, which is what would have been necessary for the ultimate triumph of Zionism. Settler-colonial confrontations with indigenous peoples have only ended in one of three ways: with the elimination or full subjugation of the native population, as in North America; with the defeat and expulsion of the coloniser, as in Algeria, which is extremely rare; or with the abandonment of colonial supremacy, in the context of compromise and reconciliation, as in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ireland.

There is still the possibility that Israel could attempt to reprise the expulsions of 1948 and 1967 and rid itself of some or all of the Palestinians who tenaciously remain in their homeland. Forcible transfers of population on a sectarian and ethnic basis have taken place in neighbouring Iraq since its invasion by the United States and in Syria following its collapse into war and chaos. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported in 2017 that a record 68 million persons and refugees were displaced the world over. Against this horrific regional and global background, which elicits scarce concern internationally, there might seem to be little to restrain Israel from such an action. But the ferocious fight that Palestinians would wage against their removal, the intense international attention to the conflict and the growing currency of the Palestinian narrative all mitigate against such a prospect.

Given the clarity of what is involved in ethnic cleansing in a colonial situation (rather than in circumstances of a confusing civil-cum-proxy war interlaced with extensive foreign intervention, as in Syria and Iraq), a new wave of expulsions would probably not unfold as smoothly for Israel as in the past. Even if undertaken under cover of a major regional war, such a move would have the potential to cause fatal damage to the West’s support for Israel, on which it relies.

Nonetheless, there are growing fears that expulsion has become more possible in the past few years than at any time since 1948, with religious nationalists and settlers dominating successive Israeli governments, explicit plans for annexations in the West Bank, and leading Israeli parliamentarians calling for the removal of some or all of the Palestinian population. Punitive Israeli policies are currently directed at forcing as many Palestinians as possible out of the country, while also evicting some within the West Bank and the Negev inside Israel from their homes and villages via home demolition, fake property sales, rezoning and myriad other schemes. It is only a step from these tried-and-true demographic engineering tactics to a repeat of the full-blown ethnic cleansing of 1948 and 1967. Still the odds so far seem against Israeli taking such a step.

If elimination of the native population is not a likely outcome in Palestine, then what of dismantling the supremacy of the coloniser in order to make possible a true reconciliation? The advantage that Israel has enjoyed in continuing its project rests on the fact that the basically colonial nature of the encounter in Palestine has not been visible to most Americans and many Europeans. Israel appears to them to be a normal, natural nation-state like any other, faced by the irrational hostility of intransigent and often anti-Semitic Muslims (which is how Palestinians, even the Christians among them, are seen by many). The propagation of this image is one of the greatest achievements of Zionism and is vital to its survival. As Edward Said put it, Zionism triumphed in part because it “won the political battle for Palestine in the international world in which ideas, representation, rhetoric and images were at issue”. This is still largely true today. Dismantling this fallacy and making the true nature of the conflict evident is a necessary step if Palestinians and Israelis are to transition to a postcolonial future in which one people does not use external support to oppress and supplant the other.

This excerpt was first published by New Frame

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