How Can We Begin to Think About Decolonising Palestine?

by Nader Ruhayel

Comparative settler colonial studies have been productive in highlighting parallels and divergences in the methods of establishment and expansion of settler colonial societies. An examination of the patchwork of juridical, military, political, and social strategies by which these societies are established, can lead us to understand the particular ways in which indigenous cultures are intercepted, appropriated, or destroyed. Settler colonial projects always proceed by effecting the erasure of one people, and replacing it with another. The psychology of European settler colonial identity comes to value very highly and anxiously the fictive notion of ‘Western civilisation.’ Alongside this, these societies privilege modes of thinking that invite us to understand that, despite the wholesale devastation of indigenous cultures by settler society, the surviving indigenous population has gained immeasurably by forcibly being made to join ‘the West.’ Decolonial politics in this setting challenges this psychology, which creates a mental gap between the colonising population and the act of colonisation. Against the attempts of the settler state to normalise its presence, decolonial politics aims to expose all the ways in which the colonial relationship between the settler state and the indigenous population is still ongoing. This is especially critical in the Australian context, for example, where there has been no treaty, no constitutional recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, and no reparative justice for Indigenous survivors.

In one sense, the establishment of Israel was a conservative and belated reiteration of the foundational logic of numerous other European settler colonial projects that preceded it, including here in Australia. In another though, Zionism complicated its colonial relationship to Palestine through its strategic mobilisation of a Jewish historical and biblical claim to that piece of land. Through the relentless pursuit of military, political, diplomatic, and cultural avenues, it forwarded and normalised a very particular idea of Jewish indigeneity while simultaneously transforming the indigenous Palestinians into trespassers or offending pests in their own homeland. What is the prognosis for the Palestinian people in the face of a colonial state that still openly pursues their complete ruination, in broad daylight? I would like to propose that the colonial project in Palestine depends specifically on this illusion of two competing indigeneities of equal significance. Zionism has been highly efficient in naturalising this binary frame, which informs the problematic notion of an Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’ and its corollary two-state solution. Decolonial politics must address itself to this illusion, and work towards challenging and dissolving the Zionist appropriation of the language and form of an indigenous polity, at the expense of the people of Palestine.

The history of Zionism, says Elias Sanbar, co-founder of the Journal of Palestine Studies, is the history of emptying a land of its people within a frame of settler colonialism. Its ideology, however, is that of the negation of exile. A people without a land for a land without a people, as the Zionist maxim goes. For this ideology to have symbolic currency, what had to be effected in Palestine was the double disappearance of the indigenous population. On the one hand, the region had to be physically cleared of its residents, but on the other, the violent clearing itself had to be made to vanish for the colonial project to represent itself as this homecoming, as the end of Jewish exile. In Sanbar’s words, this double disappearance ‘had to function from the start as if it had already taken place, which is to say never “seeing” the existence of the other who was indisputably present all the time.’

As such, there is an intellectual current within Zionism, which figures the European colonisation of Palestine as a restorative or even, bizarrely, a decolonising act for the Jewish people. Colonial Israel comes to imagine itself as the eternal Jewish homeland, wrested, with an unfortunate but incidental violence, from the hands of illegitimate occupiers variously figured as Muslim hordes, Arab conquerers, or, in the last instance, as the ambivalent and chimeric figure of the Palestinian, flickering in and out of existence in the Zionist narrative. Jews come to occupy the position of an indigenous people. Meanwhile, the fundamental Zionist affect towards Palestinians is not that they aren’t entitled to enjoy the freedoms and dignities of others, but rather that the figure of the Palestinian is itself already a problematic fabrication, a frustrated afterthought to the Jewish return, a personification of an antisemitism that constantly threatens to deliver the Jewish people back to genocide. This peculiar position has allowed the emergence of a particularly virulent and unabashed form of settler colonialism to emerge within historic Palestine, buttressed by a Jewish sense of moral and historical entitlement to the lands and homes of another, extant population.

Thus, we find a dissonance between the reality of Israeli colonisation and the ideology of a Jewish indigeneity that instantly erases all other non-Jewish indigeneities. This has generated some strange fault lines in Zionist cognition around the settler colonial nature of the Israeli state. In the 1990’s Israeli historiography showed beyond a doubt what Palestinian testimony had long maintained: that the birth of the Israeli state involved the planned (and often violent) expulsion of the indigenous of Palestine, numbering in their hundreds of thousands both in 1948–9 and in 1967. And yet, to this day, there is an uncanny and unmistakable inability of most Israelis to narrativise the ethnic cleansing through which Israel was founded, a societal affliction that Palestinian scholar Edward Said described as a phenomenon ‘bordering on schizophrenia.’

In its first aspect, Israel is for its Jewish subjects a highly developed ethnocracy with a very sophisticated staging of the rituals of liberal democracy for its own colonial ends. Increasingly in recent years, the Knesset has mulled (and passed) ever more racialist laws that secure a Jewish supremacy formulated in illiberal, anti-democratic and tangentially fascist terms. Today, the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continues to grow in scope and deadliness, a relentless and incremental policy of ‘Judaisation’ that aims at the removal of all Arab presence from Palestine at a time where mass expulsions are no longer a viable procedure for a nominally democratic state. In its second aspect, Israel is for its Palestinian subjects a brutal necropolitical regime (or, a regime that concerns itself with the death of people) whose operation is the material destruction of Palestinian bodies and populations, achieved through technologies of surveillance, exclusion and incarceration, the disruption and erasure of societies, the suppression of intellectual and cultural production, and the merciless and unadulterated exposure of civilian bodies to the firepower of one of the world’s most ferocious militaries. It is a state that is holding almost two million Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip in a state of moribund destitution, a grotesque experiment in human strangulation the form of which today represents a singular kind of criminality.

Against the attestations of liberal Zionists, the gradual but undeniable emergence of apartheid in Israel represents not a corruption of the Zionist project, but its maturation. In Australia, perhaps for demographic, political or geographic reasons, assimilation of the surviving Indigenous population became expedient to the settler colonial project. This has been state policy for more than sixty years, a policy which Indigenous sovereignty movements in Australia continue to challenge. Meanwhile, Zionism emerged from the outset as a racialist and separatist ethnonationalism. Its ideology and political project were formulated in the midst of global and regional upheaval on a background of centuries of Jewish persecution in Europe and Russia. Augmented no doubt by the traumas of the Nazi-authored genocide of Europe’s Jewry, in the Zionist imaginary Israel is figured as a Jewish sanctuary, and the impulsion to evacuate historic Palestine of all of its non-Jewish violators remains. Apartheid here establishes the image of the snare, or stranglehold. Apartheid is a kind of political and material compromise, and it enforces legal, geographic, and societal discontinuities between the coloniser and the colonised. It names a relationship of inclusion through exclusion, between Israel and a population that cannot be removed, and must not be assimilated, but that must instead be incrementally neutralised or snuffed out of existence.

Such are the stakes, and in this story, decolonisation of Palestine and de-Zionisation of Palestine become synonymous. In terms of how we might position ourselves ethically in relation to Israel and Palestine, then, the question of Jewish indigeneity as it is deployed by Zionism, is something of a moot one. Yes, Jews were indigenous to historic Palestine; yes, Jews were and are indigenous to much of the Middle East. It is maybe useful, as many Jewish writers do, to speak of Jewish indigeneities in the multiple, as a stratagem to upturn the exclusivist Zionist claim to a singular Jewish indigeneity that is consonant with ethnonationalist racism, that increasingly depends on fascistic and militaristic self-representations, that slides into Jewish exceptionalism, and that increasingly embraces motifs of Jewish racial supremacy. In the end, the Zionist claim of a Jewish indigeneity in Palestine, to the exclusion of all other peoples, inevitably and fatally depends on a Eurocentric racial hierarchy. This is especially the case when this claim is predicated on the removal of an already present indigenous population, home by home, village by village, and consequently Zionism remains antithetical to all progressive and decolonial politics.

Palestine in this sense, is not the ‘other,’ competing national claim over that same plot of land in the Levant. The question is not: Jewish nationalism or Palestinian nationalism, for this creates a false equivalence between the coloniser and the colonised. By its formalised misrecognition of the history of Palestinian dispossession, this is a logic of equivalence that re-iterates all the blindspots and falsehoods of the peace process and the two-state solution which at every moment continue to privilege the Zionist project of territorial expansion and Palestinian eradication. The project of Palestine is the project of the recovery of a cosmopolitanism destroyed by the Zionist colony; the re-assertion of the diversity of cultures and peoples in all their divergences and contradictions, in the face of Zionist exceptionalism.

This article appeared in our Just Voices magazine (issue 15, 2018) on Decolonisation and Indigenous Solidarity.

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