Why Zionist settler colonialism must be confronted

A protest in the West Bank city of Hebron in September 2011.

Mamoun Wazwaz APA images

Israeli apartheid is a tool of Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine facilitating the state’s aim of displacing and replacing indigenous Palestinians on their land.

Such is made clear in a new report by the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, endorsed by a coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations.

The more than 200-page study builds on decades of Palestinian scholarship and advocacy and corrects fundamental flaws in recent publications on apartheid by Israeli and international human rights groups.

“Zionist settler colonialism and its eliminatory and population transfer logic remain missing” from these analyses, Al-Haq states.

Without incorporating this fundamental aspect of Zionist rule in Palestine, Israeli and international organizations aim to counter apartheid with “liberal equality,” as critiqued by scholar Lana Tatour. This obscures the goals of decolonization and liberation fought for by Palestinians for decades.

Palestinian scholar and diplomat Fayez Sayegh described Zionist settler colonialism as an inherently racial project akin to the apartheid regime in South Africa as early as 1965, two years before Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Al-Haq points out.

Israeli apartheid isn’t the result of the deteriorating human rights situation in the territories occupied since 1967. Instead, the occupation and the current untenable conditions are the logical outcomes of Israel’s regime of settler colonialism.

Mobilizing against colonization

Mobilizing against Israel’s settler colonial apartheid regime, which has sought to fragment Palestinian society geographically and politically, has been a key focus of Palestinian advocates during the past two decades – the history of which is detailed by Al-Haq.

This analysis has been advanced by civil society groups like Badil and advocated at international fora including the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has “been at the forefront of Palestinian-led advocacy in building and mainstreaming the comprehensive analysis of Israel’s regime of settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation,” according to Al-Haq.

This has served to reinforce a “structural understanding of Israeli apartheid as an inevitable outcome of settler colonialism” and an examination of Israel’s system of oppression as a whole.

Al-Haq faults analyses on apartheid published by the Israeli human rights groups Yesh Din and B’Tselem for avoiding “discussion of the Palestinian people as a whole, in particular Palestinian refugees.”

Al-Haq also calls out those reports for dismissing “the question of racial ideology and the role of Zionist institutions in establishing and entrenching apartheid.”

An approach focused only on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 serves to legitimize the colonization of Palestinian land in what is now called Israel since the late 19th century, Al-Haq argues.

Likewise, subsequent analyses published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International went further than those from the Israeli groups.

But according to Al-Haq, reports, hailed as “paradigm-shifting,” fail to “consider Israeli apartheid within the context of colonialism, in particular settler colonialism,” as Palestinians have done for decades.

Al-Haq points to a 2008 position paper by the BDS National Committee and endorsed by nearly 100 organizations in Palestine and around the world “aimed at building broad grassroots consensus around Israel’s regime of oppression against the indigenous Palestinian people as a whole, across historic Palestine and in exile.”

The result of these efforts has been the establishment of a permanent UN commission of inquiry examining Israel’s system of oppression against Palestinians as a whole.

Going beyond a framework limited to the illegality of Israel’s activities in the West Bank and Gaza is essential to realizing Palestinians’ right to self-determination and right of return to the lands and properties from which they were expelled and dispossessed in 1948.

Al-Haq suggests that the Palestinian territory seized in 1948, on which the state of Israel was declared that year, may be considered occupied under other categories of occupation besides that applied in the West Bank and Gaza, including “armistice occupation, post-debellatio occupation or forcible peacetime occupations.”

The narrow focus on international humanitarian law – or the law of armed conflict – as the dominant legal framework in Palestine has served to reinforce Israel’s fragmentation of the Palestinian people.

After all, the state was established “through the inadmissible ‘acquisition of territory by war,’” to use the language of UN Security Council resolution 242 concerning Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.

The establishment of Israel in 1948 involved “the ongoing mass forcible transfer of Palestinians, and the denial of the right of return of Palestinian refugees, displaced persons, and involuntary exiles, contrary to international law.”

By focusing only on the 1967 occupation, rather than “the totality of the Palestinian collective experience,” the so-called international community has normalized “exclusive Zionist settlement” within Israel involving the same methods of displacement and dispossession of Palestinians condemned in the West Bank.

Viewing these policies as somehow distinct out of a rigid devotion to the technicalities of international humanitarian law, as espoused by Yesh Din and Human Rights Watch, is to miss the forest of Zionist colonization across historic Palestine for the trees.

Put more simply, Zionist settler colonialism is bad and serves the same unjust end, no matter what side of the Green Line.

“Logic of elimination”

Al-Haq’s report lays out the means by which Israel and para-state organizations such as the Jewish National Fund, Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, have appropriated Palestinian land and prevented Palestinians from accommodating population growth through inherently discriminatory and frequently violent policies.

Meanwhile Israel maintains a repressive environment to prevent Palestinians from exercising their collective rights, including through the arbitrary deprivation of life as part of its “logic of elimination,” Al-Haq states.

It is no coincidence that one year after the unity intifada that saw Palestinians resisting Israel’s settler colonial rule throughout their homeland and in exile, Palestinian fatalities at the hands of Israeli forces in the West Bank are at a nearly two-decade high.

As Al-Haq points out, quoting historian Ilan Pappe, “there has never been an end to Israel’s killing of Palestinians” since the dozens of massacres contributing to 15,000 Palestinian fatalities during Israel’s establishment in 1948.

This eliminationist violence has taken on different forms in various geographic areas of Palestine and where Palestinians live in exile, whether Israel’s episodic bombardment of Gaza or the proliferation of firearms within Palestinian communities in Israel, resulting in intracommunal killings that are neither investigated or prevented by the state.

Israeli apartheid has a deleterious effect on just about every aspect of Palestinian life, whether it be the ability to maintain a functioning healthcare system or exercising the basic right to family life.

Palestinians are arbitrarily detained and imprisoned in order to maintain Israel’s regime of apartheid and colonization and are subjected to collective punishment. Meanwhile, Palestinian human rights defenders such as Al-Haq are branded as terrorists to thwart their work.

Such an extreme situation has been permitted by the failure of third states “to ensure that they do not contribute … toward the violations of the rights of the Palestinian people and the continued maintenance of an apartheid regime,” Al-Haq states.

The organization points to the adoption of measures at the UN in galvanizing international efforts to “suppress and eradicate the crime of apartheid in South Africa and occupied Namibia.”

The International Criminal Court did not yet exist during the apartheid regime in South Africa as it does today.

As Al-Haq notes in its report, “to date, no international or national court has ever prosecuted an individual for the crime of apartheid.”

That could change with the International Criminal Court’s investigation in Palestine. And if it doesn’t, it won’t be for a lack of evidence or poverty of legal analysis but the absence of political will.


Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.