Liberate Palestine, decolonize Israel
- April 27, 2021
Land & Liberation
The decolonization of Israel requires restoration of Palestinian rights while dismantling Zionist settler colonialism as an exclusive and controlling ideology.
Palestinian protester on the border between Gaza and Israel. August 30, 2019. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatb / Shutterstock
The past several years have seen a chorus of demands for decolonization coming from various movements, giving new life to the term. The challenge to colonial power structures today ranges from contestation over public monuments, museums and school curricula, to the struggles for the recognition and reclamation of the stolen lands on which many modern capitalist power centers have been built.
At the heart of these matters are questions over how history is framed and colonial dynamics and regimes are maintained in the present. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one microcosm of this, and a key site of struggle against global racial capitalism.
The product of years of organizing between Palestinian and Israeli Jewish activists and the global Palestine solidarity movement, the 10-point program of the One Democratic State Campaign represents an innovative development in translating the imperative to decolonize into an ambitious vision for political change. Central to its analysis and vision is the decolonization of the Israeli state machine and the liberation of Palestine.
Taking its title from this goal, Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine Zionism, Settler Colonialism, and the Case for One Democratic State, a new book from the anthropologist, activist and “colonist who refuses” Jeff Halper outlines a return to an explicitly anti-colonial Palestinian liberation politics.
Leaving behind a two-state solution — already blatantly abandoned by the Israeli state — and shifting away from that project’s framework of “conflict resolution,” the book presents a decolonial analysis of Zionist settler colonialism and the various forms of resistance it has engendered.
The book argues for a decolonial project, to be led by Palestinians, and open to all those who share the same commitment to making it happen. Naming and targeting the colonial dynamics at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian relation is, according to Halper, the only means to lasting peace and crucial to a peaceful life as well as to the development of radical alternatives in the Middle East and globally.
Jeff Halper was recently interviewed by Liam Hough about his new book and the One Democratic State Campaign.
You put forward that decolonization is the only means to uproot Zionist settler colonialism. Could you outline the key differences between decolonization and conflict resolution? How did conflict resolution become the dominant frame through which the Palestinian-Israeli question has been understood?
A genuine resolution of any conflictual situation requires that the underlying issues be addressed, both on the level of the grievances and claims that drive the strife and on the level of ideology. In other words, struggles between peoples are defined by particular ideological and material logic and structures. Genuine resolution depends on finding the means to settle the dispute, whether absolutely or by effectively bridging the differences. That means that the solution must precisely address the underlying causes of the struggle and capture its logic, structures and intentions if it is to “flow” in an unbroken process to a post-conflictual place.
Do we define the Zionist enterprise, then, as a settler colonial one imposed unilaterally on an indigenous Arab population and motivated by the intention of taking over the country, or are we speaking of an Arab-Israeli “conflict” involving a struggle for sovereignty, hegemony and survival between two legitimate national movements whose responsibility for the fighting is roughly equivalent? How we define the situation obviously determines how — and whether — the confrontation can be resolved.
If we are speaking of a settler colonial project, which I argue we are, then the actual conflict is only a small part of the problem. Indeed, after an initial period of conquest (or two in the Zionist case: 1948 and 1967), a settler project attempts to present a normalized existence, relegates the “violence” of indigenous resistance to the realm of criminality and terrorism — its own use of force merely an accepted form of a state’s “maintaining law and order.”
Resolving the “conflict” through compromise does not address the underlying issue of colonization. In the case of Zionism, the take-over of an entire country by a settler population, the expulsion of most of its inhabitants and the virtual imprisonment of the remaining population in tiny enclaves on 15 percent of their homeland is ignored, since it is no longer part of the “conflict.” What remains is “conflict resolution,” finding an indigenous elite that will negotiate the barest terms of national existence (a truncated, semi-autonomous Bantustan) in return for “peace.”
Conflict “resolution” is actually a form of conflict management, which can only serve the stronger “side.” But settler colonialism has no “sides”; it is a unilateral land grab on the part of a settler population that denies the national rights or even existence of the indigenous people. Only a much wider and deeper process of decolonization can clear out the colonial cavity and replace it with totally new institutions and forms of political community.
Once the structures of domination and control are dismantled and the settlers’ ideological claims emptied of their authority — what I call in sum the Dominant Management Regime — Palestinians are empowered to regain their sovereignty, their rights and access to their country and properties once again. Indigenous sovereignty being substantially recovered and the Palestinians’ material claims restored, the process of post-colonial rebuilding can now begin, with Palestinian Arabs, Israeli Jews and other communities resident in the country forging a new political community within the framework of a single democratic state. Decolonization is, then, an entirely different process from conflict resolution, and it’s the only way to end Zionist colonialism while restoring Palestinian rights.
In the introduction to the book, you clarify your own positionality as an anti-Zionist Israeli Jew or a “colonist who refuses.” You stress throughout the book the need for Palestinians to lead the way towards decolonization. What relative advantages can someone situated as you can bring to this project and to creating a shared vision of a post-colonial future?
While I define myself as a “colonist who refuses,” as an Israeli Jew I occupy two positions that impact directly on my ability to act as an agent of decolonization. First, as a part of the colonial population, I am placed in a position of responsibility: I must use my privilege to help end my people’s oppression of another, be it through dialogue or opposition, and as a stakeholder I must work with all my anti-colonial comrades — Jewish Israelis, Palestinians and internationals — to forge a new, egalitarian political community. As an Israeli Jew that sees himself as part of a broader anti-colonial movement, I can help identify “bridging” mechanisms that Israeli Jews might share with many Palestinians, at least some basic “acknowledgements” we might work with. We are all engaged in a common struggle against colonialism and for a shared vision of the future, for example. Both Palestinians and Zionists share a concept of the country — Palestine or the Land of Israel — as a single geographic and political entity. Can we build on that? Able to fathom the fears and aspirations of Israeli Jews yet accepting of Palestinian rights and claims to sovereignty, can I help fashion a vision of post-colonization that is inclusive yet just, one that also addresses mutual suspicions and insecurities?
And then, knowing the inner workings of Zionist colonialism, I can come together with Palestinians to identify that most effective ways of “summoning power,” of framing the struggle and formulating strategies that effectively oppose and ultimately dismantle it. Having “proven” myself able to forge mutual understandings, join effectively in a common anti-colonial struggle and help formulate a shared vision of the future and program for moving forward, I am able to “redeem” my colonial status and earn from the Palestinians what I call “sufficient indigeneity,” the best my generation can aspire to.
You present early Zionism in the context of its European roots during the development of various forms of ethno-nationalisms looking to establish their own nation-state. In this context, you say, “Palestine was more of an ideal than a geographical reality.’” Could you discuss the distinction you make between the legitimacy of Zionism as one type of nationalism of its time and the colonial project it became?
There is another set of acknowledgments that can help establish a basis for a shared polity and civil society: acknowledging the Jews’ connection to the Land of Israel. It is possible to do this, as Edward Said long argued, without accepting Zionism’s colonial agenda and without compromising Palestinian rights and national claims to the country. It does not even mean that the future state be bi-national, something many Palestinians feel forces them to accept the legitimacy of Zionism. It simply means that everyone is entitled to his or her collective as well as individual identity within a multicultural democracy. By the same token, characterizing Zionism as settler colonialism does not negate the Jews’ genuine ties to the country; it simply rejects their right to impose a settler colonial regime over it.
As Cultural Zionism demonstrated, it was possible for Jews to live in the Land of Israel and even express national aspirations — in reviving a Hebrew culture and language, for example, or settling the land — without imposing an exclusivist regime or denying Palestinian national identity and sovereignty. What became unacceptable in Zionism was not its ties to the Land or its aspiration to revive a Jewish national collective, but the fact that it chose settler colonialism as a means of exerting exclusive control.
It was not entirely Zionism’s “choice,” nor was its settler project inevitable. Indeed, judging by Jews who “voted with their feet” (and even then, most Jews coming to Palestine in the pre-state era were fleeing Eastern European fascism), Zionism represented just 3 percent of the Jewish people. Most Jews saw and understood how the tribal nationalism of Russia, Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European states excluded and oppressed them, and they migrated to Western Europe or North America where they could find their place in the West’s civil nationalism, based as it is on the concept of equal citizens. Even the Bund, communist and socialist Jews that remained in Eastern Europe rejected its tribalism, just as they rejected Zionism. But in reality, when the Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe came to formulate a national identity and program, they had little access to the pluralistic civil nationalism of the West. The Zionists adopted the only form of nationalism they knew — tribal nationalism, ethnocracy, the notion that a country “belonged” to a certain people — and imported that into Palestine as a settler population.
Had Zionism adopted the civil nationalism of Western Europe and acknowledged the “shared life” that ethnocracy denied, it might have arrived at a form of self-determination that would have allowed it to coexist in a common state with the Palestinians, as Brit Shalom envisioned: a bi-national state, a liberal democracy or some other form of shared sovereignty. As it was, the exclusivist national nature of Zionist ethnocracy forced it to adopt a settler colonial strategy for what it believed must be done: judaizing Palestine, transforming an Arab country into a Jewish one. Structurally and later ideologically, any accommodation with the indigenous Palestinian people was deemed impossible and undesirable.
All of which is to say that decolonization requires the dismantling of Zionism as an exclusive and controlling ideology and set of institutions, leaving intact the notion that Jews have a historical tie to the Land of Israel but no exclusive national claim. This can be done without compromising Palestinian rights — although it does require Palestinians to accept the presence in the country of Jewish citizens with equal rights to land and political power after a process of decolonization.
You quote the settler colonialism scholar Patrick Wolfe as saying, “Whatever settlers may say — the primary motive for elimination [of the natives] is not race (or religion, ethnicity, grade of civilization, etc.) but access to territory.” How is this true of the concrete situation in Palestine? What is the significance of underlining the primacy of territory over all other factors in settler colonialism?
As I mentioned earlier, settler colonialism is a unilateral project of taking over a country, its governance as well as its land. The natives are of secondary importance. The settlers do not care about the characteristics of the indigenous — whether they are a race, a tribe, an ethnic group, a religion or whatever; what they care about is how to remove them from the land and “eliminate” them as political competitors or threats. For the past 125 years the Zionists have refrained from dealing much with the Palestinians. The most important thing was to deny their national identity, since to consider them an indigenous people undercut the Zionists’ own claim of exclusive entitlement to “a land without a people.” It was this particular element of Palestinian-ness that needed to be denied. What the Palestinians actually were, or how they identified themselves, was of little interest.
In discussing Palestinian agency, you identify three categories of resistance to Zionist colonialism: “sumud,” or everyday resistance, active resistance in its more reactive or organized forms, and “summoning power,” which you alluded to in your discussion of positionality. Could you talk about these three types of resistance and the interplay between them?
In any kind of political struggle, the outcome is determined not only by the justice of the cause (obviously) or the differences in power between the sides, but by the strategies employed. Resistance is endemic to an oppressive situation like colonialism. Since people can never be expected to accept their own subjugation, resistance can be repelled, subdued or even quenched for a time, but it invariably reappears. Such is the case of sumud, steadfastness, the everyday form of Palestinian resistance expended in the very acts of continuing to live and carry on life under the oppressive conditions of colonization, apartheid, occupation, violent means of control, displacement and intimidation, including via the law and the courts. Sumud is less a strategy than a necessary positionality, an assertion that one will not be moved.
Active resistance is more overt and intentional, but it is not always strategic. Oppressed people are often forced to resist, but their resistance is reactive, not strategic, even when it is expressed in terms of planned acts of defiance. Strategic resistance is what is known as “summoning power”; it seeks to challenge and fundamentally alter the dominant patterns of the present, in our case with an eye towards a decolonized future that is the product of an intentional political program. Summoning power, an idea coming from Gilles Deleuze, involves pro-active agency that seeks to intervene at strategic weak points of an oppressive political system in order to collapse it, thereby permitting an alternative system to be reassembled.
Palestinians have long integrated summoned power in their struggle for self-determination. They were unsuccessful in mobilizing politically to defeat the imposition of mandates over Palestine and Syria by the League of Nations following WWI; they were more successful in the 1970s in inserting themselves into the instruments and institutions of international law, especially winning their bid for statehood at the UN in 2012 and gaining admission to the International Criminal Court in 2014. Perhaps their most strategic success to date was the founding in 1964 of the PLO with its program of liberation supported by robust institutions. But none of those attempts proved long-lasting or effective. In my book I make the case that by adopting in conjunction with anti-colonial Israelis a program of establishing a single democratic state, the Palestinians would be summoning sufficient power to enable them to effectively mobilize international civil society behind genuine decolonization and liberation.
You show how legally the Palestinian case falls between two internationally recognized definitions of colonization and indigeneity. Could you talk about where this leaves the Palestinian struggle and how you see the role of international law and a rights-based approach?
As Noura Erakat documents in her book Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, the Palestinians have fallen through the cracks of international law since the imposition of the British Mandate in 1922. As victims of a campaign of settler colonialism supported by the major European powers, the process of judicially erasing the indigenous population that every settler project undertakes in order to validate and enact its exclusive claim to the targeted country won the active support of governments and peoples, effectively separating the Palestinians from the rest of humanity as an exceptional case of a people who should not be where they are. This unleashed a campaign, still going strong, to exempt the Palestinians from the rights and protections afforded colonized people while legitimizing the racial legal structures that the British, and later the Israelis, put into place to control and displace them. Thus, the UN’s Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, passed in 1960, deliberately excluded settler colonialism.
That omission was addressed in 2007 with the passing of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDIP), although some of the world’s most powerful settler states voted against it, including the United States and Canada. While Israel voted in favor of the Declaration, viewing it as a useful legal instrument reinforcing its claims to be the Land of Israel’s indigenous people, it well understood that the UNDIP is unenforceable in the case of the Palestinians since the international community would never recognize Israel as a settler colonial regime.
Then we come back to realpolitik. Erakat makes the point that “the ability to declare an exception in the international system [such as excluding the Palestinians from the protections of international law] is predicated upon the strength of the sovereign to withstand censure and punishment.” Supported by the Great Powers, Israel is able to do so without fear of either. The ability of Israel to avoid any pressure to apply the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Palestinian Territory — an international convention explicitly applicable to hostile occupations — is another case in point.
Nonetheless, international law and human rights have played important limited roles, mainly by bringing the Palestinians as far into the realm of protected persons as they have managed to get. The British Mandate, Zionism and Israel pushed them into a rights-less position whereby their legal protections could be erased, together with their national presence. But the Palestinians have clawed their way back, winning UN recognition of their cause.
Still, the “rights-based approach” to Palestinian liberation is futile unless it is tied to a clear political program. Human rights and international law cannot substitute for a political program. They themselves provide important guidelines and ideals — even legal requirements — but they are not intended to answer political questions or provide a political program. The strength of the BDS movement, for example, is that it roots the Palestinian cause in universal international law and breaks it out of the law-less “exceptionalism” in which Zionism has placed it. Its weakness, however, is its refusal to link with a political program, to see itself for what it is, a tool, not a stand-alone instrument of liberation.
Going even further, I would suggest that the retreat into a “rights-based approach” signifies a kind of defeat, a declaration (as you often hear) that “we don’t care what the political solution is, we just want our rights.” It’s almost admitting that, having abandoned political struggle, all that is left is to demand disembodied “rights.” It is precisely this weakness that the ODSC program is intended to address. To be sure, it is also rooted in international law; that gives any political struggle a fundamental framework of rights and protections. But it is the program that defines the struggle, provides the organization and strategy, and in the end offers the detail upon which a new and just political order may emerge.
You suggest that historically we are now in a fourth phase of explicitly anti-colonial Palestinian struggle – made up mainly of civil society and international solidarity actors, but not specifically the PLO, the PA or the political parties. What role do you see for these established bodies?
We, the people, are in a bad marriage. On the one hand, governments block popular attempts to broker peace and justice, but on the other hand, we, the people, have no authority to use arms, to negotiate or to sign treaties. Governments need us to push them — they will not do the right thing without being forced to by public opinion and the ballot box. But we need them to nail down whatever agreements will further the cause of peace and justice.
The Palestinians’ government was the PLO, which represented all Palestinians despite its lack of democratic institutions (a reality largely imposed upon a scattered and non-sovereign people). But the PLO lost that governmental agenda and authority when, in 1993, it was transformed, largely at Israel’s insistence, into the Palestinian Authority, a limited “authority” over truncated enclaves that represented only the Palestinians of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) minus Jerusalem and, ultimately, Gaza. The PA is incapable of liberating Palestine, even of eking out a small Palestinian state. The decline of the PA, its increasingly autocratic governance and the dearth of elections has also seen the decline of political parties, so that there is virtually no leadership coming from any direction.
And yet, again, we need a Palestinian government to overcome the political impasse. Faint signs can be detected of people considering ways of resuscitating the PLO, although Palestinian society is so fragmented regionally and globally that the mechanisms of such an initiative appear daunting. If we take an anti-colonial perspective and look at the South African ANC as a model of grassroots organization and, ultimately, the achievement of governing power, a new PLO-type organization may be imagined.
It most likely would arise among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have the political space to organize that is lacking in the OPT or in the camps (though the Palestinian Diaspora could provide crucial political and material support). It would be a bottom-up organization, perhaps a kind of federation of scattered communities, rather than the centralized top-down PLO we know, and its leadership might arise more from the grassroots than from political parties. Most intriguing, since its agenda would be establishing a single democracy over historic Palestine, it would include Israeli Jews as well, just as the ANC included people from all races and communities. In my view, this is the kind of flexible, representative, grassroots liberation movement required at the moment.
The book reproduces in full the 10-Point Program of the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC), which places decolonization at the center of its analysis and political goals. Could you talk about the process of how the ODSC and its program were developed and who the different stakeholders are?
The 10-point plan of the One Democratic State Campaign was formulated over a two-year period by a group of about 50 Palestinians, mainly though not exclusively from within the 1948 borders, and anti-colonial Israeli Jews. It is unique in two ways. First, it is the first political program arising out of a settler colonial analysis, and second, it is the first program that “thinks through” the entire process of decolonization and reassembly into a democratic state. As such, it is both comprehensive — anticipating the issues that will arise in the political process and preparing to address them — and effective in identifying and dismantling the colonial structures that must be eliminated if a genuinely fresh, just process of establishing an inclusive democracy is to succeed.
The plan has since undergone continuous review and revision, since there are still many areas that remain to be fleshed out — the role of religion, for example, how to deal with the bi-national character of the future society, the form of economy and governance the new state will have, and the new state’s relation to the wider region, even its name! The ODSC has established a Thought Forum of intellectuals and academics to oversee this process, and at a later phase a project may be initiated to draft a Constitution so that we can all see how the program would actually work.
While you argue that a one-state solution is the only concrete, viable goal for now, you also show how the Palestinian struggle is already one that reaches beyond national borders — it’s “outside of but not necessarily opposed to national frames.” You say this “may well contribute to the loosening of the nation-state as a central organizing principle.” With this in mind, could you share how you view such shifts in goals and strategies?
The ODSC program understands that decolonization and the construction of a post-colonial democracy cannot happen in one country alone, isolated from its surrounding region. In one way or another it must be a regional project, albeit expressed differently in different countries of the region. The Palestinians are in a unique position to advance grassroots mobilization towards democracy and development in a region plagued by autocracy, poverty, lack of development and immense economic and social inequalities. In their long struggle for self-determination, democracy and human rights, Palestinians have come to possess an emblematic stature among oppressed peoples, worldwide, not only in the Middle East. To be sure, they are suspect in many Arab regimes for that very reason, but by working with them to translate the lessons they have learned in their struggle to those still being waged in the region, activists throughout the Middle East and beyond can connect to each other, taking what’s best and most effective from each other’s strategies of liberation.
Broadening the scope of the Palestinian struggle, we should begin forging ties with progressive civil society allies in the Arab and Muslim countries. Many of the same political questions, many of the same political dynamics, can be extrapolated from the Palestinian struggle to those of the region. From there, different possibilities emerge beyond the nation-state. If anything, the Middle East historically offered a model of a diverse regional society and economy much more integrated and fluid than even the confederation model of the EU, but less centralized than the United States. Collectively we could explore our indigenous models, as well as other models that expand grassroots sovereignty: bio-regionalism, social ecology, Abdullah Öcalan’s notion of Democratic Confederalism or the ways in which the Zapatisa uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, inspired the “movement of movements” against neoliberal globalization throughout the world.
Following that line of thought, the ODSC Program also addresses the question of a wider regional role and international responsibility. What need do you see for a decolonization framework in the future of the Middle East and elsewhere?
Going forward, the concept of decolonization is one that should be more elaborated and applied to processes of social change and justice. The most common use of the term refers, of course, to the end of the colonial era when the colonial powers withdrew (at least formally, often retaining a significant degree of economic and cultural clout) and the new nations of the Third World emerged. More recently, and especially in the past 30 years, as awareness arose of the plight of Indigenous societies (the Fourth World) in dominant settler societies, the notion of decolonization has expanded.
As reflected in the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it includes “the right of Indigenous peoples to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights…; to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity…; to self-determination… [the right to] freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development….; and to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”
Like the Palestinians, many peoples fall in between the categories of states that deserve self-determination — as in classic decolonization — and Fourth World Indigenous peoples that seek a measure of sovereignty within an inclusive, more powerful state, like Native Americans. Since the European nation-state model has come to define the way societies and the entire international system is organized, it obviously does violence to the intricate mosaic of peoples that actually comprise the world, whose cultures spill all over artificial (and often intentionally divisive and controlling) state borders. This is certainly true for the Middle East, where geographical fluidity and interchanges of every kind among the region’s diverse peoples was the norm.
I am suggesting that the term “decolonization” be further extended to include the struggles of peoples for both their own personal, cultural and national self-determination within their own state and, beyond that, to the right of entire regions to interact freely, à la the traditional Middle East. Ultimately, the term “decolonization” can be usefully applied to the global struggle to free ourselves of neoliberal capitalism, from which many of our more localized conflicts and states of injustice and unsustainability arise.
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