It’s understandable why in Palestinian parlance it’s common to describe the Palestinian conflict with Zionism and Israel not as a national conflict but as an anti-colonialist struggle. Portraying the Palestinians not as a side in a national conflict but as a people fighting against colonialism holds two advantages: According to the rules of postcolonial discourse, the Palestinians are in the right by definition and are never responsible for anything. But these advantages, and the forgoing of any serious attempt to understand the nature of the other side and its motives, come at a heavy price.
If you don’t have a good understanding of whom you’re dealing with, it will be hard to predict the other side’s behavior and responses (this applies to both sides of the conflict, of course). The Palestinians’ ongoing refusal to accept that they are confronting a people and a rival national movement, and the illusion that this confrontation can be won using methods suited to the colonialist paradigm, have been disastrous for the Palestinian people.
The anti-colonialist struggles of the 20th century succeeded even though the colonial powers were always much stronger than those who fought them. The colonialist power ultimately gave up the fight and retreated – in most cases without a battle, and in several famous cases only after a military struggle. In any case, the fight was not perceived as vital enough to justify the investment of resources necessary to keep it going.
The essence of a colonialist situation is that perpetuating colonial rule is a luxury of sorts and not a vital need for the colonial power. It matters much less to it than liberation from foreign rule matters to those fighting it.
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Of course, to the colonial settler, perpetuating colonial rule isn’t a luxury, but he isn’t the one who determines the fate of the struggle. At the same time, he has somewhere to return to: the colonial mother country. This is what, to their dismay, European settlers in Algeria, French citizens (though not all of French background), did when the French Republic decided, contrary to their wishes, to leave Algeria.
Nowhere to return to
At some point, the settlers may disconnect from the mother country and create a new nation – and from this moment, they have nowhere to return to, and this is no longer a colonial situation.
In Haaretz over the weekend Ishay Rosen-Zvi asserted that “Zionism began as a colonialist movement.” At the same time he admits that this was a national movement of a persecuted people whose ties to the land have been part of their identity and culture, and that the people who came here left behind them not a colonial mother country on whose behalf and under whose auspices they were acting, but rather Czarist Russia, anti-Semitic Poland or Nazi Germany. Applying the term “colonialism” to such a situation empties this term of most of its moral and analytical significance.
It is indeed important to understand that in the Arabs’ eyes, the Zionists’ arrival was perceived as a colonial phenomenon. Anyone who has read Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s “The Iron Wall” knows that there was no lack of understanding this fact in the Zionist movement. But since when is one side’s point of view the last word in assessing the nature of a conflict? It's a pity that the leaders of the Arab national movement in Palestine did not make an effort to understand how the Jews perceived themselves, their situation and their connection to this land.
The declared anti-colonialist fight against Zionism before 1948, and against Israel thereafter, was based on the assumption that the founding of the Jewish national home, in the conditions of the 20th century, and the State of Israel’s continued existence, have been a luxury of sorts for the Jews – something akin to conquering a colony and retaining it. By this logic, the Jews could be made to give up their hope for a state, and later give up Israel itself, just as the governments in London and Paris were once “persuaded” to give up their overseas colonies.
Someone who displays such a degree of blindness toward the other side’s fundamental character is likely to bring disaster on his own people. The use of anti-colonialist rhetoric against Israel reached a peak in the ‘60s, before the 1967 occupation, in parallel to the successes of the anti-colonialist movements in Asia and Africa. The Palestinian organizations, with Fatah at the forefront, developed a doctrine of a “popular war of liberation” for the liberation of Palestine. The Fatah terror attacks carried out from Syrian territory were part of the process of escalation that led to the war in June 1967.
The “anti-colonialist” blindness in relation to Israel fostered an expectation that Israel would crumble from within. After all, this wasn’t a real people and a real nation-state, but some “invented” artificial entity. If we pressure and threaten it enough, it will collapse like a house of cards, the thinking went.
Israeli rule in the territories and the settlement project certainly have colonialist aspects. The settlers do have a mother country, and it sent them to a territory under military occupation populated by people without civil rights. But there too the main essence of the situation is a national conflict between two peoples that both see the entire land on both sides of the Green Line as their homeland.
If the occupation were fundamentally colonialist, it would have ended long ago. No country fights for a colony for 50 years – it’s just not that important. Even Israelis who want Israel to leave the West Bank know all too well that the Palestinians view Israel within the ’67 lines as part of their homeland – ruled by a colonialist entity, not by a rival national movement and another people for whom this land is also their homeland.
But the pleasure some take in defining Israel this way comes with a cost. Those who promote anti-colonialist rhetoric against Israel as such and against Zionism from the start are helping convince Israelis that withdrawal from the territories will only result in a continuation of the “anti-colonialist” struggle to be waged mere kilometers from Ben-Gurion Airport. No people in the world would think otherwise under similar circumstances.
When someone discusses the colonial roots of the United States, or when in the West, some Coptic activists claim that the Arab-Muslim conquest of Egypt was a colonial conquest (in Egypt they don’t dare say that), this does not raise the question whether America’s critics have accepted its existence or are determined to go on fighting it, or whether the Coptic world has finally come to terms with the existence of Muslim Egypt. The situation is different when Israel is defined as an inherently colonialist entity in the context of an ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.
Defining Zionism as a national movement does not give it or the state that it founded any immunity from criticism. National movements and nation-states are capable, particularly in a situation of national conflict, of actions certainly no less brutal than those of colonial regimes. Even Arab nationalism itself has not been entirely devoid of brutality throughout its history. Someone who seeks to contribute to peace between two peoples should not adopt one side’s slogans of war and of denying the other.
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