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Home arrow Controversies surounding... arrow * Colonialism and the Palestine/Israel conflict *
* Colonialism and the Palestine/Israel conflict * PDF Print E-mail
Mar 26, 2017 at 06:37 PM
The Palestine/Israel conflict is often presented as complex, long-standing (“they have been fighting for thousands of years,”) difficult to understand, and even unsolvable.


Yet for Palestinians and many other people, the issue could not be simpler or clearer: In the 1880s, a group of Europeans began to settle in and colonize Palestine, and with the help of the British and later the Americans, they began a long process of dispossessing the local indigenous population. In the 1880s, indigenous Arabs controlled 100% of Palestine. In 2014, Israel, the state set up by the European colonizers, controls 100% of this land.


This is not a question of competing religions but of land appropriation.


See Maps of Disappearing Palestine which appeared in Vancouver Transit ads:

In the 1880s, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire and would remain so until after World War I when the British Empire defeated the Ottomans and Palestine became a British mandate.In 1882, before this wave of European Jewish immigration began, there were roughly 400,000 Muslims, 43,000 Christians and 15,000 Jews living in Palestine as Ottoman citizens, non-Jews making up 96% of the total population.

Palestine was generally a rural land with a minority living in cities such as Jerusalem, Hebron or Ramallah. Peasant labourers grew olives, cotton, greens and the famous Jaffa oranges. These peasant families worked the land in a cooperative ownership model, but starting from about 1850 were obliged to sign their land over to absentee notables in order to avoid high Ottoman taxes.

These Palestinians lived in organized local communities and were developing political, economic and social institutions including political parties, a vibrant press, educational system, and cultural life when they encountered the European settlers.

The small Jewish population in Palestine in 1882 lived mostly in the cities and was made up of Jews who were Arabic-speaking Ottoman citizens who had lived there as long as the Muslims and Christians. They were well integrated into the local communities and (unlike those in Europe) not subject to violent anti-Semitism. There were also a small number of [pious] European Jews who would come to Palestine to pray and end their lives there and were less integrated into the culture of Palestine. Both of these groups feared that the immigration of European Jews would unsettle their places in Palestine and they were opposed to the Zionist notion of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The European Jews who came to Palestine between 1882 and 1940 were part of the second wave of European colonialism which colonized Africa, the Middle East and Asia. While European Jews were colonizing Palestine, the French were sending thousands of settlers to Algeria, Italians sent Italian settlers to Eritrea and Libya, the British to Kenya, and the Germans to southwest and East Africa. This second wave of European colonialism had much in common with the first wave which had colonized the Americas, Canada and South Africa. In both cases the Europeans desired the land and the resources and either enslaved or expelled the indigenous peoples.

The European Jewish settlers were Zionists who believed that the Jews were a nation, not simply a religious group, and that the only way to oppose European anti-Semitism was to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.

Their colonial project lacked a state sponsor and so after unsuccessfully approaching the Russian Czar, they succeeded in getting the British Empire on board. In 1917, the British Foreign Minister, Lord Balfour, stated that his government “looked with favour” on establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This was a remarkable promise given that it was someone else’s land, but it suited the British Imperial interests to make such a promise.

The Zionist colonial project had many similarities with other colonial projects of that time period.


The Europeans viewed the local indigenous population, the Palestinians, as inferior human beings, not worthy or able like the Europeans to cultivate and settle the land. The founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, wrote in 1895 of “spiriting the penniless [Arab] population across the frontier by denying it employment.” Subsequent Israeli leaders referred to Palestinians as cockroaches (Rafael Eitan, 1983), beasts (Menachem Begin, 1985) or crocodiles (Ehud Barak, 2000), and even denied their existence as a people (Golda Meir, 1969).

This racism towards Palestinian Arabs was also expressed by British leaders such as Lord Balfour and Winston Churchill and is the root of European colonial entitlement.

Separation and expulsion

There was never any plan for the European colonizers to share Palestine with indigenous Palestinians. The goal was to establish a “pure settlement colony,” an economy based on Jewish labour, which together with the forcible transfer of the native Palestinian population allowed the settlers to regain the sense of cultural and ethnic homogeneity that is identified with European nationalism. The European Jews brought Europe with them to Palestine.

This type of colonization — the pure settler colony — was similar to the early model in Canada and in the northern United States where the indigenous people  were expelled or their land was appropriated.


The European colonizers openly talked of force against the indigenous Palestinians. This was the language of all European colonizers.

Vladimir Jabotinsky, a founding father of Israel’s army wrote: “If you wish to colonize a land in which people are already living, you must provide a garrison for this land. Or else give up your colonization. Zionism is a colonizing adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force” (Iron Wall, 1923).

This was the motto of future generations of Israeli leaders, exemplified by Rafael Eitan, head of the Israeli Defence Forces: “We declare openly that the Arabs have no right to settle on even one centimeter of Eretz Israel. Force is all they will ever understand. We shall use ultimate force until the Palestinians come crawling to us on all fours.”

In a 2004 interview in Ha’aretz with Ari Shavit, new historian Benny Morris states matter-of-factly:

A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.

The struggle between Zionism and the indigenous Palestinians

The early period: 1882-1947

At the beginning of the 20th century, most European Jews did not support Zionism, the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Most Jews, fleeing European anti-Semitism, opted to immigrate to the US. Many others identified with the struggles in their own countries. And so immigration to Palestine was slow.

In 1924, however, the US passed laws restricting European Jewish immigration. This restriction, plus the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in the early thirties, led to a huge increase in European Jewish immigration to Palestine. The settlers, with the help of the British and overseas money, bought up lands constituting 6-8% of Palestine, mostly from absentee landlords, and then drove tenant farmers off the land.

This increased immigration generated resistance from the Palestinians who opposed both the British occupation and the Zionist colonial project, especially between 1936 and 1939.


The United Nations partitioned Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The Jewish state was allocated 56% of Palestine despite the fact that Jews were only 33% of the population.

Palestinians and other people in the region felt that the US- and European-controlled United Nations had no right to allocate parts of Palestine to a European people. The Palestinians insisted that the Western world was seeking to salve its conscience for Christian Europe’s anti-Semitism and the Nazi Holocaust. It was paying its debt to the European Jews with other people’s land.

1948 - the defining moment

War broke out first between Jews and Palestinians inside Palestine and then between the new state of Israel and Arab states. When the dust settled, Israel controlled 78% of historic Palestine. Both the United States and the Soviet Union supported Israel during this war as they were competing for influence in the region.

During the 1948 war, the Israeli leadership put into effect “Plan Dalet” (“Plan D”) to ethnically cleanse Palestinian Arabs from what became Israel. Thus 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes into Arab held Palestine or surrounding Arab countries and were never allowed to return. 514 Palestinian villages were destroyed.

This 1948 ethnic cleansing became known to the Palestinians as the Naqba (the Catastrophe) and continues to be remembered as the defining moment for the Palestinian people in their struggle against the European colonial project.

700,000 refugees have now become 5,000,000 and their right of return to their villages and homes inside historic Palestine is an important symbol and demand  of that struggle.

As famed Israeli general, Moshe Dayan, said in March 1969:

We came here to a country that was populated by Arabs and we are building here a Hebrew, a Jewish state; instead of the Arab villages, Jewish villages were established. You even do not know the names of those villages, and I do not blame you because these villages no longer exist. There is not a single Jewish settlement that was not established in the place of a former Arab Village.


The Israeli military occupied the West Bank and Gaza and completed the takeover of 100% of historic Palestine. Thousands of Israeli Jews flooded into the West Bank and Gaza and developed Jewish only settlements, a separation Wall, and a series of Israeli-only roads.


The colonial project continues. Inside the West Bank, more and more Jewish settlements make a Palestinian state impossible. Gaza is still blockaded by Israel with support from the United States. Inside Israel, the indigenous Palestinian Bedouin population of the Negev desert is being uprooted again and transferred into reserves to make way for Jewish settlements. Millions of Palestinian refugees are denied their right of return.

Meanwhile there is a conscious decision to get rid of Palestinian memory in Israel: traditional Arab names are changed to Hebrew and ancient Palestinian villages are “reclaimed” by the Jewish National Fund as forests.

Every colonial project must have a justification

The British justified colonialism in Canada on the basis that the land was empty (terra nullius) and thus subject to European appropriation. The French, Portuguese and British spoke of the “civilizing mission,” bringing Western civilization and Christianity to backward peoples.

The 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence referred to both of these justifications when it said that Israel is ”making the desert bloom” and “bringing progress to all the country’s inhabitants.” Yet the primary justification for the Zionist colonial project was that it was not a colonial project at all, but the reclaiming by the Jews, an oppressed people, of their historic homeland after 2000 years of exile. They, in fact, were the indigenous people and an indigenous nation.

According to this narrative, Jews had a 3000 year presence in the Holy Land and a covenant with God that the land belonged to them. After being defeated by the Romans almost 2000 years ago, they were exiled to the four corners of the earth, oppressed by anti-Semitism and slaughtered by the Nazis, only to return to Palestine to set up their homeland where they could be free from persecution.

This narrative has no basis in historical fact as there is little evidence the Jews were exiled after the defeat by the Romans in 70 C.E. nor that European Jews are descendants from Jews in the Holy Land. The myth of exile and return is used to justify the colonial project.

Nor is there any evidence that Jews have more religious connection to Palestine and the Holy Land than Christians or Muslims; all three religions have a strong and lengthy connection to the land.

European Jews had been oppressed by European Christians and murdered by the Nazis; this had nothing to do with Palestine or Palestinians.

In any event, Biblical narrative does not justify a European people dispossessing an indigenous population (the Palestinians) that has been living on the land for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Yet in Canada and the United States, particularly among the political, business, religious and media elites there has been solid sympathy and support for Israel and the colonial project.

Some of this support is rooted in the guilt for Canada’s own anti-Semitism in the first half of the 20th century, including the non-admission of Jewish refugees to quotas on Jewish students in universities. Thus Zionist claims to a Jewish homeland for the victims of anti-Semitism and the Nazi Holocaust strike a sympathetic chord. Moreover no one wants to be called an anti-Semite for opposing this project.

The fact that this homeland necessarily dispossesses another people is not seen by these elites as a colonial project, or if it is, it is a justifiable project, not unlike the Canadian colonial project. It is justifiable because the Palestinians continue to be viewed as the “other” in the so-called clash of civilizations, incapable of a democratic culture at best and Muslim terrorists at worst.

Moreover, Canada’s elites are aware of Israel’s strategic importance as a western outpost in the Middle East, sponsored by the American Empire and in strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia. “We should there form a part of a wall of defence for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism,” said Herzl, the father of Zionism, in 1896. Many would agree with this racist comment today.

Finally, all of these factors are complemented by the streak of Christian Zionism in many Protestant churches in Canada. This Christian Zionism ranges from a support of the biblical narrative to an actual prescription for the restoration of the Jewish Kingdom in Palestine as a necessary precondition for the coming of the messiah.

Decolonization in Israel/Palestine

After World War II, Europe’s colonies in Algeria, Kenya, Libya, Congo, etc. were all dismantled and the settlers sent home.

Where the settlers had nowhere to go, as was the case in South Africa, decolonization took the form of the struggle for equality between all South Africans, white, brown and black.

The effects of colonization, of course, remain in these countries, but the legitimacy of European supremacy and entitlement has been rejected and the local population has some form of self-determination.

Thus Israel/Palestine remains the last of the European colonies. The legitimacy of European entitlement — Jewish privilege in Israel/Palestine — remains and is fully supported by Canada, the U.S. and many European countries. The indigenous Palestinians have no form of self-determination.

Decolonization in Palestine will be similar to South Africa and will involve the struggle for equality between Palestinians and Israeli Jews and the recognition by the colonizers of historic wrongdoings, whatever the political outcome of the decolonization. Palestinians and Israeli Jews will live together on this territory as equals, not as occupied and occupier.

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